19 September 2013

Meandering through Marrakech's Museums and Souks

After pressing through the crowded souks on our first night in Marrakech, we realised how easily you can get lost in the serpentine stalls. We were told there were authentic Moroccan treasures to be found, and opted to have a knowledgeable guide escort us to the select souks.

The Concierge at Four Seasons Hotel Marrakech booked our private tour, which cost more than a pocket full of dirhams, but was money well spent.
NOTE: For any tour ensure you bring extra dirhams for entrance fees and tipping.
We started at the Majorelle Gardens which the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, restored to its original glory in the early 1980s. Laurent was beloved by the citizens and is credited for making Marrakech a trendy tourist destination.

After his death in 2008, the icon's ashes were scattered around Marrakech and the grounds of his garden sanctuary.

We arrived to the Majorelle Gardens just after 9:00, which allowed us time to wander freely before the throngs of tour buses arrived.  While you could easily spend several hours in the gardens, it is small enough to walk around in 45-minutes.

You cannot help but be impressed by the vast display of cacti. Ouisie enjoyed repeating Dr Seuss' riddle from Hop on Pop, "No Pat! Don't sit on that" (ie: cactus) at each cactus spotting. Did I mention there are 100s of cacti in the gardens??

Fortunately, sand footpaths lined the gardens which kept her curious fingers far from the prickly pears.

Our driver then took us to the medina where we walked the narrow streets leading to 14th century, Madrassa Ben Youssef. The madrassa (an Islamic religious school) is the largest in Morocco and a breathtaking work of art.

You enter the madrassa through a wooden door, and do not realise you are standing in true beauty until you enter the central courtyard and see this:

I wandered up to the first floor to view some of the 130 vacant dormitories. During its peak years, the madrassa welcomed up to 900 students at a time. The dorms vary in size, with some so small you feel like you are in the broom closet.

Our entrance ticket also covered the cost for the Musée de Marrakech which is situated in the restored 19th century Mnebhi Palace.  Aside from a wonderful collection of Islamic artifacts, the original kitchen and hamman offered a beautiful display of original tiles and frescos.

Conveniently, just outside the museum was the appointed spice/apothecary store on our tour--Herboriste du Paradis. Before we had time to sniff freely the large sacks of spices and dried herbs, we were whisked into a room for a private lesson in spices, aromatherapy and potion lotions. The spice man was most entertaining, delightful, and had a persuasive herbal pitch.

He had us sniffing things that opened up our sinus passages and about fried our nasal hairs. Ouisie delighted in shouting out the colours of all the natural pigments on display and dunking her fingers in the cream samples.

Knowing a tip would be expected, Chef decided we should instead buy some spices and dyes to take home. Ouisie suffers from mild eczema, so Chef suggested we buy a pot of the Moroccan miracle cream.

While I could not think of anything else we would need, Chef further encouraged me to pick some more, so a random bar of amber was added to the loot.

"Don't you think Ouisie would like to paint with some of the beautiful pigments?" asked Chef.  As scoops of cobalt blue, magenta pink, and lavender powders were measured into plastic bags I silently mandated no paint projects with permanent dyes would take place for (at least) another 8 years.

Content with the selections, Chef went to the register to pay. I watched as he pulled the credit card from his wallet.
NOTE:  Arabic potions are not a cheap cure.
With our £50 (British sterling) plastic bag of Moroccan pigments, curry rub, amber bar, and a free pink lipstick for Ouisie, we walked to the souks in search of more bargains for gullible tourists.

As all the vendors are desperate to make any sale, you avoid looking at all interested. If you are caught admiring an item, prepare to find yourself whisked into the souk and buying a souvenir that will  likely be donated to your local charity shop once home.

We passed through the spice square to admire some turtles and lizards before walking down "Rodeo Drive". The further away you venture from the Jemaa el Fna, the better local crafts you find. Having said that, there are SO many souks selling the same stuff, you start to believe all of it was probably made in China.

For me, personally, I enjoyed wandering the souks and admiring all the colour, unusual sights, and elaborate displays. Here are a few more snaps from our souk shopping ventures:

I highly recommend a private tour, especially if travelling with young children. Our guide tailored our morning around our daughter’s temperament and our personal interests. 

We visited several main tourist sights in half a day and, with the afternoon free, returned to the resort for pampering and pool time. That's what I consider--- elegant family travel.

Further reading: 

Adventures from Red City in Post #1
Meet You in Marrakech: A Chef Forages for Fresh Market Produce feature on Taste, a Four Seasons epicurean blog

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