IT WAS ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE LAST-MINUTE VACATIONS, AND THANKS TO NATHALIE GUILBERT OF VOYAGES VP, WE WERE ABLE TO SECURE RESERVATIONS AT SOME OF THE BEST PLACES IN MARRAKESH. BELIEVE ME, YOU WANT THIS WOMAN AS YOUR FRIEND! WELCOME TO THE LAND OF ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS!
By MANON LEMIRE WITH COLLABORATION AVEC NATHALIE GUILBERT DE GROUPE VOYAGES VP
Our plane landed in Casablanca, where a driver was waiting to take us to our final destination, two and a half hours away. As we passed through the bustle of Marrakesh, we could sense the heat and the proximity of the desert. The first surprise was the way the locals drive! It made our heads spin to watch them darting in and out, executing spontaneous turns in the middle of the road, all to a constant chorus of honking horns. And you can’t just drive into wherever you’re going: security guards and a mandatory car inspection, complete with mirrors, greet you at every gate.
Marrakesh is total shock for the senses. The muezzins calling the faithful to prayer at the huge Koutoubia Mosque five times a day. Palm trees and buildings—none of them taller than five stories—against a backdrop of intensely blue sky. Bright colours and crowds of people, cars and makeshift vehicles. Dramatic contrasts between rich and poor. But the people are kind and friendly, and French is spoken everywhere.
A guide is strongly recommended for exploring the huge outdoor bazaar known as the souk. Your guide will keep you from getting lost, provide a reassuring and protective presence, and help you find what you’re looking for. This giant open-air market has every hand-made item you can imagine, including baskets, leather and copper wares, jewellery, slippers, lanterns, carpets and cashmere—and it’s not unusual to see the artisans at work. But you have to keep your wits about you! The narrow little alleyways are crooked and uneven, and they’re filled with people moving merchandise in every conceivable way, from motorcycle to mule-drawn cart.
were in heaven when we hit the spice market, where the multi-coloured products are displayed in big sacks. It’s a captivating place, and we were ready to take lots of pictures; but it’s important to know that the people of Marrakesh do not appreciate appearing in photos, unless offered a few dirhams for their trouble. The contrasts are jaw-dropping, with historic buildings next to makeshift shacks next to riads, interspersed with shops and improvised stalls. Overall, it is a non-stop treat for the senses, with a heady and impressive mix of merchandise that includes a huge variety of food. We even saw raw meat, sides of beef, fish and poultry on display in crates and cases… all unrefrigerated! Like the merchants, I enjoy bargaining, and I was pleased to bring prices down by at least 50%. Although I was left wondering if I might not have done even better, since nobody refused my offers!
In the main square at the exit of the souk, there are snake charmers, tattoo artists and fast-food stalls that are wise to avoid. The great Koutoubia Mosque is right nearby, and we stopped there for a bit without going in, as only those of the Muslim faith are permitted to enter. We visited the two palaces instead, one with a lovely interior courtyard and garden, and the other set among historic ruins.
The Yves Saint-Laurent Museum was another must-see, and we thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit on the famous designer’s work. A stroll through the Majorelle Garden was magnificent, as was a little shopping on Rue de la Liberté. We should note that it is customary to reserve the services of a taxi driver for the day or half-day.
As for dining, we ate well at Le Comptoir, Le Grand Café de la Poste, Le Petit Cornichon and Bo Zin. Cumin and saffron reign supreme in this region, and delicious mint tea is everywhere. The only sour note is that smoking is still permitted everywhere, even in restaurants.
Top marks go to the Villa des Orangers, where we had the pleasure of staying. The hotel is a member of the Relais & Châteaux group, and it is a veritable haven of peace and harmony. Formerly the home of a famous judge, it has been entirely renovated under the direction of the current owners, who have turned it into a charming, tasteful oasis. We were fascinated by the decor, which features unique works of art, many of them collected during the owners’ own travels. The suites are comfortable, and many of them have a private terrace. But the personnel deserve a special note: discreet, attentive, and remarkably kind, they made us feel like we were among family. Indeed, most of them have been working at Orangers for many years, and are one of many reasons so many travellers return again and again.
Villa des Orangers is perfectly situated between the Palais Royal and Jemaa el-Fna square. In addition to the warm welcome and personalized service, hotel staff provided excellent advice, and organized tours for us. We chose a trip into the Atlas Mountains, a snow-capped range not far from the city, dotted with Berber villages where people live very modestly. For contrast, we stopped at the luxury Kasbah Tamadot, a hotel owned by Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame. We had the pleasure of chatting with him, and found him to be a remarkably generous man. We also enjoyed a delicious meal on a terrace with an outstanding view of a pool surrounded by palm trees, with the Atlas Mountains as a backdrop. Simply magical!
No trip to Morocco is complete without a visit to a hammam, the country’s signature spa experience. The hammam is open to men and women, and we discovered its delights at the Villa des Orangers. It was like being transported back to another time. The treatment begins with a full body lathering with black soap, followed by a head-to-toe exfoliating scrub, done while you lie on the marble floor. Dead skin be gone! Finally, it’s hard to resist completing the indulgence without a relaxing argan oil massage. Pure heaven!
True to its mythical reputation, Marrakech is a sun-drenched mecca where many celebrities have second homes. This was the perfect exotic getaway—a sublime culture shock of surreal colours and scents—with the nicest people we could imagine meeting. We most certainly will be back!