I’ve landed in Marrakech. I’m staying at Riad L’Etoile D’Orient in the heart of the Medina. I’m surrounded by a maze of souks selling everything from Moroccan pastries to hand-painted pottery. The ochre-dusted alleys wind past all sorts of stunning craftsmanship, metal lanterns that cast constellations of light, leather goods hand-dyed at local tanneries, woven rugs in dizzying patterns, intricate wooden boxes with jewel-like inlays, and much more. If you look lost, or just look like a tourist, you are likely to be approached by seemingly helpful young men eager to tell you that everything in your intended direction is closed and steer you back to the main square – where they’ll be happy to escort you, and demand payment upon arrival.
Scooters scream through the narrow streets of the old city and demand that you keep your wits about you to prevent from becoming roadkill. Donkey-driven carts take a slower pace but wider girth that will have you pressed against the nearest wall.
The city is an all-encompassing sensory experience. Pashminas and leather moccasins in every colour festoon the stalls throughout the Medina. Snake-charmers and acrobats dazzle crowds in Djemaa el-Fna after dark.
I’ve always wanted to discover Morocco and its culinary delights. Postcards of barrels of brightly coloured spices called to me from across the Atlantic along with the promise of tagine, pastilla and couscous. When my friends Dianne and Etienne invited me to their destination wedding in Marrakech, I jumped at the opportunity to join in their celebration and extend my stay into a more fulsome exploration of the North African nation.
Thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of Marrakech’s most noteworthy sights, from Jardin Majorelle to the Saadian Tombs, get lost in the warren of souks and give thanks to Google maps for getting me out again, experience the peak of luxurious pampering at the hammam, attend the most perfect celebration of love in a ceremony and reception worthy of Martha Stewart Weddings, and hang onto my seat in a heart-stopping bus ride through the hairpin turns of the Atlas Mountains to arrive at the ancient Kasbah of Ouarzazate.
In all that, in the last four days, there have been highlights and low points.
Rooftop dinner in the Medina
On my first night in the city, I found myself at Terrasse des Épices. The rooftop restaurant offered a stunning view of the sunset, a live DJ, and both Moroccan and “international” menus. I opted for the former and ordered the lamb tagine.
The lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender and complimented by cherry tomatoes and the delicate sweetness of golden raisins and dried apricots that were plump from stewing in the cooking liquid. Couscous was served on the side to sop up the delicious broth. The main was preceded by fresh bread, olive tapenade and a bowl of marinated olives.
In all, the meal was pitch perfect, from the surrounds to the flavors, it was a pitch-perfect start to my trip. Terrasse seemed to be one of the few restaurants in the heart of the old city that continued to serve alcohol through Ramadan.
Pampering at the Hammam
Have you ever had your nose massaged? I have. As part of my stimulating massage treatment at Les Bains de Marrakech, every inch of my body, with the exception of my most intimate parts, was thoroughly palpated. The massage involved being doused in argan oil from head to toe. The masseuse started at my feet and worked her way up to the top of my skull.
After she had kneaded the back of my calves, the “stimulating” part became apparent. Using the side of her palm she chopped her way up and down my legs. I had to resist the stimulus to kick up my heel like a horse being fitted for new shoes as she karate chopped the back of my knee.
When she worked her way up to my head she fully saturated my pores and hair with argan oil. She worked her fingers across my face and down both sides of my nose, leaving me breathless. Luckily the shock of the nasal massage was short-lived and followed by the best head massage I’ve ever had.
The stimulating massage was preceded by the hammam where myself and Alexandra, another wedding guest, were told to strip and had buckets of warm water thrown at us. We got a cursory rub down, back and front, with some kind of oily paste and then were left to poach in the room as the steam belched out of the floor. Upon her return, our aesthetician scrubbed us raw with an exfoliating mitt and greased us up with a clay mask. Again, we were left to our laughter and the steam. By the time our hostess returned, we were a couple of cooked lobsters. Fortunately, a cold shower and shampoo were proffered afterward as a kind of blanching process to prevent our organs from continuing to cook.
Honestly, the experience was fantastic but also somewhat hilarious on account of our total ignorance as to what would be involved – including the level of nudity. Between each service we were invited to rest on chaise longues with a side of mint tea and cookies. The complex was a seeming labyrinth of decadent treatment rooms and relaxation stations that made Le Nordik look like amateur hour. More stunning lanterns and sconces gave each room an ethereal glow, matched by intricate millwork on the ceiling and walls.
The last phase of my morning at Les Bains was an Oriental Bath. I was ushered into a candlelit room with side-by-side concrete bathtubs brimming with hot water and rose pedals. Yes, I literally bathed in rose petals. Call me American Beauty.
Dianne and Etienne held their wedding at Peacock Pavillions, a luxury boutique hotel outside of the heart of Marrakech’s bustling Medina. Every single component of the wedding, from the welcome glass of sparkling wine to the intimate ceremony alongside the olive grove to cocktails and canapés poolside before a candlelit dinner in the garden, was perfect.
We arrived at the venue to find the pool filled with rose petals and flanked by beautiful seating areas covered with brightly coloured rugs, lanterns and poufs. The ceremony was truly about the couple and their love for one another – officiated by a close friend and punctuated by heartfelt vows. The cocktail hour featured perfectly balanced signature drinks and delectable bite-sized canapés. For dinner, we were ushered into a garden where a long table was set with roses, succulents, and candles, all under a canopy of string lights. Dinner was followed by a surprise performance by Gnaoua dancers. We capped off the night with a dip in the rose-petal pool.
The Low Points
Jardin Majorelle and the Berber Museum that occupies the house on the premises are a couple of Marrakech’s most popular tourist destinations. The expansive property is anchored by a beautiful cobalt blue home with bright yellow accents. Originally owned by landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, the property fell into disrepair and was slated for demolition until Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé purchased and restored the villa. The pair gifted their adoptive city the home and grounds in 1964.
While beautiful, it can be tricky to get the perfect shot in the Jardin as the space is crowded with tourists. The Berber Museum that now inhabits the better part of the electric-blue villa has a fascinating collection of costumes, tools and implements of various Berber tribes.
A combined ticket will also get you access to the new YSL museum. As you might expect, the museum is perfectly styled but a little light on substance. The same could be said of the Le Studio restaurant within its walls. Infinitely grammable, the bright yellow tables and chairs contrast beautifully with the jewel-toned suit jackets of the servers. I ordered the burrata with vegetable terrine that was architecturally arranged but disappointingly bland. As entry to the YSL museum will run you an extra 100 dirhams in your combined ticket, it might not be worth your while unless you’re a diehard devotee of the couturier.
Day Trip to Ouarzazate
Variety is the spice of life friends. From one full day of decadence at the hammam and glamorous wedding, to the next spent in a cramped minibus skirting the hairpin turns through the Atlas Mountains to arrive at Aït Benhaddou and Ouarzazate.
I wouldn’t recommend making the trip to Ouarzazate on a one-day excursion from Marrakech. The journey is four hours each way with seemingly countless rest stops for coffee and bathroom breaks in public restrooms in a woeful state.
While I was on an “English” tour with 11 others, I was the only native English speaker in the group. The minibus was like the Tower of Babel. As those around me chattered in their respective native tongues, I was left feeling somewhat isolated.
Once we got to Aït Benhaddou we were taken on by an impressively multilingual guide who took us up the many steps of the ancient village to take in the tremendous view from the top. The site is perhaps best known to Westerners for its many cinematic appearances, Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator and Prince of Persia just to name a few.
The very hot, steep climb to the lookout was followed by an equally hot, steep climb down, and then a miserable lunch. The destination for our midday meal was the Moroccan equivalent of a highway rest-stop, trying to pass itself off as a three-star establishment. This place clearly churns out hundreds of sight-seers on the daily. I ordered the chicken tagine with lemon, something I’ve made at home and loved. Sadly, the scrawny pieces of chicken that arrived were topped with FROZEN FRENCH FRIES. To make matters worse, the fries were clearly poured directly out of the freezer bag and into the tagine leaving for a miserable, limp topping to the dish. They were so chewy, I resigned myself to avoiding them entirely after the first few bites.
After the blasphemous lunch, we were ferried to Ouarzazate to explore the Kasbah and museum of cinema. Left unaccompanied, we were harassed endlessly by those looking to sell their services as tour guides. Once I managed to rebuff their advances, I was able to explore the Kasbah in relative peace and capture the stunning craftsmanship throughout and the impressive vistas from the top.
In all, the excitement and pleasures of the trip have far surpassed the small disappointments along the way. In our age of carefully curated digital content, it can be easy to forget that not all lives or experiences, regardless of how exotic, are always as perfect as they seem. While Aït Benhaddou did yield some beautiful pictures (it’s no wonder it’s been featured in so many films) it’s probably better planned as a short detour with a private guide when you’re making your way through that part of the country. Treat yourself to a new experience at the hammam and make friends with people who want to get married in beautiful and interesting places.
Now, the journey continues in Fes – the country’s cultural capital, with an even more elaborate series of narrow alleys, over 9.000 of them in total.