FEATURE

My Marrakech Is Better Than Yours

When she isn't trying to open a hotel or being a professional shopper, Maryam Montague blogs about life in Morocco. We can't think of a better guide to this bewitching—but often rather bewildering—city.

By Maryam Montague, Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008, 12:00 AM

I'm an American, but for my whole life I've been a nomad. It started in Cairo, where I was born. (My dad, a New Yorker, was on assignment in Egypt.) My travels have continued through more than 70 countries--Cambodia to Colombia, Iran to Italy, Namibia to Nepal--and my work as a specialist in human rights and democracy means the list keeps growing.

Every place I've visited has been compelling in its own way, but I never found a city that made me want to settle down until I came to Marrakech. Its appeal comes from so much more than the snake charmers, the fortune-tellers, and the souks--though they help, too. The hospitable people, the delicious food, the mysterious architecture, and the fascinating Moroccan culture all add up to make Marrakech a city like no other. Borrowing the words of little Goldilocks, Marrakech felt "just right" somehow.

So two years ago, my husband (an American architect), our two children, and I traded in our nomadic existence for a nine-acre olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech. We then set out to open The Peacock Nest, an online shop selling beautiful Moroccan things, and to design and build a stylish, ecofriendly boutique hotel called Peacock Pavilions (peacockpavilions.com); both are named after the peacocks that roam the property. If all goes to plan, the 10-room hotel will be ready by July.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to start writing a blog, My Marrakesh (mymarrakesh.com), a great big love letter to my new home. I enjoy sharing my passion for Marrakech with anyone who will pay attention. And they do: I'm not exactly sure why, but thousands of people read My Marrakesh every day. Either my mother is paying them all--she always wanted me to be popular in high school--or people are genuinely interested in the enchanting city that I'm lucky enough to call home.

Wait, is it Marrakech or Marrakesh?
BT's style is to follow Webster's Geographical Dictionary for place-names, so we spell it Marrakech. Montague, however, calls her blog My Marrakesh because that spelling is closer to the way the city's name is pronounced.

Eat

Morocco is famous for its food, and no wonder. It's mouthwatering and eclectic, and there's something for everyone. The best-known dish is the tagine, a filling stew slow cooked in an earthenware pot with a conical lid. In addition to chicken, beef, lamb, fish, or vegetables, tagines often include stewed fruit, olives, onions, or almonds. Many restaurants also serve couscous, particularly as a traditional family lunch on Fridays. The seven-veggie couscous royale, topped with a raisin/onion concoction, is not to be missed.

Brochettes (skewers of meat or chicken) are always a safe bet and are especially popular with the junior set. Harira, a soup made with tomatoes and chickpeas and served with bread and dates, is a warming and often vegetarian alternative. If the food strikes you as a touch blah--you chili fiend!--request harissa, a hot sauce that'll send your taste buds into overdrive.

There's a wide variety of places to nibble and dine in Marrakech, from street stalls to opulent restaurants out of The Arabian Nights. And café culture is omnipresent--thanks, no doubt, to the country's history as a French colony. I provide a range of food choices below, from the super cheap to the save-up-your-pennies splurge. Also included are some non-Moroccan options for those who want to mix it up a little.

Marrakech's bountiful tangerine and orange trees make for fresh juice everywhere. Yay! By day, head to the orange-juice stalls on the Jemaa el-Fna, the city's famous central square. There are dozens of juice stalls, all of which are numbered. I haven't ever really noticed a difference between the juice at No. 1 and the juice at No. 23. So pick the stand with your lucky number and make a beeline. A smile usually gets you a free half refill.

By night, the juice stalls are wheeled away and dozens of open-air kitchens are set up in tidy rows, with communal bench seating. I'm partial to the stall where a chef with a handlebar moustache makes harira. Be sure to check out the stands that specialize in exotica like sheep's head or snails (you slurp them from a cup). Sadly, no beer is on offer at any of the stalls.

On the sidelines of the Jemaa el-Fna is Ice Legend, an ice cream shop. It's particularly enticing for the little ones in the group, but adults too will appreciate a scoop of one of the 50 homemade flavors. Café des Épices, in the medina's spice market, is a charming and aromatic spot for breakfast or a glass of hot mint tea. Further down the medina's serpentine alleys is La Terrasse des Épices in Souk Cherifia. (It's owned by the same guy who owns Café des Épices.) Salads start at just $6.50, and you can bask in the sun on the huge terrace.

There are four upscale restaurants in the Old City that I happily recommend. The stylish Kosybar, on the place des Ferblantiers, has a mix of Moroccan and continental offerings, as well as inventive cocktails. By day, you can watch huge storks in their nests from the upstairs terrace. Swanky Le Tanjia, a restaurant with rose-filled fountains, is nearby. The Sunday brunch is excellent, as is the tender monkfish available at lunch or dinner. Another chic spot in the Mouassine district is Café Arabe. This Italian-owned riad (courtyard home) boasts not only a restaurant serving homemade pastas from $9, but also a hip rooftop bar. And in the Kasbah area is Tatchibana, where you can break out of the norm with sushi and other Japanese delicacies. Tatchibana is open only for dinner except on Sunday, when it offers lunch, too.

Some of Marrakech's coolest eating spots are in the newer parts of the city. In Guéliz, Kechmara has mid-century modern decor with ever-changing art, and a sunny terrace that's a good choice for breakfast and lunch; the restaurant does a fine mixed grill for $12. Café du Livre, also in Guéliz, has free Wi-Fi and a selection of English-language books for you to peruse while ordering coffee, lunch, or an early dinner (entrées from $8). Sushi is served during the evening from Thursday to Saturday, but the café is open only until 9 p.m. And the colonial atmosphere at Grand Café de la Poste provides a nice backdrop for excellent salads, starting at $10, as well as hot meals. Enjoy a Casablanca beer on the covered veranda.

In the majorly upscale category is Le Bis-Jardin des Arts, a new restaurant with gorgeous decor. The delicious entrées start at $17. For other überglamorous experiences, hop in a car and head to the city's outskirts. Restaurant L'Abbysin is at the stunning Palais Rhoul, a luxurious palace hotel. The sleek, white outdoor venue is photo-shoot worthy, even if the nouvelle cuisine is more passable than memorable. The Crystal Restaurant Lounge, in the trendy Pacha complex, has artful food arrangements almost too pretty to eat. Make reservations for Friday or Saturday night to listen to jazz.

Shop

To my husband's dismay, I'm a decidedly enthusiastic shopper. And luckily--for me, anyway--Marrakech is known for its amazing shopping.

Cradled within the medina's high fortresslike walls are the traditional markets, or souks. The majority of the souks are located to the north of the Jemaa el-Fna square. Picture a winding labyrinth with hundreds of shoebox-size stores overflowing with ornate lanterns, embroidered caftans, hammered teapots, leather poufs (a kind of ottoman that can also be made with carpet or fabric), and so much more. There's a method to the madness, as the souks are divided into areas of specialty, including metalwork, slippers, carpets, spices, and so on.

Bargaining is the name of the game, and despite what vendors say, they do have different prices for tourists and locals. Start by offering one third of the vendor's price (offer even less for carpets), and then gradually work your way to a happy compromise.

For the best prices, skip the shops on the outskirts of the Jemaa el-Fna and venture into the heart of the souks. Make a pit stop at the place des Ferblantiers to visit Najib La Joie. You can get tiny lanterns with panes of colored glass for $3 or less; they're so cheap, it's practically criminal not to buy several. For jersey caftans starting at $120--and gorgeous vintage ones--try Kasbek. They're perfect for when you host a Moroccan dinner party.

In the Mouassine district, Cadeaux Berberes has some fantastic Moroccan pottery at prices so fair that wholesalers shop there. Take a look at the painted pottery sinks for around $30. Down the road, on the wall of the Mouassine Mosque, you'll find a make­shift gallery of black-and-white photography. You can pick up a copy of a wonderful photo of old Morocco for about $10.

If you're interested in Moroccan carpets, Bazar Jouti, in the carpet souk, has a very nice selection. Offer a quarter of the price listed on the tag, and let the bargaining begin! Miloud Art Gallery, in Souk Cheratine, has a well-edited collection of poufs, pillows, clothes, lanterns, and bags. I'll say it again: Bargain!

Most of the shops at the Ensemble Artisanal, in the Kasbah district, aren't worth your time. Maison du Cuivre is an exception, with its fine lanterns, mirrors, and bowls. Also in the Kasbah is Light Gallery, which has a reliably hip collection of art.

On Thursday and Sunday mornings, you'll find Bab el Khemis market at the gate of the same name. Amid the broken clocks and TV remote controls are genuine treasures, such as vintage teapots and tea trays. I've been known to scout there for The Peacock Nest.

In the New City, the shopping is less atmospheric, but there are fewer hassles, as fixed prices are the norm. Elbow your way through the throngs who come to buy designer-inspired leather shoes at Atika Boutique. The $70 pebble-soled driving loafers are particularly coveted. And although the stylish leather goods at Place Vendôme, a well-known shop in Guéliz, aren't as cheap as they are at the souks, the quality is significantly better.

Maison Rouge Décoration is a Belgian-run shop with streamlined North African designs. The linens and painted glass plates are pricey but worth a look.

About 10 minutes out of the city center is the industrial zone, Sidi Ghanem. Akkal stocks minimalist pottery in striking colors and shapes. To rock the casbah back home, pay a visit to Maison Méditerranéenne, a showroom with everything from ornately carved beds to armchairs that cost less than $150.

Go to award-winning Zid Zid Kids, in the Daoudiate district, for embroidered animal-shaped pillows and other perfectly crafted children's stuff. Prices at this, the warehouse, are far less than what you'd pay at fancy stores back home in the U.S.

Play

When we first moved here, my husband would throw open the curtains every morning and say jokingly, "Another lousy day." It's almost always sunny and, with the exception of July (hot) and August (scorching), there's never a bad time to visit. Not surprisingly, outdoor activities abound, day and night.

I always recommend that people take a calèche--a horse and buggy--for a trip around the medina walls. A one-hour ride for up to four people should run less than $20; the calèche operators tend to be found between Koutoubia Mosque and Jemaa el-Fna, across from the Club Med.

For those who want more adrenaline-pumping entertainment--or to work off residual work frustrations--go-karting and quad biking are readily available in the surrounding desert. Dunes & Désert Exploration is the group to bring out your inner speed demon. And no North African trip is complete without a camel ride. Book one through Dunes & Désert, or look for a guide near La Palmeraie, on the city's eastern side. A two-hour ride with tea in a village costs $30 or so.

Marrakech is also rapidly becoming a golf destination. It's currently home to three golf courses, with three others under construction. A round at the Amelkis Golf Club or the Royal Golf de Marrakech runs about $65. The Royal Golf course is arguably more beautiful, but advanced golfers prefer Amelkis. Reservations are essential for either of the courses.

If your idea of vacation is lounging by the pool with a cocktail in hand, La Plage Rouge, approximately five miles outside the city, is going to be your idea of heaven. The dramatic pool complex with restaurant and bar has a $26 entrance fee, but you might just spot a movie star or a model.

Marrakech is filled with palm groves and gardens. Named after Jacques Majorelle, the artist who created it, the Jardin Majorelle was later bought by Yves Saint Laurent. With more than 350 types of plants, the small but exquisite garden is a cool respite from the excitement and bustle of the city. The gardens around Koutoubia Mosque are also a lovely (and free) place for an afternoon stroll.

If lounging by the pool and walking in gardens leaves you insufficiently relaxed, you may require some spa time. At one of the many hammams, or steam baths, around the city, you can literally be steeped in Moroccan tradition. Les Bains de Marrakech is one of the most picturesque. Luxuriate in a hammam for 45 minutes for $20, or have a 60-minute massage with rose-petal oil for $45. Afterward, loll for a while on the daybeds in the gorgeous central courtyard and you will never want to leave.

When the sun goes down, no place says Marrakech like the city's main square, Jemaa el-Fna. It's teeming with life, including an unusual cast of characters who are guaranteed to amaze. Herbalists promise to cure ills with potions made from dried lizards and other strange ingredients. Snake charmers lure sleepy cobras out of baskets. Traditional dentists armed with enormous pliers deal with troublesome molars on the spot. Veiled henna artists paint hands or feet in intricate patterns for the price of a Big Mac. Fortune-tellers read tarot cards. The carnivalesque atmosphere intensifies as the night goes on, with impromptu performances by acrobats, cross-dressing dancers, and trance-inducing musicians. Come with plenty of change in your pocket, as you'll be expected to contribute small amounts to enjoy the shows or take pictures.

Anyone craving still more exotica should make a trip to Chez Ali. Although the show, held outside and featuring dozens of performers, is a bit cheesy, the singing and dancing will give you a good feeling for traditional Moroccan culture, and the horsemanship is spectacular. (Save some money by skipping the dinner and just going for the show.)

The city also offers many opportunities for partying. Both Comptoir Darna and Palais Jad Mahal, two of the city's hippest hotspots, tap into the Moroccan fantasy theme, complete with belly dancers. You can also dance until dawn at the trendy Pacha, where the action doesn't begin until well after midnight.

INSIDER'S MARRAKECH


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