In Marrakech, Variety Is the Spice of Life

The sun dipped low on the horizon, and a cacophony of sounds filled the square---percussion beats, singing and chanting, the calls of touts, the hiss of burning charcoal, and the flutes of snake charmers. This sensory overload mixed with the smells of freshly-squeezed orange juice, meat on the grill, exotic spices, and a mass of diverse humanity.

Taking in the scene of the medina's main square and forming an imprint on my brain, despite being nothing more than a tourist, I felt for a brief moment as if I had found the pulse, heart, and soul of Marrakech.

In some destinations in North Africa and the Middle East, travelers can experience unique cultural or historical landmarks. In others, they can sample unique food, shop local markets, or stay in boutique hotel properties. In yet others, they can get active and off the beaten path, or experience several climates in the course of a weekend. Rarely, however, can a visitor do all of the above and more in the course of a long weekend. That, along with its surprising accessibility, is what makes Marrakech so special.

In Europe for a variety of reasons this winter, I took advantage of easy and affordable flights to make a break for a different culture and more sunshine in early March.

After an easy airport pickup in a black BMW, I arrived at the Amanjena, a stunning property about 15 minutes outside of the old city, I was greeted with a cool towel and some local snacks and sweets while I relaxed a bit and my bags were whisked to my villa. I noted a distinct difference from where I had just flown in---the light was bright, and the air smelled fresh and aromatic.

The property at Amanjena is expansive and open, with high Arabesque arches, covered walkways and open courtyards surrounding a massive man-made lagoon pool in the center, with smaller pools adjoining. It felt much larger than it really is, with 38 villas well-absorbed into the overall flow.

In typically excellent Aman-style, the design of the place blends local architectural and material touches with modern flair and a few nods to the brand's Asian heritage (the on-site dinner restaurant serves Thai cuisine).

My villa was private and quiet behind high adobe walls, but offered an open outdoor courtyard and patio with a plunge pool and a shaded seating area, fronting a golf course. Inside, the high ceilings provided for an expansive feel, with plenty of room to sit and read or lounge by the fireplace (or in the bathtub).

The staff was willing and eager to help, and the resort quickly arranged a driver and guide to show me around the old city inside the ancient walls, where many the historical sights and attractions are located.

Our first stop was the Bahia Palance, built in the 19th century by several grand viziers of the sultan who ruled at the time. The intricate ceiling mosaic designs and the peaceful fountain courtyards were the architectural highlights, while my guide provided me with the historical context of how the vizier used the layout to manage his guests and multiple wives.

From there we moved on to the Majorelle Gardens, on the estate of Yves Saint Laurent outside the old city walls. The garden makes for a nice hour of wandering amid the unique non-native cacti, bamboo, reflecting ponds and pathways. The small onsite museum showcasing traditional Berber clothing and materials was a real highlight.

Back at the town square just as hundreds of food vendors were starting to gear up for the evening rush, I wandered through the souk, losing myself in the alleyways where everything was for sale -- shoes, dresses, spices, sweets, carpets, antiques, and just about anything else.

Luckily, while there was plenty of cheap imported junk mixed in with more authentic wares, any moderately keen eye could tell which was which, and which shops specialized in locally-sourced crafts, clothing, or condiments (I walked away with some argon oil and lotion for my wife).

Exiting one end of the souk, I wandered by the photography museum and came away impressed by the intense realism mixed with romanticism evident in the early 20th century black and white images on display, largely from French photographers. They portrayed a Morocco before the dawn of mass tourism when local traditions were still very much unaltered by the wider world.

The same could be said of the Museum of Morocco Arts, also located in the old city --- handicrafts, pottery, and housewares were on display from a time when these objects were for functional and ceremonial use, rather than export and sale. As sunset approached, and after an afternoon on foot exploring the city, it was time for a refreshment.

The main square was now abuzz with activity, and familiar sounds mixed with more exotic ones as I threaded my way to a restaurant on the corner where I spied a balcony with a view. Buying a cold Coke in a glass bottle bought me access to the balcony, and from that vantage point, I was treated to the heartbeat of Marrakech's tourism economy.

Throbbing with activity, both commercial and cultural, the square seemed to merge east and west into a grandiose mess -- perhaps providing a hopeful perspective on how different cultures will evolve to become closer together via shared experiences, while still retaining their essential uniqueness. Or, perhaps that was just the wishful thinking of a tourist enjoying a view from just far enough away to make everything seem a bit simpler.

The following day I awoke early and met a pre-arranged driver who took me 90 minutes south to the village of Imlil for a hike in the Atlas Mountains. In early March, the valley temperatures were still chilly in the shadows, and the peaks were solidly covered in snow. Arriving in Imlil, I met up with Mohamed Aztec at Atlas Trek Shop, the area's premier local outfitter.

He introduced me to Yusef, a fit 23-year-old trail runner from the village just up the road who would be my guide for the day. We had a bit of sweet mint tea and poured over some maps, debating which routes would be most exciting, challenging, and doable in a single long day. Ultimately we selected a loop that offered high altitude and mountain scenery, gorgeous juniper groves, a stop at a mountain refuge, and some traditional Berber villages to boot.

Hiking steeply uphill from the village just upstream of Imlil, we soon encountered snow on the north-facing slopes. As the trail climbed higher, the snow became deeper and deeper, until it was no longer possible to stay on the trail. Following Yusef's lead, we alternated between scrambling steeply up the south-facing slopes that were snow-free but almost too steep to even gain footholds, and post-holing through the snow on the normal route.

I cursed myself for leaving my snow gaiters at home as my shoes quickly became waterlogged with melting snow. The minor discomfort was more than compensated for by the increasingly majestic views, and as we climbed higher I was able to see the route to the base camp of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.

Eventually, we arrived at the pass at 10,000 feet, where I craned my neck toward the summits of peaks rising another 3-4,000 feet above as we stopped for a snack. Dropping down into the adjacent valley, we stopped at a mountain refuge reminiscent of the Alps, where the hut guardian came out to share some tea with us. It was quite new and impressive, and I made a note to return and stay there when I had more time to attempt the peaks.

Continuing down the valley, we passed several Berber villages where modernity was just starting to make some inroads (literally) with a relative road that now brought a once-a-day bus to the previously isolated settlements. Lower down the hints of seasonable change where appearing with the first buds on the fruit trees, but it was still really late winter rather than early spring.

Then, needing to return to the Imlil Valley, we hiked up and over a much lower pass, passing a through a gorgeous forest of massive free-standing juniper trees. It felt exhilarating to seemingly be so "out there" with no other sounds save the rustling of the trees in the wind, despite being only a 30-minute walk from the nearest village and a 90-minute drive from the city.

Back in Marrakech that evening, I took a recommendation from the Amanjena staff and made a reservation at La Maison Arabe, a famed place serving classic Moroccan cuisine like chicken tagine, or lamb with couscous. The food and service were excellent, and the outdoor poolside patio was a great place to linger over a glass of wine or cocktail.

Afterwards, hoping to keep my streak alive of following local tips to good effect, I took a taxi to Le Comptoir Darna - Restaurant Marrakech, a local restaurant, and club near the casino that was recommended by the front desk manager at La Maison Arabe's hotel. After a couple overpriced drinks and watching clubgoers straight from Paris dancing to techno hits, I decided to call it a night.

The following morning, after a relaxing poolside breakfast in the sunshine at Amanjena, I headed over to La Sultana Marrakech, a beautiful property in the kasbah neighborhood inside the medina (old city). It was the perfect complement to Amanjena -- while the former was expansive, with large open spaces, huge private villas, and grandiose architecture, befitting its location outside of the old city, La Sultana was intimate, cozy, and right in the thick of things.

Comprised of five interconnected riads (historic homes) in the Kasbah, La Sultana enjoys an enviable location, just next to the famous Saadian Tombs and within easy walking distance of the city center. Yet despite being in the midst of so much action, the interior is refined, quiet, and luxurious --- a surprising refuge from the tumult outside of cars, vendors, pedestrians and everything else.

Each riad has an independent style and is impeccably decorated, yet guests can flow easily throughout the property without feeling like they're leaving a prescribed area. And, unlike some traditional riads, as a full-service luxury hotel, La Sultana offers an impressive spa, a full-service restaurant with an executive chef, and a fantastic rooftop terrace with a bar, sundeck, plunge pool, and small fitness center --- all of it overlooking the old city itself which surrounds it.

On my final evening, rather than chase after more Marrakech experiences, I decided to relax and dine at La Sultana, enjoying a fine meal in the courtyard by the pool. After a few glasses of Moroccan red wine (surprisingly decent, actually), I retired to my room and called it a night. After running around the entire weekend exploring, sightseeing, shopping, hiking, dining, and drinking, I collapsed into my bed. It was the perfect way to end what was perhaps the most diverse set of experiences I'd crammed into three days in a very long time.

On the way to the airport, I noted that fact as a signature feature of Morocco and resolved to return to visit the dunes of the Sahara, the beaches of Essaouira, the old city of Fez, and the peaks of the High Atlas.

Practically Speaking

Marrakech is reachable via direct flight from many major European cities, as well as by car, rail or plane from other major cities in Morocco like Casablanca (which has direct flights from the USA).

Amanjena is part of the Aman Resorts brand, which offers a variety of gorgeous properties around the world. Amanjena is bookable via the Aman Resorts website, or by calling toll free +1 800 477 9180.

I booked my Atlas Mountains trek via Naturally Morocco, a tour operator based in the UK. They helpfully answered questions, coordinated my itinerary and pickup, and put me in touch with Mohamed at Atlas Trek Shop, with whom I arranged the specific route we hiked.

La Sultana Marrakech is part of the La Sultana Hotels collection, which includes two properties in Morocco and a luxury yacht. Their properties are bookable via their website or by calling +212 5 24 38 80 08.

If you're planning on dining out, you can't go wrong with La Maison Arabe -- reservations are highly recommended. If you're in the mood for something more modern and trendy outside of the medina, the Asian-French-Moroccan fusion cuisine at Bo Zin is of a high standard.

Article and photos by Josh Steinitz, originally written for NileGuide

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