Cacti, cakes and caleches — Marrakech’s new town

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

For our most laid-back day in Marrakech, we escaped the mad medina to explore the new town, beginning with the beautiful Majorelle Garden, stopping for the prettiest Moroccan afternoon tea and ending in a horse and carriage.

Following the same appalling awakening/sublime breakfast as the previous day, we began walking from Koutoubia Mosque up the very, very long Avenue Mohammed V into Marrakech’s new town, Gueliz. Our destination was the Majorelle Garden (or Jardin Majorelle), a landscaped botanic garden on the outskirts of the city.

Longest road in the world (unproven)

Besides the endless loud and smoggy traffic and the orange trees along the roadside, there was very little to see. The buildings here were much larger and the roads far wider than in the medina, and everything awash with grey. We trudged past innumerable high-rise hotels, office blocks and car parks, as well as a few scruffy newsagents. A massive roundabout we came to yielded a few Western imports: a Burger King, a McDonalds, a Mango and some higher-end clothing shops. We could almost have been in the most soulless part of any European city, and it felt a world away from the colourful old town.

After what had felt like an eternity of greyness, it was a great relief to sight the greenery of the Majorelle Garden. Noticing some other tourists going the same way, we gleefully followed the signs down a small road and joined one of the lines at the ticket office. There are two ticketed attractions here: the garden itself, and the small museum dedicated to Berber culture within it. We received the impression that we could only buy the garden ticket here, and only buy the museum ticket once inside the garden. However, in retrospect I think is is possible (indeed, preferable) to buy both tickets at the garden entrance.

Parti-coloured paradise

Upon entering the garden we found ourselves on a red-painted path leading in various directions; we decided to go left and circle the garden clockwise. It is not a large attraction — you can easily go down every path and see every plant within a couple of hours. But even with the garden being quite busy, wandering around it made for a peaceful and enjoyable few hours.

Marrakesh, March 2014 270 Marrakesh, March 2014 287 Marrakesh, March 2014 288

Paths painted in bright primary colours led us through a wide variety of botanics, from tiny flowers to towering palm trees. I especially liked the large collection of cacti, which encompassed all shapes and sizes from humorously bulbous to beautifully deadly.

Marrakesh, March 2014 315 Marrakesh, March 2014 319 Cacti

There were a number of interesting man-made features to see as well: a memorial for the designer Yves Saint Laurent, who once owned the garden; a gazebo overlooking a long chute of water leading to an impressive fountain; and bright blue tunnels roofed by blossoming canopies, to name just a few. A large pond, prettily decorated with reeds, lily pads and overhanging fronds, was alive with shimmering fish and adorable little turtles, who we couldn’t resist stopping to photograph.

 Marrakesh, March 2014 284 Marrakesh, March 2014 302 Turtles

In one corner of the garden stood a number of magnificent buildings in rainbow hues, including a museum, art gallery, gift shop and cafe. We joined the queue to enter the museum and although most people seemed to have tickets already, we bought ours at the museum’s door with no problems. They were only letting in a few people at a time to ensure the small space didn’t get too crowded.

Marrakesh, March 2014 293Despite its modest dimensions, the museum managed to pack in an impressive amount of exhibits on Berber culture: videos; photographs; beautifully handcrafted tools, ornaments, weapons and instruments; mannequins dressed in many examples of traditional clothing; and a large collection of extravagant jewellery. Large booklets provided reams of information on the exhibits and other aspects of Berber culture, from music to religion. I thought it fascinating, and it was obvious from the full and attractive displays — the mirrored jewellery gallery in particular — that a lot of care had gone into its creation.

Back outside and blinking in the sunlight, we had a brief look around the (expensive) gift shop and a small gallery of Yves Saint Laurent art prints. By now my stomach was rumbling but the cafe here seemed overpriced compared with usual Marrakech prices, so we left the garden in search of sustenance.

An exquisite tea break

I remembered the patisserie rated number one on TripAdvisor called Amandine, and to my delight saw on the Tripadvisor app that it was nearby. Following the app and my phone’s GPS (how did we do ANYTHING before smart phones?) we managed to find it with only a little difficulty.

We were a little fazed on arrival by the apparent bouncer on the door and its emptiness — given its reputation, I’d expected it to be full. Nevertheless, we walked in and to the furthermost table, my gaze immediately fixed by the layers upon layers of tiny pastries and sweets within the counters. Completely overwhelmed by the vast choice, I simply ordered two black teas and asked the woman behind the counter to pick a selection of treats for us. These were brought to our table in the most charming manner — the boiling water in two clear glass teapots atop glass warmers, the teabags on their own porcelain plate, the selection of delicate Moroccan sweets on another plate. The (reasonable) bill was accompanied by three flat chocolate pieces painted in edible gold and shaped into Moroccan motifs! I felt almost like royalty.

Marrakesh, March 2014 342 Marrakesh, March 2014 335 Tea

Putting the tea in the water and watching it diffuse was a treat in itself, and the tea tasted beautiful too (although I did have to ask for milk). The sweets were delicious and we finished them easily, along with the chocolate! A few sips into our tea we noticed that Chasing Pavements by Adele had been playing on repeat since we stepped inside — which although slightly odd, undeniably made for peaceful background music!

A wild goose chase

Refreshed and rested, we decided to head back into the medina via another tourist attraction in our guide book, Dar el-Bacha (also known as Dar el-Glaoui), said to be a museum and ‘one of Marrakech’s most opulent buildings’. Finding it required us to walk through the western side of the medina: less traditional, less attractive and with far fewer tourists than the eastern side. Navigating it wasn’t easy or enjoyable, but we did eventually find Dar el-Bacha — or at least what was it once. The information panel for Dar el-Bacha still stood outside, but the one open doorway was blocked by horse-mounted police and there was no indication of it being a tourist attraction. It appeared to have been closed to the public and made into some sort of government building since our guide book was produced, which was further attested to by its absence from TripAdvisor. Resigned, we made our way back to Jemaa el Fna.

Bartering for a caleche ride

Our guide book also told us that us that we could get a ride in a caleche (a horse and carriage) to the Menara, open until 6.30pm. However, at 5pm every caleche driver we asked said the Menara was shut — we guessed it must have been operating on winter opening hours — and refused to take us. We did eventually convince one to take us there for half an hour and then bring us back, and Steve attempted to barter the price down to the suggested price in our guide book (150Dh) but found it impossible. Again, I think this was down to the guide book being out of date! We settled for the slightly lower-than-advertised price of 300Dh for him to take both of us there and back, and climbed in.

Marrakesh, March 2014 359 Marrakesh, March 2014 363 Marrakesh, March 2014 350

Admittedly, I was a little nervous that our driver would try to rip us off somehow — he didn’t look like the cleanest-cut character — but thankfully my prejudices were unfounded. The caleche travelled down the road among the traffic quite fast, and we enjoyed watching the grand hotels whizz past to the soundtrack of clip-clopping hooves. We were dropped off at the flag-adorned entrance to a large open area containing a central tower, the Menara, and it was indeed shut. Surrounding it were acres of olive groves, and adjacent to it a large concrete reservoir that looked like it was used for watersports. This was circled by numerous locals, walking, sitting and chatting — there was even a father and son sailing a model boat. It wasn’t too hard wasting half an hour exploring this area.

Our caleche trip back was a bit more picturesque. Beginning along a desert path between the road and the olive groves, it later diverted into the expensive district of the city filled with grandiose houses and designer shops. Our driver provided a basic kind of guided tour here, largely consisting of pointing and saying, “rich people”! Back at Jemaa el Fna, we paid him the agreed amount without any trouble.

The solution to dinner

We returned to our riad and began to ponder dinner. It had begun to rain, and I was loath to walk down the usual street between our riad and Jemaa el Fna for what felt like the hundredth time. But eventually my grumbling stomach forced me to take a gamble: to follow Valerie’s ‘Magic Map’ (see Day 1) down a new path from our riad, in the hope that it would take us to a restaurant we’d seen on our way to Bahia Palace the previous day: Un Dejeuner a Marrakech.

Our gamble paid off. Although the restaurant was busy when we stepped in wet from the rain, staff soon arranged a table for us upstairs. Being more of a sophisticated cafe than a restaurant, the service was nicely casual while being extremely accommodating. I plumped for the mysteriously titled ‘Poulet a la Marrakech’ and was very glad that I did. It was a roast chicken leg coated in a sticky, honey-like sauce, served with stewed apple cubes and a sweet red onion compote. Unusually sweet for a chicken dish, but utterly delicious!

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We finished the meal with some mint tea. The bill was so low that we made sure to leave a generous tip for our waiter. It was still raining by the time we got out, making us especially grateful that it was only a short walk back to Riad Cherrata. We went to bed excited for our adventure that lay ahead — a camel ride and trek through the Atlas Mountains.

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

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