Overall, based on our five days in Marrakech, I’d say the main things to do are to shop for handcrafted goods, eat and wander aimlessly. The other “sights” were nice ways to kill time, but none of them were anything I’d travel to Marrakech specifically to see, which I guess is a sign the city is more than just for tourist ogling.
In any case, taking the souks and haggling out of the picture, here’s how we kept ourselves otherwise entertained:
To my mind, Muslim country = hammam (public steam bath) tradition. The Moroccan women running our riad told me to skip going to a fancy European-style spa and stick with the hammams to get my skin healthy and glowing, but the trick with the authentic hammams is that men and women go at different times of the day and you get your treatment lying on the tile floor, which didn’t sound super appealing to me.
Jon, however, went to the Hammam el-Bacha (“The Pasha’s Spa” on Rue Fatima Zohra) because he’s such a sucker for a massage, especially for 7o dh (less than $10). He reported that you put your belongings in a cubby hole and then walk into this warm, cavernous, marble-tiled room.
An old guy who spoke French and Arabic (neither of which Jon understands) gestured Jon to lie on the floor, and then he gave Jon a vigorous scrubbing and massage for almost an hour. The guy then finished off the session by dumping buckets of warm, clean water on Jon, and Jon now wishes he’d gone to the hammam earlier in the trip so he could go back again and again.
In contrast, Jon and I spent one rainy day at a fancy hotel spa, which Jon thought was terrible, especially in comparison with his Hammam el-Bacha experience.
Our first choice was to get treatments at the Bains de Marrakesh, recommended by our riad, but it was booked solid the whole time we were in town. Disappointing!
We called up a ritzy French chain called Cinq Mondes, which just opened at a new-concept Club Med just outside the city in the Palmeraie (where all the big luxury resorts are), but not only did you have to schlepp out to the resort to confirm your appointment in person, but also a facial there cost 910 dh ($106), which is about twice the going rate at other places we called in Marrakesh. No thanks.
After all this calling around, we settled on the “Oriental Spa” at Hotel es Saadi, partly because we’d read good reviews on-line, and mostly because they had appointments available for both Jon and me at the same time.
The Hotel Es Saadi has seen better days. The decor was glamorous circa 1980, I think. Lots of gold and mirrors. There is, however, an impressively-large, heated outdoor pool.
My facial was an hour long and relaxing, and I was a fan of the treatment rooms, which were warm, large and clean. Jon, however, didn’t get much out of his hour-long massage, which was too bad because it cost 580 dh (i.e., a lot more than his hammam massage).
Apparently his masseuse’s major qualification was that she spoke English, but sadly she was unable to do much besides rub Jon’s skin with aromatic oil for an hour. And then we were particularly non-plussed when the hotel told us all their credit card machines were broken, so could we please cough up 1000 dh in cash?
Bottom Line: Try that Bains de Marrakech (and report back!) and/or the public hammam.
250 Jews and One Synagogue
One evening, we walked 20 minutes southwest of the Djemma el Fna (close to the Bahia Palace – see below) to reach the Mellah neighborhood, which was a Jewish neighborhood established in the 1500s. Today there are 250 Jews living in Marrakech (but no longer in the Mellah), and incredibly enough, this tiny population manages to maintain an old synagogue, the Alzama.
We ended up a little lost on our way to the synagogue, whose entrance is down a small alley and whose doorway is tiny and unmarked. We were led there by some little kid, who of course then asked each of us (Jon, me, and what turned out to be the synagogue’s cantor), for money. Admittedly, we wouldn’t have found the place without the kid’s help, but still, not thrilling to get the shakedown after reaching the synagogue (of course we paid up).
There’s an old, blind man who is the custodian of the synagogue, and I think he lives in one of these apartments. Otherwise, congregants show up on Fridays and Saturdays by traveling in from the “Nouvelle Ville” (i.e., the new part of Marrakech built by the French in the early 20th century).
We were invited for services (it happened to be Friday night when we visited), partly because of hospitality and partly because the synagogue needed 10 Jewish men to make up a minyan (which is a quorum you need for a service to take place).
I sat upstairs in the women’s gallery by myself, which actually became fun when a young Israeli woman came up and joined me. She’d been traveling through Morocco with her cousin for three weeks, so she and I traded travel tips while the men downstairs disregarded our presence and prayed in Hebrew. I guess invisibility has its privileges.
On the whole, it was pretty cool to be in such a gorgeous old synagogue hidden away in a predominately Muslim country. What fascinated me was the lens through which this Israeli woman viewed the countries she visited. For example, everywhere in the world she travels, she needs to find a kosher family that’s willing to cook her a local meal, because otherwise, she can’t eat the local food. It’s limiting in one way (not being able to sample all the local delights), but enlarging in another (being able to meet local families).
We spent two hours walking around the Bahia palace, which is just a 15-minute walk from the Djemme el Fna. The Palace today – particularly the gardens and the impressive “harem courtyard” (see photo at top) – looks pretty run down and neglected, but there are still a few beautiful details here and there.
I was surprised by how recently the palace was built – in the late 1800s. While all the colors and detail work of the ceilings and archways are intact, there’s no furniture or other interior decoration, so it’s hard to imagine life in the palace. I had so much better an understanding when we visited the Alhambra in Grenada, which must have inspired the Bahia Palace, because the two buildings share so many architectural elements.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a tourist attraction and not be bombarded with moneymaking paraphernalia (you pay 30 dh at the Palace entrance and then you just wander around on your own), but on the other hand, there’s no brochure, map or audiotour to give the place any context.
The quick blurb in our guidebook told us that Edith Wharton stayed as a guest at the Bahia Palace during the French Protectorate period of Morocco’s history. Not quite the history and context I was looking for, much as I love Edith Wharton. Still, the Bahia Palace was worth visiting for a few hours, and maybe before you go, download a podcast about it from iTunes or something. Then you’ll be golden.
Although it was a chilly, 45-degree day when we went, the Majorelle
Gardens (a botanic garden) were definitely worth visiting for an hour or two. I’m sure the gardens are particularly nice in warm weather!
You need a taxi to get there from the Medina, but for once, the 20 dh taxi fare was a fair price as it was a 10-minute ride to get to the gardens.
The gardens and nearby villa are now owned by Yves St. Laurent, whom I’d like to credit with making everything look so stylish, but apparently all kudos go to the garden’s founder, Jacques Majorelle, a rich guy who moved from Paris to Marrakech in the 1920s for health reasons.
I loved the bold, almost-garish colors that brightened up the otherwise sort-of-uniform green and beige of the cacti, bamboo and lily pad gardens. An electric blue here; a lemony yellow there – it all worked.
The tiny Islamic Art Museum (see photo at left) took about 30 minutes to walk through. I’d say it’s worth the separate admission price if you want to see some of Majorelle’s watercolors (clearly an example of Islamic Art), pottery, and beautiful, carved doors presumably saved from destruction when buildings were demolished.
Being the materialist that I am, I kept thinking how great it would be to make one of those massive doors into a dining table. Attention: Pottery Barn furniture designers!
Our guidebook (and many other books and websites) kept listing the Koutoubia as an attraction, but I think it’s more of a landmark. Jon and I oriented many times to the Koutoubia, which is an old mosque on the Avenue Mohammed V, but whose key feature is a very tall minaret that you can see from most open spaces in Marrakech.
When we walked around the Koutoubia grounds, we didn’t get much out of it, so maybe it’s a better time with a guide.