I wasn’t prepared for Marrakech. Well, I thought I was, but Marrakech was intense. Way more intense that I could’ve imagined and it freaked me out a wee bit. I fell in and out of love with the city constantly during our 5 days stay, although Nico somehow didn’t share the same impression. Marrakech is one of those places in the world that either you love it or you hate it, no half measure. The other city I know that has this kind of character is my own beloved city where I was born in; Jakarta.
Marrakech has a lot of ‘extra-ness’ quality to it; extra compact, extra unique, extra vintage, extra expensive, and other extras in positive and not-so-positive sense. The city has a manic beat to it. A complex mix between the sweltering, sticky heat infused by kebab smoke and exhaust fumes from old motorcycles that run around in the cramped alleys inside the labyrinthine Medina, souvenir vendors with their aggressive sales pitch, and those numerous young men who constantly following you as if their goal in life is to reside inside your bubble. All of this with the backdrop of the medieval times; old, rundown, and unfamiliar.
Marrakech was a lot to take which made it a very memorable visit. Despite all the not-so-positive experiences that we had in this place, we also had a lot fun and totally understood why Marrakech is such a strong magnet for tourist to come from all over the world. Here are the highlights of our visit in Marrakech:
1. Our sanctuary, the riad Dar Soukaina
Having a good, clean, strategically placed, and air-conditioned lodging while visiting Marrakech is a must, it’s your sanctuary, your refuge from all that hustle-bustle that happens right outside your riad. Trust me, after all day under the scorching sun, competing with other gazillion tourists trying to enjoy Marrakech, it feels good to come to a clean bed, high-speed Wi-Fi, in a quiet, private room.
2. Jemma El Finna
Jemma El Finna is the world best known square. This insane open pace theater is fully packed with street performers, food vendors, mesmerized tourists, henna tattoo artists, pickpockets, snake charmers, and whatnot. This place has been the hub of trade and activities in Marrakech for centuries, but with the rapid development of traveling trends, it has evolved into a display of overly dramatized (and commercialized) Moroccan culture. Everybody here is looking for entertainment as much as looking for money. There is nothing free in this square, you even have to pay to take a pic of a performer. Can you blame them, tho? Nope. They are street artists, it’s their way of living; entertain people to make money, just like in any other street performers in any major tourist destinations in the world.
Some people would like to enjoy the insanity of this place from a safe place; over a balcony of a cafe or restaurant to avoid those toutings from vendors and performers. Some just dive right in and go with the crazy rhythm of the place, which honestly is the best way to enjoy the place.
3. Medersa Ben Youssef
Medersa Ben Youssef was one of the biggest Koranic schools in Maghreb Region for centuries. It was transformed into a museum in 1960 and has been undergoing several restorations since.
This beautiful building is decorated with impressive masterpiece and arts of its time. Stepping inside its gate brings you to the live of Koranic students centuries ago with its small student chambers, a big courtyard with a central pool for ablutions, and intricate stucco and zellige tiles decorate every inch of the wall. Oh, and the cedar wood work, it’s truly one of the kind.
4. Koutubia Mosque
Koutubia mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech.. Aren’t we all big fans of anything with such superlative titles?
5. Bahia palace
The Bahia palace is a palace and a set of gardens. It was built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means "brilliance". As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style.
It was constructed with all the most expensive materials such as gold, onyx and marble. It used to have hundreds of well-decorated rooms, a huge courtyard, and a huge central pool, and all other spaces you can imagine for a royal family would need.
6. El Badi Palace
El Badi Palace, which literally means the Palace of the Incomparable was once one of the most magnificent palaces in Morocco with lavish decoration from the Saadian period.
However, after the civil war in the 1600, the palace is decaying, all the expensive materials were stripped out and what left since is a huge, empty space enclosed by thick sandstone walls. What amazed me the most was; even in its ruined state, you can get a clear idea of the grandeur of the palace on its glorious era.
7. Saadian Tomb
Saadian tombs are a very beautiful mausoleum for the members of the Saadi dynasty.
Honestly, I have a mixed feeling of whether I should include this place on our list of Marrakech highlights or not… This pretty sepulcher is very interesting to look at, indeed, with its fine cedar wood and stucco work, and complex tile work, but in truth, it just another well-decorated cemetery, and IMHO, cemetery should not be a place of attraction, no matter how beautiful it is.
8. Secret Garden
The Secret Garden or Le Jardin Secret in its formal name is definitely my fav spot in Marrakech. Right after you step into the gate (and pay the entrance fee of 50 dirhams, of course), you’ll feel as if you are transported right out of the chaotic Medina into a peaceful sanctuary with beautiful garden full of exotic plants, flowing streams of fresh water, and chirping birds. If this is not soothing, I don’t know what is.
This garden is specifically built based on an Islamic garden philosophy with a central spring in the middle of the garden. The spring will then fills the water paths that irrigate each corner of the garden. This water supply system displays how the original water-supply system (called Khettara) dated back more than a century ago which controlled the distribution of the water coming from the Atlas Mountains. This water system called khettara, a ground drainage tunnel that intercepts the groundwater aquifer then distributes the water to the city’s mosques, the hammams, and the public fountains.
I almost cried for joy when we stumbled upon this piece of heaven that serves Indonesian food. You know how happy you get when you find your authentic home food unexpectedly when you are traveling away from home, and that exactly how we felt (we means me), and as the result, we overfed ourselves. Obviously.
When I said it’s authentic Indonesian food, it is taste-wise very authentic because they don’t modify the recipe too much and the chef is a native Indonesian, he knows how stuff is done. He even grows all the spices needed in this restaurant garden. Cheesus, we don’t even have any Indonesian restaurant in Quebec.
I don’t mean to over-flatter this place because I am an Indonesian, but honestly, this restaurant was the best service we had in this Moroccan trip. The waiters (which are also the owners) are beyond friendly. The place, although it’s a bit hidden away in a corner of a small alley, is very clean and comfortable, it has air-conditioned indoor space and a rooftop terrace. The food was of great quality and well-presented, and the price is reasonable.
I understand that whenever you go some place new, you want to eat like a local, but when you are in Marrakech and you are tired of kebabs, tagine and couscous, I highly recommend you check out this exotic restaurant!!
At the end of our stay in Marrakech, I was exhausted and completely not able to find my place in this chaotic rhythm. Overall, having been to most of the main tourism cities in Morocco, Marrakech felt to me like one giant tourist trap. Overrated, overcrowded and overly expensive. We're still glad that we have visited it although we're not planning to re-visit it any time soon.