Morocco & Andalusia: Marrakech
One of the world’s most famed city names, a perennial tourism favorite due to its warmth, splendid architecture in its magnificent monuments and for its fabulous bazaars. Yet those who might have been to Marrakech prior to 2002 are in for a surprise: the city in recent years has evolved into a true world travel mecca, with a bevy of intimate deluxe lodgings in the old city replete with traditional atmosphere, excellent eateries in exotic settings that cover the best of world cuisines, designer boutiques, and a myriad of leisure activities to suit any interest. Plus the city’s proximity to the High Atlas mountains or Essaouira on the Atlantic, for half- to full-day excursions.
What to do
History, Architecture, Culture: While you can’t enter the late 12th-C. Koutoubia mosque, the symbol of the city, its splendid exterior decor, the best of Almohad art, and the chance to see a bit of the city’s original fortifications from the latter 11th C. make this a worthwhile starting point. To the northeast, past the Royal Palace (sorry, no entry) and the Almohad-era (late 12th C.) Agnaou “Blue” gate, lies the Saadian dynasty necropolis, the last vestige left of the splendors of the 16th-C. Saadian art. The Saadians’ former Baadia Palace behind the tombs is now but a vast empty shell surrounded by massive ramparts, whose crenellations provide perfect nesting structures for dozens of storks. Beyond it lies the former Jewish quarter, with 3 still functional synagogues and the largest Judaic cemetery of the country’s Imperial cities. On its edge is the late 19th-C. Bahia Palace of former vizier Ba Ahmed, spread over 20 acres and the most lavishly decorated of the monuments open to the public, in an Andalusian style. A short walk East takes you to Dar Tiskwin, a small museum in a private home with a collection of splendid rural crafts from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, underlying Morocco’s African roots. Nearby is the 19th-C. Dar Si Saïd, another gem of a palace, showcasing the country’s amazing traditional geometric decor in its magnificent ceilings. It is now a museum of wood and leather crafts. On the other side of the souqs is the Ben Youssef Koranic school, the largest in the country, founded in the 14th C., though its stark architecture and the maze of its dormitory date from the 1500s. It is next to the Museum of Marrakech, with an eclectic collection of modern and traditional arts, though the immensity of this former palace of a Caïd is worth a look by itself (don’t miss the elaborate traditional steam bath, the hammam). And just to the South is the Qubba, an ablutions pavilion from 1117 CE, the sole vestige left in the city of the art of its founders, the Almoravids. Sandwiched between the monuments spreads the souq, the largest bazaar in the country, with a nearly indescribable variety of crafts, from the traditional to modern. The main entry is the infamous Jemaa el Fna square, a year-round circus of folksy entertainment, for tourists (daytime) and the locals (evenings). Over in the new city, French Orientalist Jacques Majorelle established a vast exotic garden in the 1930s, one of the city’s most serene nooks (though only about a third of the original garden is left). Majorelle’s former home now houses the oriental arts collection of the late Yves St. Laurent.
Leisure: For a longer promenade than Majorelle‘s garden offers, there are the Agdal and Menara parks, the latter with its pleasure pavilion of former sultans (and a sound-and-light show). Beyond that the city offers 3 world-class golf courses, hot-air balloon rides, water amusement parks, camel and AT bike rides in the surrounding palm groves (Marrakech is the sole city North of the Atlas with vast date-palm groves), dune buggies, bistros, cabarets, casinos, discos and folklore venues.