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My hands are stained with the scent of eucalyptus and black cumin. “Do you know what this is?” says the medicine man, who sits cross-legged at his stall, buried in the madness of Djema el–Fna square. “Menthe. This is menthe. It is for the brain, the heart and the soul.” He drops one tiny crystal into a copper pan of boiling water and beckons for me to breathe in. After a single inhalation, it shoots up my nose, down the back of my throat and my eyelids snap wide open. “I’ll take ten grams,” I say, after my eyes have stopped watering. The man laughs and scoops some of the crystals into a little black pouch which he ties up with string. “Marhaba!” he cries out. “Big welcome!”
I pull myself up from a miniature chair, clutching my precious bag of treasure. I may have paid far too much for its contents, but I don’t really mind. If my time in Marrakech has taught me anything, it is that sometimes you just have to do what feels right. And in this case, it felt right to hand over an outlandish amount of money for something I will probably never use, just to see this stranger’s face break into a luminous smile. I ask for directions and he tells me to turn left and then right, which sees me head off the wrong way. Forty minutes and four sets of directions later, and I end up in the same place I started. The medicine man laughs warmly. I buy a stick of roasted sweetcorn and simply begin my journey again.
Marrakech is a city steeped in tradition. Certain things define this space, and are rooted to its very personality –the sound of steaming mint tea poured from a great height, with glasses clattering against a silver tray. The chugging of motorbike engines traversing the streets. That haunting call to prayer, which rumbles through the air five times a day. The gentle birdsong flitting between the shouts of market traders, as donkeys clop through the winding roads and street food steams and sizzles. And as the sun starts to set it throws a smoky light onto the nearby Atlas Mountains, as the cityscape transforms into a dusky assortment of blushing pink cubes.
Some things seem destined to endure in Marrakech, and both locals and first-time visitors rejoice in the city’s oldest traditions. Take the souk, for example. It is as much a challenge as a delight to navigate its heady tangle of shops. You could turn to your left to see a small room filled from floor to ceiling with glinting brass lanterns. Then you might catch a glimpse of a pile of emerald pottery tilting sideways in a leaning stack. Cats slink around the feet of traders snoozing on fading leather ottomans and whole dried crocodile skins are pinned up against the wall. Then look ahead and spot a gaggle of schoolchildren chasing one another on their way out of gates just beyond a wooden cart piled with faded ceramic tiles – cracked but still magnificent. Look up and you might find bunches of freshly dyed wool hanging from washing lines on the roof; azure, burnt orange and fiery red. Through this maze, the sun breaks through the cracks in a bamboo roof and casts streams of dusty light across the dark alleyways. The souk is Marrakech’s abiding feature. And I hope that it always stays this way.
But here there is also change in the air. It hums like background music, shifting the atmosphere around it. New art, music and food scenes are simmering just beneath the city’s surface, sparked by a generation of young creatives. And this is all taking place within the ancient walls of the Medina. “What the eye sees is not always what is going on,” the designer Artsi Ifrach says, exhaling a drifting plume of cigarette smoke. “There are two levels to Marrakech – the tourism and the underground.” He is right. At eye level, the old city seems much the same as it has always been. But if you scratch the surface, a world of cutting-edge creativity awaits.
Marrakech’s contemporary art scene is being spearheaded by a small but motivated group of locals and expats. It is alive, not only in the city’s remarkable galleries and museums, but also in communal studios and new meeting places like Le Jardin, where emerging artists gather to discuss their work, hear book readings and order a steaming bowl of couscous.
Laila Hida is the Moroccan photographer behind Riad 18, where bedrooms for resident artists wrap around a courtyard of faded blue tiles. Her place has become a hub of activity where local and international artists can work and exhibit. Laila opened the riad to draw the artists of the city together. “I came back to Marrakech from Paris and I could not figure out where all the artists were hiding,” she explains, adding: “There were the institutions and the studios, but there was something missing – an alternative. I opened this space as a way to gather artists together in some way.” Riad 18 has become the nucleus of Marrakech’s alternative art scene, where leaders congregate to share ideas. “Bringing together local and international artists allows new dialogues to open up,” Laila continues, as she leads me around the main courtyard, coloured by greenery and piles of books. “The art scene here is moving at a fast pace. Marrakech is an experimental space for a new scene of more local, less institutional art. That’s what the riad is about.”
From Laila’s place I wander to the showroom of Artsi Ifrach (Art/C), one of Marrakech’s most notable fashion designers. His clientele is global, but his work is almost entirely informed by the character of his city. For him, creativity is inescapable in Marrakech. “Art finds you in Morocco,” he tells me. “It’s very strange. A lot of people who never touched art before suddenly become creative living here – there is some kind of energy.” He leans forward: “I think I know why, though… firstly, it is how colourful it is here. Colour inspires you. And secondly, it is free. There is a freedom here that doesn’t exist in many countries. It doesn’t function like a city; there are no rules, there are no trends to think about. People are free to become themselves.” Artsi pulls out a photograph; it shows him and Laila together on the roof of Nomad, one of Marrakech’s prime hangouts. He tells me they frequently work together on photography projects. I am surprised by this unexpected connection. But Artsi is not. “Marrakech is a small place. Everyone is connected,” he says. “The art scene is not big. We have to remain tight.”
In 2009, Vanessa Branson, owner of Riad El Fenn, launched the Marrakech Biennale. The festival takes place every two years, opening up galleries and public spaces around the city to showcase the latest work of Morocco’s leading artists. The Biennale has helped secure Marrakech a reputation as a centre for fine art. “In the last year or so one has the feeling that there is now a critical mass of artists living in the city,” Vanessa explains. “More and more people are being attracted to the exotic lifestyle, glorious weather and dramatic landscape in Marrakech. Designers, architects and restaurateurs are all leading to a virtuous cycle of creativity.”
The evening after I first meet Artsi, I too find myself up on the Nomad rooftop, scooping up olive oil with harcha bread and tearing up flaky pastilla – spiced meat and sweet almonds in light pastry. The sun is dipping behind the mountains and the glowing lanterns sway in the breeze. I gaze out over the scene below, where young boys are kicking footballs on a rooftop and market traders perched on wooden crates start a game of draughts. In the distance I can hear old Djema el–Fna square springing into action, the sounds of drums and the flutes of snake charmers mingling with the smoke of the first food stalls spiraling up into the sky.
Among the guests slowly filling the tables at Nomad, I recognise a few people: a couple of restaurant developers, a gallerist, a Parisian expat turning crumbling riads into opulent homes, a photographer playing with the last of the evening light. Together they are discussing work, travel and the lack of snow on the mountains. The future of Marrakech is tied to this small group of creatives. And it is the city wrapping around us, drenched in all the magic of the past, which continues to inspire them.
The work of art powerhouse Vanessa Branson, co-owner Howell James and French designer Frederic Scholl, El Fenn is a restored riad tucked away down a quiet street in the Medina. Drenched in all the colours of the souk – from the scrubbed bronze walls and crimson entrance hall to the elaborate gold candlesticks and deep pink velvet sofas – El Fenn is a feast for the eyes.
The riad’s 20 bedrooms overlook a courtyard shaded by orange trees, while the rooftop restaurant has panoramic views of the city. There is a library with an open fireplace, three majestic swimming pools, hammocks strung between lemon trees, soaring ceilings, a celebrated spa and a cinema. Branson has filled the riad with select pieces from her private collection, including a chandelier by Francis Upritchard, ink studies by Sir Antony Gormley and a series of photographs of 1960s Morocco taken by Terence Donovan.
From the glistening gold doors that greet you to the intricately decorated pillars surrounding the pool, every inch of La Sultana is dripping in old-world Moroccan grandeur. The hotel is a collection of five riads, each one distinct in colour and concept. The sumptuous spa could keep you indoors for days, offering a (slightly less brutal than traditional) hammam experience, from which you will emerge with the complexion of a newborn baby. Upstairs you can lie in the sun amongst the greenery or enjoy a cocktail on the sprawling rooftop, which offers views of the Atlas Mountains and the bustling market down below. Behind their heavy wooden doors, each suite is perfectly designed, with beaded chandeliers, gold basins, pots of plump roses and Moroccan crafts bringing colour and warmth to every corner – pure luxury in the centre of the humming Medina.
The ancient buildings and rich craft culture in Marrakech mean that even the simplest spaces are adorned with colour and finery. One of the most magical traits of the city is its wealth of riads, with their open-air courtyards and timeworn architecture. Airbnb has affordable, authentic local houses in the Medina, each with their own unique twist.
From £50 per night
This ancient four-bedroom riad is awash with cool, airy colours and original features. As well as a romantic white courtyard, there are also log fireplaces, wooden beams, a sun-trap rooftop and an outdoor sofa area.
From £150 per night
Relax in the glowing nooks and crannies of this luxurious space, with its candle-lit living room, opulent bathrooms and balconies studded with ottomans. That’s if you manage to pull yourself out of the glistening private pool in the courtyard.
From £62 per night
From the courtyard shaded with greenery to the kaleidoscopic tiles on every surface, this ornate riad is located in the heart of the medina and offers spa treatments and homemade food in a serene setting behind a hidden door.
From £78 per night
Centrally located near to the famous Djema el-Fna square, this two-bedroom haven has a private roof terrace, deep stone bathtubs, wooden pillars, an outdoor kitchen and a cosy courtyard with a towering palm tree.
Also the work of Nomad’s Kamal Laftimi, Café Des Épices is located on the other side of the bustling spice market. Like Nomad, a cool, expat atmosphere prevails here. Visitors taking a break from the madness of the medina come in droves to eat vibrant salads, grilled meats and homemade sweets on the terrace, where wicker awnings dip gracefully over terracotta tiles.
Nomad is a social hotspot for tourists and locals alike. Set over four levels and looking out over the old spice market, this cocktail bar and restaurant serves dishes inspired by traditional North African flavours, and frequently hosts pop-ups for local and international chefs. The menu is studded with reworked classics like chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives and traditional pastilla, usually filled with gently spiced pigeon. You can also feast on inventive modern dishes created using local produce. There are few places as magical as Nomad’s stylish rooftop to watch the sun dip behind the Atlas Mountains.
Push open a creaking wooden door in the heart of the Medina to discover one of Marrakech’s top meeting places for artists and intellectuals. Le Jardin is a licensed restaurant, art space and hub of creative activity, hosting book launches and talks throughout the course of the year. There is an almost palpable energy winding around Le Jardin’s courtyard, which is surrounded by a 17th-century mansion and veiled by banana leaves and palm trees, with water features and emerald tiles covering every surface.
This tranquil rooftop restaurant was dreamed up by designer Anne Favier. The terrace offers panoramic views of the city and the snow-capped mountains, with cosy alcoves perfect for hiding out in the evening. Open for lunch and dinner, the menu combines Moroccan and international flavours, with dishes like monkfish tagine, gazpacho and citrus-spiked sardine tarts making it one of the city’s most beloved spots.
There are endless choices, but when searching for the perfect tagine, look no further than Al Fassia. This sprawling restaurant is worth the journey over to the new town. Run exclusively by women, it offers traditional dishes bursting with flavour in a warm, candlelit room filled with both locals and tourists. Moroccan families gather around white-clothed tables for dishes of soft lamb with prunes, almonds and caramelised onions, perfect couscous and traditional Moroccan desserts like almond pastry or pancakes with orange and honey.
This charming gallery is buried inside the Medina, and houses some of the most iconic images of Moroccan history. Bewitching photographs of snake charmers, market traders, camel trainers and graceful young women fill the walls of the peach-tiled courtyard.
Hassan Hajjaj is one of Morocco’s most prominent contemporary artists, often referred to as the Andy Warhol of Marrakech. A lover of Pop Art and objet trouvé, Hajjaj’s childhood home is plastered with colour from floor to ceiling and studded with some of his most famous works. It is now open to the public, with some pieces for sale. You can also try some of the city’s best couscous at the riad.
Opened in 2006, this elegantly designed space was launched to showcase the work of North African and international artists. Galerie Rê plays host to diverse exhibitions of contemporary sculpture, photography, painting and installation. All pieces are selected by the gallery’s owner Lucien Viola, a noted art collector.
A favourite of local creatives, Voice exhibits cutting-edge contemporary art in an airy, modern space. The gallery is committed to showcasing young artists, making it the ideal place to discover a whole new generation’s work.
Take a short taxi ride through a small countryside village to the hotel and country club Beldi, which has become internationally renowned for its celebrity weddings and high-fashion photo shoots. Poppy Delevingne just got married here, and after you trail through its flower-lined pathways, reading under the shade of a lemon tree and visit a conservatory brimming with greenery, it’s easy to see why. This place is pure romance. Spend an afternoon swimming in the oasis-like pools, visiting the exquisite spa, or feast on the dish of the day overlooking an endless rose field. ‘Beldi’ is an Arabic word for ‘traditional’, and the club takes pride in its on-site bakery, souk, recycled glass factory, pottery studio and miles of surrounding produce.
Yves Saint Laurent discovered this garden and art-deco house, designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle, on a trip to Marrakech in 1966. He soon made the place his home, and it has since become synonymous with his creative genius. Go early to avoid crowds, and lose yourself in a dreamlike maze of exotic plants. The colour of the house, an impossibly intense shade of blue, will imprint itself in your memory. It was a haven for Yves Saint Laurent throughout his later years, and continues to inspire artists today.
Set over three floors, this former post office-turned-bar glows by night. A candlelit marble staircase cuts down the centre of the room, which is filled with greenery, crimson velvet sofas and bamboo furniture on a black-and-white chequered floor. Head to the top to sip Moroccan wine beside a roaring fireplace, while soft blues music floats through the air.
Otherwise known as a ‘terrasse panoramique’, the rooftop of this cool little café looks out over the city for miles, the skyline marked by the magnificent Koutoubia Mosque. Downstairs you can take a seat on one of the colourfully woven chairs and observe the theatre of the Medina at street level. Order mint tea – they brew one of the sweetest and strongest versions around.
Another break from the souk, this classy boutique is piled high with hand-woven cushions, babouche slippers (buy some – you won’t regret it) antique woodwork, intricate lamps and delicate kaftans. The prices are higher than in the surrounding market stalls, but at least you can be sure of the quality.
Just when you think Nomad can’t get much better, you discover the small homeware store located on the ground floor of the restaurant. The handmade ceramics, woven baskets and wooden utensils make Chabi Chic a refreshing change from the souk – all the products are as high quality as they are charming, and the fixed prices offer a welcome respite from haggling.
With the whole of the Medina at times feeling like a labyrinth of market stalls, it is a pleasure to wander down this relatively serene street filled with fine furniture shops, small galleries, rug stalls, tea shops and brightly coloured clothes shops.
This concept store, just over the road from Yves Saint Laurent’s gardens, is made up of three spaces – a furniture salon, café and boutique selling an eye-wateringly beautiful selection of homeware. The shop houses the wares of 60 Moroccan designers, with an emphasis on local crafts. Try their fig, orange and rosewater juice and cast an appreciative eye over the geometric ornaments, rich textiles and chic furniture.
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