A November 2002 trip
to Marrakech by billmoy
Quote: Marrakesh (also spelled "Marrakech") has been described as a "circus in the desert". While the medina of Rabat may be too tame and that of Fes is very frenetic, the medina of Marrakesh seems to feel "just right".
If you enjoyed my writings about MARRAKESH, read my other sections on RABAT and FEZ (FES).
The train and bus stations are in Gueliz, each several blocks from the Place du 16 Novembre round point. The train station is west off the busy Avenue de France, while the main bus station is east near Bab Doukkala.
Read "Marrakesh Express" sections for an interesting journey from Fes to Marrakesh.
I would like to thank my colleague and globetrotting travel companion, Chicago architect Marius Ronnett, for some of these magnificent images captured during our visit to Marrakesh in 2002.
The Sheraton is like a modern version of a walled city, as you enter and exit past patrolled gateways. The complimentary parking lot fronts the property. The lobby is vast and comfortably swanky, with quaint paintings depicting scenes from the colorful Place Djemaa al-Fna. There is a check-in desk and also a concierge desk that will check in guests who are members of the Starwood program. After an exhausting and uncertain night-day journey from Fes, it was a welcome relief to be greeted by personable faces and a freshly brewed glass of mint tea (read "Marrakesh Express" sections).
To emulate the stylistic preferences of Moroccan houses, the Sheraton is designed inwardly with linear blocks of hotel rooms surrounding a tropical courtyard with a posh outdoor pool. Our standard room was comfortable enough, but nothing outrageously opulent. Our reasonably sized room with two double beds had a balcony, with cool views overlooking the pool and with glimpses of the Atlas Mountains in the distance. The toilet and bidet were in a separate room from the sink and bathtub, stocked with your usual toiletries. The mini-bar was locked with a key that you must for at the front desk, so we said forget it. We had an in-room safe in the closet.
There are many restaurants at the Sheraton (at least five or six), including a swim-up bar in the outdoor pool. There is a business center situated way beyond the blocks of hotel rooms in its own set of buildings. The hotel also lists tennis courts and a health club on the premises, but we did have time to examine these facilities. There are a couple of shops in the lobby, and sometimes there is a local artisan selling crafts by the poolside.
There is a taxi stand located just south of the hotel, although the cabbies here do not seem anxious to activate the meters or give you a good rate. You can comfortably walk west to the Menara Gardens or east to the Koutoubia minaret and the medina, but it may be wise to grab a cab for the train or bus stations.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 20, 2002
Avenue de la Menara at Avenue de France
The reason for our visit was not to stay here (as it is well out of our modest price range), but to see the highly regarded gardens. The security at the hotel is very tight, as a burly guard at the main entrance asked if we were guests. When we said "no", he pointed us to the concierge desk, where the helpful gentleman said we could take a discreet look at the gardens at no cost. We could take photos, but not if we spotted anyone important or famous. Also, no camcorders allowed, and we had to leave our camera bags with the concierge. Since our goal was not to spot celebrities, we took our cameras and waltzed in. It is recommended that you wear presentable clothing, so no shorts or sleazy t-shirts if you want to gain admittance.
The seven acres of formal European-style gardens are well manicured by a staff that keeps a wary eye on tree trimming as well. Stroll down well-manicured walking paths and look at the linear ponds with lots of peppy frogs and green water plants. The center of the garden features a pavilion with a few displays and a man selling high-end crafts. Since he is working at such an exclusive hotel, he has a very low-key sales pitch. The posh outdoor pool, adjacent to the gardens, is the perfect place for the moneyed traveler to soak in some rays. If you are lucky, you may encounter a donkey that is part of the maintenance crew for a photo.
We walked through several of the impressive public spaces, designed with a mix of Moorish and Art Deco styles. Jacques Majorelle gets design credit in the original 1925 design, and Andre Paccard was King Hassan's pick to embellish the property in 1986. Perhaps the best is the formal courtyard with the tranquil fountain in the center. Ironically, the courtyard leads to the casino, which as stated by the signs is forbidden to Moroccans. There are plenty of posh shops, cozy sitting areas, and public artworks to ponder.
The hotel has 171 rooms, with standard rooms as well as isolated villas and themed suites dedicated to Sir Winston Churchill (an occasional guest at La Mamounia) and the Orient-Express train. As you can well imagine, there are plenty of restaurants and bars on the premises.
Avenue Bab Jdid
(212) 524 388 600
There are no set menu meals, but the prices are so reasonable that it will be hard to get a bill over 6 US dollars. The best way to start off your meal is with a thick steaming bowl of harira soup. This is the best soup that I tasted in Morocco (it is so good that I had it three evenings in a row). For lack of a better description, the harira soup is the Moroccan equivalent of minestrone soup, a bean soup with a zippy flavor. You will also get a basket of fresh and chewy bread, which tastes great with the soup. The entree options include your usual tajine and couscous accompanied by chicken or meat; these dishes are tasty, filling, and inexpensive. The grilled meat kebab dish comes with the tender chunks of meat presented on long elegant skewers, plus a few olives.
Beverages include various soft drinks (the fizzy apple soda is a good choice) and the traditionally sweet mint tea. In case you have to go, the two lavatories behind the beady curtain are "Asian" style, which is the squatting variety.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 22, 2002
Chez Chegrouni Cafe Restaurant
NE corner of Place Djemaa al-Fna
Restaurant | "Bakeries in Marrakesh"
Patisserie des Princes, 32 Rue de Bab Agnaou
This glamorous looking bakery is located on a popular pedestrian street just south of the Place Djemaa al-Fna. The front display window lures you in, and there are heaps and trays of goodies behind glass displays to tantalize you. Like most of the pastry shops in Morocco, this one sells many items that are similar to the definitive prototypes sold in France.
The tastes of the treats I ordered did not quite match their visual appeal. I tried something that looked like an almond-coated crepe with some sort of sweet paste wrapped inside. My friend ordered a similar crepe, but it had a hearty fish paste filling (I am glad I did not select that one). The croissant was a little better, but far from any croissant I have enjoyed in Paris. The pain au chocolat was not bad either, but it could have used a bit more chocolate filling. There are plenty of other selections here like cakes and cookies, and perhaps these are a bit sweeter. At least the prices were not too expensive. You can consume your purchase in the back room, or have your items wrapped to take away.
Patisserie Mik Mak, Avenue Moulay Ismail
This bakery is near the popular budget-friendly Hotel Ali in the Medina. Almost as an immediate reflection of its location, the interior is plainer and appears more like a working-class joint than a swanky cafe-patisserie. The baked goods I tried are very light in weight and in flavor. I ate a so-so yellow cupcake topped with some chocolate chips, and the pain au chocolat was decent but not too memorable. The item that looked like a very thin round sponge is a common sight in the markets, but the one I tasted had practically no flavor. There were also a few single-portion cakes on sale, but not as many as at the Patisserie des Princes. The bite-size cookies sold by weight and are much sweeter and tastier than the larger individual selections.
You can also stock up on items like bottled water, soft drinks, yogurt, candy bars, and ice cream at Mik Mak. There is a very small ledge in the middle of the room if you want to eat your treat before you leave the premises.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on December 26, 2002
Attraction | "Place Djemaa al-Fna"
There are two ways to experience the plaza. One is to plunge headfirst into the hustle and the bustle. You can pretend that every local is like a solar eclipse, trying not to look them directly in the eyes or you will be "blinded" by sales pitches. The sights, sounds and smells of the city really surround you here, and it can be a bit disconcerting at the beginning. One of my colleagues mentioned that a snake charmer draped a live snake on her husband, and the charmer would not remove the snake until the couple had paid a fair ransom! All this excitement over a photograph! Carry lots of small change if you want to pay for lots of action shots, or discreetly click away amongst the crowd. If you want to eat in the square, plunk yourself down at one of the open-air food stalls that look appealing to you, although it may be wise to dine here only if you have an iron stomach.
The other way to experience the square is to climb to one of the rooftop decks for some excellent panoramic views. Not only will you get an overall scope of the plaza and its players, but you will see some of the surrounding buildings like the Koutoubia minaret and the silhouettes of the Atlas Mountains. If you have a zoom lens, there are excellent opportunities to capture the scenes below and afar. Some of the rooftop terraces at the Place Djemaa al-Fna are the Cafe Glacier and the Restaurant Argana. The Cafe Glacier has perhaps the best vantage point and the admission is basically the price of a beverage, but they have really dirty plastic chairs.
We traveled through Morocco during Ramadan. One of the most unique experiences was wandering through the Place Djemaa al-Fna as the afternoon was fading into dusk. Locals are quietly seated at the outdoor tables, with bowls of food sitting before them. Remember, these people have not had any food nor drink since before sunrise, and they are all waiting patiently for the official signal. Once it is announced that the daily fasting period is over, the feasting begins.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 20, 2002
Djemaa el Fna/Jamma el-Fnaa
The postcard view of the central pavilion faces north upon a vast rectangular reflecting basin that contains rather brownish water. Walking along its north edge, you may get some nice photos of the pavilion fronted by the pool and backed by the High Atlas Mountains. Alas, the north facade of the minzah is not hit by sunlight in Marrakesh, as discriminating photographers may notice right away.
Originally the grounds were the sites of buildings from the 12th to the 16th Centuries. The current pavilion was rebuilt for Moulay Sulieman in the early 19th Century and has a stylized European appearance. The design includes arched openings and faux red bricks trimming them. The effect is a small country villa retreat, slightly removed from the congestion of the city.
To enter the minzah for a look there is a fee of 10 dirham (about one US dollar), but the grounds are free for a pleasant stroll or even a picnic.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 22, 2002
Menara Gardens and Pavilion
Avenue de la Menara
One can encounter these massive walls during any visit in the medina. You can take a tour of the ramparts by following the appropriately named Route des Remparts, which rings the northern half of the walls. Boulevard el-Yarmouk lines the southwestern portion of the walls.
If you are coming from the Gueliz, you may enter the medina via the Avenue de la Menara and through the Bab el-Jdid, a broad gateway consisting of two rectangular posts with no crossbeam connecting them. A little further south, the smaller arch of the Bab Agnaou is more ornate, and no cars can penetrate through here. Other prominent gates on the western side are the Bab Doukkala, Bab Nkob and Bab Ksiba.
The Bab Debbagh is an eastern gate, near the congregation of tanneries. If you wander through this gate to the outside, you will see locals meandering up and down grungy hills and the bed of the Oued Issil (Issil River).
City Walls and Gates
Around Marrakesh Medina
The minaret was built from 1150 to 1190, and is still in good condition after a bit of recent restoration. The tower, which is 42 feet square, was constructed with inner and outer walls sandwiching a ramp that goes to the top. The exterior was originally plastered and painted, but now the original stonework is more apparent. Note the nicely carved window arches on the four facades of the tower, which have subtle differences from each other. Distinctive horizontal bands of ceramic tile ring the minaret, which is nicely illuminated at night to cement its landmark status in the city.
The construction of the mosque was begun in 1147, with a second building campaign occurring in 1158. To the north of the current mosque, there is some ongoing reconstruction. As with almost all active mosques in Morocco, only Muslims are allowed to enter the Koutoubia Mosque.
The fenced park to the west of the mosque has a long, attractively tiled reflecting pool that indeed reflects the minaret. Walk through and around the park for some nice views of the minaret by itself and interplaying with fruit trees.
Koutobia Mosque and Minaret
near Avenue Mohammed V in the medina
After you pay your entrance fee (20 dirham as of November 2002) and get a nice color pamphlet (in French), you walk down a corridor before you encounter the various spaces of the inner court. You may meet a guide, but you can shake him off easily. The complex is centered on its lovely courtyard, with a fountain and reflecting basin. The walls and doorways are ornately decorated in a variety of materials. There are usually a few plastic chairs located within the arcaded colonnades in the shade; stylistically they look totally out of place but they offer a welcome opportunity to rest. The fine prayer hall contains the mihrab (prayer niche). The lower level also contains the ablutions hall and latrine.
Walk up the upper level and peek into some of the small student cells. Some have magnificent views of the central courtyard below. Notice the contrast of the elaborately manipulated materials and the play of light and shadow upon them. There is a small postcard stand in the vestibule adjacent to the main courtyard.
Medersa Ben Youssef
Place Ben Youssef
(044) 39 09 11
Attraction | "Museum of Marrakesh"
In a sense, the palace itself is the main art object on display. The lovingly restored interiors are colorful, but the lighting is low and muted. Still, the rooms display various examples of jewelry, locally produced zellij tiles, historic earthenware, and other colorful items. Other rooms are used as exhibition spaces of contemporary modern art, at least as modern as can be freely exhibited in Muslim Morocco. There is a traditional hammam that you can walk through. The hammam is basically a traditional Moroccan bathhouse, including luxurious resting areas. Portions of the hammam in the museum have been converted to art display space. The douiria, the former kitchen of the palace, is also used as exhibition space for contemporary art.
There is a pleasant roof deck with some decent views of the surrounding area. Relax at the cafe in the entrance courtyard with a steaming pot of mint tea or a soft drink. The museum store has a decent selection of art books, souvenirs and postcards.
The admission fee (as of November 2002) is a fairly stiff 30 dirham. It is about 3 US dollars, whereas fees at most Moroccan sites seem to be 10 or 20 dirham. Take a free brochure before you enter the museum (in English!). If you want a bit of peace and quiet while enjoying a pleasant educational and aesthetic experience, a visit to the Museum of Marrakesh may be just your ticket.
Musee de Marrakech (Marrakech Museum)
Place Ben Youssef
212 24 44 18 93
Attraction | "Palais el-Badi"
Palais el-Badi was constructed between 1578 and 1602 as a grand palace for Ahmed al-Mansour. It is said that Moulay Idriss diabolically had the rich materials stripped from the palace for implementation at his own palace in Meknes. Therefore, the current state of the palace is a vast, sun-baked ruin. Very little remains from the Italian marble, Irish granite, and Indian onyx that formerly lined the surfaces of the rooms. The interior courtyard contains rectangular sunken gardens with lush trees popping out. There are rooms surrounding the courtyard with a varied degree of intactness. You can walk into and around some of these formerly grandiose spaces, and even scurry through a dark underpass that is not too creepy on a sunny day. There is a pair of huge black wooden gate doors visible within the courtyard. Their immense size and weight are visually noticeable, as the doors sag slightly at the unhinged edges.
Not to be missed is the roof terrace, where you can get closeup views of formidable stork nests (with glorious storks!) as well as panoramas of the city and its minarets, and the range of snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the south. You can see how large the palatial grounds are from here. In the back there is a historic prayer room, but there is an extra fee to visit this area.
El Badi Palace
Place Des Ferblantiers
Attraction | "Tombs of the Saadis"
You may spot the minaret of the Kasbah Mosque, which was the personal mosque of the Sultan. The minaret, located at the northwest corner of the mosque, is plastered orange and features some nice tilework. It may be seen as a stylistic cousin to the great Koutoubia minaret.
The path to the tombs is a mysterious, dark and narrow path alongside one of the mosque walls. Once you get to the main courtyard, you will then branch off towards various rooms housing about a hundred tombs. The two main mausoleums house 66 royal Saadian tombs. The first room after the entrance is the resting place for the Sultan's mother. The next room is the lavishly decorated Hall of the Twelve Columns, housing various tombs raised above a floor of polished marble. The Sultan's sarcophagus, elegantly carved and shaped with a long narrow ridge at the top, has the nicest mosaic tilework. Another room contains the tombs of his wives, concubines, and many of his children (though not all of them). The more elaborate the tomb, the higher the status of the person. There are also many unmarked flat "tombstones" that look like rectangular sections of colored tile floors. The rooms housing the tombs are dimly lit, but with enough daylight you can take some wonderful photographs of these richly ornamented spaces. Note the use of materials like dark wood, milky-hued marble, and swirling colored zellij tiles.
The main courtyard has a pleasantly peaceful atmosphere, with some greenspace surrounding the unsheltered tombstones. You will probably encounter lots of cuddly stray cats in the courtyard, but watch out! Above as an overactive bird that may poop on you!
Next To Kasbah Mosque, Off Rue De La Kasbah
HOUR ZERO....It was raining in Fes at night, so we were looking forward to a nice dry train compartment and hopefully sunnier skies in Marrakesh. The train departed on time at 8pm. Curiously enough, no couchettes are sold for this night train, so we were hoping to get as much rest as possible in seats. We had bought first-class tickets, which were only nominally more expensive than the second-class seats. Our six-seat compartment was cozy enough, and it felt even better because we had it all to ourselves.
HOUR 1....We heard a man screaming as if he was in agonizing pain. Seemingly everyone poked his head into the corridor to see what was happening. Eventually the wailing stopped, so the only noise again was the constant clacking of the train tracks below. After spending some time snacking and reading a few notes about Marrakesh, my friend and I each stretched out on three seats and turned out the lights. Will we get some much-needed sleep after all during this journey?
HOUR 5....I think I slept for a few hours! The train stopped for a while. Hopefully that was the scheduled stop at Casablanca.
HOUR 9....Hours passed and I gradually woke up about 5am because I needed to use the toilet. Once I returned to our compartment, I was wondering whether to stretch out some more or just sit up and ready myself for the anticipated approach into Marrakesh. Before I could decide, a grizzled older man sporting a hat and briefcase jammed into my end seat, so no more lying down for me. He looked like he needed a smoke, but fortunately he stepped into the corridor to light up. Ramadan is not easy for the devout Muslims: no eating, drinking nor smoking between sunrise and sunset. It was still dark out, so I ate a granola bar. We were minutes away from the scheduled arrival time. My friend was awake by now, and we were hoping that the Sheraton in Marrakesh would allow us to check into our room early.
(Continued in Part 2)
Marrakesh Express (Part 1)
Attraction | "Marrakesh Express (Part 2)"
HOUR 10....It was nearly 6am, and we were dumbfounded when we realized that we were in Casablanca, not Marrakesh. This train should have arrived into the Casablanca Voyaguers station about 5 hours earlier! This station was supposed to be the midpoint of our train ride, but it became the unexpected finish. The conductor told us in French that there was some sort of flooding, so the train could not move past Casablanca. So all the sleepy and grouchy passengers crammed into the main vestibule of the train station. We saw swarms of Moroccan men (there were few women and non-Moroccans on the train) demanding ticket refunds from the beleaguered ticket counter attendants on the other side of the glass wall. Eventually, we received partial refunds for the Casablanca-Marrakesh segment. After exiting the train station, we were pleasantly surprised to see some buses lined up in front. Were these shuttle buses to the main bus station, or the actual long-distance buses? We screamed MARRAKESH and were directed to a bus parked to the left. It was a not a first-class bus, since there was no storage compartment in the belly of the vehicle. Heck, this was not even a second-class bus. There was little overhead storage, so we crammed our bags wherever we could. We missed the comforts of the train already. A few poor souls were missing them even more, as they had to stand in the narrow aisle when the bus ran out of seats. We were hoping that this bus ride would last no more than 4 hours.
HOUR 11....My friend and I were the only non-Moroccans on this bus. The man with the hat was on this bus, too. Most of the passengers were getting impatient, as seemingly bus after bus roared past our standing vehicle. After much shuffling about, the bus finally departed with a full load of passengers. Alas, we seemed to be looping back to the train station, so people were yelling and clamoring to leave our bus to catch another ride. After another spin around the block, almost all of the departed were clamoring to re-board this bus. This was a mad scene, with lots of shouting and finger pointing. At one point, one of the passengers stood out as the voice of reason, trying to calmly reassure the masses in the Arabic tongue. We had no idea what he was saying, but it was a dramatic moment. The crowd hushed up, and the bus finally moved on.
(Continued in Part 3)
Attraction | "Marrakesh Express (Part 3)"
HOUR 12....As the sun rose, it cast its light upon many roads that were inundated by floodwater from the last few days. The natives were restless, doubly so because of the Ramadan fast during the daylight hours. My friend and I were appreciative of the bright sun, as it had been rainy throughout much of our time so far in Morocco. The crowd were not as appreciative, as they pointed at the curtains and wanted them drawn shut.
HOUR 15....As the morning dragged on, it was not really surprising to find out that our third-rate bus had a flat tire. This unscheduled pit stop allowed me to have a few refreshing slurps of water and some precious bites of candy while hiding incognito on the temporarily empty bus. Everyone stepped out to get some sunshine while gazing at the Tuscany-like countryside or congregating quietly around a wall in a field. The wall also came in handy as a backstop upon which many grateful passengers relieved themselves. We were really relieved after the crew diligently repaired the bus. The timing was good (for a change), as a brief rain shower chased everyone back onto the bus. This was a physically demanding ride, but since we were not sure where we were on the map, it was mentally straining as well. How many more hours would this journey take? It was nearly 11am, and we were not close to Marrakesh.
HOUR 16....We pulled into a town called Ben Guerir, about two-thirds of the way from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Many of the passengers departed for good at this town, but not the man with the hat. It was noontime and there were finally some empty seats! I jumped to the seat behind so my friend and I would have two seats each. This luxury was short-lived, as soon new passengers would climb aboard for the ride to Marrakesh. Oh well, at least it was sunny outside. The roads were drier as we went south, so our bus seemed to be going faster. I chewed gum for hours in lieu of actual food.
HOUR 17....Are we there yet?
HOUR 18....It was now about 2pm, and our dream bus was finally chugging into the Red City called Marrakesh. Thanks to the flooding, our travel time from Fes to Marrakesh was basically doubled from 9 to 18 hours. EIGHTEEN HOURS. Everyone, including the man with the hat, spilled out of the bus. My friend and I were so relieved to jump into a taxi to the Sheraton. Well, at least we do not have to ask for early check-in now.