John McAslan

Marrakesh is Morocco’s magical, pulsating heart


John McAslan


First published in AT78, 1997

I have never really taken to the English landscape, particularly in the south, where unless you’re really lucky you’re rarely far from a rumbling bypass. Instead I go north to Scotland or south to Italy. Better still, I go south-west to Morocco and head for Marrakesh, the desert and beyond.

To really appreciate Morocco, you need to understand something of its turbulent past. It emerged as a nation in the ninth century when the Islamic leader Idriss established a northern dynasty centred in Fes, the country’s great historic city. Dynastic rivalries followed, producing 500 years of internal strife until Europe began to take an interest in north Africa – first Portugal, then Spain, and finally France, which established Morocco as a protectorate early this century, which it remained until independence in 1955. Today, despite 40 years of occasional unrest and little sign of an effective democracy, the country is more or less stable.

While Fes is the country’s artistic capital, for me Marrakesh, with its spectacular desert setting at the base of the Atlas Mountains, is the country’s magical pulsating heart, where once you’ve arrived you really feel you’ve set foot in Africa. Marrakesh’s history is no less turbulent. Its formative development was in the eleventh century, when Sultan Youssef ibn Tachfin, rich from his plundering in Spain, built the city’s fortified walls and oversaw the development of its medina and gardens. But between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, Marrakesh was partially destroyed and rebuilt in cycles, each time being reconstructed by its Spanish workforce who formed the city’s distinctive interpretation of Andalusian architecture.

At night Djemma el Fna becomes a spectacular focus of energy, lit by torches and filled with jugglers, snake-charmers, fire-eaters, magicians, wild eccentrics and battery sellers

I first came to Marrakesh in 1980 with an instruction from my former boss Richard Rogers to visit Djemaa el-Fna at dusk. He was right. For those who don’t know it, Djemaa el-Fna is the vast square occupying the whole southern edge of the medina. It’s the heart space of Marrakech. During the day it is lively, but at night it becomes a spectacular focus of energy, lit by torches and filled with jugglers, snake-charmers, fire-eaters, magicians, wild eccentrics and battery sellers. I know because I bought a pack of batteries, loaded up a cassette player and taped the deafening noise, only to listen to silence on my way home having been sold batteries long past their sell-by-date.

When you’ve had enough of the square, you can retire to one of the cafes that line its edges, view the action from the balconies above and then wander through the maze of souqs which extend through open and closed markets with blacksmiths, carpenters, leather-makers, dyers and potters crammed into a labyrinth of stalls. Inevitably tourism has tainted them, but they remain essentially working souks crammed with many more locals than visitors.

Aside from the medinas, squares and souks, Marrakesh’s other great attractions are its mosques, medersas (colleges) and gardens. My favourite, the sixteenth-century Ben Youssef Medersa, is planned around a series of tiny courtyards with student study spaces like monastic cells illuminated by cedar-shuttered openings, in a form that would have inspired Louis Kahn himself. And while the gardens and orchards of the old town’s city palaces are interesting enough, the exquisite and luxuriant Jardin Majorelle stands out, surrounding a 1920s villa in Matisse blue located in the Nouvelle Ville’s northern edge.

My passion for travel is compounded by an equally imperative need to seek out spectacular places to stay. They don’t want to be opulent, but they do need to be special. Until the late 1980s La Mamounia was Marrakesh’s great hotel, built in the 1930s and a favourite haunt of artists and writers. However, in recent years it has lost much of its appeal following a lavish remodelling. Although its walled garden forming part of the medina enclosure is still wonderful, much more authentic is La Roseraie, set in its own extensive gardens in the High Atlas foothills, an hour away to the south by car.

Cafes, bars and restaurants abound in Marrakesh. From my (albeit limited) perspective, authentic Moroccan cuisine is the best in the world. The art deco Mirador and Café de France on the Djemaa el-Fna are my favourites, while Yacout lives up to its reputation as the city’s buzziest restaurant – expensive, but no more so than my local Pizza Express in Notting Hill Gate.
So there you have it. If all of this sounds intellectually a bit thin then I’m sorry. I’m led by the heart, not the head. To me, my kind of town means an escape from responsibilities, a place of magical qualities. That’s why I love Marrakesh.


Explore more