As we arrived at Riad Dar Touyir in Marrakesh, beautifully decorated in little mosaic tiles, Houssain welcomed us with freshly brewed mint tea and Arabian biscuits. The next morning, we opted to visit Jardin Majorelle, which was about a 20-minute walk from our Riad just outside the Medina, and arrived there before the masses at 10am.
Rue Majorelle is filled with small boutique-style shops, tempting visitors with a variety of traditional Moroccan babouche slippers, textiles, crafted leather goods, ceramics and all manner of local souvenirs.
Visit Ensemble Artisanal before you buy anything anywhere else. This craft emporium is situated in a beautiful cluster building adorned with intricate mosaics and Islamic engravings and is filled with handmade wonders (textiles and clothes), all at fixed prices. The Ensemble offers an honest overview of the products Marrakesh has on offer, and it helps to know your prices before heading towards the souks (outdoor markets) or the boutique shops, as negotiating and bargaining is a given outside of this centre.
Don't miss a freshly baked quiche from the corner café which forms part of a beautiful concept store, 33 Rue Majorelle, opposite the Jardin.
In reality, Jardin Majorelle is livelier than any of its pictures on the internet. ‘Marrakesh taught me colour,' said French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who derived inspiration for some of his collections from a beautiful Art Deco house in the garden that he bought from French artist Jacques Majorelle in the ’80s.
After visiting the Berber museum and the new Yves Saint Laurent Museum (to be opened later this year), do yourself a favour and buy some strikingly vibrant ‘Majorelle’ blue paint from the boutique gift shop inside the garden. Getting yourself lost and found in the mazes and winding souks of the Medina in Marrakesh will probably be one of the highlights of your visit.
A few other high points in Marrakesh include Le Jardin Secret, a splendid garden in an old palace in the midst of the Medina; the rooftop view from Café des Épices; lunch at Nomad restaurant that overlooks the spice market, (don't forget to book the day before); Riad Yasmine, for fabulous photo opportunities; cocktails at El Fenn Hotel near Djemaa el-Fna square and – also nearby – Bakchich Café for tea; a meat-free meal at La Famille restaurant; a visit to Le Jardin restaurant in its beautifully renovated 16th-century building; shopping at Algerian designer Norya Ayron's pop-up space (which forms part of Le Jardin) for bohemian chic; cool, tribal chic Moroccan garments at Max & Jan; and finally, a quick look into the colourful and fun Topolina, a contemporary fashion store.
Basically a large UNESCO World Heritage site, Fes was founded in 789 and is the second largest city in Morocco. Its appeal for tourists could be anything historic or architectural, but to us it was the archaic present-day lifestyle, which feels no different from how I imagine it was in 789. Fes gave us perspective on Marrakesh and Morocco, much like Joburg might give a visitor perspective on South Africa.
Two days in Fes should be enough – try to stay at a riad near Bab Boujloud, the city's iconic gate at the Medina. You'll struggle to get around without an offline-downloaded version of Google maps, but this is a necessary evil as you need to get lost in order to find the authentic local food markets.
Think twice before you bring back too many leather goods made with animal hides from the numerous leather tanneries in the centre of the Medina – as a local shoemaker told us, ‘These are meant to stay and be worn here!’ (The pungent smell will follow you home.)
A 20-minute walk from Djemaa el-Fna square is Café Clock, a space for arts, live music, good food (try their camel burger and almond milkshakes), and exchanging cultures both traditional and modern. They also offer classes where you can learn about Moroccan cuisine. Oh, and be sure to taste the saffron date créme brûlée at The Ruined Garden restaurant. Lastly, look up, look down, peek into a mosque; the mosaic-imbued architecture is remarkable, and reminiscent of Athens or Istanbul, and this ancient city is still very much alive.
From Fes, take a taxi to the 'blue mountain pearl' of Chefchaouen, a town about three and a half hours away on the slopes of the spectacular Rif range, famous for its powder blue-painted buildings
. Locals here typically dress in djellaba
s (loose cloaks with pointed hoods). Chefchaouen wakes you each morning with a dose of fresh mountain air and a call to prayer, which is repeated five times a day – absolute magic! Read more about Chefchaouen, which is about two hours from Tangier, here
Take an overnight train from Tangier back to Marrakesh or Casablanca (I recommend booking a full cabin for four people, as this is still much more cost-effective than flying, even if there are only two of you). The sleep-train felt like something out of a Wes Anderson movie and to our surprise, was way more comfortable than we'd anticipated.
When in Morocco, dress modestly, exercise respect, be curious, and the kind people who are responsible for the most intricate traditional crafts will reach out to you and into your hearts.
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