Marrakech is a city in the grip of a delirious imagination. A feverish dreamscape of honeycombed alleys and minarets quivering in the moonlight and haunted by the restless creatures of a visionary carnival that has lasted for a thousand years and shows no sign of stopping now. Marrakech is one of the worlds enchanted places where time becomes suspended and, through its open door, you catch a glimpse of the past so rich and so remote and yet so palpable. You can sense the atavism propelling every trick and turn in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s pulsating main square and one of the worlds great theatres. The Djemaa is a spectacular pageant of singers, tumblers, sorcerers, herbalists, raconteurs, impostors, preachers and snake charmers, all competing for your eye. There is nowhere else in Africa which so effortlessly involves you, blows aside travel cynicism and keeps you returning. If you get tired, observe the spectacle from one of the overlooking rooftop cafes.
There is also a modern Marrakech of luxury hotels, streets with restless mopeds and guides, but they all seem to co-exist with the past. It is a Berber rather than Arab city; the traditional metropolis of Atlas tribes, Mahgrebis from the plains, Saharan nomads and slaves from beyond the desert. It was founded around 1062 by Youssef bin Tachfine of the Almoravide dynasty, but it was his son Ali Ben Youssef who brought architects and craftsmen from Cordoba to build palaces, baths and Mosques, a subterranean water system and in 1126 the first circuit of walls were raised from tabia – the red mud of the plains.
Marrakech’s setting is truly magical. A patchwork of ravishing green against the bare, brown plain of Haouz with the snowy High Atlas rearing up behind like an apocalyptic tidal wave towering through the haze. Focus of every approach to the city is the Koutoubia Mosques minaret, Marrakech’s crowning centrepiece, the 203 feet high tower, the very synthesis of Moslem architecture. Other sights to visit are the Saadian tombs dating from 1557, over-lavish maybe, but sensational nevertheless.
The Mellah, once the largest Jewish quarter in Morocco; the Agdal, Majorelle (Yves St.Laurent Gardens) and Menara Gardens, located near the edge of the Medina where it is both cool and very still and in perfect contrast to the bustling city streets; the Bahia and dar Si-Said, the latter housing a museum of Moroccan arts.
By far the best way to visit these sights is to engage one of the 300 horse-drawn carriages (caleches). They will take you riding in comfort and style. But to see the marvels of Marrakech’s Medina – all two square miles of it – you must go on foot. It is in the hurlyburly of the Medina where you will find the masterpieces of Marrakechi art. Each craft in the Medina has its own special quarter in one of the interminable passages that sprawls like some vast living organism, teeming with activity. There are two or three main thoroughfares in the Medina, off which branch most of the individual markets with alleys and squares devoted to specific crafts where one can watch part of the production process in dyeing, brass and copper beating, apothecary stalls, cosmetics, herbs, jewellers, leather workers, carpenters, sieve-makers, perfumes, spices and slipper makers.
The High Atlas, a mere 30 km south of Marrakech and the greatest mountain range in North Africa, is undoubtedly the most beautiful and compelling part of this diverse land. It has perpetuated a remoteness which until recent decades was virtually complete. Staying a few days in Marrakech you are bound to hear about the Ourika, a long and beautiful valley where locals breeze out on their mopeds in the summer to escape the city heat to lie beside the streams and waterfalls, just an hours drive from your hotel. Oukaimeden, the main ski resort in the Atlas (3,272m high) has good piste and off-piste skiing between the months of December and March. Marrakech holds the same fascination as the sea (2 hours drive to the coast), constantly changing and eternally the same, and once you have witnessed it, you’re sure to be back for more.
Marrakech! Don’t miss it. You owe it to yourself