The Weekender: Marrakech
Don’t just hang out in the Medina, there’s way more to this Moroccan city, say Olivia Palamountain and Maria Boyle. Just a short flight from the UK (approx three hours 30 mins) and speedy 20 minutes transfer in to the city, it makes a brilliant spot for a weekend escape. Here’s how to plan the perfect 48 hours in Marrakech…
It’s fair to say that Marrakech does not do things in moderation. A celebration of the senses set to a soundtrack of daily calls to prayer, this beguiling destination is beautifully and unapologetically in your face. From pyramids of rainbow spices in the souks and the buzz of vendors driving a hard bargain, to architectural wonders and heady wafts of orange blossom and jasmine in the air, Marrakech is ready to seduce at every turn.
Adored by the French, there’s more than a hint of je ne sais quoi about the place and glorious leftovers from the colonial era, such as excellent patisserie, wide boulevards and continental cafés. Visitors are always lured to the ancient medina but there’s plenty more to explore in the modern neighbourhoods of Gueliz et al, and adventures to be had in the desert. Rock the Kasbah – you know you want to.
If heaven was a hotel it would be Le Royal Mansour. This magnificent property offers guests the luxury of a private riad with all the trappings of a five-star hotel. This palatial oasis is just steps from the red walls of the old town – known as the Medina and deserves five star plus status.
More authentic accommodation can be found slap bang inside the medina. Riad Farnatchi is one of the most established options, a charming guesthouse and spa run by Brits with years of experience in the industry and who love Marrakech almost as much as the locals.
Le Royal Mansour offers destination dining of the highest calibre. Sesamo is the hotel’s new Italian restaurant led by three Michelin-starred chef Massimiliano Alajmo (the youngest chef in the world to earn three Michelin stars and known as the Mozart of Italian cuisine). The chef’s tasting menu is a must-try, and you can enjoy it inside or out in the restaurant’s pretty garden.
Just opened two months ago, La Table is overseen by three Michelin-star chef Yannick Alléno and offers French ‘bistronomic cuisine’ that sails between land and sea. Dishes include home smoked salmon, cream, chives and blinis; langoustine ravioli; roast rack of lamb from Rehamna followed by Mango tarte tatin with Madagascar pepper ice cream.
New for this year at Riad Farnatchi is Le Trou au Mur, a restaurant serving up delicacies of forgotten Moroccan cuisine (tripe with white beans and spiced tomato, anyone?) alongside British comfort food. Snuggle by the fire in winter or try the rooftop terrace. Elsewhere in the medina Madame Alami makes the best Moroccan pastries so it’s worth the adventure to find her in the souks.
After a morning exploring the Medina, Riad Dar Tim Tam (42 44 Rue Rahba Lakdima, tel 212 24 391446) is perfect lunch spot in the Souk, serving Moroccan food but specialising in tagines and Moroccan-style salads. Ask nearby shop owners for directions as it is one of the best-kept secret spots which lies behind its front door and eat in the outside courtyard which is bright and full of beautiful plants and traditional décor.
For those who want something more refined yet relaxed, the restaurant at Villa des Orangers is a wonderful oasis away from the chaos of the Medina. Surrounded by orange and olive trees, it offers East to West cuisine. Think subtle flavours with the right notes of spice and sweetness matched by a carefully curated wine list.
Over in Gueliz, Le Grand Café de La Poste will charm your socks off with its fireplace, Berber rugs, and club chairs, and menu of French-Moroccan classics.
Real local food can be hard to find as most Moroccans do not go out for Moroccan food as it is never as good as what they cook at home. Al Fassia is the exception and recommended by locals as the place to go. Located in the heart of Gueliz, to the west of the old town, it is owned by two sisters who run it as an all-female restaurant. It serves the most impressive selection of Moroccan salads, the most delicious chicken pastille and a wide variety of tangines. Booking essential.
For those who want to enjoy some cool vibes, El Fenn is a great spot to enjoy a delicious cocktail or dinner on its 1300 square mêtre rooftop terrace. Under the guidance of executive chef Bob Touatou, El Fenn’s menu is based on local ingredients from local farms and markets, seasonal plant-based food – with meat and fish available too, all combined with herbs, exotic spices and fragrant aromatics.
The ancient city of Marrakech can be found within the high red walls of the Medina. For first time visitors, it can be a bit daunting and hiring a local guide is definitely the best way to explore and get your bearings. One of the best in the city is Hicham Behlidaoui who offers half day and full day guided tours, tailored to suit. These include tours focused on the history of Marrakech, its monuments and gardens, and also photography and cooking. He can also offer personal shopping tours (particularly helpful when new to Marrakech). Tours start from £40 per couple per half day and do book in advance email or via Instagram.
If you don’t fancy heading to the ancient medina, modern neighbourhoods such as hip Gueliz are also worth exploring. Full of boutiques and cafés, it’s also buzzing with art galleries such as the Matissse, which exhibits the best artists from all over the country from its lovely villa location.
On a sweltering day you can’t beat a stroll through one of Marrakech’s famed gardens and Jardin Marjorelle, with its enchanting lanes, magical plants and tranquil streams, is one of the most impressive. Designed in the 1920s by the French painter Jacques Majorelle, it was later restored by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge and there’s even a shade of blue – Marjorelle Blue – trademarked in his name.
A number of years after Jacques Majorelle’s death in 1962, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent bought the property to save it from destruction and lived in a private house adjoining the gardens. Next door to the gardens is the entrance to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum dedicated to the life and legacy of the designer as well as temporary exhibitions – which is also worth a visit.
Wander west through the medina to the Jewish Quarter and lose yourself in the beauty of the Bahia Palace, a 19th century complex full of intriguing design details, each of which tells its own story. To make the most of the experience, pick up an official local guide such as Youssef Rharrab, as recommended by Le Royal Mansour, who will bring the fascinating history of Islamic art and culture to life on a walking tour of the city.
Fancy a desert safari with a twist? Hop into one of Marrakech Insiders groovy sidecar roadsters and roar into the mountains for an unforgettable desert safari – with lunch at Inara camp followed by pool and sunset quad biking or camel ride offers a truly unique experience. Overnight stays also available.
For an authentic introduction to Moroccan hammam culture, Le Spa at The Royal Mansour is first class. Designed as a birdcage, it boasts 10 cabins and three spa suites. Hammam treatments on offer range from 60 minutes to two hours in a private domed white marbled interior area, dedicated to bathing, washing, exfoliating and rejuvenating.
It’s impossible not to come home with the contents of the souks. Colourful babouches, beni ourain rugs, and embroidered baskets are everywhere, but for something unique, head to Chez Monsieur Michelin aka Thierry Coudert. An upcycling specialist, Thierry creates things like bags, jewelry and insane Atsuko Kudo-style rubber lingerie from the glossy, black inner tubes of bicycles, employing women and students who need an income to support themselves. Sexy and ethical – result.
French-Algerian designer Nyora Nemiche is a next generation medina designer selling gorgeous silk kaftans and abayas from a miniature shop in the Le Jardin restaurant, as bought by Kate Moss and Juliette Binoche. Head to the new town and make sure to check out 33 Rue Marjorelle, a concept store in line with the boutiques you might find at home, as well as Atika, the place for leather shoes and bags. With styles not a million miles away from a classic pair of Tod’s (at a quarter of the price and in ten different colours) this store is an insider secret for good reason.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
There are no price tags in the medina so you will need to haggle for everything. As a rule of thumb never pay more than 50 per cent of the asking price and don’t be embarrassed to drive a hard bargain – chances are you’re still being ripped off and it’s all a bit of fun.
WHATEVER YOU DO…
Take plenty of spare space in your suitcase to load up on shopping – or invest in some beautiful leather luggage when you arrive.
THE FINAL WORD
There is a saying that you do not visit Marrakech, you experience it. Take the plunge, you won’t regret it.
Black Tomato can arrange five nights at Royal Mansour Marrakech from £3,250 per person staying in a Superior Riad, including breakfast, flights and private transfers, based on two adults travelling. (www.blacktomato.com / +44 207 426 9888).
Stay at Riad Farnatchi from £270 including breakfast / airport transfers (riadfarnatchi.com)
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