“Where are you going!” the young man shouts. Not for the first time in Marrakech, I’m lost. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, and I can’t tell if this is the lane I’m looking for. It looks like it. But it also looks just like the last one. At times, the Medina makes me feel like I’m exploring an Escher print, or an exotic maze in which the next door might lead to a stunning riad or a ruin, a weaver coaxing scarves from a loom, or a hammam’s glowing furnace, with several tanjia urns slow-cooking in its ashes.
“Big square that way!” booms the man, bossing his way towards me and pointing back towards Jemaa el Fna. “Hey! No tourists in mosque!”
But I’m not looking for the mosque, I say. The doorway I’m looking for is that of The Orientalist Museum of Marrakech, home to paintings and ceramics by European artists like Jacques Majorelle and Henri Pontoy. On finally finding it, I take a seat in its rooftop cafe, looking out on this sprawling, peachy-pink city and over to the hazy Atlas Mountains in the distance. A neighbouring, 500-year-old minaret seems to lean over for a look into my mint tea.
“They thought I was an extraterrestrial,” laughs Nabil El Mallouki, as he pours my tea. In a previous life, 51-year-old Nabil was a banker, and his colleagues were bemused to see him leave to pursue a passion for the arts. In 1999, he opened the Matisse Art Gallery, one of the first in the city to showcase local and emerging modern artists. The Orientalist Museum is his latest project, a rundown riad reborn six months ago as a boutique home for this collection. “Everybody is frightened or ignorant until somebody takes the leap,” he muses.
“There are two parts of Marrakech: inside the wall and outside. My father was born inside; I was born outside. But I prefer it here in the Medina than in the new town!” Nabil laughs. “I’m in love with the Medina.”
He’s not alone. Dating back almost 1,000 years, Marrakech’s old city is a wonderfully confusing warren. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that feels more like a living organism than a built structure — its two-and-a-half square miles plunging me into a living history spilling over with souks, fondouks (hostels), colours and traditions. Were it not for their smartphones, the snake charmers of Jemaa el Fna, the men selling mint or sardines, or those working in the tanneries, could just as well be in medieval times.
“Before Marrakech, everything was black,” Yves Saint Laurent once said. The French fashion designer first came to the city in the 1960s, beginning a lifelong love affair that inspired some of his greatest work (the new Yves Saint Laurent Museum, together with the neighbouring Majorelle, is a honeypot for Instagrammers). A steady stream of celebs has followed in his footsteps, intrigued by this psychedelically colourful crossroads where worlds intersect: Africa and Europe, Islam and secularism, ancient and modern. Jasper Conran has his L’Hotel Marrakech here, Vanessa Branson (Richard Branson’s sister) her party pad Riad El Fenn, while Madonna chose the city as the venue for her 60th birthday celebrations.
Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco, knows the value of tourism, too. International flights are growing, and there’s a smart new terminal at Marrakesh Menara Airport. The new Museum of African Contemporary Art has opened since my last visit, and there’s a hum of construction (the glitzy new multiuse M Avenue district is slated to open in late 2019, and a taxi ride through the ‘new town’ of Gueliz, originally developed by the French in the 1900s, is lit up by big Western brand names like Starbucks, H&M and Zara.
Clearly, Marrakech is a city on the move. But I’m not interested in big brands. Like Nabil, I’m intrigued by the rhythm of life in the Medina. I want to find new shoots in the old city.
Medieval meets modern
“I was born in the medina,” Oussama Laftimi tells me. “My grandmother is from the Medina. For me, it was something special — the little streets, the colours. I remember noticing the tourists for the first time, and going, ‘wow!’”
Oussama’s brother, Kamal, has managed to stitch several new restaurants and cafes into the fabric of the old city — including Nomad, set in a former carpet store, where I eat a plate of seasonal mezze overlooking the spice square of Rahba Kadima. There’s also Café des Épices, a well-known stop for travellers; and Le Jardin, where designer Anne Favier has helped to create a leafy green oasis in a 16th-century building that would light up the pages of any interiors magazine. The brothers want to breathe new life into the old spaces where they grew up, Oussama says. There are no big glass fronts or generic fit-outs. “We try to introduce something a bit different, but in a Moroccan way,” he smiles.
At Le Trou au Mur, another recent opening, I find more reinvention taking place — modern spins on “old granny’s dishes”, according to James Wix, the Brit who opened the restaurant a year ago in a subtly funky room. Bright whites and jade greens are dressed up with Orientalist-style paintings and searing, monochrome portraits emblazoned onto chair backs — a novel setting in which to eat spiced lamb mechui and an afternoon tea-style tray of Moroccan salads.
“I don’t want to lose where we are. Starched service is just not what the Medina is about. If you’re going to be in the old city, there are so many design aspects you can work with.” His father, hotelier Jonathan Wix, developed the nearby Riad Farnatchi, where James has opened Farnatchi Spa, complete with marble hammams and light lunches. Over time, Marrakech “gets under your skin,” James tells me. “The city is like a living museum.”
I’d describe it as a slap in the face rather than a seduction. Stepping out from my base at La Sultana Marrakech, a beautifully restored sanctuary modelled on the city’s Bahia Palace, I’m immersed in another world. Here in the Medina, just a few steps take me from a restful pool, zellij mosaics and gorgeous brickwork to a sensory circus. Hawkers hawk. Mopeds buzz. Kaftans and djellaba robes are brightly coloured; souks stuffed with tagines, leather bags, carpets and jewellery. Turn a corner, and I might be greeted by the smell of mint, or an open drain. And of course, there’s the full-on carnival of Jemaa el Fna, where locals and tourists mingle at sundown among storytellers, henna tattooists, food vendors, Berber dancers and snake charmers with stoned-looking cobras.
“Don’t panic, it’s organic!” trumpets the first of many aggressive hawkers, shoving a laminated menu into my face and blocking my path. “Prices democratic! Not Marks & Spencer! Not greasy spoon!”
“Cannabis, hashish?” whispers another, brushing by.
I push on. In the Mouassine district, two workers are restoring an arch, as a stream of people, mopeds and donkeys passes beneath. A walking tour organised by tour operator Mint Morocco takes me to Le Jardin Secret, a newly restored Islamic garden, designed to encourage rest and reflection. It feels like a mirage amid the chaos of the Medina — crisp, neat lines and geometric grids emphasise order, control and serenity amid the perfume of lavender, gentle rustle of olive trees, and gurgle of fountains. At the end of the garden, I climb a tower for views of the city, as well as a lavish villa belonging to the Italian Bulgari family next door.
All that jazz
The Medina feels medieval, but clearly there’s new energy under the bonnet. In the Kaat Benahid neighbourhood, another old door leads me to Riad Star, a 13-room, traditional Moroccan home rejuvenated by Mike and Lucie Wood — two other Britons who, like James Wix, have invested large sums in Marrakech. Riad Star was once home to French entertainer and activist Josephine Baker, I learn, and is today a townhouse where crushed velvets and creamy white walls of intricately carved plasterwork are interspersed with memorabilia, period costumes and understated splashes of colour — a red fez here, a striped pair of babouches (slippers) there.
“Baker was the Madonna of her day,” Mike tells me over dinner on the roof terrace, where I wait for droning calls to prayer to end before calling up her songs on Spotify. J’ai Deux Amours is Mike’s request, and as the music plays on my phone, the vintage sexiness of Baker’s voice drifts along on the evening air.
Over the coming days, Mike shows me the Medina, including the renovated Ben Yussef Mosque, the refurbishments underway on its madrassa (religious school) and Kouba Baroudiyine (the washrooms of the original mosque; said to be the oldest building in Marrakech). Every now and then, we divert up a lane to see one of several riads he and Lucie have restored; arriving at one recently acquired property to find its courtyard crowded with overgrown orange trees.
I love the sense of sizzle here, of possibility, the notion that anything could happen… or fall on its face. At Max & Jan, a fashion boutique in an former fondouk in Moussaine, I meet co-founder Jan Pauwels, “Some people ask who the architect is,” he says, referring to the interior design. “There is no architect,” he tells me. “We just say, what about that? And if it fits, it fits.”
Among the goods for sale is a prickly pear scrub from local cosmetics brand The Moroccans. Another label, ML, creates a contemporary take on loom-made cloaks.
In Max & Jan’s rooftop restaurant, I ask Jan what’s next for him and Max. “I’d like to do a souk for new, young designers,” he says. “Marrakech is a very inspiring city; you see a lot of things going on. It’s a bit like Berlin in North Africa. Lots of Europeans come here to live, there are lots of artisans, and it’s possible to do things by hand. New designers with new ideas can make anything in Marrakech.”
While these changes make it an exciting time to visit, some are concerned about the impact gentrification may have on local neighbourhoods. Maybe that was in the mind of the young man directing me away from the mosque. But I see no Starbucks or McDonald’s in the Medina. The new shoots feel organic. To me, the future looks like one of those big old wooden doors — push it and you might find a slick new riad, an Aladdin’s cave of lights or carpets, or a derelict courtyard full of orange trees. Nobody knows what’s coming next.
“What is sure, is that in the near future you’ll have a Louis Vuitton, a Gucci, or a little magasin open — like in the old town in Mykonos,” Nabil tells me, back at the Orientalist Museum. “But the Medina is huge; if there’s an introduction of new things that respect it and the mentality of its people, then they won’t drag things down. They’ll create a virtuous circle, an equilibrium.”
As I leave, Nabil shows me the ceramics he’s bought from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé. “Lots of things in the world push us apart,” he muses. “Art can bring us together.”
Moments later, I’m lost in the alleyways of the Medina again.
Getting there & around
Air Arabia and EasyJet fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, while British Airways and Royal Air Maroc fly from Heathrow and Gatwick. Ryanair flies from Stansted, Luton and Liverpool, plus — from April 2019 — Manchester.
Average flight time: 3h35m.
Although there are plenty of taxis and some tuk-tuks, the Medina is very walkable.
When to go
Summer temperatures can soar into the 40Cs; aim instead for spring (March to May) or autumn (mid-September to November). Winters are mild, although it gets cold at night. Ramadan falls mostly in May in 2019; business hours may be affected.
How to do it
Mint Morocco’s four-night Exotic Marrakech includes B&B accommodation in the Medina, a half-day walking tour, and hammam visit from £425 per person, excluding flights.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)