Marrakesh, a former imperial city in western Morocco, is a major economic centre and home to mosques, palaces and gardens. The medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire (the Berber peoples are a diverse grouping of distinct ethnic groups indigenous to North Africa who predate the arrival of Arabs), with mazelike alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery and jewellery. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of the 12th-century, Koutoubia Mosque.
On 8 September 2023 at 23:11 (Two weeks prior to our going to Marrakesh), an earthquake with a seismic magnitude of 6.8 and Mercalli intensity (MMI) of VIII struck Morocco’s Marrakesh–Safi region. The MMI measures the effects of an earthquake at a given location. This is in contrast with the seismic magnitude usually reported for an earthquake.. The earthquake’s epicentre was located 73.4 km southwest of Marrakesh. Almost 3,000 deaths were reported, with most occurring outside the centre. Damage was widespread, and historic landmarks in Marrakesh were destroyed. The earthquake was also felt in Spain, Portugal, and Algeria.
We were unsure what we would find once we arrived in Marrakesh. On enquiry, we were assured that damage was minimal and they were open for business. In reality, this was not entirely accurate.
Arrival in Marrakesh – 26 Sep
Our Riad (hotel) in the northern part of the Medina (ancient walled part of the city) was an oasis amidst a crazy place. As soon as we arrived, we were met by Osman and given a detailed overview of the city. As he did so, Nadya brought us a pot of mint tea. When she told us she had added a bit of sugar, we were concerned that it would be too sweet. But it hit spot!
Whilst life was buzzing with people, tourist numbers seemed relatively low and we kept uncovering areas obviously hit by the earthquake.. After exploring the city late afternoon of our first day, we decided to go back to the hotel for dinner. I had a fish tagine and Walter had lamb. The dish, named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked, reminded us of the Moroccan restaurant, Afous, located in Sydney.
With the last supermoon of 2023, we made a point of taking a look before heading into our room for the night.
First full day – 27 Sep
Breakfast was colourful, nothing overly exciting, but included. During out trip we were amazed at the variety they did manage to come up with albeit basic. It also turned out to be a time that we enjoyed relaxing in the relative quiet and cool temperatures before heading off in the heat and chaos. Conversations with a couple from Australia and four women from Scotland became a regular breakfast time occurrence.
The day was spent walking around the Medina. We were fascinated by the petrol pumps that popped up in various different locations. Donkeys were a common mode of transporting goods and small motorbikes with engines the size of lawnmower motors carried people. Little holes in the walls were like little corner stalls, selling lollies, bread rolls and water. Cigarettes may have been available too, but given smoking is considered taboo, they were not displayed.
We didn’t take any photos of the souks, the marketplaces selling everything from baskets, leather goods and lamps to vegetables, ceramics and birds. We recognised that we ran the risk that if we took a photo, we’d be asked for money. But more than that, we were in survival mode – with the 1m wide passages filled with goods being plagued by the kamikaze like motorcycle riders, we had to keep our wits about us.
As we explored further, we were increasingly aware of the toll that the earthquake had taken and the extent of the damage. Sadly it is likely to take a long time before they will truly be “open for business” across the city. Mellah, deemed the Jewish Quarter, was noticeably the hardest hit and all the sites we had hoped to visit were closed. Near the synagogue, we met Baba, born in Fez and a fourth generationowner of an art store. One of his artist suppliers, Saaid, was there and we had an interesting chat. He was of Moroccan & Mexican heritage, married to a Mexican living in Miami. He grew up in Marrakech.
The nearby Cafe Clock is famous for its camel burger, and given it was lunch time, we took time out to indulge.
After lunch we ventured out of the noise and pollution of the Medina for a while and walked along the Avenue Mohammed VI, formerly Avenue de France. It is the major city thoroughfare of Marrakesh and named after the King, Mohammed VI. It has numerous residential complexes and many luxury hotels.
On the way back to the Medina, through the less opulent part of the new town, we stopped off for an espresso made in the boot of a car.
In the evening we took a walk to, Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square about hour an hour from our riad and towards the southern part of the Medina. It is impossible to describe the chaos, noise and energy of the place. Thousands of people, hundreds of food stalls and so many people playing music and having a good time.
“Seclusion” of the Marjorelle Gardens – 28 Sep
The Marjorelle Gardens are also in the new part of town. In addition to the palm and succulent gardens, it also contains the bright blue and yellow museum of Berber art, the native people. There is also the Yves Saint Laurent museum as he owned the villa and gardens and his ashes are scattered here.
It was beautiful and cool. Being one of the sites that was open, it was crazy busy with tourists but still a break from the central part.
The YSL Museum is the third component on the property. We figured we may as well do it all, so went in and enjoyed the display of elegant – and somewhat familiar – clothing creations from the 1980s. No photos allowed.
The Atlas Mountains – 29 Sep
After a relatively early pick up from our hotel, it was an hour later before we left Marrakech as the other two couples were running late. Eventually we were on the road to Ourika in the Atlas Mountains. Whilst we were not in the part that was at the epicentre, we saw a lot of small yellow tents housing families who had lost houses during the earthquake. Flat pieces of land where we assumed houses had been razed to the ground.
As tends to happen on these tours, we had the mandatory souvenir stops. We visited a ceramic maker and a Berber pharmacy. The Berber are the mountain people and the pharmacy was where they had lots of products made from argon oil which we saw the ladies making.
As we approached Ourika and were driving in parallel to the river, we could see hundreds of restaurants set along the riverbank. Many were brightly coloured and beckoning. When we arrived in the town at the end of the road, we stopped and were introduced to another guide who took us on a hike to the Setti Fatma waterfall. It was a bit of an uphill slog and as the other two guys in the group were smokers, they struggled a bit. On the way, the guide pointed out setups of drinks with water flowing over drink to keep them cold – he called them Berber fridges.
After our hike, we had a mutiny! The other two couples in the group were both from Spain. The younger couple probably would have gone with the flow, but us older people rebelled against going to the restaurant that the driver was pointing us to. Given it wasn’t included in the price, we figured we would choose our own. We selected a nice colourful eatery alongside the water and Glenda enjoyed putting her feet in the icy water.
Long walk to the Menara Gardens – 30 Sep
Having thought we would spend most of our week in the old town, this changed once we’d battled our way through motorbikes, pushy salespeople and pollution a few times. It’was quieter, less polluted and we didn’t get hassled so much. We also found a patisserie with fabulous pastries at an amazing price. We befriended one of the young men behind the counter and he’d beam at us as we entered and Glenda conversed with him in her rusty French.
Although the temperature was 39 degrees, we decided to take a long walk (8km one way) to the Menara Gardens. We discovered a few other lesser known gardens along the way which we thoroughly enjoyed. The Menara Gardens consisted largely of olive trees and a big lake with fish that kids were feeding.
We also found a coffee place, the first one that we’d seen with a flat white. It turned out to be owned by a Moroccan guy who had hooked up with a bunch of Australians. He has spent 20 years in Europe and came back recently. He’s also a sommelier which seems a strange thing in the culture of no alcohol.
Many of the restaurants have 3-4 levels with a rooftop. It must’ve been scary being in one during the earthquake as they tend to open on to the souks, the bazaars where the shops are.
This restaurant was the only one we went to that had alcohol but we didn’t bother having any. At 36 degrees at 8pm, wine was not high on our list of wants.
As we were staying in the less touristed areas of he Medina, we were part of the nightlife, walking past people drinking mint tea, cooking meat on BBQs full of smoke, buying apples from the back of trucks and eating the popular local donuts.
Uncovering the hidden gardens & revisiting the Mellah- 1 October
Gardens had become our go to. We took it as a personal challenge to seek our every garden in town that was frequented by locals and not on the typical tourist trail. Just near the much frequented Marrakech icon of the Koutoubia Mosque, we entered Cyber Park. Nothing like what the name implies, the park consists of ornamental gardens dating to the 18th century, now featuring fountains, lush foliage & walkways.
We had been told that one of the nice hotels had beautiful gardens and that we would be allowed to see them at no charge. Well as it turns out we were rejected from the posh hotel… apparently Walter’s knees needed to be covered.
Plan B – we decided to go back to Clock Café and had some milkshakes. They were nice and cold, appreciated in the heat. Glenda especially enjoyed her date milkshake.
After our milkshakes we revisited the Mellah (Jewish quarter). After buying a couple of magnets the owner of the store took us on a short guided tour through some of the markets most tourists would not typically see. We saw where the locals buy their produce. Not sure that we would buy some of the meat we saw sitting on counters with no refigeration in 38 plus degree heat. Sadly we also saw a lot more earthquake damage.
On our way home we headed back to the main square. The street leading up to the square it felt a little like Pitt Street Mall in Sydney.
Coffee, pastries, mint tea, and lots of relaxing – 2 October
Our plan was to head to the coffee shop we had found previously. Unfortunately it was closed to fix minor earthquake damage but we did find another coffee shop a kilometre or so away. While we were sipping on our flat whites, a couple we had seen at the other coffee shop arrived. Great minds think alike.
It was our last opportunity to visit our pastry shop for lunch so we stopped off on the way back to the hotel. We had to say farewell to the young man that we had befriended.
Our final afternoon was spent relaxing at the hotel. We enjoyed the last of our Moroccan Mint teas a la Nadya.
Having had dinner at the hotel the first night, we bookended our stay with dinner in again. We chose Marrakech staples. Walter had an entree of briouat, savoury puff pastries in the same shape as a samosa. Glenda indulged in a chicken pastilla (translated to cockerel on the menu), a sweet and savoury combination, with sweetened almonds mixed in with the meat and a garnish of cinnamon and icing sugar. We both had a lamb tagine, also sweet and savoury, with prunes, figs and nuts.
A 5am pick up was required to take us to the airport for an early flight. We were sad to have to say goodbye to Hamsa, one of the receptionists with whom we’d had a lot of long conversations. If he has his way, we’ll see him in Australia one day.