Appropriately known as the Red City, Marrakech burns with a contagious spirit. On open squares and down narrow alleys, each of the senses is excited by its energies. Incense whirls through the night air to the rousing tunes of the snake charmer; orange fabrics drape sun-bleached terraces, joyously ablaze in the heat; and the Medina lulls us in all directions, as Moorish spices engulf those endless markets. And this rugged, intoxicating charm plays the perfect backdrop to a city ever-bristling with life.
You’d be forgiven for presuming that Marrakech was the capital of Morocco. Founded in 1071, it is one of the four imperial cities built by Berber empires, alongside Rabat, Fes and Meknes. A millennium later and it supersedes as a city with a rich cultural heritage, balancing traditional ways of living with a changing modern economy. The historic Medina best exemplifies this eclectic dynamic, where the old and the new sit harmoniously side by side – hence why this district will be the focus of anyone’s visit.
The ancient Berberian markets known as ‘the Souks’ are likely the most iconic part of Marrakech. While it’s largely become a selling trap for tourists, there’s still something scenic about this long labyrinth of merchandise – dyed handbags, glistening silverware, golden oils, intricate carpets. You’ll inevitably lose your bearings, but more’s the delight: the outskirts of the souks are abundantly populated with more local markets, tanneries, and you’ll encounter native Marrakechis practicing some of the old craftsmanship behind the stalls. The beauty of the Medina is that you can’t rely on a map – indeed, this is quite literally a city to follow through your senses.
The beating heart of the Medina is Jamaa el Fna, one of the most famous main squares in the whole of Africa. By day it bustles with mystics, musicians and orange juice sellers – you’ll become adept at handling their vying attentions – while by nightfall, it transforms almost unnoticed into a jamboree of food stalls, belly dancers and beating drums. There are plenty of eateries to rival the homemade tagines from your riad, and here you get the benefit of a terrace view. The 13th century Koutoubia Mosque looms grandly on one side of the square, and the distant, snow-topped Atlas Mountains on the other.
Naturally this part of the city is a prime spot for pickpockets (and look out for uninvited henna markers), but don’t let that be of any detriment. It’s invigorating to absorb the calming chaos of this scene, particularly as the evening draws in. There is no more picturesque moment in Marrakech than watching the sun cast a final splash of red over the city walls and vanish behind the Mosque – particularly when you’ve got a mint tea in one hand and a shisha pipe in the other.
For a further oasis of tranquility, the gardens of Marrakech are equally unmissable. The Majorelle Garden is the most famous, and not simply because Yves Saint Laurent owned it. It’s a twelve-acre delight of bamboo groves, lily-covered ponds and botanical phenomenon. Bright yellow pots of cacti bask vivaciously against striking walls of cobalt blue, giving the garden its distinctive and soothing feel. You don’t always have to pay to appreciate Marrakech’s natural beauty either: the Palmery in the north-west of the city is a district in its own right, with verdant lawns, herb gardens and roaming camels.
But if there’s one ‘must-do’ that will crystallise your time in Marrakech: a hammam. Its a spa treatment akin to a Turkish bath, and very common among the locals. In a dark and humid room, you’ll be bathed in scented waters, massaged with natural black soaps, gently exfoliated and then coated in Ghassoul (a mineral clay from the Atlas Mountains). It might initially seem an indulgence too far, but in a city so affordable, you won’t need to worry too much about splashing out. Like all other experiences in Marrakech, it’s authentic, memorable and rejuvenated – Hammam de la Rose is a particular favourite.
I remember on the aeroplane home, a fellow passenger described her first time leaving Marrakech as ‘leaving her soul behind’. It’s easy to see how that might happen (and indeed, she had since emigrated there). The city is a hedonist’s paradise, a place that lives through the senses and breathes through its colours. You’ll come back feeling utterly refreshed: it’s the most invigorating city I’ve ever been to.