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Marrakech is a perennially popular city break destination, so it can be difficult to get off the tourist trail. We’ve visited and revisited the Red City, picking the brains of locals and trusted travellers to bring you the ultimate guide to Marrakech.
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.
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