If I was to describe a city as a colour, then Marrakech would be red, a bold bright red.
The earth is red, the buildings, the night sky, the towers of rugs, hats and slippers, and it’s as if the volume button has been turned to max.
There is insistent, constant noise, beeping horns, of cars and motorbikes, salesmen on the street yelling at each other, powerful prayer calls at regular intervals and, as one nears the main square, the whining pipes and hypnotic drumbeats reach a fever pitch.
The first time that I took my children to Jemaa el Fnaa, dancers whirled, snakes slithered, monkeys chattered, old men coughed and spat on the ground and the overwhelming smell of food, scent and spices made them shrink back – but not for long, they quickly got used to the chaos and relaxed because the market, open 24 hours a day, is a feast to one’s senses that nowhere else can match.
Off the main square, it’s all too easy to get lost. All the alleys look the same and that’s mostly because they are all selling the same goods, but at vastly differing prices.
The first time we went, we got shopping fever, we paid ludicrously high prices for rugs, tried to save all the small tortoises trapped in horrendously tiny cages and impulsively bought vast swathes of fabrics, pots and lanterns that somehow didn’t have the desired impact when you got home. It’s the light. But it’s also the light, colours and atmosphere that have drawn fashion designers and interior decorator’s like moths to this fascinating city. Yves St Laurent restored the beautiful Majorelle Gardens and bequeathed them back to the city that he loved so much, for all to enjoy.
One’s mood changes quickly in Marrakech, from exultant to exhausted, from inspired the deflated. It’s a place of extremes. On one visit an actor friend of mine swept into my bedroom, saying wake up lazybones, flung open the curtains like Mary Poppins and excitedly told me he had found us the best driver in Marrakech, improbably called Cassandra, who was going to take us to Taroudant for the night.
I came blearily out into the sunshine, Cassandra beamed, I glanced doubtfully at my friend, the car was the size of a sardine can and the idea of making it across the Atlas mountains didn’t seem very realistic. He was staying in the Palmeraie, so we dropped by to collect some things.
After a few miles the engine seized up and ground to a halt. He was undeterred, said it was just bad luck and that she was going to find another car and take us the next day. He had this unshakeable faith in Cassandra, which I didn’t entirely share.
Anyway, Cassandra had a new plan for us today, she and her friend who had suddenly appeared out of the dust were going to take us in a different car to buy the best argan oil in Morocco. The most fun thing about Marrakech is going on adventures, so I was game.
This was really exciting, argan oil is the new beauty elixir, so we trekked off, hot and me increasingly grumpy, as the car had no air conditioning, at a certain point we got out and wound down maze after maze lowering our heads as the lanes got smaller and lower.
We finally came to what looked like a completely empty shed/shop with a door at the back. Men in fez hats greeted us bowing deeply, sweet mint tea appeared, stools arrived and we waited as there was a lot of whispering and more smiling and bowing.
Bottles were brought from somewhere, probably another shop and I lifted the lid, I had never smelt argan oil before, but it smelt horrible -“it smells like goat’s urine”, I whispered, “that’s because it’s pure”, my friend asserted authoritatively, “it doesn’t have all that toxic, disgusting perfume in it”. So taking his word, I handed over a fistful of dirham and we went back to his hotel.
After having dinner, by the way don’t stay at this hotel, the Mansour (it might be owned by the King) but it’s so glacial, unimpressively grand and dinner cost 1,000 euros for three people and I had one course, so god knows how much a suite is, anyway after dinner we asked the concierge to come to his room to look at the sickly, stinking liquid. “This is not argan oil” he said very sadly, shaking his head, whereupon my friend burst into tears and ranted about the falseness of Cassandra, I poured the argan oil down the loo and she was never mentioned again.
So, we didn’t go to Taroudant, but that is a really nice trip, I am told. The reason I am telling you this ridiculous story is that it’s not necessary to be so foolishly enthusiastic as we were, only for there to be a huge downfall. One can get incredibly wonderful argan oil in Marrakech and rugs and anything else your heart desires but keep a clear head, unlike me and my impetuous friend.
Where to stay:
We represent several riads right in the heart of Marrakech, if you want to be at the centre of things.
I always stay at my dear friend Vanessa Branson’s drop dead beautiful hotel Riad El Fenn, which we represent, voted two years in a row, the most beautiful dressed hotel in the world by the Mr and Mrs Smith awards.
We also think it’s the best place to rent for a party, with luxurious suites, three swimming pools and a huge roof terrace with views of the Atlas mountains. It’s impossible to beat for it’s central location and the oasis of tranquility, once you step off the street and enter the womb like atmosphere.
Another fabulous place for parties is Jnane Tasmna.
If you like to just make the odd visit into town and prefer the Palmeraie, we have an array of gorgeous villas with huge grounds and pools that come fully staffed.
The Do’s and Don’ts that Vanessa has learned (after having the hotel for fifteen years):
DO explore, it’s all about what’s behind the hidden door, the unexpected discovery.
DO wander and if you get lost, don’t panic, you don’t need to grab someone and pay them to get out of the maze, all roads eventually lead back to the main square and you will never lose your new friend.
DO bargain for whatever you are buying, you will be thought a fool if you don’t but I think its horrible to grind someone into the ground, so be prepared to walk away if you can’t get what you want for about a third of the asking price. Remember you are probably arguing about pennies, which mean a lot more to them than they do to you.
DO always negotiate a price before you get in a car, have small change and don’t pay more than 20-30 dirhams for a ride in the city.
DO have a hammam, be prepared to be scrubbed hard with salt and black olives, plunge from hot to cold water and come out refreshed with the skin of a newborn baby.
DO go to the main square just before sunset and sit in a roof top café to see the whirling circus begin.
DON’T believe people that approach you on the street, if a man tells you that he is a guide, he probably isn’t and is just going to drag you to his shop, then on all his friends (from whom he will also get commission).
DON’T dress provocatively in the Medina, no need to explain that.
DON’T pay more than 300 dirhams for a guide for three hours and make sure that your hotel or house manager books it.
DON’T linger and ask prices, look straight ahead, make no eye contact and walk looking like you know exactly where you are going, even if you are lost.
DON’T go in a mosque, they are not tourist attractions.
THINGS TO DO:
- It would be a pity to miss the Majorelle Gardens. Yves St Laurent brought these gardens back to life and gave them to the city he loved.
- Children will feel really shortchanged if you don’t take them on a camel ride, these take place in the Palmeraie.
- Visit Baz Ourika for lunch, a stunning property we represent up in the Atlas mountains.
- Go to the Club Beldi for lunch and book a hammam in advance, I think they have the best hammans in Marrakech and you can buy really good quality argan oil!
- The Oasiria Waterpark was my children’s favourite activity, they also loved the Terres D’Amanar which has zip rides and archery and riding.
- Get wherever you are staying to organize a picnic and head up towards Lalla Takerkoust, a beautiful lake with the backdrop of the Atlas mountains.
- Go on an adventure to Essaouira, the beautiful town nested beside the Atlantic.
- If you are really feeling like being a nomad, book a two day camping trip to the dunes of Zagora or this amazing 7 day journey to Memory Road.
- Visit the buzzing local Berber market in the Ourika valley on a Monday morning, we have a stunning property in the apex Kasbah Bab Ourika.
- Go for a drink at the glamorous Mamounia Hotel.
- Café de la Poste is one of my favourite restaurants, always fun, good food.
- Dar Yacout is a very famous restaurant, with dramatic décor, stays open late.
- Domaine Royal Palm is great for lunch and families.
- Casanova is full of locals, has a great vibe and good for families.
- Le Tobsil is in the medina and serves a set menu of Moroccan cuisine
- Terrasses des Epices is a great place to eat and watch the bustling square below.
- Mai Thai is a chic Asian restaurant set in a beautiful garden.
- Kaowa is located near the Majorelle Gardens, great for lunch.
- Le Comptoir is always worth visiting for dinner or a late night cocktail.
- Jad Mahal has a great DJ and worth dropping into.
- Pacha, if you have been to Ibiza you know what to expect.
- Nikki Beach has also made its way here from Ibiza.
- Lotus Club has great burlesque shows.
- The Casino is fun to drop by to watch the serious gamblers at play.
- Teatro is for fans of Techo music.
- Riad El Fenn has a fabulous shop full of great design, cool carpets, stylish, international but with an authenticity other shops can lack.
- Souk Cherifa is a gallery of shops under the Café des Epices.
- Topolina reworks rich fabrics into a fifties vibe.
- Ahram Club is for all bag lovers, lovers of sued and leather goods.
- Bar Khemis has a mixture of everything, look closely for the good stuff usually hidden.
- It’s worth taking in the sweep of shops in the Gueliz area, because prices are fixed and shopping therefore is more relaxing.
- 33 Majorelle, opposite the gardens is a concept store filled with art, clothes and jewelry.
- Heritage Berber is a very special perfumerie.
- Atika is for bag lovers.
- Galerie des Tanneurs is another fabulous leather store.
For the first time, I went to the industrial zone. The best idea is to take a driver and take in a whole sweep of shops. Closed on Saturdays, these shops also close promptly at 6pm. There are new shops springing up here every month, so have a wander around. I saw two good art galleries that were already closed at 4pm so it’s best to go in the morning.
- Henry Cath specializes in lighting and candles.
- Lawrence London specializes in lighting.
- Loun has fantastic ceramics.
- Les Sens de Marrakech has wonderful bath and body products and – yes! – argan oil!
- Magasin Generale is now my favourite new store, self-explanatory