INFO@VACAYS4U.COM

Medina

If you can see the ramparts, you’re either just inside or just outside the medina. In some respects, not much has changed here since the Middle Ages. The medina is still a warren of narrow cobblestone streets lined with thick-walled, interlocked houses; designed to confuse invaders, the layout now serves much the same purpose for visitors. Donkeys and mules still deliver produce, wood, and wool to their destinations and age-old crafts workshops still flourish as retail endeavors.

POINTS OF INTEREST

HERITAGE MUSEUM

This family-owned and operated museum displays an impressive collection of ancient pottery, Islamic manuscripts, Jewish ceremonial items, tribal jewelry, and costumes that portray the city’s rich Berber, Arab, and Jewish heritage. The private collection is housed in a traditional riad that the owner’s family once occupied; rooms are decorated in typical Moorish style.

THE SECRET GARDEN

The Secret Garden, or Le Jardin Secret, opened to the public in 2016 after three years of intensive excavation, restoration, and planting. Once one of the largest private riads in the medina, the 16th-century site is home to beautiful Islamic architecture, the lush Exotic and Islamic gardens, an ancient, but still operational, water management and irrigation system, and the original watchtower that has commanding views over the whole medina. The restored Pavilions, which were once formal reception rooms, now house a small café and an exhibit of photographs that show the property’s excavation and reconstruction. There are areas to sit and relax, a bookshop, café, and exhibition rooms. Well-informed guides are on-site and provide free tours of the gardens. Entry to the Tower is an extra 30 DH and includes a guide.

DAR CHERIFA

Wind down at Dar Cherifa, an airy 16th-century riad turned café turned library turned art gallery. It puts on the occasional cultural evening, including poetry readings, traditional music, and storytelling. It also styles itself as a literary café, so you can take a book on Morocco down from the shelves, sit on the low-slung cushions at the foot of the four pillars, and sip mint tea. Alternatively, peruse the art exhibitions and enjoy a light lunch in the elegant alcoves: magical.

SOUKS

The vast labyrinth of narrow streets and derbs at the center of the medina is the souk—Marrakesh’s marketplace and a wonder of arts, crafts, and workshops. Every step brings you face-to-face with the colorful handicrafts and bazaars for which Marrakesh is famous. In the past, every craft had a special zone within the market—a souk within the souk. Today savvy vendors have pushed south to tap trading opportunities as early as possible, and few of the original sections remain. Look for incongruities born of the modern era. Beside handcrafted wooden pots for kohl eye makeup are modern perfume stores; where there is a world of hand-sewn djellabas at one turn, you’ll find soccer jerseys after the next; fake Gucci caps sit beside handmade Berber carpets, their age-old tassels fluttering in the breeze.

As you wander through the souk, take note of landmarks so you can return to a particular bazaar without too much trouble. Once the bazaars’ shutters are closed, they’re often unrecognizable. The farther north you go the more the lanes twist, turn and entwine. Should you have to retrace your steps, a compass comes in handy, as does a mental count of how many left or right turns you’ve taken since you left the main drag. But mostly you’ll rely on people in the souk to point the way. If you ask a shopkeeper rather than a loitering local, you’ll be less likely to be “guided.”

CHEZ LAMINE HADJ MUSTAPHA

Although the row of severed lambs’ heads out front may not be everyone’s idea of culinary heaven, Marrakshis love Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha, and you’d be missing out not to try it. English TV chef Jamie Oliver chose this spit-and-sawdust street restaurant in a filming trip for a gutsy example of Moroccan roast lamb specialty, mechoui—and it’s not every day you walk past a whole lamb being cooked. Follow a tiny street that leads off the Djemâa el Fna (to the left of Les Terrasses de l’Alhambra) and you’ll see exactly that. Ask to see the oven—a hole in the ground where the entire animal is cooked over hot wood ash. The meat is then hauled up and cut in front of you, served with bread for a cheap 20 DH sandwich, or for larger amounts at 140 DH per kilogram. If you’re nervous, ask for a small taste first. However much you have, sprinkle the meat with a delicious cumin-and-salt spice mix and wash it all down with mint tea. Get there before noon. Cash only.

AGDAL GARDEN

Some say dull scrub; others, pinnacle of romance. Stretching a full 3 km (2 miles) south of the Royal Palace, the Jardin de l’Aguedal comprises vast orchards, a large lagoon, and other small pools, all fed by an impressive, ancient system of underground irrigation channels from the Ourika Valley in the High Atlas. The entire garden is surrounded by high pisé (a mixture of mud and clay) walls, and the olive, fig, citrus, pomegranate, and apricot orchards are still in their original raised-plot form. The largest lagoon, the grandiose Tank of Health, is said to be the 12th-century creation of an Almohad prince, but, as with most Moroccan historic sites, the Agdal was consecutively abandoned and rebuilt—the latest resurrection dates from the 19th century. Until the French protectorate’s advent, it was the sultans’ retreat of choice for lavish picnics and boating parties. If you’re here on a clear day, don’t miss the magic and majesty of a 180-degree turn, from facing the Koutoubia Mosque (northwest) to facing the Atlas Mountains (southeast).

ALI BEN YOUSSEF MOSQUE

After the Koutoubia, this is the medina’s largest mosque and Marrakesh’s oldest. The building was first constructed in the second half of the 12th century by the Almoravid sultan Ali ben Youssef, around the time of the Qoubba Almoravid. In succeeding centuries it was destroyed and rebuilt several times by the Almohads and the Saadians, who changed its size and architecture accordingly; it was last overhauled in the 19th century, in the then-popular Merenid style. Non-Muslims may not enter.

QOUBBA ALMORAVID

After the Koutoubia, this is the medina’s largest mosque and Marrakesh’s oldest. The building was first constructed in the second half of the 12th century by the Almoravid sultan Ali ben Youssef, around the time of the Qoubba Almoravid. In succeeding centuries it was destroyed and rebuilt several times by the Almohads and the Saadians, who changed its size and architecture accordingly; it was last overhauled in the 19th century, in the then-popular Merenid style. Non-Muslims may not enter.

MELLAH

As in other Moroccan cities, the Mellah is the old Jewish quarter, once a small, walled-off city within the city. Although it was once home to a thriving community of native and Spanish Jews, along with rabbinical schools and scholars, today it’s home to only a few Jewish inhabitants. You can visit the remains of a couple of synagogues with the help of an official guide, or local kids will be happy to point the way in return for a few dirhams. The Lazama Synagogue is open daily and is still used for weddings and bar mitzvahs of foreign visitors. It has a pretty, blue-tiled inner courtyard. The Mellah gets its name from the Arabic word for salt, and some say that the Jewish residents who lived here acquired their wealth through the salt trade.

RAMPARTS

The medina’s amazingly well-preserved walls measure about 33 feet high and 7 feet thick, and are 15 km (9 miles) in circumference. The walls are fashioned from local reddish clay laid in huge blocks. The holes that are visible on the exterior surface are typical of this style of construction, marking where wooden scaffold supports have been inserted as each level is added. Until the early 20th century, before the French protectorate, the gates were closed at night to prevent anyone who didn’t live in Marrakesh from entering. Eight of the 14 original babs (arched entry gates) leading in and out of the medina are still in use. Bab Agnaou, in the Kasbah, is the loveliest and best-preserved of the arches. The best time to visit the walls is just before sunset, when the swallows that nest in the ramparts’ holes come out to take their evening meal. A leisurely calèche drive around the perimeter takes about an hour.

TANNERIES

For a whiff of Marrakesh life the old way, the tanneries are a real eye-waterer, not least because of the smell of acrid pigeon excrement, which provides the ammonia that is vital to the tanning process. Six hundred skins sit in a vat at any one time, resting there for up to two months amid constant soaping, scrubbing, and polishing to get the leather strong, supple, clean, and ready for use. Goat and sheepskins are popular among Berbers, while Arabs prefer camels and cows and tend to use more machine processes and chemical agents. Once the hides have been stripped of fur, washed, and made supple through this six-week process, the final stage involves soaking and rubbing in a mix of ground mimosa bark and water, which eventually turns the grayish-green hides into the natural reddish-brown or “tan” shade that we always expect in our natural leather goods. The tanned skins are dried in the sun and then sold direct to the artisans near Ben Youssef Mosque. Additional color dyeing takes place after the skins have been purchased by the artisans in another part of the souk.

Thirteen tanneries, mixing both Berber and Arab elements, are still in operation in the Bab Debbagh area in the northeast of the medina. Simply turn up Rue de Bab Debbagh and look for the tannery signs above several open doorways to both the right and left of the street. To visit one of them, just pop in and the local manager will offer you mint leaves to cover the smell, explain the process, and guide you around the vats of dyes. In return he’ll hope for a healthy tip to share with his workers; this is a dying art in a poor dyeing area, so the more you can tip, the better.

Finding Avenue Bab Debbagh can be frustrating; it’s easier to approach via taxi from outside the ramparts and be dropped off at Bab Debbagh, or to ask an official guide to include the visit as part of a set itinerary. Once in the vicinity, you’ll be inundated with offers from would-be guides who will then ask for money; solo travelers and women should exercise caution.

MUSÉE DE MARRAKECH

The main reason to come to this small but perfectly formed museum next door to the Ali ben Youssef Medersa is not the exhibitions, but rather the stunning central atrium, a tiled courtyard containing a huge lampshade that resembles a UFO descending. Set within the restored 19th-century Menebhi Palace, this is a perfect place to relax while enjoying Moroccan architecture and gentle music piped through speakers. The temporary exhibitions in the courtyard are often of beautiful artifacts and paintings (some for sale), but they’re poorly displayed and lack English translations. The museum also has a good bookstore and a café. The restrooms are spotless and worth the admission price if you find yourself far from your hotel.

ALI BEN YOUSSEF MEDERSA

If you want a little breath taken out of you, don’t pass up the chance to see this extraordinarily well-preserved 16th-century Koranic school, North Africa’s largest such institution. The delicate intricacy of the gibs (stucco plasterwork), carved cedar, and zellij (mosaic) on display in the central courtyard makes the building seem to loom taller than it really does. As many as 900 students from Muslim countries all over the world once studied here, and arranged around the courtyard are their former sleeping quarters—a network of tiny upper-level rooms that resemble monks’ cells. The building was erected in the 14th century by the Merenids in a somewhat different style from that of other medersas; later, in the 16th century, Sultan Abdullah el Ghallib rebuilt it almost completely, adding the Andalusian details. The large main courtyard, framed by two columned arcades, opens into a prayer hall elaborately decorated with rare palm motifs as well as the more-customary Islamic calligraphy. The medersa also contains a small mosque.

DAR SI SAÎD

This 19th-century palace is now a museum with an excellent collection of antique Moroccan crafts including pottery from Safi and Tamegroute, jewelry, daggers, kaftans, carpets, and leatherwork. The palace’s courtyard is filled with flowers and cypress trees, and furnished with a gazebo and fountain. The most extraordinary salon is upstairs; it’s a somber room decorated with gibs cornices, zellij walls, and an amazing carved-cedar ceiling painted in the zouak style (bright colors in intricate patterns). Look for the prize exhibit, a marble basin with an inscription indicating its 10th-century Córdoban origin. The basin, which is sometimes on loan to other museums, was once given pride of place in the Ali ben Youssef Mosque in the north of the souk. It was brought to Morocco by the Almoravid sultan in spite of its decorative eagles and griffins, which defy the Koran’s prohibition of artistic representations of living things. Guides are available on-site.

DJEMÂA EL FNA

The carnivalesque open square right at the center of the medina is Marrakesh’s heartbeat and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This centuries-old square was once a meeting point for regional farmers and tradesmen, storytellers and healers; today it’s surrounded by bazaars, mosques, and terraced cafés with perfect balcony views over the action. Transvestite dancers bat their eyelashes; cobras sway to the tones of snake charmers; henna women make their swirling marks on your hands; fortune-tellers reveal mottled futures; apothecaries offer bright powder potions and spices; bush dentists with Berber molars piled high on tables extract teeth; and, best of all, men tell stories to each other the old way, on a magic carpet around a gas lamp.

All day (and night) long you can get fresh orange or grapefruit juice from the green gypsy carts that line up round the square, for about 4 DH a glass. You can also buy a shot of cool water from one of the roving water sellers, whose eye-popping costumes carry leather water pouches and polished-brass drinking bowls. Or snack on sweet dates, apricots, bananas, almonds, sugar-coated peanuts, and walnuts from the dried fruit–and–nut stalls in the northwest corner. Meat and vegetable grills cook into the night, when Marrakshis come out to eat, meet, and be entertained. It might be a fun bazaar today, but once upon a time the Djemâa’s purpose was more gruesome; it accommodated public viewings of the severed heads of sinners, criminals, and Christians. Djemâa actually means “meeting place” and el Fna means “the end” or “death,” so as a whole it means something along the lines of “assembly of death” or “meeting place at the end of the world.”

EL BADI PALACE

This 16th-century palace was once a playground for Saadian princes and visiting diplomats—a mammoth showpiece for opulent entertaining. Today it’s a romantic set of sandstone ruins, policed by nesting storks. Sultan Ahmed el Mansour’s lavish creation was ransacked by Moulay Ismail in the 17th century to help him complete his own palace at Meknès. But it’s not hard to see why the palace, whose name translates as “The Marvel,” was once among the world’s most impressive monuments. A huge swimming pool in the center (still there today, but empty) is flanked by four others, along with four sunken orange orchards. The main hall was named the Koubba el Khamsiniyya, referring to its 50 grand marble columns. Along the southern wall is a series of belowground corridors and underground dungeons. It’s a vast, calm, and mystical place. Also on display is a collection of goods from the Minbar (pulpit from which the Imam gives services) of the Koutoubia Mosque. If you use an on-site guide (otherwise unpaid), who can bring the place to life, you should also tip 30 DH–50 DH. The palace is currently hosting the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts until its modernist complex, designed by David Chipperfield, is completed in 2016 at a site near the Menara Gardens.

LA BAHIA PALACE

This 19th-century palace, once home to a harem, is a marvelous display of painted wood, ceramics, and symmetrical gardens. Built by Sultan Moulay el Hassan I’s notorious Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, the palace was ransacked on Bou Ahmed’s death, but you can still experience its layout and get a sense of its former beauty. Don’t forget to look up at smooth arches, carved-cedar ceilings, tadlak (shiny marble) finishes, gibs cornices, and zouak painted ceilings. Fancy a room? Each one varies in size according to the importance of each wife or concubine. The entire palace is sometimes closed when the royal family is in town, since their entourage often stays here. If you use an on-site guide, you should also tip 30 DH–50 DH.

KOUTOUBIA MOSQUE

Yacoub el Mansour built Marrakesh’s towering Moorish mosque on the site of the original 11th-century Almoravid mosque. Dating from the early 12th century, it became a model for the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. The mosque takes its name from the Arabic word for book, koutoub, because there was once a large booksellers’ market nearby. The minaret is topped by three golden orbs, which, according to one local legend, were offered by the mother of the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour Edhabi in penance for fasting days she missed during Ramadan. The mosque has a large plaza, walkways, and gardens, as well as floodlights to illuminate its curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons (ornamental edgings), and various decorative arches. Although non-Muslims may not enter, anyone within earshot will be moved by the power of the evening muezzin call.