COME WITH ME TO MARRAKECH
Known as the Red City for its exterior walls, which blend perfectly with the surrounding desert, Marrakech is a vibrant city with plenty going on.
At its heart is the old city, the medina. As in most Moroccan cities, the medina is crisscrossed by dizzying miles of narrow streets. They take you to bustling souks, or markets, where you can buy traditional Moroccan wares such as tapestries, pottery and metalware, as well as spices and fresh produce.
Every vendor will try to coax you into buying something – be firm or risk getting steamrolled. The middle of the medina is the Jemaa el-Fna, a square that comes alive at night. Musicians, storytellers and acrobats perform while food carts offer fresh juices and sweet pastries, and smoke rises from the red-hot grills.
The Bahia Palace offers exquisite examples of Moroccan art and architecture. Ornate doorways and arches decorated in zellij (geometric-patterned mosaic) tiles lead to garden courtyards and colonnades support decorated ceilings. Ben Youssef Medrasa, the Islamic college, is another stop for Moroccan art. palais-bahia.com/en, medersa-ben-youssef.com/en
French artist Jacques Majorelle designed the Jardin Majorelle, adding plants from five continents. The blue in the garden and buildings were named after him – Bleu Majorelle. The garden was bought by Yves Saint Laurent following Majorelle’s death, and there is a memorial to Saint Laurent as well as a store with vibrantly hued, Berber-inspired fashions. jardinmajorelle.com/ang
Take a day trip to the Atlas Mountains, but have an experienced guide take you up the winding mountain roads and hiking trails. At the top, there are spectacular views of the valleys and villages that hug the mountain slopes.
In the narrow, high-walled streets of the medina, unassuming doors hide the cool courtyards of riads. Many of these traditional Moroccan homes have been converted into boutique hotels. angsana.com/en/em-morocco-riad-collection
Terrasse des epices is a rooftop restaurant above the souks in the heart of the medina, offering modern fare as well as Moroccan classics. terrassedesepices.com
STEP INTO ESSAOUIRA
A three-hour bus ride from Marrakech takes you to the coastal city of Essaouira. With its distinct colours of blue and white, it was a draw for the likes of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
Essaouira’s medina is much smaller and more manageable than the one in Marrakech, and many of the goods are labelled with prices, so there is less pressure to haggle. Enjoy a coffee or mint tea at a street café, grab a Casablanca beer on a rooftop terrace, or enjoy freshly caught seafood at one of the stalls lining the harbour. Afterwards, spend some time exploring the atmospheric old fortress of Mogador.
A short taxi ride up the coast, kite surfers take advantage of the wind, while horse and camel rides are on offer on the beach.
To get a real feel for this coastal town, visit the noisy working port. You can see the day’s catch being landed and traditional boats being built – they are distributed as far away as France as they are particularly well made. And don’t leave without a visit to the fish auction in the market hall outside the port gates.
Villa Maroc is the quintessential riad by the sea. Its whitewashed walls and rooftop terrace, as well as its proximity to the harbour and medina, make it the perfect base for exploration. Try to get a room overlooking the city walls. You won’t be disappointed. villa-maroc.com
Riad Malaika offers a choice of set menus for dinner – and serves possibly the most delicious food in Essaouira. riad-essaouira- malaika.com
Mega Loft has a choice of Moroccan dishes amid retro decor.
Saha Kfé is a street café serving small dishes and good coffee.
PLAY IT IN CASABLANCA
As its name implies, the predominant colour in Casablanca is white. Morocco’s commercial hub is less touristy than either Marrakech or Essaouira, and the souks in the new medina in the Habous neighbourhood are frequented mostly by locals.
To orient yourself, visit Sky 28, a restaurant on the top floor of the Kenzi Tower Hotel, which offers spectacular 360 ̊ views of the entire city. The Hassan II mosque dominates the skyline to the north. With its dramatic architecture, including the world’s tallest minaret, and built right on the sea, it’s well worth a visit. kenzi- hotels.com/kenzitower, mosquee-hassan2.com/en
The rooms in the Art Deco boutique hotel, Le Doge, are not numbered. Instead they are named after famous figures such as Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel and French actor Sacha Guitry. Each room is unique, designed with its namesake in mind. hotelledoge.com/en
Le Cabestan, an upmarket two-storey restaurant overlooking the ocean, offers French fare. le-cabestan.com
- Agree on taxi prices upfront to avoid arguments later.
- Many locals do not like tourists photographing them. Be respectful and ask for permission.
- If you need or want a guide (recommended for trips in the Atlas mountains), do your research and be sure the person has a professional licence or certificate.
- Generally, the best time to visit Morocco is in the spring between March and May, or autumn in September or October
PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT PIKO SIPAMLA