Magical and Mystical
Magical, mystical Marrakesh. It was my third visit and each time I fall in love a little more. The locals have an innate sense of hospitality, as they do all across North Africa. They are kind, warm and giving. Some might find the shopkeepers a little aggressive in the souk, but I just turn and keep on walking. Marrakesh is about food and culture. Don’t be afraid, you can still find some lovely libation.
Our travel “partners in crime” are Jamie and Pierre; two characters with which you will become very familiar. They own the prestigious New York City based catering company, PS Tailored Events. Chef Pierre will go to any extreme to expand and enhance his sophisticated palate. Together we set out to explore the gastronomic delicacies of Marrakesh, indulge in the culture and maybe enjoy a Hammam or two. With this fabulous culinary quintet devouring Marrakesh, you might just be inspired to take a trip, God be willing, Inshallah.
Let’s start with my favorite topic: Food! Moroccan cuisine is ranked as one of the top in the world. Local specialties are mixed with internationally inspired dishes to create a mecca of fabulous fun-filled experiences.
From fine dining at Dar Moha, pictured above, to eating at an outdoor restaurant in the Souk, Marrakesh offers something for everyone. At Dar Moha, you will dine inside a traditional, albeit elegant, riad and be tempted with the culinary expertise of Chef Fedal who blends Andalusian flavors into skillfully prepared Moroccan classics.
A quintessential experience is dinning at AI Fassia. The family owns two restaurants which offer traditional Moroccan cuisine of the highest quality. Thirty years ago, Al Fassia was training women in the front and back of the house. This was a first in Morocco. The restaurants are managed by Myra and Saida Chab, daughters of the founder. The sisters only employ women to hold all the key positions, in the kitchen, in service and in management. The restaurant is so successful that it has become a training center for women in the hospitality industry. It was such a fun atmosphere and the waitstaff were quite jovial.
Another fabulous meal was at the Le Table du Riad. It offers an elegant and intimate dining room with a very civilized service. It is the perfect place to enjoy succulent sea bass or indulge in a festive Tanjia which is the name of the terra cotta cooking vessel and the stew prepared in the vessel. Choose lamb or beef and the meat will be cooked for 6 hours within an earthen jar in their bread oven. After dessert, take time to explore the beautiful hotel.
We all thoroughly took delight in our lunch on the roof top terrace of El Fenn. El Fenn is owned by Vanessa Branson (sister to Richard Branson) and business partner Howell James. Not only was our service excellent, the food was fabulous and the decor is very “instagrammable.” Speaking of Sir Richard Branson, he owns the luxury resort Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains. If you are lucky enough, spend a few days here or just take a day trip through the mountains as we did. It is worth any motion sickness you might endure.
One more adventure outside the walls of Marrakesh will take you to the charming Beldi Country Club which is a blend of Moroccan tradition and French chic that offers a hotel, restaurants, spa and its own “souk”. Beldi is a little village just 20 minutes from the city center on forty acres of land that will offer you a vacation from your vacation. As you can see, our focus was on our breakfast and the Beghrir, the melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan crêpes made from semolina or better know as the pancakes with 1000 holes. Yum!
Back in the Medina (the old Arab quarter) you will find a plethora of restaurants to please your palate. The hip Nomad where you will find tourists and ex-pats alike sipping cocktails and trying to stay as “cool” as they think they are. Sister restaurants Café des Epices and Le Jardin offer great people watching as well. One of our favorites is Naranj where you will find incredible mezze plates with middle Eastern flavors. The restaurant is owned by a lovely Syrian-Lebanese couple. Don’t be afraid to eat in Jemaa el Fna, the bustling main square of the Medina as it is always an adventure.
Instead of a hotel, I suggest you stay in a Riad, a type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. They come is all shapes and sizes and can range from classical Moroccan motifs to exotic Asian decors. There is one for every budget. We’ve booked ours on Airbnb and have always been quite pleased.
The best part about having your own Riad is being able to cook (or having Justin and Pierre cook for us 🙂 ) The markets are incredible, the produce fresh and the prices are very inexpensive. Although haggling at the Souk is the norm, we did not do this for our food. You might not know the price per pound, but it will be reasonable. If you are looking to purchase alcohol, it is forbidden within the old city walls, except at restaurants. There are a few super markets that will supply your needs a short cab ride from the medina.
When you are in the Souk, make sure you have a good map. Justin is our navigator and he suggest you download Pocket Earth. It will work without data as long as you download their offline maps before you travel. Use it when you are looking for a specific restaurant or ready to go home but until then, take turns leading the way and getting lost. Be ready to discover a world full of suprises. If you see something you really, really want… Buy it NOW! You might never be able to relocate the shop again. And if you end up following some young boy down a closed street then end up at a leather Tannery (the Tannery Scam) don’t buy anything! My babouche (leather slippers) were twice the price at the Tannery store compared to the vendor in the Souk.
When you are ready for a little civility (or a lot) escape the Souk and head over to the Royal Mansour for high tea and visit this architectural masterpiece. The hotel is actually 53 ultra luxurious riads. Every detail of this “palace” was surveyed by King Mohammed VI, with no budget constraints. It is an exceptional view into the way the King’s palace or palaces would be decorated. It is said that no less that 1500 artisans worked on the King’s magical showpiece.
We also enjoyed cocktails and walking through the citrus and olive gardens (see picture top of blog) at the Hotel La Mamounia. It is another legendary palace and rival (and next door neighbor) to the Royal Mansour. It has all the 5 Star elegance you would expect, but if I had my choice, I think I would rest my weary head across the street. La Mamounia has been around for 95 years and is indeed in need of a full face lift. It was good news to hear that in 2020, it will close it doors for major renovations, structural over-hall and re-imagination. I can’t wait to see the results.
No guide is neccesary to spend a wonderful afternoon exploring the Le Jardin Secret which as been recently re-created and restored. The 400-year-old riad (a house with an interior courtyard) provides five acres of tranquil walled gardens right in the heart of the maniacal Medina. Soak up the sun and the odors of the fragrant orange blossoms in this traditional Islamic paradise. The fountains and beautiful tiles keep the complex quite cool and it is all very civilized. Bring a book, relax and get ready for the next adventure.
Still walking distance from the Medina (if you like to walk and explore) is the famous Le Jardin Majorelle. This botanical garden in the heart of Marrakesh was created in 1931 by the French painter Jacques Majorelle and rescued by Yves St. Laurent, French-Algerian fashion designer, and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé. It has become the most visited spot in all of Morocco, which is almost hard to believe. Coming from Texas, I have seen more than my fair share of Cacti and Bamboo. I honestly think much of the hype is that tourist feel they are “civilized” because they enjoying what YSL enjoyed. Plan your visit wisely and get tickets online from the link above and go early. Do take the time to visit the Berber museum. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the jewelry and costume of the Berber tribes.
Now that you have enjoyed loads of food and culture, treat yourself to a little relaxation at a Hammam (Turkish bath). Oh, how I absolutely love a Hammam. First you will have a full body exfoliation using black soap by some of the strongest women you have ever met. Then, move onto a stimulating, powerful or relaxing massage with fragrant Argan oils. We have had the pleasure of visiting the renown Les Bains d’Orient, Heritage Spa and many others. My preference is the “off the beaten path” Les Bain d’Azahara. Both men and women can wear a bathing suit or the tiny garments they give you. Don’t be shy or afraid of all the dead skin you you see sloughing off, it will grow back!
I do hope you have been enchanted with our little tour of Marrakesh. Before you go on your adventure, learn a few basic words. I used YouTube to refresh my memory for: hello, good-bye, thank you, no, and go away! When you are there, stop to look at the beautiful faces of the people and the intricacies of the doors. Moroccans might hide behind these doors, but their hearts will be open to you, Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God.)