Morocco - Our Travel Diary
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Jardin Menara as backdrop
Duration: 5 days
Getting There – Marrakech and Casablanca are well connected with Europe and Middle East via direct or one stop flights. Other Moroccan destinations such as Rabat, Fes, Agadir, Tangier are also connected to major European cities via direct flights. We flew direct to Marrakech with Easyjet from London Gatwick.
When to go – As such there is no bad time to travel to Morocco as it’s a year round destination depending on where you want to go. The costal destinations of Morocco can be visited year round and places like Marrakesh, Fes are best visited during March to May or September to November, during these time the climate is neither too hot nor too cold and mostly pleasant throughout the day.
What to buy – Depends on how much you want to spend! Take a casual walk first around the souks or Marrakech to zero in on what you want to buy. Set some budget for each items and then go shopping the next day. Be prepared to do some light hearted haggling. You can fill your bags with leather bags, jewellery, rugs, leather slippers (babouche or Balgha), spices, colourful tiles or even a traditional robe (djellaba).
What to wear – Being an Islamic country, it is better to dress modestly in long loose-fitting clothes, which also help you stay more comfortable in the Moroccan weather. But whatever you wear, women should be expect some harmless stares from the menfolk especially if you are on your own.
Arrive by afternoon and check into the hotel.
Go out for lunch in a local restaurant and eat Tagine
Visit to Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech. It was completed during the reign of the Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansour in the 12th century and is said to have inspired structures like the Giralda in Seville, Spain and the Hassan Tower in Rabat, Morocco. Halfway through the construction, it was noticed that the mihrab (prayer niche) 5 degrees out of alignment with the direction of Mecca. When the Andalusians defeated the Almohad dynasty, they decided to build a new mosque next to the first structure – it was made identical to the first except that this was now 10 degrees out of alignment with Mecca!
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrekech
Towering above the square of Jemaa El Fna, the 69 meter high minaret of Koutoubia is symbolic of Marrakech – a religious and architectural landmark at the heart of the city. Entry to non-Muslims is not allowed, but there is still a lot to marvel at from outside including the beautiful gardens. Spend some time to look at the beautiful curved windows, arches, the patterned ceramic tile strip and copper globes. It is surrounded by sprawling gardens and is always alive with calls for prayers 5 times a day and lights up beautifully at night.
Experience Jemaa El Fna
Nothing brings the Marrakech experience to life more than watching the square of Jemaa El Fna come to life! Jemaa El-Fna means ‘assembly of the dead’ probably because this was the site of public executions in the past. In 2001 UNESCO recognized it as ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Moroccan street food seller from Jemaa El-Fna
We arrived at a roof top café next to the square and ordered some our mint tea. While sipping our tea we start to witness the theatrical transformation of the square into a lively night food market. We cannot recommend enough, taking the time out to see the square transform – only then you appreciate the magic behind the magic! As the sun went down, we came down from the café to the square to be a part of it. The stalls have numbers and we ordered our first dose of Moroccan street food from stall number 1! This is a Moroccan fast food at its best – fresh, fast, inexpensive and amazingly delicious, breads with dips, kebabs, spicy sausages and other selections is enough reason to step out of your comfort zone and have an experience. For more details on Jemaa El-Fna read our blog here.
Full day exploring of Marrakech
El Badi Palace
The El Badi palace (meaning “palace of the incomparable”) was built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to commemorate victory over the Portuguese army in the 16th century, its construction was influenced by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Materials were imported from Europe including marble from Italy and a large number of artisans were involved. It is believed that the Sultan continued to embellish the palace right up to his death. As the name suggests the palace was created to showcase the Sultan’s wealth and power and was used to receive and host guests. The palace is centred around a massive courtyard with a central pool and four lower level gardens arranged symmetrically around the central pool – the arrangement is much like a riyad. There were also guest annexes in the palace. But after the Sultan’s death, the palace fell into disrepair and in the 17th century the Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismaïl took the materials and embellishments from this palace to build the imperial city of Meknes. One can only imagine the grandeur of this place when it was in its full glory with marble, gold and onyx and buzzing with royalty!
The ruins of El Badi Palace
Since 2011, the El Badi palace has been used as a stage for the Marrakech Laughter festival. Try to visit it in the morning when it is cooler and also note that at the main entrance you should buy a double ticket that includes a the minbar as they cannot be purchased inside, the minbar is a pulpit in the mosque where the imam (prayer leader) stands to deliver sermons. The minbar was built in Cordoba Spain over 8 years and was originally used in the Koutoubia mosque. It is intricately carved and beautiful piece of craftsmanship from the pages of history!
Bahia Palace is located along Rue Riad Zitoun El Jedid, southeast of the Medina and close to the Mellah. It is spread over 20 acres with gardens, courtyards and around 150 rooms only some of which are accessible to the public today. The rooms for the ladies have carved-cedar ceilings; the stained-glass windows create spectacular displays of light, the dazzling zellige tile mosaics in geometric patterns literally make your jaw drop! The massive Grand Courtyard with its marble-tiled surface hugged by carved wooden galleries is a sight to be seen. The rooms for wives and concubines have carved-cedar ceilings; salons are lined by stained-glass windows; reception halls dazzle with their zellige tile mosaics in geometric patterns and delicate stucco works. The palace harem is decorated with woven-silk panels and more stained-glass windows, while the huge Grand Courtyard is a sight to see with its marble-tiled surface stretching out between the carved wooden galleries. For more on the story of this creation and other trivia read the blog here.
central courtyard garden and beautiful Moroccan tile-work at Bahia Palace
This is to our minds the most stunning example of Moorish architecture in Morocco! The palace is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (may be subject to changes or closures during royal visits and other events). The entrance fee is 10 Moroccan Dirhams, or about $1 US.
In the days when internet wasn’t so freely available, ending up in a place like Jardin Majorelle would have been such a delight – who would have envisioned a very bright and strong statement garden in the middle of a North African city! It is a welcome respite from the sun but goes up a notch with its bright blue walls, turquoise and bold yellow planters and other colours so lively that it cheers you up and calms you down! Magic!
Entrance to Jardin Majorelle
This masterpiece was created by French architect, painter and passionate botanist Jacques Majorelle who had come to Morocco on invitation of his father’s friend but fell in love with the colours, and vibrant life of the city which he illustrated in many of his paintings. He went on to buy land and gradually over the years built a garden, his villa and a studio. He used primary colours to paint the structures and the pots and created a dazzling piece of art and nature. He travelled around to five continents for almost 40 years, and collected a wide range of plants to add to his garden. To keep up with the financial costs of upkeep he had to eventually open it to the public. Four years after his death, the garden was visited by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. They fell in love with it and were frequent visitors to this dreamy destination. But over the years, the garden fell into disrepair and later plans were drawn to create a hotel at the site. Hearing this Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé pulled all the strings to stop this from happening and ended up buying and subsequently restoring the place in line with Majorelle’s vision. They also boosted his collection of plants. The love that Yves Saint Laurent had for this garden is visible from the fact that his ashes were spread here after he passed away. A memorial stands in the garden today, a good reminder of artists breathing life to another artist’s work.
The word garden (Jardin in French) can be misleading if you expect to see a traditional shady garden, but this place is still worth a visit for the view- great during early morning or late evening in summers and the snow covered peaks of the Atlas mountains in the winter. It is essentially a massive reservoir of water overlooked by a tall pavilion with a pyramid shaped top thus giving its name. It was built in the 12th century by Almohad ruler as a training ground for soldiers.
The lake and pavilion of Jardin Menara
The water reservoir was built using the then hydraulic system that was fed by waters from the mountains. The water from the reservoir was used to irrigate the grounds of the olive orchards. The lower floor of the pavilion was meant for the harem and the servants. The upper floor can provide good views of the Atlas. The present pavilion was built in the 19th century.
A souk is an organized market in an Arab/Muslim country. It is sometimes used synonymously with the word bazaar also meaning marketplace which is of Persian origin. Though bazaar is a much more globally used term now, the term souk is prevalent mostly in North Africa and the Middle East.
The souk of Marrakech
The Marrakech souk can easily be considered as one of the top 5 souks of the world- with the likes of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey. Like the other historical marketplaces, little has changed here – the narrow alleyways lined with shops display an explosion of colours and art. The shopkeepers are dressed in their djellaba (traditional robes) selling beautiful rugs, lanterns, shoes, leather bags, spices etc. Taking pictures without getting hassled is not easy. If you are spotted taking pictures, they immediately start to sell you things. So it is a bit tricky to enjoy the place without taking pictures or buying. If you don’t want to buy anything it is better not to ask for any price. Or if you can manage to have a light hearted banter with the shopkeepers and move on, you have the right spirit for this place! If you do want buy something, consider what you are willing to pay and offer slightly lesser than that so you can negotiate up. That is a good rule of thumb for any place where haggling is cultural! If you like to support local economy and have love for local craftsmanship, pay what you think is reasonable. There isn't really any right or wrong price.
Ben Youssef Madrasa and Almovarid Koubba
A madrasa is an Islamic education centre (like a school or college) that is often associated with a mosque. The Ben Youssef Madrasa therefore was created for the students who attended the Ben Youssef Mosque, located adjacent to the madrasa. It was founded in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 16th century, and ceased to be used in 1960. It was one of the most important sites for Islamic studies and also one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa housing over 900 students in 100 tiny rooms (must have been quite cramped!).
Almovarid Koubba, Marrakech
Like many Islamic buildings the entrance is through a narrow passage opening up to large central courtyard with a shallow pool. The courtyard is surrounded by student dormitories on two floors. Beautiful patterned tiles adorn the walls of the building as well as the floor of the pool. Two of the rooms have been reconstructed to showcase the lives of the student’s then – containing nothing more than the basic necessities like a sleeping mat, a desk and a tea set. It was also featured in Kate Winslet’s movie ‘Hideous Kinky’ based on the autobiography of Sigmund Freud’s great grand-daughter Esther Freud.
A combination ticket can be purchased to visit this, Museum of Marrakech and Almovarid Koubba. We concluded Day 2 by having local cuisines for dinner in the food stalls in Jemaa El Fna
Day trip to Berber Village and Atlas Mountain
The indigenous people of Morocco are called Berbers (or Imazighen) and are the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. There are many local tour operators that offer a trip to explore the Atlas Mountains and Valleys with a guide. You get to discover the traditional Berber villages, see Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, and visit the waterfalls of Imlil. You can visit the inside of a Berber home also choose to have lunch there as well. Camel rides and walking can also be done as part of the trip. For more information please read the blog here.
Berber village in Imlil valley
View of Atlas Mountain on the way to Imlil valley
We arrived from this day trip by late afternoon and relaxed at the beautiful hotel, in the evening we walked through the streets of Marrakech Medina and headed back to Jemaa El-Fna for dinner.
Casablanca Day Trip
We went to a day Trip to Casablanca. This was a last minute decision and therefore we hadn’t researched or planned our day like we usually do. Therefore we couldn’t really visit the inside of Hassan II Mosque or dine at Rick’s Café! The shops at the new medina were closed. But the grandeur of Hassan II Mosque even though only from outside, was worth the trip. Don’t expect this to be a dreamy touristy place… it is quite a modern cosmopolitan city.
Anyway, we started our day very early and headed straight to station and bought first class tickets to Casablanca. It was a nice journey in a private coupe sipping coffee and looking out at the beautiful landscape.
Marrakech train station
To enjoy the story behind the name Casablanca and more information please read the blog here.
Hassan II Mosque - The tenth largest mosque in the world
Hassan II Mosque – Just visiting this mosque justifies the travel to Casablanca. It is probably one of top ten largest mosques of the world. The mosque built partially on land and partially over the ocean looks as if emerging out of the Atlantic Ocean. The magnitude of the mosque, the unreal craftsmanship, the beauty of the archways, walls and the sprawling grounds and the overall explosion of colour and patterns make it a must see in Morocco.
Please remember however that non-Muslims are only allowed in the mosque as part of guided tours that take place throughout the day outside of prayer time. So plan ahead!
Empty streets of Quartier Habous, Casablanca
Quartier Habous – Also called the New Medina, the Habous area was an endeavor by the French to mix Moroccan with French style. Near the New Medina is the city palace of the King- you can linger around and look at the grand exterior – it is heavily guarded.
Before leaving Casablanca enjoy coffee in a local café.
As it was our last evening in Marrakech, after returning from Casablance, we headed back to walk through the Souks in the evening just taking in all the smells, sights and ambience of the place and enjoyed exploring some more food options at Jemaa El Fna.
We checked out after breakfast and boarded our return flight to London.