Marrakech: The Ochre City


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 Said, our guide at Marrakech was at the lobby at 8 AM on the dot. With a smile, he said -

- Welcome to Marrakech

- Thanks Said

- For how long are you visiting Morocco?

- Two weeks.

- Nice. Where are you going next?

- Oh, actually, Marrakech is the last destination in our itinerary. We will be heading back home in two days.

- That's nice, so you saved the best for last.


In the past two weeks, Morocco already dazzled me with her beauty. I didn't make much of "best for last" at that time, but, boy, was I wrong. At the end of our two-day Marrakech tour, I realized only a couple of days won't do justice to the Ochre city. When you travel so far from home naturally you try to include as many destinations as you can in the itinerary, and end up missing out on so many things because of time constraints. If I ever come back to this fascinating country, Marrakech will be at the top of my list. And, yes, next time it's not going to be two days !!!!

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Two days in Marrakech


Nestled in the Atlas mountain's foothills, Marrakech is the largest city of Morocco. Tourist attractions are centered around the old Medina. On day 1, we explored Djema el-Fna square and surrounding areas. On day 2, we booked a tourist cab for a day and toured around the city.


Day 1


Our guide met us at the Djema el-Fna, the heart of Marrakech medina. A few minute's walk from the square is Kutubiyya, the largest mosque in Marrakech. Built in the 12th century, the rose-colored minaret of Kutubiyya is a landmark structure of Marrakech. It inspired other famous minarets around the world, such as Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Hassan Tower in Rabat, and Le Giralda in Seville. Kutubiyya in Arabic means booksellers. In the old days, booksellers used to crowd in front of the mosque inspiring the name ‘Kutubiyya’. The minaret is constructed in Almohad style, decorated with irregular geometric arch motifs and crowned by a spire with four metal orbs. Non-muslims are not allowed inside the mosque. Kutubiyya has a rather interesting history. This site houses not one, but two mosques. The first one was built in 1147. Remains of that can still be seen today. It is unclear what happened to the first mosque and why the reconstruction happened. Some believe that the original mosque was misaligned with the qibla - Mecca's direction, which led to its rebuilding with the correct orientation. Current structures are mostly from the second establishment except for the minaret, a part of the original complex.

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From Kutubiyya, we walked to Saadian tombs - a royal cemetery built in the 16th century. More than 100 prominent figures from the Saadian dynasty are buried in series of crypts and mausoleums. Two main mausoleums house 66 tombs, and the garden provides additional space for the graves of other members of the royal household. Saadian tomb is famous for its elegant interior design with curved ceilings, exquisite wood carvings, vibrant tile mosaics, and ornate marble structures. Such lavish decorations made it one of the most magnificent constructions made during their rule. After the Saadian dynasty's fall, Alaouite King Moulay Ismail, who had a penchant of dismantling and stripping many of the Saadian dynasty's most remarkable structures, closed off concealed the tombs. Perhaps he was hesitant to annihilate it because destroying a burial ground is considered blasphemy in Islam. Hundreds of years later, in 1917, these tombs were re-discovered by a group of French engineers.

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The next stop was the Bahia Palace, an equally beautiful architectural masterpiece. True to its name (Bahia means brilliance in Arabic), the palace was dazzling with the gorgeous Zellig-tiled floors, multicolored stained-glass windows, and elegantly painted and carved cedar work. Bahia Palace was built in 1866-67 by Si Moussa, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassan I, to make the most lavish palace on earth. After his death, his son, Ba Ahmed, kept his father's dream going and expanded the palace. After Ba's death, ownership of the palace flip-flopped among kings, warlords, and French protectorate. The palace sits on an expansive area with traditional style lush gardens filled with citrus trees, magnificent courtyards, and more than 150 rooms with intricate decorations. A limited number of rooms are open to the public.

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We ended our tour at Djema el-Fna, an iconic marketplace in the middle of the old Medina. This UNESCO world heritage site represents "a unique concentration of popular Moroccan cultural traditions performed through musical, religious and artistic expressions." The name "Djema el-Fna" means the assembly of the dead, likely because in the old days' executions used to happen in the square. But today, it is a carnival that is bound to dazzle even a globetrotter! The green-roofed shops sell a potpourri of items - from traditional medicine to traditional food - you will find it all!!! Add fortune-tellers, preachers, storytellers, poets, snake-charmers, musicians, dancers into this mix- you get an eclectic experience that is hard to match! Restaurants surrounding the square offer a prime view. At sunset time, the place becomes livelier. We got some mint tea, managed to get a table on the terrace, and witnessed the ensuing drama at every corner of the square - musicians preparing their instruments, crowds huddling the snake charmers, slapstick comedians fooling around with their over the top makeup, henna tattoo artists roping in westerners, and so much more!


We ended our day with something that my wife wanted to try for a long time - horse carriage ride. The first few minutes were fun, but the cars' constant fumes and smoke made the experience less desirable.

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Day 2


We started day 2 in the Majorelle garden. Over 40 years French painter Jacques Majorelle collected numerous exotic plants from around the world and created this magnificent garden that also served as his primary residence. Majorelle expanded this oasis to more than 10 acres, and it ended up very expensive for him to maintain such a large property. At one point, he opened it to the public to defray some of the maintenance costs. After his divorce in 1950, he ultimately ended up selling the garden. In 1980 fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Paul Berge purchased the property and revived it and eventually opened it to the public in 2008.


Majorelle garden is a quiet sanctuary. We visited it during winter, but in summer, when the temperature is more than 100 degrees F, its dense foliage offers refuge from the outside heat and is a perfect getaway from the city's hustle and bustle. The vibrant blue colored villa is a distinctive feature of the Majorelle garden. The villa is painted in ultramarine blue, a color he patented, now known as Majorelle blue. Those days this blue color was distinctive in Berber houses and native adobe homes. Unlike the desert landscape outside, Majorelle garden has an eclectic mix of plants - groves of bamboo, flowering creepers, coconut palms, bougainvillea, and cacti alongside trickling streams, pools, fountains, channels, lily-filled ponds, and stone walkways lined by pots, colored in a striking contrast of Majorelle blue and bright yellow. The garden also houses the Berber museum. It has a vast collection of Berber artifacts, costumes, and jewels, illustrating traditional Berber societies' diversity. It requires a separate entrance ticket, but I would highly recommend it.


Adjacent to the garden is Yves Saint Laurent Museum. Yves Saint Laurent, a celebrated fashion designer, fell in love with Marrakech and spent a considerable amount of time there. He said, "Marrakech taught me color. Before Marrakech, everything was black." This colorful sprawling collection of couture, accessories, sketches, and photographs are displayed in the exhibition hall of the museum. More than 1000 items from his studio - his 40 years of work - are in display here. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. If you are unfamiliar with YSL, a short film run in the theatre is a good primer.

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Our next stop was El Badi Palace, a 16th-century architectural masterpiece from the Saadian dynasty. Saadian king Ahmad al-Mansur wanted to build the world's finest palace, thus the name El Badi - "the incomparable." He hired master craftsmen and artisans from around the globe to create this lavishly adorned palace with beautiful and expensive decorations, a spacious pool, a sweeping courtyard, and numerous gardens. El Badi was used to host the receptions of ambassadors from around the world. There were 300 rooms decorated in gold, turquoise, and crystal to house these dignitaries. After the fall of the Saadian dynasty, the palace entered a period of decline. Alaouite king Moulay Ismail dismantled its exquisite materials and reused them to build the royal palace in Meknes. Stripped of all its former beauty, today, El Badi palace is nothing but a ruin. But, one can imagine this palace's splendor in its heydays by looking at the remnants of marble and mosaic tile work at the residential quarter.

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Being an avid photographer, how can I miss the photography museum? Maison de la Photographie has an extensive collection of photographs from 1870 to the 1950s. More than 5000 photographs, glass negatives, and documents chronicle the scenes of Moroccan daily life and how it evolved over the last 80 years. These vintage photographs feature Moroccan landscapes, portraits, architectural complexes, and highlights from the Berber culture. The rooftop restaurant on the panoramic terrace needs a special mention. It offers beautiful views of the city, and tagine (both veg and chicken) was delicious.

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Our last stop at Marrakech was Dar el Bacha - a palace built in the early 20th century by Thami El Glaoui, the Marrakech governor. Thami El Glaoui was infamous for being an ally of the French protectorate in Morocco. He conspired with them to overthrow Sultan Mohammed V. Thami built this private palace to celebrate and receive his guests, such as Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. It is a superb example of Moroccan architecture with ornate detailing, exquisitely sculpted and painted cedar wood doors, black and white patterned marble floors, elaborate pediments, painted walls, geometric and floral motifs, and Andalusian Arab-style zelliges. These luxurious decorations are complemented with beautiful landscaping with fountains, fragrant citrus trees in the central courtyard, and traditional seating areas, offering a peaceful elegance. The palace is now renovated and turned into a museum - Musée des Confluences. It has an impressive collection of eclectic exhibits. Most of them highlight different facets of Moroccan culture. An entire gallery is devoted to the international collection featuring archaeological treasures from the four continents. Étoffes des sens: Résonances (Fabrics of the Senses – Resonances), which showcased the impact Marrakech had on Yves Saint Laurent, seemed familiar since we visited the YSL museum earlier in the day. We didn't get a chance, but the coffee house smelled amazing, and it had glorious reviews in TripAdvisor.

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