An ancient outpost on the rim of the Sahara, Marrakesh is known as the city of ‘four colours’ for its clear blue skies, white snow-capped peaks, the red of its medieval walls and the green of the palm groves on its outskirts.
Marrakesh is a whirl of sights and sounds that capture the exotic, fairy-tale feel of Arabian Nights. Its vivid colours, exotic smells, narrow alleyways and the sounds of vivacious music have made this city in Morocco a magnet for tourists since the 1960s.
Named Marrakesh in the 10th century from a Berber words meaning “Land of God,” the city is situated at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, the highest mountainous barrier in North Africa. Like many of North Africa’s ancient cities, Marrakesh includes both a fortified old city, known as Medina, and a modern city, known as Gueliz.
I had booked a room in a very nice riad, Riad El Fenn, which is owned by Richard Branson’s sister, Vanessa. A riad is a traditional form of accommodation in Morocco – a kind of bed and breakfast with the rooms clustered around a pretty patio with a fountain decorated with traditional Moroccan tiles.
My riad was located only a five-minute walk from the famous Djemaa el Fna, one of the busiest squares in the world, so I didn’t waste any time diving into the heart of the exotic walled city. The square, whose name literally translates as “the assembly of the dead,” is home to stunning breadth of exotic sights and sounds, including acrobats, storytellers, snake charmers, dancing monkeys, fortune tellers and Gnaoua musicians – descendants of African slaves.
By day, the place is a bustling traditional market, or souk. There are souvenirs, accessories, spices, Moroccan slippers, all kinds of clothes, fruits and herbal medicines. It is almost impossible to imagine just how big this place is and I explored the alleys until dusk, when the square turned into a huge and busy open-air restaurant.
After a very good sleep, I was ready to explore the red city, especially after a nice Moroccan breakfast at the riad. My journey started at the 17th century Koutubia Mosque, the biggest mosque in Marrakesh with a minaret soaring 70 metres into the sky.
Walking towards the Medina, or old town, a scenically collapsing maze of old buildings strapped in by 15 kilometres of crenulated, salmon-pink walls, I noticed just how clean Marrakesh is. There are signs everywhere, people are polite and the traffic moves smoothly. For solo traveller like me, it was a dreamland.
After reaching the old town, I found myself standing in front of Saadies Mausoleum, a 16th century complex that blends Arabic and European architectural influences and contains the tombs of dozens of princess and other royals from the era of Ahmed el-Mansour.
The next stop was Bahia Palace, meaning “brilliance”, which was built in the late 19th century and captures the essence of Islamic and Moroccan style. The exquisite palace is bound on all sides by an 8,000-square-metre garden. I wandered through the whole complex in a kind of dazed awe, my neck craned back to catch every architectural detail and ornament. The palace consists of the main area where the Sultan received his guests, a dining room, bedroom, an area for the first lady, private room, courtyard and, of course, the harem room.
I was reluctant to leave this palace but I still wanted to visit another legendary place, the Jardin Majorelle, which was created by Jacques Majorelle in 1924.
The botanical garden is one of 20th century’s grandest gardens, with plants and flowers from five continents, reflecting Jacques Majorelle’s standing as one of the most important plant collectors of his time. After he passed away, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé acquired and restored the property. Inside the garden is a museum housing pieces from the personal collections of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, including Moroccan ceramics and pottery, weapons and magnificent jewellery, textiles, carpets and woodwork.
I continued my exploration at the nearby Hammam Majorelle to experience the hammam, or steam baths, that are such a major part of Moroccan culture. These are public bathhouses, a progression of hot, quiet, watery rooms that are the perfect antidote to the dust of travel. In the past, the hammam was a place to socialize where women observed and “caught” their future husbands. There are two choices at the hammam: Do it yourself or have someone do it for you. I went with the second option for an authentic experience.
There are not enough words to describe my ecstasy over my adventure to this charming city. To this date, Marrakesh is seen as a gateway to the East, being only two to three hours from Europe. Woven into this tapestry are the cultures of the Berbers, the Arabians, the Portuguese, Spanish and French.
No need to say more. I have officially become a fan of Marrakesh, bewitched by its beauty and enchanted by its vibe. I know I’ll find a reason to return.
Text and Photos by Hanny Wahyuni