Revisiting the Marrakech Express

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | March 23, 2015 0


Saadian+PavillionThe “Marrakesh Express” is the train Graham Nash took on a trip there from Casablanca in 1966. The lyrics are filled with the sights, sounds and vibes that he encountered on the trip. Graham Nash told Rolling Stone magazine the story of this song: “In 1966 I was visiting Morocco on vacation to Marrakesh and getting on a train and having a first-class ticket and then realizing that the first-class compartment was completely f–king boring, you know, ladies with blue hair in there – it wasn’t my scene at all. So I decide I’m going to go and see what the rest of the train is like. And the rest of the train was fascinating. Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires. It’s literally the song as it is – what happened to me.”Morocco-loco

There is some doubt as to whether the “trip” immortalised in Graham Nash’s song Marakesh Express is a train trip or some other type of trip! Some of us are old enough to remember when a Shag was something grown in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco which you smoked! Marakesh Express (This is the English spelling – I use the French spelling – Marrakech) is a song recorded by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, which they released on their 1969 self-titled debut album.

“Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue
Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express
Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train”

Well taking the train from Casablanca to Marrakech is still a good (and cost effective) option and Marrakech is the end of the line but these days you’ll arrive at the brand new station in the Ville Nouvelle. On my first trip I stayed in the Ibis by the old station. And it was not too disturbing, even the impressive new station has only 9 arrivals a day. But Moroccan Railways (ONCF), like all of Morocco, is on a headlong path to develop and modernise and the gargantuan efforts to build new infrastructure are to be seen everywhere.

Gare de Marrakech

Gare de Marrakech

The competing transport!

The competing transport!

What a great pity then as Morocco makes great strides to promote inward tourism and to encourage budget airlines that not much has changed at Passport Control at the other gateway to Marrakech, Al Menara Airport. Despite the influx of flights everybody (including disabled people) had to queue for over 50 minutes in the slowest passport line I’ve ever seen. It left time to notice another depressing feature – the hustle at the toilets in the passport area. At the doorway a cleaner is occupied full time in looking for tips off visitors using the facility and suggesting he’ll gladly accept a one euro or pound coin. Now this is a racket as on the way back you’ll notice there is no charge for the toilets but is this the third world impression Morocco wants to give to its visitors under its ambitious “Plan Azur” to increase visitor numbers to 15 million by 2015. What is depressing is the negative impression it gives, for obviously man in cleaner’s uniform is on the payroll and somebody is receiving a kickback from this racket? Eventually we get through passport control and reflect that some self important perfunctory is being served mint tea in his spacious office away from this chaos and is responsible for the shambles of passport control.

Menara Airport, Marrakech

Menara Airport, Marrakech

Hand of Fatima

Hand of Fatima

Outside the mood rapidly improves as our driver and car are there to take us to the Palmeraie and we take in the sights and sounds of this unique city. The city of Marrakech is one of those places on earth which lives up to the hype. It is an amazing medieval city contained within 12 kms of walls or “ramparts” surrounded by a Francophile “Ville Nouvelle”, surrounded by palm groves and overlooked by the High Atlas and with an amazing culture and vitality. Returning since our first trip 3 ½ years ago we stayed in the splendid Club Sangho in the Palmeraie, the oasis of 150,000 palm trees north east of the Medina or walled City. This was a bit like Walt Disney does Morocco with the swimming pool pure Bedrock from the Flintstones. Nevertheless it was somewhat splendid.

Riad Lotus  Privilege

Riad Lotus  Privilege

Highlight was a cooking course at the achingly stylish Riad Lotus Privilege  an art deco Riad, with a Dada, a traditional chef preparing a Moroccan Lunch which we later eat in photo shoot surroundings by the pool in the courtyard. Later we had afternoon tea in El Menzeh in the exquisite La Mamounia Hotel whose pool side scene would make the Beverly Hills Hotel look shabby. Al Hamra “The Red City” is still the most amazing of places.

See; A Lunch in Marrakech

El Menzeh, the teahouse in the centre of the 20 acre gardens at La Mamounia Hotel

El Menzeh, the teahouse in the centre of the 20 acre gardens at La Mamounia Hotel

Tea at El Menzeh, orange scented, served in Limoges China on a silver tray

Tea at El Menzeh, orange scented, served in Limoges China on a silver tray

Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities, along with Méknes, Fez and Rabat. Marrakech buzzes with life. It is sometimes called the red city since many houses are painted in a Marrakech Rouge, and is set against the backdrop of the magnificent Atlas Mountains. It is a place which floods the senses with strange and overwhelming sights, sounds and smells, casting a strange, heady spell over the unsuspecting traveller. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the inscription speaks for itself;

“Founded in 1070–72 by the Almoravids, Marrakesh remained a political, economic and cultural centre for a long period. Its influence was felt throughout the western Muslim world, from North Africa to Andalusia. It has several impressive monuments dating from that period: the Koutoubia Mosque, the Kasbah, the battlements, monumental doors, gardens, etc. Later architectural jewels include the Bahiâ Palace, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the Saadian Tombs, several great residences and Place Jamaâ El Fna, a veritable open-air theatre.”

Within the ancient medina lies the famous Jamaâ El Fna Square with snake charmers, food stalls, story tellers, and all manner of people. The souks offer an amazing variety of goods from the very cheap to the incredibly expensive. It is the place where Africa meets Arabic culture, and boasts a great selection of restaurants with an amazing ambience which is unique to this city.

Our guide Fetah

Our guide Fetah

The focus of the whole city is Jamaâ El Fna, a large open space full of entertainers and food sellers at the heart of the Medina. Along the alleyways adjacent to Jamaâ, lie some of the most remarkable landmarks of Marrakech. North of Jamaâ are the souks and the Sidi Ben Youssef Mosque, the main mosque after the Koutoubia. South of Jamaâ El Fna, you have the Saadian Tombs and an area full of palaces and the ethnographic museum Maison Tiskiwine. hammam-marrakech

Stall No. 5 - Mousa with his bowls of snails for 5 Dirham

Stall No. 5 – Mousa with his bowls of snails for 5 Dirham

In the square people crowd around dancers and musicians. The snake charmers are a particular hit amongst foreign tourists as is the baffling game of coke bottle fishing. Meanwhile, locals settle down to hear exciting tales of daring-do, valiant saints and prudent wise men told by traditional story-tellers. On the surrounding rooftops there is no shortage of rooftop cafes, affording a bird’s eye perspective of the manic motion on the square beneath. It is a good idea, after wandering around, to get away from it all and rise above the occasion with a glass of sweet mint tea.

Another popular sight in Marrakech is the tour of the many gardens. These include the Jardin Majorelle near Bab Doukkala, the Ménara, a large pool set in a large olive grove and the Agdal, another pleasant olive grove. Across the Oued Issil to the northeast of Marrakech, lies the Palmeraie dotted with oases.

Jardins Agdal

Jardins Agdal

See; Gardens of Marrakech;

What is less well known is that Marrakech is an Islamic Holy City and place of pilgrimage. For centuries Marrakech has been known for its ‘seven saints.’ When Sufism was at the height of its popularity, during the reign of Moulay Ismail, the festival of the ‘seven saints’ was founded by Abu Ali al-Hassan al-Yusi at the request of the sultan. The tombs of several renowned figures were moved to Marrakech to attract pilgrims. The ‘seven saints’ (sebaatou rizjel) is now a firmly established institution, attracting visitors from everywhere. The seven saints include Sidi Bel Abbas (the patron saint of the city), Sidi Muhammad al-Jazuli, Sidi Abu al-Qasim Al-Suhayli, Cadi Ayyad ben Moussa, Abdelaziz al-Tebaa and Abdallah al-Ghazwani. Where a mosque contains a tomb of a Saint it is called a “Zaouia” and is more elaborately decorated than a normal mosque. Non Muslims cannot go into mosques in Marrakech but you often get glimpses of the interiors through doorways.

Morocco was colonised by the French in the early 20th century until 1956. French influence lingers on in the wide boulevards of Guéliz and its few remaining art deco villas, most notably landscape painter Jacques Majorelle’s stylish cobalt blue retreat in the Jardin Majorelle. But the most significant legacy of this colonial rule is the French language, which is still spoken by all educated Moroccans.

After WWII, a vast array of pleasure-seekers, ranging from the glamorous to the distinctly insalubrious, left their mark on Marrakech. Winston Churchill, Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with American beat writers, hippies and a new breed of curious visitors anxious to see what all the fuss was about.

Adventure awaits you in the Medina (old city), with its fondouks (artisans’ workshops), seven zaouias (saints’ shrines) and stalls ladling up steaming bowls of snails and sheep’s head soup. The focal point of Marrakech is its celebrated square, the Jamaâ El Fna. Towering over the scene is the stately Koutoubia minaret, a template for Hispano-Moresque architecture and a reminder of the importance of Islam to the lives of the city’s residents.

Kasbah District

Kasbah District

Always a byword for the exotic, the city that lured hedonists and idealists in the 20th century now attracts fashionistas and trendy couples (and moi!)in search of the souks, spices, spas, chic bars and clubs and riad life. So, in no particular order, here are the sights you should take in on your visit to the Red City.

Jamaâ El Fna

Jamaâ El Fna

The most famous landmark in Marrakech and a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the unique cultural heritage preserved here, where large crowds gather to watch groups of acrobats, drummers, snake charmers, story tellers, dancers and many other performers. Jamaâ El Fna (The Place of the Dead after the executed prisoners whose heads were displayed here) is the most famous landmark in Marrakech, a place sure to involve you so effortlessly you will come back again and again. It is an open space in the heart of the city where a long-established ritual takes place. Large crowds of onlookers – both locals and tourists – gather around to mingle together and watch groups of acrobats, drummers, snake charmers, story tellers, dancer, comedians and fairground acts.

For more than a thousand years, the Jamaâ El Fna’s daily bill has featured acrobats, henna tattoo artists, storytellers, belly dancers, musicians, snake charmers and potion sellers. Mint sellers and carts selling dried fruit and freshly squeezed orange juice make way at dusk for 100 makeshift barbecue restaurants and troupes of entertainers vying for attention. These stalls serve a set three course meal for less than two pounds normally consisting of a fiery Moroccan soup followed by a meat or veg “Main” with cous cous and a sticky pudding or pastry with mint tea which is jokingly referred to as Moroccan Whisky. One hint for visitors, ask for your meal “en papier” – on paper as the plates are washed in the same basins of water all night.

Visitors should take plenty of loose change, as the performers do expect a couple of Dirhams worth of appreciation and some of the more colourful characters will pose for a photo for a small charge. That said, this is not a spectacle just for tourists; the crowd is mostly Moroccan and in particular it is the traditions of the Berber’s, the people of the mountains, you’ll see here. Marrakech is roundly 70% Berber who are a more relaxed and historically tolerant people than the Arabs but Morocco is integrated at all levels including the Royal Family. Jamaâ El Fna is surrounded by cafés and restaurants, perfect places to escape the hustle and observe the proceedings with a mint tea, coffee or light meal. Café Argana, Café de France and Café Glacier all have roof terraces with wonderful views, although they are slightly more expensive than other local cafés.

The Koutoubia

The Koutoubia

The Koutoubia is to Marrakech what the Statue of Liberty is to New York and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. it is a seventy metres Almohad tower that dominates the Marrakech skyline, rising from the low-rise buildings of the old town and the plains of the north. Originally built by the early Almohads, this is the oldest and most complete of three great Almohad towers – the other two are the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. The architecture can be admired at close quarters from the recently renovated gardens, where you can glimpse the foundations of an 11th-century Almoravid mosque demolished because it was not correctly aligned with Mecca.

The Souks of Marrakech

These markets are vast, colourful and varied, with small squares devoted to specific crafts and products. The souks of Marrakech stretch immediately after Jamaâ El Fna, along Rue Souk Smarine, a long, covered street. At the end of this street are two lanes: Souk el Kbir and Souk el Attarin – Follow the alleyways and you will discover small squares devoted to specific crafts and products. At first sight, the souks may seem vast and bewildering. However, with a good map it is perfectly possible to navigate the souks on your own. If you’d rather use some help, there are no shortage of offers from guides, both official and non-official. The best times to visit the souks is in the early mornings (6:00 to 8:00) or late afternoons (16:00 to 17:00) as goods are more amenable to bargaining at the end of the day. There are 14 main Souks and if you are looking for a spectacle out of Dante’s Inferno go to the metal workers Souk where you will see incredible craftsmanship in the midst of a cacophony of hammering and the flames of furnaces, welding torches and blacksmiths bellows.

A word of warning about bargaining – know the price of the goods. The way to do this to go to a Prix Fixe shop in the Ville Nouvelle and see the price of goods you are interested in. There is no point in bargaining in the Souks unless you are going to get it cheaper than the shops. If you let the traders know you are aware of the real price it saves a lot of bargaining time! Also be aware that these guys have been doing it for years and are a lot clever than you! So you may see a display of hats and the price 10 dirham in front. When you pick one up you are told it is made from camel hair and is 50 Dirham and it is the one on the side, which you wouldn’t want which is 10 Dirham. Just keep a sense of humour and be prepared to walk away – after all these guys want a sale and enjoy the ritual of bargaining. Relax also in the Souks even if you haven’t a clue, no Moroccan will steal from you and a quizical look and asking “Le Place?” will get you directions back to the Jamaâ El Fna. Despite appearing overwhelming on first acquaintance this is a close knit society with strong values including a tradition of hospitality to visitors. But if you are silly enough to pay too much for something, it is a Bakeesh, literally a kindness in Arabic!

Each section of the Souks has its own speciality – slippers, spices, carpets, woodcarving, lamps and jewellery. The medicinal lotions and potions are particularly interesting, especially those to ward off Jinn (souls without bodies) held responsible for a whole range of ills. Avoid going or worse being guided to the Tanneries. The local leather-tanning setup involves toxic chemical dyes and an unholy stench, from the Camel’s urine which is also used. Also make sure any leather goods are silicon sealed. Local leather for the Moroccan market isn’t (sniff the leather, if it smells of urine it is unsealed) and when taken to damp northern climes it absorbs moisture and (over time) disintegrates. In Morocco as most other places you get what you pay for!

The Almoravid Koubba (Koubba el Baroudiyine)

The Almoravid Koubba (Koubba el Baroudiyine)

This is the only Almoravid structure still standing in Morocco, with a design that is at the root of all Moroccan architecture. Fittingly for the founders of Marrakech who brought water to this otherwise desert city and surrounded it with palm groves is a water cistern. Opposite the Ben Youssef Mosque, on the southern side of Place de la Kissaria, is the Almoravid Koubba. At first glance, it looks a very simple building with variously shaped doors and windows. With a closer look, you will understand the significance and fascination of this monument which has inspired Moroccan architecture since.

Dating back to the reign of Sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1107 – 1143), the Almoravid Koubba probably formed part of the ablution facilities of a nearby mosque. The style of the monument is at the root of all Moroccan architecture, subsequently used in all Almohad and Merenid designs. Climb down the stairs to get to the level of the Dome and view its ceilings. Note the unique range of Almoravid motifs – the pine cones, acanthus and palm leaves and the powerful expression of form in the square and star-shaped octagons at the dome’s interior support.

The Almoravid Koubba is open daily from 9:00 – 13:00 and 14:30 – 18:00. Admission fee is 10dh.

The Marrakech Museum

The Marrakech Museum is a magnificent late nineteenth-century palace that houses traditional and contemporary exhibitions of Moroccan art and sculpture. The Marrakech Museum is housed in a magnificent late-nineteenth century palace, Dar Mnebbi, on the west side of Place de la Kissaria. The palace was originally built by Mehdi Mnebbi (1894-1908), Moroccan ambassador to London. It was then bought by T’Hami el Glaoui, the famous Pasha of Marrakech during the French protectorate. Restored in 1997, it houses today both traditional and contemporary exhibitions of Moroccan arts and sculpture. The only downside on my last visit was the poor state of the toilets which I mentioned to the eight male staff members (with little effect) sitting down to lunch in the ticket office. They might have been better employed helping visitors but of course it would have been below their dignity as males to clean the toilets or ensure tissue or towels were available for their paying visitors.

The Marrakech Museum is open daily from 9:30 – 18:00. Admission fee is 30dh.

The Tanneries

Well if you want to ignore my advice above The Tanneries are similar to the more famous ones in Fez, and use a traditional process of tanning and drying skin. They are at the edge of the Medina, by Bab Debbagh. The process involves tanners treading and rinsing skin in large vats of dye and pigeon dung, while other artisans scrap and stretch the skins to dry. The tanneries are very similar to the ones in Fez, although they are more scattered making it less of an interesting experience. The best time to visit is in the mornings, when there is most activity. To get a good view of the proceedings, use of one the shops with terraces overlooking the tanneries. Be aware that kids sniffing glue hang around the Tannery area which does not add to the experience.

The Saadian Tombs

These are the original burial place of the Saadian princes from the mid sixteenth century to 1607. Their tombs are lavishly decorated in the great artistry of the time. Long-hidden from intrusive eyes, the Saadian Tombs is another great landmark of Marrakech only rediscovered in the early 20th century. The tombs are the original burial place of the Saadian princes, most notably Sultan Ahmed el Mansour.

The mausoleum reserved for the sultan and his favourite sons boasts magnificent domed ceilings, gilded stalactite plasterwork, intricate carving and marble pillars. There are 66 members of the Saadian royal family buried here, alongside chancellors and royal advisors and some much older graves whose identity has been lost.

In the Islamic tradition there are no images and it is the will of God which is commemorated in the Arabic inscriptions, not the mortals interred here, which are both poetic and quotations from the Qur’an. The scripts are worth examining as there is the ordinary cursive Arabic script but the extracts from the Qur’an are in the formal angular Kufic script. Kufic is the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts and consists of a modified form of the old Nabataean script. Its name is derived from the city of Kufa, Iraq, although it was known in Mesopotamia at least a 100 years before the foundation of Kufa. At the time of the emergence of Islam, this type of script was already in use in various parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was in this script that the first copies of the Qur’an were written

El Badi Palace

Although mostly in ruins, enough remains of El Badi to suggest its former grandeur and why it is the most famous palace in Marrakech. Its name “El Badi” literally means “The Incomparable” – incomparable in its luxury and grandeur and reputed as one of the most beautiful palaces in the world. Its 360 rooms were once sumptuously decorated in marble, gold, onyx, ivory, cedar wood and semi-precious stones, surrounding a vast central courtyard of pools, fountains and sunken gardens. Built by Ahmed Al Mansour between 1578 and 1602, the Palace did not escape the plundering hand of Sultan Moulay Ismail who spent a further 10 years stripping the palace of everything moveable!

Although it stands today substantially in ruins, enough remains of El Badi to suggest its former grandeur. The size of its pool and sunken gardens give an impression of its incomparable scale and the traces of tile and plaster evoke a dazzling and exhaustive decoration. Today is is also famous for the nesting storks that have made this palace their home.

The Mellah

The Jewish quarter in Marrakech is distinct from the rest of the Medina and contains many important Jewish landmarks. Here also, is the sprawling Jewish Cemetery of Marrakech. The Mellah, east of the Medina, used to be the Jewish quarters in Marrakech. It was here that Sultan Abdullah Al-Ghalib moved the Jews to his protected Kasbah in 1558.

Jewish cemetery, the Miaara

Jewish cemetery, the Miaara

The royal family appreciated the talents of the Jewish community of traders, jewellers and bankers who spoke many languages. This protected quarter was surrounded by walls and entered by two gates. The Mellah looks distinctly different from the rest of the Medina, almost a town in itself – supervised by rabbis, with its own souks, gardens and synagogues. The present Mellah is today almost entirely inhabited by Muslims as most of the Jewish community in Marrakech have either moved to Casablanca, France or Israel. However, the quarters are distinct and still worth a visit. Do not miss the local Jewish cemetery, the Miaara, with its brilliant white tombs stretching into the distance. The oldest synagogue in Marrakech, Rabbi Pinhas, on Rue Talmud Torah is still in use. Mellah8synog06

Lazama Synagogue

Lazama Synagogue

See; Jewish Marrakech

The Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace, meaning the “Brilliant”, is a magnificent palace featuring elaborate reception halls, pleasure gardens, living quarters and numerous secluded courtyards. The Bahia Palace is the perfect antidote to the simplicity of the nearby Al Badi Palace. Originally built in 1867 by Si Moussa, a grand vizier of Moulay Hassan, it was enlarged by his son Bou Ahmed, who added a mosque, a hammam and a garden. The Bahia Palace was recently restored to its former glory and splendour, although some work is still yet to be carried out. When built it was intended to be the greatest palace of its time, capturing the essence of the nation’s style, both Moroccan and Islamic. There is a 2-acre garden with rooms opening onto sunlit courtyards, planted with cypress, orange trees and jasmine and furnished with wells and fountains to provide a sheltered and private space.

You enter the Palace through an arcade courtyard that leads to a small riad, beautifully decorated in cedar wood and carved stucco. In the riad itself, there are three adjoining salons leading through elaborate reception halls, pleasure gardens, living quarters and numerous secluded courtyards. You can only visit part of the Palace, as some of it is still used by the royal family. You can visit the vizier’s sleeping quarters and various courtyards set aside for his wives and different concubines.

The Bahia Palace is open daily from 9:00 t 15:00. Admission fee is 10dh.

Maison Tiskiwin

This is a beautiful early twentieth-century townhouse dedicated to the African roots of Morocco – with artefacts, fabrics, jewellery and clothes from the Sahara. It is the house of Bert Flint, a Dutch anthropologist and long-time resident of Morocco, who has opened his house where he still lives and works as a museum dedicated to the African roots of Morocco. Maison Tiskiwin has a unique collection of Moroccan and Saharan artefacts, based on a journey from Marrakech to Timbuktu and back. Different rooms feature carpets, fabrics, jewellery and clothes arranged by area or tribe of the Sahara.

Maison Tiskiwin is open daily from 10 – 12:30 & 15:00 – 18:00. Admission fee is 15dh.

Dar Si Said

This is a museum housing an important collection of Moroccan arts from different regions of the country. The building is the work of Si Said, a half-brother of grand vizier Bou Ahmed who completed the Bahia Palace. In fact, Dar Si Sadi is a smaller version of the Bahia, with finer and more impressive decoration. The Museum houses an important collection of Moroccan arts, including jewellery from the Anti Atlas, an impressive eighteenth and nineteenth-century woodwork collection, Berber carpets from the High Atlas, pottery from Safi and Tamegroute and leatherwork from Marrakech.

The most important exhibit in the Museum is a marble basin dating back to the 10th century, brought to Marrakech from Cordoba by the Almohad Sultan Ali Ben Youssef.

Dar Si Said is open daily from 9:00 – 12:00 & 15:00 – 18:00. Admission fee is 20dh.

Ben Youseff Mederesa

Ben Youseff Mederesa

The Gardens

With the hustle and bustle of the souks of the Medina, and the afternoon heat reaching temperatures of 38 C, at least part of your day in Marrakech should be devoted to total inactivity. A good place to get a cool and peaceful break is in one of the many gardens in the city.

Until the end of the 19th century, Marrakech was known as the “garden city”, because of its huge gardens and the immense palm grove surrounding it. The majority of the gardens, which are called “agdal”, were not just recreational, but actual functioning orchards. They were equipped with large ponds for irrigation, and pavilions where the monarchs could rest. Today it is the gardens, the palm grove (Palmeriae)of 150,000 palm trees planted by the Almoravids and the incomparable setting of the mighty snow covered Atlas Mountains (second highest in Africa) which give a special quality to this unique city which gave its name to Morocco.

The main gardens in Marrakech are the Agdal and Menara, stretching through acres of orchards and olive groves with an immense pool of water. Other smaller gardens include the Majorelle, the gardens of the famed Mamounia Hotel and the Palmeriae, which will give you a taster of the southern oases. To get to these gardens, at the edge of the Medina, you will want to hire a petit taxi or a horse-drawn carriage (calèche). Alternatively, you can rent a bike or charter a grand taxi for the day.

Jardin Agdal

Agdal Gardens: Literally meaning “the irrigated gardens” these were productive rather than decorative gardens designed to supply the palaces with fruit and produce. They are a large expanse surrounded by walls with gates, with small irrigation pools and apricot, lemon, fig and pomegranate orchards and olive groves at its heart. The Agdal Gardens are located just south of the Royal Palace and Mellah. If you walk out here, it is around 3 kilometres from Jamaâ El Fna.

This is a confusingly large expanse, over 400 hectares and 3 kilometres in extent, surrounded by walls with gates at its corners. It includes a half a dozen small irrigation pools as well as large pools at its heart. This extensive watering system irrigates apricot, lemon, fig and pomegranate orchards and olive groves. The main series of pools at the heart of the Agdal include Sahraj el Hanna, flanked by a summer pavilion used by sultans for picnics and boating trips. From its roof, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the garden, Koutoubia and the Atlas.

The Agdal Gardens are open on Fridays and Sundays only from 8:00 to 17:00. Admission is free.

Jardin Menara

The gardens were built in the 12th Century by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min as Royal gardens for the enjoyment of the ruling family and court. Very popular with locals for picnics and tourists for its postcard-like image: a central pool and summer pavilions with a panoramic view over the Atlas Mountains. The Menara Gardens are similar to the Agdal, but a lot smaller with just one central basin and more olive groves than orchards. The gardens are easier to get to: just follow the Avenue de la Menara from Beb Djedid. The well-kept picnic pavilion, the Menzeh, (tea house) was built much later in 1869. The first-floor open balcony offers a wonderful view over the pool and the mountains beyond.

The Menara Gardens are open daily from 8:00 to 18:00. Admission is free.

Jardin Majorelle

This is a meticulously planned botanical garden, conveying both tranquillity and strong colour. The Majorelle Garden is a small, meticulously planned botanical garden just off Avenue Yacob al Mansour. The garden bears the name of its creator in the 1920s, French painter Jacques Majorelle.

When many of Marrakech’s gardens were being destroyed by uncontrolled developments in the 1960’s this garden was saved and lovingly restored by fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren and his partner Pierre Bergé who also own the adjoining house. It conveys both tranquillity and strong colour. The keynote colour on buildings, a vivid cobalt blue, offsets the multicoloured bougainvillea, pink geranium and orange nasturtiums. Bulbs sing in the bamboo thickets and flit among the leaves of the date palms.

A green-roofed garden pavilion, the former studio of Majorelle, is the Museum of Islamic Arts. It exhibits the personal collection of Yves Saint Laurent, including North African carpets, furniture and pottery, as well as Jacques Majorelle’s paintings and engravings of local scenes in Morocco.

The Majorelle Gardens are open daily to visitors.

Jardins Majorelle

On our first trip to Marrakech 3 ½ years ago we stayed in the excellent budget hotel the Ibis beside the old railway station.

The Red City on a Budget

On this visit we stayed in the somewhat more luxurious and splendid Club Sangho in the Palmeraie, the oasis of 150,000 palm trees north east of the Medina or walled City. This was a bit like Walt Disney does Morocco with the swimming pool pure Bedrock from the Flintstones. Nevertheless it was somewhat splendid.

Club Sangho

A colleague a year ago had found Club Sangho when she went down to Marrakech on my recommendation and booked it on a hotel booking site. I booked this time on their website which is all in French. It is nonetheless a strange booking experience as you get a booking voucher but no confirmation email and subsequent emails to the webmaster went unanswered. The only other contact point given is a French call centre number in Paris. This is not the most practical contact point from the UK; what I wanted was a direct email or phone number for the hotel. So I was somewhat nervous when we disembarked at Marrakech Menara Airport early in the morning. We had arranged a transfer directly over the internet so didn’t know what to expect but I needn’t have worried as our helpful driver was waiting with an older model but still very acceptable S-Class Mercedes. Club Sangho is around 10kms away in the Palmeriae and as always it is wonderful to see the passing parade on the way in this most exotic of cities.

When we arrive at Club Sangho we are impressed at the imposing gateway and the avenue lined by King Palms leading to an impressive forecourt and an equally impressive reception in a palatial Moroccan style. Going to the reception desk with my voucher from their own website it was obvious we were not expected and this was the first they knew of us. Nonetheless they handled things well. We were sat down in reception and given a complimentary cocktail. After only five minutes an English speaking member of staff booked us in and we were led by a porter to our room. This involved going through the gardens and the sight which met us was stunning. A triple swimming pool with a cascade and slide surrounded by beautifully tended gardens and behind in the “Bedrock” building another large indoor pool and an extensively equipped Spa and Balenotherapy centre. The rooms are arranged in an arc in the gardens as connected Riad style pavilions with either a terrace or a balcony leading onto internal double height Riad style courtyards with fountains and typical decorative lanterns – the effect is not unpleasant and certainly gives visual interest. Our room was on the ground floor and excellent, traditionally decorated with Moroccan style bespoke furniture a double bed, a pair of bunk beds and a separate bathroom and toilet.

The shakiness of the booking system was illustrated when we went for a stroll in the grounds and the porter who brought us to our room came up and asked us to go to reception. It turned out they had thought our voucher was prepaid as it is mostly French package tourists who come here. No problem and I was happy to pay the price on our voucher, 288 euros for 4 nights’ half board for 2. The hotel is set in 11 ha. Of grounds and there is every facility there for families, tennis and netball courts, football pitches, basketball, a well used boules court and even its own children’s zoo and aviary. We found ourselves having lunch in the snack bar in the grounds which is set in an orange grove. It was a lovely haven and the Moroccan Brochette I ordered was “just so” perfectly done and beautifully presented – a hint of the high standards of the food elsewhere. Afterwards a gentle post prandial stroll through the delightful grounds. One bad feature is the shopping arcade in front of the hotel which is pretty useless. Firstly half the shops were closed or empty and the stock in the ones which were opened was past its sell by date. They are probably astonished that people are not buying their faded dog eared postcards. But the main surprise for hotel shops was that they were not Prix Fixe – You do not expect in hotel shops NOT to have goods priced and to go through the routine of asking a price and being given the rubbish patter “get what you want all together and I give you a good price.” Indeed! We walked away as I’m sure most visitors will; the hotel really needs to sort out this rubbish retail proposition plus vite.

Now when you book half board you are a bit of a hostage to fortune and don’t know what to expect. As we headed towards the double height and palatial Koutoubia Restaurant that night we travelled with no expectation but what met us astonished us. Each and every night of our stay what I can only describe as the evening banquets became the highlight. Each night there was a (different) astonishing display of superb Moroccan cuisine fresh and served over charcoal braziers with chefs on hand serving and cooking specialities, and a superb range of patisserie and deserts. No safe “International” food here but the “real deal” and a very generous deal at that. Even at breakfast you had as well as the extensive buffet a chef freshly cooking omelettes to order, a Dada (traditional female cook) was doing the fresh Moroccan pancakes and another person serving fresh mint teas. You could happily forget about the room and the food makes the Sangho value for money on its own.

Another feature of this hotel is the team of Jeunes Animateurs or organisers who do the poolside activities (as well as exercise classes and a kids club there are free Arabic and cooking classes) and who we got to know over the few days as they were anxious to practice their English but they were also making an effort to include us. They were doing tourism courses at University and this was their practical experience and they were a delightful and hard working group of young people. They would ask new arrivals if they could join them at dinner and make them welcome and fill them in on the activities. They had “events” in the Koutoubia so you might be welcomed to dinner by a cavalcade of bonsoirs and salaams from a welcome line dressed in traditional costumes. Afterwards in the music bar they would have live music and dancing each evening and they would politely ask you up to dance and also involve the children in the entertainment. Most nights there is a Chicago style revue in the hotel theatre which showcases their talent. The girls wear modesty shorts for the routines but it is nonetheless very western and indeed probably more risqué because they feel they can let go protected by their clothing! There is also a shisha café, the Caleche a la carte restaurant and a late night club which is free to residents.



In reception Rachida runs the tour desk and her English is good if you need advice or pointers. They offer a package deal of three day tours to the Atlas Mountains, to Essaouira and to the Medina for 99 euros and she can arrange most other things for you. There is a free shuttle bus (which you need to book) to downtown Marrakech so we never needed a taxi to the Club Sangho during our stay. The Balenotherapy centre offers a full range of beauty and health treatments but it is not cheap, they price up to Paris prices.

Club Sangho - Snack bar in an orange grove

Club Sangho – Snack bar in an orange grove

So given the location, the standard, the excellent staff and superb facilities, the wonderful food and the included entertainment the Club Sangho is a wonderful Marrakech base and superb value for money by any standards. So why was it half empty when we were there? Well Sangho are a French / North African joint venture with a number of properties in Morocco and Tunisia aimed fairly and squarely at the French family package holiday market, although many Moroccan families visit for weekend breaks. However they are badly missing out on the new budget traveller market of people using the budget airlines to Marrakech (Ryanair, easyJet, Transavia, Atlas Blue,) and people wanting to make accommodation arrangements directly. They need to update the website, have it in several languages, send out confirmation emails and make it easy to use and book. In summary, once you get around the francophone bias, Club Sangho is a stormer of a deal which I would highly recommend to any visitor looking for an alternative base away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Marrakech.

The influence of this former imperial city spread far from Al Andalus (Southern Spain and Portugal) and to much of North Africa. Today it is a lively city but with a relaxed vibe and a constant succession of Film and Musical events. Music is at the heart of cultural life in Marrakech, as it is throughout Morocco. Marrakech is almost certainly the best place to enjoy the fusion of Moroccan music, as the city has been the host to Andalucian, Arab, Berber and African influences for up to 10 centuries.

Until a few decades ago, Morocco was known as Kingdom of Marrakech by Arabs, Persians and Europeans and the name Marrakech means “Land of God.” Marrakech’s setting is truly magical. A patchwork of ravishing green against the bare, brown plain of Haouz with the snowy High Atlas rearing up behind like a tidal wave towering through the haze. The High Atlas, a mere 30 km south of Marrakech and the greatest mountain range in North Africa, is undoubtedly the most beautiful and compelling part of this diverse land. It has perpetuated a remoteness which until recent decades was virtually complete.

It has over the years left a great impression on visitors including Winston Churchill. Sir Winston Churchill loved Marrakech – for its warmth, its light and for the variety of subjects it offered his paint brush. Several friends, notably the painter Sir John Lavery, had recommended a visit to Morocco and his first visit was in the winter of 1935-6. Other lengthy trips to Marrakech followed giving Churchill the opportunity to write, which was his principal source of income, as well as to paint which was his most essential pastime.

La Mamounia

La Mamounia

In 1943, he paid a flying visit to the city with President Roosevelt, but it was not until the winter of 1950 that Churchill was able to go to Marrakech and to settle for a few comfortable weeks at the Mamounia Hotel. It is the loveliest spot in the whole world.” So said Winston S. Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943. Its is easy to agree, as the location of this 1000 year-old city has something for everyone. It was here he wrote his memoirs and described the city thus;

“Here, surrounded by its extensive palm-groves that have sprung out of the desert, the traveller may rest assured that he will never tire of the majestic view of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains. The sun is dazzling and warm, but never unbearably so; the air is sharp and refreshing, yet never unpleasantly cold; the days are perfect, the nights are cool. The local inhabitants, dressed in their burnooses of various colours and patterns, are themselves a permanent picture; every countryman is a possible painting, every crowd is a pictorial composition. Should anyone be seeking a warm sunny winter, it is to be found in a truly unique setting here in Morocco.”

Ramparts of the Medina

Ramparts of the Medina


The Skibbereen Eagle

In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!

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