Marrakesh is an intense assault on the senses. Vibrant colours, interesting (sometimes good, but occasionally completely foul) smells and constant bustle. It’s also a maze – I had three different maps and I’m pretty convinced not a single one of them actually depicted the city, or they might have done but the lack of any street signs meant I was in a constant state of lost bemusement.
The city is a hot, beautiful, tangled messy of culture and history; a union of religions and desert tribes stirred together in a noisy boiling pot. So long as you’re willing to play at haggling and are not upset by narrow alleys full of bikes, people, donkeys and cats all apparently moving in a different direction, you’ll love it.
If the hassle of the souks (the maze of markets) gets too much there are a number of museums and historic sites to head to, some which seem to be slightly off the well trodden tourist trails, so you are plunged from the noisy hustle and bustle into quiet serine beauty.
1. Saadian Tombs
Opens at 9am and only costs 10 dh (about £1) to get in. It’s well worth a visit, especially if you’re a fan of beautifully coloured tiles. If you head there as soon as possible after it opens you beat the tour groups and get it almost to yourself. You enter through a very high walled, narrow concrete passage, which opens out into a beautiful high walled garden. The Saadains were the dynasty that ruled Morocco 1554-1669 and these tombs managed to escape the plunder of the next dynasty, probably because it was thought to destroy them would be unlucky. So instead they were blocked up (hence the bizarre entrance) and left fairly forgotten until they were rediscovered by a French aerial survey in 1917. There are a number of beautifully tiled enclosure rooms with the tombs of head family members, with vaulted ceilings and incredibly decorative tiles. Scattered through the courtyard garden are also grave markers of colourful tiles marking other members of the royal household.
2. Bahai Palace
Again at only a 10dh entry Bahai Palace is a must. It’s a main tour visit site so admittedly your holiday snaps may have other people in the background, but it’s worth it because it is architecturally spectacular. Its name actually means ‘Brilliance’; its splendour is not subtle. Built in the late 19th century by the then grand vizier and later extended by his son, all that remains now it the beautiful shell left after his death and the sites inevitable plunder. With beautiful tiled courtyards and highly decorative cedar wood ceilings, in its heyday filled with opulent furniture and textiles it must have been dripping with wealth. Even with empty echoing rooms it is stunning.
3. Maison Tiskiwin
When we visited we had the place to ourselves, a beautiful riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard) that is home to a large collection of Moroccan and Saharan artefacts collected by Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint. The collection illustrates the cultural links made across the Sahara by the caravan trade between Morocco and Mali. With translations in English presented in a detailed handout on entry you can trawl through rooms filled with handwoven fabrics, carpets, clothes, jewellery and sculpture. It really is an Aladdin’s cave. At 20dh it’s an excellent and interesting break from the busy streets outside.
4. Museum of Marrakesh
The Museum of Marrakesh is very pretty and houses exhibitions of art and sculpture. But for the hefty 50dh entrance fee (ok so that’s hefty in comparison to some of the other sites) it’s very similar to what you can see elsewhere. Its notable impressive difference is a huge brass lantern that is suspended over a bubbling fountain in a vast, beautifully tiled room. Very picturesque.
5. Dar Si Said
Dar Si Said was my favourite place to visit, a bargain at 10dh. There were only a handful of people there, which meant that it was very calm and tranquil. In its centre is beautifully tiled courtyard with a bubbling fountain, with birds flitting around the fruit trees. It was built as a palace in the late 19th century. It houses the impressive Museum of Moroccan Arts collection. It’s similar to Bahai palace, but is more decorative and less of a tourist trap. There is an impressive collection of woodwork, including intricately carved Berber doors and object labels are more often than not translated into English. Upstairs was my favourite, darkened heavily decorative and colourful rooms, the wooden objects displayed in mirrored alcoves.
6. Heritage Museum
Set in a stunning 17th century Moorish riad, this museum is a stones-throw from Jemaa el Fna and right off a busy souk alleyway. This means you can dive straight from the hectic narrow, buzzing side street into a beautiful and tranquil space, echoing with a soundtrack of local music which is played though out the museum. The museum displays a private collection of Moroccan antiquities which range from amphora that look like they have been rescued from the sea-bed to beautifully carved wooden tent dividers. It doesn’t take long to go around, but at the end of your visit you are given mint tea on the roof terrace as part of the entrance charge of 30dh.
7. El Badi Palace
El Badi Palace was very unfortunately closed for maintenance work when I visited, with locals vague on when it would reopen. Although largely in ruin it was highly recommended to me by friends, making the fact that it was closed more heart breaking. The remains of this 16th century palace suggest that its name, meaning ‘the Incomparable’, was not just blagging. Even though it was closed, it was worth popping by to see storks nesting on its high outer walls.
8. Jemna el Fna
Jemna el Fna is the beating heart and lively soul of the city, a constantly bustling square. UNESCO have dubbed it a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’, as it is known as an active concentration for story-tellers, acrobats, musicians and performers, the square itself as a tangible space protects and promotes intangible traditions. By day it’s mostly a large empty space, but it’s worth looking out for the tooth pullers and the medicine men. It is by night that the place truly comes to life. Although tourists are drawn towards the snake charmers and acrobats, you’ll notice that the locals crowd around the story tellers supported by they own backing bands.
These photos were taken by Ryan Gray who has a brilliant travel photography blog, if you want to see more Marrakesh pictures click here.