While the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in what is now central Morocco were inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, it was not until the 11th century A.D. that Marrakech began, first as little more than an oasis Kasbah (fortress) founded by the local Almoravid ruler. But it quickly prospered into the region’s most important trading settlement for camel trains coming across the Sahara Desert from Timbuktu on their way to the coast with their precious cargos of gold, spices and ivory.
The Medina (walled city) soon developed into a center of commerce and culture, and the imperial city of several successive ruling dynasties. A sprawling labyrinth of riads (traditional homes), and souks (covered artisan markets) spread in the shadow of its opulent palaces.
In recent decades, Marrakech has also gained the distinction of being the country’s most popular tourist destination, with a million travelers flocking there each year. And it’s easy to see why: with its centuries old fusion of Arabian, African and European influences, the gem of Morocco fascinates with its exotic allure.
Finding Your Riad
The best way to soak in the unique atmosphere of Marrakech and discover its historic and cultural treasures is to stay in the Medina. To this day, its ancient riads, the secluded, traditional houses built around inner courtyards, remain home to about 200,000 people, a fifth of the city’s population. They also seem to host the same number of tourists. In recent decades, with over 800 riads restored to modern hospitality standards and now registered as guest residences, the word has become synonymous with boutique accommodation.
Most properties are small – just six to eight rooms, usually with an inviting rooftop terrace. Nearly all offer personalized service and an ideal way for tourists to get in touch with Moroccan culture. They are also very much in demand, so it is prudent to plan well ahead. One of the fun parts of planning this Marrakech escape was finding our riad. While it took several tries, we ended up with just the right one for us.
The House of Friends
Concealed behind a typically unassuming doorway at the corner of one of the many culs-de-sac of the quiet Mellah, the old Jewish Quarter originally created in the 16th century, Dar Habiba (Arabic for friend) was a serene retreat centered around a large patio, complete with white marble dipping pool, gurgling fountain, and an inviting bhou (lounging nook). Our upper-floor rooms opened onto a gallery overlooking the patio. Decorated in contemporary Moroccan style with pale plaster walls, Berber accent pieces and throw rugs on the terra-cotta floor, our rooms were a haven of tranquility just a short walk from all the chaos of the major attractions of the Medina.
But what turned our stay at Dar Habiba into a superb Marrakech experience was the unfailing attention of the staff to our every needs and comfort, which began even before we checked in. We had pre-arranged with them a transfer from the airport. However, cars can only get you as far as official drop-off points at the edge of the Medina. It’s on foot after that through back alleys only wide enough for motorcycles and donkey carts, and with few discernible street addresses. Mercifully, a porter had been dispatched to meet our cab. He piled our luggage onto his hand cart and took off at a trot through the pandemonium, trusting us to keep up. Which we did, aware that he only had a clue as to where we were going.
We reached Dar Habiba within minutes, a bit dazed and winded, to the warm welcome of Rashid, the onsite manager. We were immediately settled within the plump pillows of the bhou, and over glasses of freshly brewed mint tea, introduced to the details of life at the Riad and the bewildering city beyond its thick sheltering walls. After settling into our rooms at leisure, we reconvened at the bhou, which instantly became our favorite perch, for another round of mint tea. Then, pleasantly mellow and armed with very explicit directions from Rashid, we were ready to jump into the bedlam we’d only glimpsed at on the way in and head for the legendary main square, Jemaa-el-Fnaa.
No one is sure of the precise meaning of the name Jemaa el-Fnaa, the vast triangular square at the entrance of the Medina. It could be “Place of the Vanished Mosque,” or the favorite contender, “Assembly of the Dead,” since justice was once meted out here, and heads of executed criminals were set on spikes as a warning to others. What is certain is that “La Place,” as the legendary square is known to Marrakechis, has been the hub of trade and entertainment since 1050 AD, the frenzied best and worst of Marrakech.
It was afternoon when we reach it, the time when it was morphing from its daytime marketplace activities into its nigh life persona. The sellers of cheap trinkets were folding their blankets. The henna tattoo ladies were putting away their syringes and laminated folders of patterns. The herbalists touting potions to heal all ills and the itinerant dentists sitting on plastic chairs behind displays of dentures and saucers of the teeth they’ve successfully pulled were closing shop. The reedy whine of the snake charmer’s flute was beginning to fade. Only the fruit carts were standing firm, still doing a brisk business of delicious, fresh-squeezed orange juice at a mere 10 Dirhams (one U.S. Dollar) a cup.
Now, young men trundled across the square to set their up their portable kitchens, plank benches and trestle tables. Soon the smoke rose from hundreds of barbecues, and countless food stalls began doling out a steady stream of kebabs, filling the air with the mouth-watering aromas of this immense open-air eatery, while Gnawa (North African spiritual music) musicians, acrobats and fortune tellers entertained the crowds. We enjoyed the show for a while before drifting off. As frequent visitors to Africa, we have long learned to keep questionable street food out of our travel menu. We headed instead for the nearby Koutoubia Mosque.
Towering 253 ft (77 meters) over the Jemma el-Fnaa, the Koutoubia Mosque is the most important in Marrakech and the unmistakable point of reference of the city. Built at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, is it exceptionally ornate. Originally completed during the Almovad Dynasty in the 12th century, it is the oldest and most complete structure remaining from this era. Designed in cooperation between Marrakechi and Andalusian architects, it is a prototypical monument of Moroccan-Andalusian architecture – and a twin of Seville’s Girarlda. Like all mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-muslims, but visitors are welcome to walk around its vast gardens.
Now that we has found our bearings, it was a mere at 15-minute stroll from here back to Dar Habiba, along the lively souk of Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. A table had been set for us on the rooftop terrace and our delicious pre-ordered lamb tagine (traditional dish slow-cooked in conical clay pot) meal with all the trimmings awaited. Afterward, we lingered long into the evening under the starry velvet sky, enjoying the view of the rooftops of the Medina in the moonlight, and the occasional strains of Gnawa drifting on the spice-scented night air.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Morroco’s largest city of Casablanca. The airport is located about six kilometers (four miles) from the Medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but make sure you clearly set the fare with the driver before you get in. A far better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad.
- Getting around – the only one way explore the Medina is on foot. But beware of bicycles and scooters that zip around the narrow alleys as though they have been granted exclusive right of way. The surest way to get where you want to go is to ask direction from the person in charge at your riad. (n.b. Rashid gave excellent directions.) Still, expect to get occasionally lost while you meander through the confusing labyrinth of the Medina, constantly distracted by the bustle of Marrakech’s everyday life. It’s what you came to experience, so keep meandering and you will soon find your bearings again.
- Staying – Dar Habiba is ideally located in the quiet Mellah neighborood, within a fifteen-minute walking radius of all the main Medina historic sites (La Place, the Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace, etc.) and a mere five minutes away from the souk of Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. We chose it for its location but will return at the first opportunity for the comfort of its accommodations and most of all its attentive personalize hospitality. Contact info : tel. +44 20 7570 0336 (or toll free from the US. + 1-800-845-0810), e-mail: Reservations.
Transported back 25 years! I must go back and stay at Dar Habiba (was out of my college budget)!
Okay, I definitely want to go here. Thanks for all the tips.
Beautiful and exotic. I must go there someday. Thank you, Josette.