1 to 3 July 2022
We hadn’t been settled in Salé even a week when we decided to take the train south to Marrakech before the summer temperatures ramped up in the interior.
Through identikit towns of concrete blocks of flats, through the high rise of Casablanca we would stop at another time and through parched flat farm land full of corn and grain and lots and lots of donkeys the ONCF train took us from the coast to the edge of the Atlas mountains in less than four hours.
The transition from the air conditioning of our first class carriage to a blistering hot Marrakech afternoon was brutal. My frozen toes were well and truly defrosted by the time we climbed into a taxi. We drove passed pink city walls and in through the gates of the medina. Our driver deposited us at the end of an alley “it’s up there, I can’t take you any further”. We walked into the narrow alley looking for any sign of our riad. We followed towering four storey walls and unyielding dusty doors, until we hit a dead-end and a door with a name on it we recognised.
Inside we found a beautiful blue pool in a serene space and were greeted warmly with mint tea and small pastries. We luxuriated for a while in the air conditioning of our room whilst planning an itinerary to see the city and surrounding area.
We decided first on an evening walk up to Marrakesh’s beating heart, Jemaa el-Fna. To get there we found the Place de Ferblantiers, where there was little evidence of any ironmongery going on but where we clocked some nice looking restaurants for later, and negotiated the long and narrow (and mercifully mostly covered) Rue Riad Zitoun el Kedim.
Marrakech’s main square’s name means ‘assembly of the dead’ on account of its role as a place of execution in the 11th century but it is now about as far from being as quiet as the grave as it could possibly be. When we arrived at about 5pm it was only just warming up for a night of mayhem. The square is full of souvenir stalls, juice sellers and tented restaurants. Around all of that swirls traffic of all kinds – motorbikes, cars, trucks, donkeys and carts. In between all of that there somehow seems still to be room for musicians, dancers and snake charmers. We really had to keep our wits about us to avoid getting run over and a careful eye on the ground to avoid treading on a snake. We decided it safest to just watch the goings on from a safe distance at a cafe on the edge of the square.
Leading off the square to the north are the narrow lanes of the souks where you can buy literally everything from tagines to dried fruit, from carpets to straw hats, from leather slippers to ornate ironwork whilst dodging donkeys and carts, men selling melons and mopeds going full pelt.
And just to the east of the square is the Katoubia Mosque built in the 12th century and big enough to house 22,000 in the prayer hall. At 70 metres high, it’s intricately carved minaret dominates Marrakesh’s skyline. In fact it is illegal to build anything in the medina which is taller than a palm tree so as not to eclipse the tower.
In the very welcome cool of the early morning, the following day we left the bustle of the medina for the Ville Nouvelle to visit the famous Jardin Majorelle. We say famous but we had only heard about it from the Netflix series, Inventing Anna!
Right in the heart of the new town, this hidden oasis was the labour of love of French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle but fell into disrepair after his death. It was rescued and restored by fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in the 1980s.
The lush green planting competes for attention amongst the bright blues of the house and other buildings.
Aside from all the yucca, bamboo, hibiscus and bougainvillea, the garden is now home to over 400 species of palm tree and 1,800 species of cactus. It was a stunning and surprising treat in an otherwise very dry and dusty city.
My itinerary for the afternoon was to find the Medersa Ben Youssef, another of the guidebooks must sees. It was to prove very difficult to find. Our taxi driver from the garden dropped us back inside the walls of the medina but we needed to navigate our way through the souks to find this apparent architectural gem.
Even armed with a map and a smart phone and following occasional signposts we lost all sense of direction and got completely lost in the maze of streets. Eventually we found it only to find we did not have enough dirhams and they didn’t take cards. The nearest cash point was all the way back at Jemaa el-Fna. By now the heat of the day was starting to kick in and our patience at being lost in this maze was wearing thin.
Eventually we emerged back in the square for a rest and some lunch with a front row view of chaos.
With our batteries recharged we made a second attempt at finding the Medersa but once again we repeatedly lost our way amongst the tangle of stalls and workshops of the souks. Stefan was getting very weary and I feared we were going to have to give up
when we found ourselves in a familiar street and back at the entrance, armed with our cash. This place was going to have to be worth it!
Once we stepped inside the courtyard all the hassle of finding it was instantly forgotten and as our eyes adjusted to the incredible beauty of the Medersa our mouths fell open. Built in the 14th century as a Koranic school, it was an important centre of learning for the Islamic faith and they did not scrimp on the budget!
It is a masterclass of Islamic design with intricate carved plasterwork, exquisite tiling and ornate painted wooden ceilings everywhere.
Even the galleried upper floor where the students simple cells look down on the courtyard is beautifully designed.
Around every corner was a wow and I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the Medersa Ben Youssef beats the Real Alcazar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada hands down.
Seeing this incredible place was more than worth the hassle of getting there but there was just one problem. We had to find our way back out of the souks again!
We did find our way out eventually and after cooling down in our riad room for a while we headed out for dinner at the Place de Ferblantiers where we found a roof top restaurant serving alcohol for the first time in Morocco.
But as the sun set over the Katoubia Mosque, Stefan started complaining about a sore throat…