Opulent oases amid the chaos — the palaces of Marrakech

Day 2 of our Moroccan adventure — read Day 1, Day 3 and Day 4.

Our first full day in Marrakech, spent exploring its resplendent palaces and museums, opened our eyes to the beauty and quiet hidden within this chaotic city.

But it began less quietly than I would have liked.

I was awoken from my first slumber in Marrakech by the most awful sound — the droning of a deep, thunderous voice, its incomprehensible intonations reverberating around the walls of our bedroom and my ears as if coming from inside the room. My bleary, half-conscious mind struggled frantically to comprehend this monstrous aural manifestation, my eyes blinking in the pitch blackness as I wondered whether I might be having a nightmare. Wide-eyed awake a few moments later, I identified the noise as the inescapable call to prayer ringing out across the city from various points. I felt blindly for my phone on the bedside table, picked it up to look at the time and was dismayed to see the display reading 5:00 AM.

This was the first of the five daily calls to prayer that were spread out throughout the day, each and every day. And, unfettered by the thick stone walls and shuttered windows of our bedroom in Riad Cherrata, it would continue to wake me up at this miserable hour every single day of our stay. Steve somehow managed to sleep through it some mornings, demonstrating an incomprehensible depth of sleep.

After several more torturous minutes of lying wide awake listening to the dreadful drone, it finally died away and I managed to grab a few more hours of sleep. I needed it for the busy day that lay ahead.

A bounteous breakfast

It was our first time experiencing Riad Cherrata’s breakfast, and it was as lovely a surprise as my awakening had been a horrible shock.

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We sat at one of the prettily decorated tables downstairs next to the pool and moments later the riad’s maid brought forth a tray holding two large teapots (one of coffee, one of hot water for tea, as requested the previous night) and two baskets of large, flat bread loaves. This was followed by three pots of jam and one of honey, a glass each of plain yoghurt and a glass each of fresh orange juice. Finally came a long porcelain plate filled with one of two pancake variants: one light-textured and holey, like large flat crumpets; and the other large squares of bubbly, lightly fried batter, like we’d seen being made in the street.

We were later told that almost every element of this glorious spread — not only the juice and pancakes, but the jam and yoghurt as well — was homemade each morning by the maid/chef; and you could certainly tell. Everything was delightful: the bread warm and fresh; the jams juicy with fruit; the honey rich; the yoghurt indulgently creamy; the juice sweet through sheer ripeness; and the pancakes flavoursome meltingly soft.

I had a choice of four Tchaba teabags to brew for my tea each morning, including an English Breakfast variant as well as more exotic floral and spiced varieties. English through and through, I love my tea and I can tell you that Moroccans KNOW how to do a proper cuppa! Tchaba seems the main brand of tea in Morocco, and their tea bags are the most luxurious and high quality I’ve seen: each handmade from soft gauzy material with a silky plaited string. The tea they brew tastes just as lovely as the bags look!

We gratefully devoured this feast every morning of our stay, the only downside being the guilt we felt in not managing to eat the large amount of bread we were given. This was especially true of the days on which Valerie added to the feast with fresh croissants or brioche she’d bought, calling this addition her ‘French touch’!

Wandering the souks

Full to the brim with delicious food, we left the riad feeling notably less anxious than we’d felt yesterday. At around 10am the street leading to Jemaa el Fna was awake but far quieter than we’d seen it before, allowing us to find our way to the square with ease. The square, too, though bristling with activity, was far quieter and less daunting than it had seemed the previous night.

Our first destination was the Ben Youssef Madrassa (or Médersa Ben Youssef), an historic Islamic college opened in 1570. After an unsuccessful first attempt to follow our map there, we returned to our starting point and followed the directions detailed in our guide book Insight Guides: Marrakesh Step by Step. These led us through Marrakech’s famous souks: a canopied labyrinth of market stalls, selling everything from gilded slippers to intricately carved furniture; truly an Aladdin’s cave of a market.

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Not interested in doing any shopping ourselves, we followed the paths quickly enough to avoid attracting sales patter but slowly enough to drink in the divine colours, fabrics and craftsmanship spilling from ceiling to floor. Being early morning, the stalls were just opened and the paths relatively quiet.

Ben Youssef Madrassa

The directions worked a charm, bringing us out of the maze and to the front of the Madrassa. We bought a joint entrance ticket for both the Madrassa and the Museum of Marrakech (next door) for a bargain price of around 40Dh each, and walked into the Madrassa. The hubbub of the street outside faded immediately to leave us standing in the silence of a beautifully marbled and tiled room with a large information panel on the wall… entirely in French! Though we deciphered it as best as we could, it made little difference either way. Just exploring this magnificent building was experience enough.

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The main attraction was a large open courtyard with a central pool, surrounded by block pillars. No surface was unbeautiful; where not marble, the walls and ceilings were patterned with thousands of colourful tiles, adorned with symbols or carved into intricately detailed textures and organic shapes. We took full advantage of being the first people there, finding fantastic angles to photograph everywhere we looked.

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Doors from the courtyard led onto a couple more grandly proportioned rooms, again decorated wonderfully from floor to ceiling. But more interesting still was the network of hallowed corridors and small ‘bedrooms’ that we found on the upper level of the building, the windows of which looked down onto the courtyard below (we had fun using these windows for photos!) Especially spectacular were the square landings from which rooms split off’, bordered by elaborate balustrades and pillars. This maze-like upstairs level held a few surprises too, including an attic room whose wooden ceiling was covered in chalky scrawls — whether made by former students or later visitors, we couldn’t tell.

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We left as the building began to fill up with other tourists. Just so you know, the toilets here leave a lot to be desired — better to wait and use the much better ones in the Museum of Marrakech next door.

Museum of Marrakech

As you’d expect from a museum, this building has loads of historic artifacts and traditional crafts to admire and read about (the information here come with English translations!) What you might not expect is that it is housed within the historic Dar Menebhi Palace, built at the end of the 19th century, making the building a spectacular attraction in itself.

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Just inside was a pretty open-air cafe, bordered by tropical plants and drenched in late-morning sunshine. The museum began beyond that with a series of simple but beautifully tiled rooms, filled with information panels and traditionally crafted objects. Then came a wonderful surprise: a large, magnificent room, bordered by pillars and ornate doors to further rooms. In the centre sat a marble fountain, overhung by a colossal chandelier-like object formed from layer upon layer of intricately cut copper. The entire atrium was bathed in an unnatural, dusky yellow light, making us feel even further removed from the outside world.

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There were so many elements to admire: sweet-wrapper stained glass windows, panes of curled wrought iron and water basins covered in mosaics. Continuing through the building, we found a traditional hammam: hung with modern artworks showing hammams in use, and split into a number of variously decorated rooms connected by doors painted with flowers. There really was something new and interesting to discover around every corner.

Lunch on the Photography Museum’s roof terrace

By this time our stomachs were rumbling and, remembering something Valerie had mentioned about lunch at the nearby Photography Museum, we decided to head there. A quick look at our map and we were following sandy paths leading deeper into the northern Medina, stopping to observe anarchic graffiti and gilded doorways into glamorous restaurants. Numerous boys and men tried to guess where we were going and misdirect us, but by this time we were used to this behaviour and able to ignore it. Upon arriving at the Photography Museum and paying the small 20Dh entry fee, we went straight up to the roof terrace to see what food we could find.

Emerging into the sunshine, we walked past a small kitchen and found ourselves on the L-shaped terrace, arranged with low round tables and stools, almost entirely filled with people. A noticeboard laid out an 80Dh set menu of salad, chicken tagine and yoghurt with strawberries, and drinks priced at single figures. We found an empty table and sat down on the (tiny, wobbly and rather uncomfortable!) stools, and waited to be served. This took rather a long time, culminating in us getting the waiter’s attention ourselves.

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But the wait was worth it! While the Moroccan salad of diced tomato, cucumber and other bits was nice enough, the chicken tagine was glorious. Served sizzling hot in a cracked clay tagine, the chicken was swimming in a rich and tangy lemon and olive sauce and just flaked off the bone. It was both the cheapest and best tagine I ate in Morocco. The finishing yoghurt was rich and creamy, the diced strawberries on top fresh and juicy — the perfect end to our meal. Enjoying this simple yet delicious food high above Marrakech, a gentle breeze in my hair, a clear sky above and a landscape of sunlit roofs, towers and plants below, was one of my favourite experiences of the entire holiday.

Nicely sated, we worked our way back down the building, taking in the elegant white and blue tiling, decorative windows and balustrades and, of course, the many black and white photos on the walls. One particularly interesting part was the curtained room showing some of the first coloured photographs. These were backlit so that you could see the particles of potato starch making up the pigments.

Bahia Palace

The next stop on my list of sights was Bahia Palace on the opposite, southern side of the Medina. So we left the calm oasis of the museum to again enter the noisy, stressful hubbub of the streets. Rather than retracing our steps through the souks back to Jemaa el Fna we decided to follow the signs to it — big mistake! The signs took us on a massive detour through what felt like endless indistinguishable streets that seemed to become smaller, more residential and off-the-beaten-track as we went. Nevertheless, we persisted until we eventually began to recognise things — realising that somehow we’d arrived back at our riad! It turns out that the red signs you see on buildings are actually meant for cars, not people. So if you’re on foot, ensure you don’t follow them!

We followed our usual street to Jemaa el Fna, then used the directions in our guidebook to find the palace. The long, narrow and busy street they took us down was the most stressful we’d been down yet — shops and market stalls crammed in on either side, their keepers doing all they could to sell to us; no street signs to direct us; and worst of all, the ubiquitous moped riders filling the atmosphere with petrol fumes, dust and the drone of spluttering engines. Having to dodge one of them every few seconds made the stressful walk take ten times longer than it should have.

Thankfully, we eventually emerged into a wider street with signs pointing to both Bahia Palace and the ruinous Badii Palace. We turned and walked towards Bahia Palace, paying the small entrance fee (although there was nothing preventing people from walking into the wide entrance without paying) before walking down a wide path lined with pretty tropical plants and trees, and littered with dozing cats.

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The palace began with a beautiful sunlit courtyard planted with tall palms and orange trees and bedecked in blue and white tiles; at this time, populated by a large Chinese tour group. This branched off into a network of high-ceilinged rooms and corridors, all grandly decorated with beautiful tile mosaics and intricately carved wood and stone.

At this point of our day, typical Moroccan-palace-grandeur was nothing new. What really stood out in Bahia Palace was its ceilings: every one magnificently shaped and painted with incredible detail, typically portraying plant-like  forms and intricate repeating patterns. It wasn’t long before my neck was aching from continually gazing up at these works of art! Another large courtyard, bright and white with a decorative fountain at its centre, exemplified the profound tranquility we’d found typical of all Marrakech’s palaces. They were truly oases of calm tucked within, and yet seemingly a million miles away from, the din, smog, crowds and general chaos of the streets. Never before, in my experience at least, have ‘tourist attractions’ been the quietest and least stressful places in a city (in European cities they tend to be the direct opposite!).

Winding down

We had been thinking of going to Badii Palace next, but found that it was closed when we arrived at 4.45pm. We decided we’d probably had our fill of palaces that day anyway. In desperate need of a drink, we found the guidebook-recommended Kosy Bar overlooking the central square of the Mellah (the Jewish Quarter) and ascended to the roof terrace for a revitalising orange juice and mint tea. Unlike the mint tea served at our riad, this wasn’t sweetened at all so I had to ask for some sugar.

Once finished, we decided that we’d better get back to our riad before night fell and made the long street by which we’d arrived even more nerve-wracking. The walk didn’t seem quite so arduous on the way back and we were soon being welcomed back inside Riad Cherrata. A couple of minutes after returning to our room, a knock on the door heralded the maid with a tray holding a pot of mint tea, glasses and a brioche loaf — as promised by Valerie in the morning as recompense for her missing us at breakfast, we remembered. We took the tray up to the coffee table and sofa on the riad’s roof terrace and enjoyed our treat as the sun dipped below the city’s horizon and the call to prayer rang out from all around us — hypnotic rather than horrific at this more leisurely time.

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After a bit more relaxation and reading, we decided to go out and find dinner. Thankfully, today we had a restaurant in mind: Chez Brahim, a doorway off the street leading from our riad to Jemaa el Fna from which we’d already been handed three promotional flyers!

It was a short walk there and up its stairs before we emerged into a busy restaurant, dimly lit by lamps and candles and richly decorated with paintings and coloured glass. A live band filled the room with relaxed traditional Moroccan music. We were sat among many other tourists and handed menus with photos and English translations, featuring a number of good-value set menus (but like most restaurants in Marrakech, no alcohol). There was lots of choice and in the end I went for the set menu of tomato salad (basically diced tomato and onion, but nice enough), merguez sausage couscous (very tasty!) and caramel flan (small but deliciously sweet). I really enjoyed my meal and thought it very good value for just 120Dh all in!

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Steve unfortunately was not so pleased with his meal, and ended up disappointed by his main course of filled filo pastry parcels and an ambiguously titled dessert, which ended up just being sliced orange with cinnamon sprinkled on top. Though tasty in themselves, the parcels were served with unexciting salad, chips and rice that he later suspected to have caused his food poisoning… (a common occurrence in Marrakech, we’d read)

Nevertheless, it was a really enjoyable night; the music, lighting, decoration and polite service created an enchanting ambiance that seemed to cocoon us from the scruffy street just below. It was a relaxing and pleasurable end to what had been a very busy and fulfilling day, and I returned to our riad feeling that we’d seen and tasted the best that Marrakech had to offer.

All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2014. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Opulent oases amid the chaos — the palaces of Marrakech

  1. Wow what an amazingly full and interesting day! Your colourful account really brings it all to life – I almost feel like I’ve been there myself!

    Like

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