Marrakech is one of the oldest cities of the Maghreb, the northern part of Africa stretching from the western half of Libya to the Atlantic Ocean. The city dominates the Haouz plain, a mosaic of fruit orchards, olive groves, desert scrub, and sand. A one-hour drive south lie the High Atlas Mountains. Marrakech proper is made up of two parts: the ancient medina, with its labyrinthine alleys set within nine-mile-long rampart walls, and the new town, Ville Nouvelle, built by the French when Morocco was a protectorate (1912-56). The new town is further divided into two sections: Gueliz (commercial) and Hivernage (residential). La Mamounia is located in the latter.
Orienting yourself in the medina is an oxymoron: Few of the streets have names, many that do are written in Arabic, and urban planning had no place in the city's history. Maps indicate only major landmarks (the Koutoubia minaret to the southwest of the medina and the central Jemaa el Fnaa), providing brushstroke directions that make Arabic-speaking guides essential.
Gueliz is simpler, with straight, wide, French-style boulevards. The main arteries are Avenue Mohammed V (for shopping), Avenue de France (for conference hotels), and Avenue Hassan II. The airport is an easy 10-15-minute drive southwest of the city.
Telephone Numbers: Morocco country code: 212. Marrakech city code: 44. Cell phones begin 061 (drop the 0 if calling internationally). Note: Phone contact can be quite difficult.
Local Time: Five hours ahead of EST—with no daylight savings time.
Currency: The Moroccan dirham (DH) is divided into 100 centimes. It is forbidden to import or export the currency. Current exchange rate: $1.00=12DH.
Tipping: Restaurants: 10 percent. Drivers and guides: varies; consult your concierge or the Moroccan tourist office. Bellboys: 10DH.
Health and Immunizations: Hepatitis A, polio, cholera, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid shots are all recommended. Drink bottled water only.
When to Visit: Spring and fall, when temperatures range from the 70s to the low 90s, humidity is low, and there's lots of sunshine. In July and August average temperatures can hit a roasting 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Airlines: Royal Air Maroc (800-344-6726) flies direct to Casablanca from New York three times weekly; flight time, six hours 40 minutes. From Casablanca, take the 40-minute transfer flight to Marrakech; there are four departures daily. Air France (800-237-2747) and British Airways (800-247-9297) also fly direct to Marrakech from Paris and London.
Cars: Do not drive yourself. Rely on petit taxis and private drivers. Metered fares should run 10-20DH a trip with a 50 percent surcharge at night. For a reliable petit taxi driver, call Oumalloul Bhahim (cell 68-60-70). Or hire Nekar (43-44-62), with its three Mercedes driven by English-speaking, uniformed chauffeurs.
Morocco Tour: Heritage Tours in New York (800-378-4555) is recommended for visitors who want to delve into Moroccan culture. Its tailor-made trips are led by guides of the highest caliber. The Best of Morocco (44-1380-828-533) is an excellent British tour operator used by filmmakers and private individuals.
Guides: Guides are essential. The medina is impossible to negotiate without one, and English signage in the museums is almost non-existent. They should all carry photo I.D.s endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism. Heritage Tours consistently provides highly educated, accommodating guides who go that extra distance. Of the freelance guides, Mohamed Bouskri (30-42-40; cell 14-74-82) is the most well regarded, with 32 years' experience. His client list includes three former U.S. Presidents. A new venture for the intellectually curious is Diversity Excursions (38-52-72), launched by Gary Martin. English-speaking guide Mohamed Zahidi leads the tours accompanied by Moroccan academics. Excursions include access to private properties, gourmet itineraries, and botanical field trips. Advance booking is imperative. For a bird's-eye view of Marrakech from a hot-air balloon, contact Maurice Otin at Ciel d'Afrique (30-31-35; cell 13-70-51).
Moroccan National Tourist Office: 20 East 46th Street, Suite 1201, New York, NY 10017; 212-557-2520; fax 212-949-8148; www.tourism-in-morocco.com. In Marrakech, Place Abdelmoumen ben Ali; 43-61-31; fax 43-60-57.
Amanjena This is an Aman in its adolescence. Opened in February 2000, its pedigree is excellent: Ed Tuttle's high-drama, Moroccan-inspired architecture; its limited size (34 stand-alone villas and six two-story maisons); rooms like fiefdoms; a staff-guest ratio of three to one. However, the defining glory of an Aman is its service. Unfortunately, Amanjena's may not yet be up to the standards of its celebrated Asian sisters (it was quicker to go looking for a pool attendant than wait to be noticed; the spa receptionist was chewing gum as she took my booking). That said, new management has recently been introduced whose track record would suggest imminent improvements. And as out-of-town resort hotels go, Amanjena has, without doubt, set a new standard. Though the menu here has more to do with Aman's Far Eastern heritage than the Mediterranean, the spicy Thai salads, meltingly fresh fish, and impeccable meats served in its restaurant are very good. Be sure to book a room facing the huge bassin (irrigation pool). $700-$2,000. Route de Ouarzazate, Km 12, Marrakech; 40-33-53; fax 40-34-77; www.amanresorts.com.
La Mamounia A grand Art Deco institution with glorious gardens and magnificent suites frequented by every visiting grandee from Prince Charles to Bertolucci. But service at this 230-room hotel seems to vary according to room grade. Still, in these desert environs, full-time concierge, fax, e-mail facilities, and a bartender who knows how to make a dry martini go a long way. The three villas at the top end of the scale are palatial—all with three bedrooms and en suite bathrooms. The seven "themed" suites in the main building are also recommended (bar the Orient Express suite, which to some could seem as claustrophobic as the train carriage). Of these, the best are the Churchill suite, stuffed with Chesterfield furniture and memorabilia of the British prime minister, and the Menzeh suite—Moorish, with carved cedar, stucco, and zellij tiling. Also in this style, although not as large, are the four Moroccan suites. Beyond this, the room rules are simple: second or third floor, garden-facing. Anything else, don't bother. Food is good—especially at the poolside buffet. There are five restaurants, a spa, and a casino. $300-$3,000. Ave. Bab Jedid, Hivernage; 38-86-00; fax 44-46-60; www.mamounia.com.
Villa des Orangers When it comes to detail, Villa des Orangers is by far the best small hotel in Marrakech. It's modest—16 rooms (book one of the suites with a roof terrace) spread out over two floors around an internal courtyard seven minutes' walk from the Jemaa el Fnaa. It's also well conceived: Egyptian cotton sheets, air conditioning, the International Herald Tribune at breakfast, an English-speaking concierge available at 3 a.m. The style is quintessentially Moorish, with brushed silver basins, Berber rugs, cream and terra-cotta walls, and carved stucco arches. There are four orange trees and a fountain in the courtyard. The food is excellent. The only fault is the size of the pool (more a turquoise puddle), but by the end of the year, a full-size alternative should have opened. $250-$450. 6 Rue Sidi Mimoun, Medina; 38-46-38; fax 38-51-23; www.villadesorangers.com.
La Maison Arabe $ If Villa des Orangers is full, stay here, another riad-style hotel (Marrakech's original), where service is crisp, there is room service, air conditioning, bowls of fresh fruit, and satellite TV. It is also Moroccan: copious cedar and sophisticated antiques. Don't settle for less than a suite (seven of the 13 rooms), ideally number 217, the sunniest, with a private terrace. There is also a pool, though it's off-premises in the Palmeraie. $170-$600. Derb Assehbe Bab Doukkala, Medina; 38-70-10; fax 38-72-21; www.lamaisonarabe.com.
Kasbah Agafay$ The first of the city's forts to have been converted into a top-end hotel. A 20-minute drive outside Marrakech, Agafay sits on a lonely knoll with 360-degree views over desert hills. There are 19 suites arranged around six courtyards, with a large pool. It is, however, overpriced; but until alternatives open up, this hotel offers a rare Kasbah experience. $340-$840. Route de l'Aéroport Km 20; 36-86-00; fax 42-09-70; www.kasbahagafay.com.
Until recently, riads (private homes in the medina built around inner courtyards) were inaccessible to passing visitors. Now a number have opened up as maisons d'hôte, or upscale B&Bs. They can be a delight, especially for the more adventurous traveler. But beware: They are not for everyone. They are without the standard amenities (concierge, room service, meals on call) and therefore will suit only certain clients.
Riyad El Cadi $ The most sophisticated, owned by Herwig Bartels, former German ambassador to Rabat. An avid collector of early Islamic and Byzantine art, his home—12 rooms around five interconnected courtyards—is like a museum. Book the China suite, one of the rooms with air conditioning. $100-$240. 87 Derb Moulay Abdelkader, Dabachi, Medina; 37-86-55; fax 37-84-78. To use your American Express Card, book through Earth in London: 44-207-793-9993.
Riad Enija $ This riad, more feminine than El Cadi, has a pretty garden courtyard with acres of zellij tiling and copious fuchsia and lime-green silk upholstery. $230-$350. Rahba Lakdima, 9 Derb Mesfioui, Medina; 44-09-26; fax 44-27-00.
Riad Kaiss $ This eight-room riad is run like a private home, with neat linen-sheeted beds and a delicious, continental breakfast. Book room 3, with a fourposter and roof terrace. $150-$200. 65 Derb Jedid, Riad Zitoune Kédim, Medina; tel/fax 44-01-41; www.riadkaiss.com.
Orchard of the Shooting Star $ Frederick Vreeland's villa in the Palmeraie consists of two four-bedroom houses set around a central courtyard in a five-acre walled garden. Amenities include a tennis court, pool, staff of six (including a private driver and chef). The rooms aren't air-conditioned; the decor, eclectic. $14,250 per week, not including mandatory European meal plan (adults, $180; children 3-12, $90). Book through Claire Packman of At Home Abroad, 212-421-9165, fax 212-752-1591.
Dar Tamsna $ Consisting of two villas in the Palmeraie, each with its own swimming pool, Meryanne Loum-Martin's Dar Tamsna is where the Hollywood A-list stay. The villas, which sleep eight and 12, can be booked separately. Efficiently run (each has a staff of nine) and chic, this is the most private place in Marrakech you can hole up in. $2,800 per person per week, full board. BP 262, Medina; 32-91-35; fax 32-91-33.
If you are vegetarian, say so when you make your reservation; Moroccan restaurants tend to have set, meat-centric menus.
Yacout An institution requiring the kind of advance reservation you'd think to make only for a Michelin three-star in Paris. It's not, though, a wholly gourmet experience; people come for the over-the-top Oriental atmosphere created by American designer Bill Willis. Yacout occupies a dusky pink, crenellated riad. Rose petals are strewn across the damask; lattice lanterns cast pools of colored light; Gnaoua musicians play unobtrusively in the shadows. You lounge on salmon velvet banquettes or in the courtyard. The food is festive Moroccan served in ridiculous quantities—nine separate salads to start, followed by chicken tagine, then lamb, vegetables, and couscous, rounded off with pastilla doused in lashings of almond milk. $120, including wine. 79 Sidi Ahmed Soussi, Medina; 38-29-29; fax 38-25-38. Closed Mon.
Le Tobsil An understated Yacout occupying an equally hard to find riad. It is more intimate, just 16 tables. Unfortunately, the cuisine, which stood out from the crowd when the restaurant opened in 1999, isn't as good as it was. That said, the desserts are magnificent and the service attentive. $100, including wine. 22 Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, R'mila Bab Ksour, Medina; 44-40-52; fax 44-35-15. Closed Tues.
Dar Moha Almadina The most original thing to have happened to local cuisine since the French arrived in 1912. Swiss-trained Moroccan chef Moha Fedal's basics (tagines, pastillas) are stewed with less fat, fewer olives, and more delicate spices. Mid-course palette-cleansing sorbets are replaced with an orange stuffed with carrot, almonds, and orange-flower water; the fish, steamed not stewed, is flavored with spices that haven't popped up in the other multiple courses. But with all pioneers there are sometimes lapses, in this instance the dessert la tomate est un fruit. Botanically maybe, but the gourmand in me doubts it. $70. 81 Rue Dar el Bacha, Medina; 38-64-00; fax 38-69-98.
Le Comptoir Darna $ This is where fashionable Marrakech comes to drink dry martinis in the company of model waitresses and sultry lounge-style music. The restaurant, with banquette seating and oxblood-red silk cushions, has respectable French and Moroccan à la carte menus. $60. Ave. Echouhada, Hivernage; 43-77-02; fax 44-77-47.
Shops are generally open 9 a.m.-midday and 3-8 p.m.; most are closed 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. (prayer time) on Friday. In the souks, the medina's traditional markets, the quality is usually inferior and bargaining brutal. The experience, though, is worth conceding the occasional ripoff. The most upmarket shops, detailed below, are usually fixed-price and will reliably ship goods overseas.
Beldi For caftans, handmade in Moroccan cotton, silks, and suedes, with selected designs skewed to Western tastes. Babouches, the pointed slippers, come in velvet and silk. There's also a limited range of exquisitely embroidered Nehru-colored jackets. 9-11 Souikat Laksour, Medina; 44-10-76.
Ryad Tamsna Chic expats come to this restaurant-boutique (lunch only) for the cuisine and unbeatable shopping experience. The two-floored converted riad—with pale walls punctuated by dark, clean-lined furniture—has a bookshop and art gallery on the ground floor, with the restaurant in the courtyard. Upstairs, find silver ethnic jewelry, argan oil (a gourmet sensation fetching $40 a bottle in New York), and hand-dyed silk and velvet shawls. Lunch: $44. Riad Zitoune el Jedid, 23 Derb Zanka Daika, Medina; 38-52-72; fax 38-52-71.
La Porte D'Or Ground zero for silk Berber kilims from the Middle Atlas; Rabats (knotted, and the most valuable); and Glaoua rugs, woven, knotted, and embroidered in soft reds and ochres. A favorite of New York rug dealer Brooke Pickering. 115 Souk Semmarine, Medina; 44-54-54; fax 42-60-20.
Place Vendome Where to get your favorite designs copied in Moroccan grained calfskin, smooth box calf, kid, or lambskin. A bag takes a week, clothing a day. 141 Ave. Mohamed V, Gueliz; 43-52-63.
Al Yed Gallery For museum-quality antique ethnic jewelry—mostly Berber pieces: semiprecious stones set in silver, including rare 19th-century necklaces, fibulas, bracelets, and ornate ceremonial diadems. 66 Fnal Chidmi Mouassine, Medina; 44-29-95.
Galerie Topkapi A new, hip boutique for candlesticks, bags, lanterns, and embroidered goatskin babouches. Stock is as limited as the chic count is high. 10 Rue de Yougoslavie, Résidence Saâda, Gueliz; 43-52-33.
Valerie Barkowski For hand-finished bed linens of the finest quality and colorful knitwear. Her Mia Zia merino wool ladies' pullovers, scarves, and trousers are sold at Amanjena. Q.I. Sidi Ghanem 297, Marrakech; cell 34-41-54; fax 33-61-26.
Ministero del Gusto Owned by Italian fashion editor turned art dealer and furniture designer Alessandra Lippini and partner Fabrizio Bizzarri, this gallery features a range of modern, African-inspired furniture—snakeskin cupboards, cowhide chairs, onyx coffee tables. The Gaudi-esque house annually hosts several exhibitions of international artists. 22 Derb Azouz el Mouassine, Medina; 42-64-55; fax 42-79-367.
Al Badii Where to come for rare antique Fez ceramics—museum-quality pieces costing upwards of $8,000 a bowl, including 18th-century jade-green Tamegrout pottery. Other specialties include antique Moroccan textiles and 19th-century Jewish ceremonial jewelry. There's a warehouse behind stuffed with old Berber doors. 54 Blvd. My Rachid, Gueliz; 43-16-93; fax 43-16-79.
Brigitte Perkins Visits to the impossible-to-find atelier of this artisan are by appointment only, and her exquisite, handwoven fabrics are by commission (a three- to six-month process). The quality is faultless—heavy cottons and delicate French silks simply ornamented with colored and metallic stripes are clearly influenced by the bold patterns of Berber textiles. Fondouk el Kabbaj, 129 Ben Salah, Medina. 37-74-16.
Farid Belkahia To purchase the work of this internationally well known Marrakechi artist, visit his studio in the Palmeraie. By appointment: tel/fax 32-91-25.
Museums are generally open 9 a.m.-midday and 2:30-6 p.m. Closed Tues. Monuments are open daily. Afternoons are quieter (there are fewer tour groups). Most mosques are closed to non-Muslims.
El Badia Palace A ruin of 16th-century royal ambition worth visiting for the Koutoubia Minbar. The 900-year-old pulpit, one of the great gems of Islamic craftsmanship, was restored with the aid of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bab Berrima, Medina.
Dar Si Said Houses the city's finest public collection of Moroccan decorative arts, ranging from carved cedar doors and 19th-century jewelry to Berber and Arab rugs. Riad Zitoune el Jedid, Medina.
Dar M'Nebhi This relatively new museum (Musée Privé de Marrakech) is devoted to contemporary art and traditional Moroccan instruments. Exhibitions feature rarely seen pieces from private collections. When in the area, don't miss the Koubba Ba'Adiyn, a sunken, 12th-century domed pavilion. It is the oldest monument in Marrakech. Place Ben Youssef, Medina; 39-09-11.
Dar Cherifa is a late-15th-century riad dating from the Saadian dynasty. The architectural sophistication is magnificent—perfect proportions, stucco and carved cedar lintels—praise which until now has been reserved for the rightly popular though far less intimate Ali ben Youssef Medersa, off the eponymous square. This also dates from the Saadian dynasty. Derb Chorfa Lakbir, Mouassine, Medina; 42-64-63.
Bahia Palace An Andalusian-style, 19th-century palace. The maze of passages, gardens, and courtyards includes reception halls with some of the city's most dazzling painted ceilings. Riad Zitoune el Jedid, Medina.
Majorelle Garden The former botanical gardens of French artist Jacques Majorelle. Now owned by Yves Saint Laurent, this urban sanctuary of palms, agaves, bamboo, and water reservoirs is remarkable less for the plants than the garden structures painted in a bright "Majorelle" blue. Skip the Museum of Islamic Art that occupies the artist's studio. Rue Majorelle, Gueliz; 31-16-24.
About this Guide
Prices In U.S. dollars.
Hotel Prices For high-season, double occupancy, from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
Restaurant Prices For a three-course dinner for two, without wine or service.
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For assistance with your travel to Marrakech, or any destination, call 800-443-7672 (PTS) or 877-877-0987 (CTS). From abroad, call 623-492-5000 collect.
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Disclaimer: the information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in September 2001, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.