Getting Lost and Finding Home in Marrakech's Winding Medina
Morocco is the magical spot of Northern Africa. With its energetic and ancient cities, rugged deserts and mountains, spices and music and creativity, Morocco enchants. Few places in the world offer such cultural, social and geographical diversity. Located on the North West coast of Africa, Morocco has coastline on the North Atlantic Ocean as well as the Mediterranean Sea, and is framed on other sides the Sahara Desert and stunning mountain ranges such as the High Atlas, the Chefchaouen Mountains and the Oregano Mountains.
The most familiar city to most of the world is the imperial city of Marrakech, with its abundance of historical sites, mosques, palaces and tombs, and its medieval medina. One of the pleasures of Morocco lies in getting lost while wandering its maze of streets. The heart of the medina is Djemaa el fna, the large square where, it seems, most anything can be found. When I first arrived there, I simply wandered around fascinated, soaking it all in. Here was a snake charmer, there a man with a trained dancing monkey. Nearby is a group of musicians and drummers, while across the way cross-dressing dancers perform in veils. Carts surround it all, selling everything from spices and orange juice, to potions handed down through generations. Many of the items on the potion carts are unrecognizable, although I did see dried lizards and some sort of hair with which the proprietors will presumably whip up an elixir to make someone fall in love or cast an evil spell on an enemy.
Through it all, women call to you to have your fortune told or your hands henna painted. Just off the square is the opening to the never-ending souk – another wandering trek among incredible wares, and through which you will never emerge where you think you must be. Prepare to get lost – and prepare to pay a local to lead you out! All part of the adventure. The souks are a great place to purchase exquisite rugs, lamps, and a plethora of other items; be ready to haggle when you’ve decided to shop.
When night begins to fall, Djemaa el fna square is bathed in sunset light and converted to a large outdoor dining area. Hundreds of food stalls spring up as if by magic, and suddenly the white tented roofs cover the cobblestones. Here you can stroll along until you see something that beckons, then sit down on the benches next to other patrons to enjoy!
In Marrakech, the choice of places to stay can be varied, from the most luxurious riad palaces to simple homestays. I highly recommend staying in the medina, rather than one of the hotels outside its walls, for the experience of being part of this historic, magical place that has likely not changed much in several hundred years. You can go modest or extravagant – I sampled both, and there is truly something for everyone and every budget in the city.
First I stayed at the Riad Amira Victoria, a private home restored to boutique hotel with a comfortable, homey environment. Several courtyards and patios provide charming outdoor spots in which to relax or take breakfast or an evening nightcap. A stone’s throw from the Marrakech museum and the Mederasa Ben Youssef, Riad Amira Victoria is a genuine haven of peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the souks. Eleven guest rooms offer nice accommodation, with private bathrooms and some with fireplaces. The rooms are all decorated very nicely, with traditional and antique furnishings, rugs, bed coverings and artwork. Prices are reasonable, ranging from 95 Euros for a twin room to 125 Euros for a suite. Weekly rentals are also available.
A large rooftop terrace has been organized into different spaces: a Berber tent, shower areas, sun decks and salons with various themes, all from which you can take advantage of the birds-eye view of Marrakech. The very pleasant staff will be happy to arrange a delicious, private dinner with advance notice, and breakfast is included and served each morning in the dining room or roof terrace. Service is personable and hospitable, almost like staying with family.
The Riad Amira Victoria is, I found, difficult to get to. We got completely lost trying to find it, and several locals showed us the way (for a price, of course). I would highly recommend arranging ahead of time for someone to collect you and bring you to the riad. Once there, the way is fairly easy to find again and you will enjoy the respite in the quiet, removed residential section of the medina. Find out more at riadamiravictoria.com
For a completely different experience, I ended my stay in Marrakech with several nights at the high-end Riad Kniza. Unlike the Amira Victoria, Riad Kniza is very easy to find just inside the medina walls, with an excellent location close to most of its top attractions. This five-star palace has welcomed guests including Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, and is truly the epitome of luxury. The “Hotel de Charme” has been in the family for two centuries, completely restored by Haj Mohamed Bouskri using traditional materials and artisans to recreate c this gem of Moorish architecture, in which guests can capture an authentic Moroccan experience from days gone by.
Riad Kniza also offers eleven tastefully decorated rooms and suites, but the building and grounds are much larger. Amenities also include a beautiful and serene pool, with adjacent massage suite, sauna and Hamman bath. Four lounging salons with traditional Moroccan furnishings are delightful places to relax or take dinner; there are also three open air courtyards and a spacious rooftop terrace with sitting areas and sun beds, with beautiful views of the Atlas Mountains and the old Medina. The riad also provides modern amenities such as wi-fi service and complimentary use of a laptop.
Experiencing a hamman bath service and a meal at Riad Kniza are not to be missed. The staff often arrange exquisite evenings of gastronomy and entertainment, beginning with traditional Gnawa musicians next to an open bar in the salon, at which guests mingle and trade stories. From there an incredible four or five course meal is served in the dining room, accompanied by wine. The food is hardly to be described – everything was delicious, but my favorite during the stay was the “salad,” which was several small dishes that could present a meal in itself.
Riad Kniza is an excellent point of departure from which to explore the city. Haj Mohamed, aside from being one of the most renowned antique dealers in Marrakech, has been a professional guide for the past 34 years and has shown the best of Marrakech to many VIPs and celebrities. Various city tours, shopping expeditions (with a pro!) and excursions outside Marrakech can easily be arranged. One of my favorite things about Riad Kniza, however, is the family’s dedication to social causes. For each new booking reserved through ther website, Riad Kniza donates 5 Euros to one of three aid organizations that the guest may choose. Causes supported include disadvantaged children, education, support of rural women, disabled people and health care.
Rates at Riad Kniza range from 176 to 450 Euros, and the entire riad can also be rented. If you can spring for one of the suites, I highly recommend it. I enjoyed the privilege of a stay in the Royal Suite Bahia, and it was perhaps the single most beautiful, incredible room I have stayed anywhere in my life. However, even the standard rooms are exquisite, far exceeding those of most boutique hotels. Find out more at riadkniza.com