So much of our visit to Marrakech centred around our exquisite Moroccan hotel, La Maison Arabe, from outstanding meals to hammam treatments, cooking classes to jazz piano bar entertainment (see our article on La Maison Arabe). But we did venture forth on many occasions to explore this extraordinary and exotic city.
Dar El Bacha
We met our guide, Younos, from Special Tours Marrakech midmorning in the reception area. He was a charming, intelligent and perceptive man, whose company was a pleasure, and from whom we learnt much about the history and culture of this city and country.
We began with a tour of a palace museum in the medina that was only opened to the public in 2017, and as such is not in the guidebooks (for now!). Its full name is: Dar el Bacha Confluences Museum Palace Pacha Glaoui, but it is more commonly known as Dar el Bacha. Because it is not yet on everyone’s radar, it was pretty much empty when we arrived just after 10am.
This Palace of the Pasha was built in 1910 and was home to Thami El Glaoui (known in English as Lord of the Atlas) who assisted Marshal Lyautey in the pacification of Morocco on behalf of the French Protectorate. Dar el Bacha was then known for the sumptuous lifestyle of the Pasha, and famous visitors included: Josephine Baker, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill and Jacques Majorelle.
Dar el Bacha is an exquisite example of Moorish architecture, with luxurious decorations, elaborate pediments, walls painted in natural pigments of indigo, saffron and poppy, cedar wood panelling and coffered ceilings, geometric and floral motifs, and Andalusian Arab-style zelliges (alksar.com).
But it is thanks to American philanthropist, art collector and archaeologist Patti Birch, whose obsession with Marrakech led to the renovation of this palace. The museum now has a whole section dedicated to Birch, who bequeathed more than 1,000 artefacts to the country as a symbol of love and appreciation. The permanent Birch exhibition represents four continents of her travels: Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
“Dar El Bacha Museum of Confluences is a historical evidence of intercultural and interfaith Dialogue in Morocco. The objects in display tell the stories of coexistence, tolerance and unity between the three monotheistic religions throughout the years.” (Morocco World News)
From Dar el Bacha, Younos took us on a rambling tour through the souks of the Medina, visiting various artisans and their workshops, from carpet making to locksmiths to spice merchants. Shame I didn’t get a photo of the bulls’ penises for sale at the butchers! No part of the animal is wasted in Morocco – it ALL gets used!!
At one of the stores in the souk Younos bought us some amazing peaches that are apparently only in season in Morocco for two weeks of the year. They are squat and dinted at both ends; a peach that looks like a mandarin. Names include flat peach, doughnut peach and Saturn peach – the first two are obvious, no idea why the last. We enjoyed these sweet morsels at Café des Espices with some mint tea. Younos gave us the full demonstration of the high pour so that the tea aerates and bubbles. This is done by holding the pot aloft, about a metre from the glass, pouring from this height in what appears a reckless manor. In fact, it is a graceful and well-practised art! The tea is tipped back into the pot and the choreography is repeated, then again, only drinking the tea when the glass is filled with bubbles.
After our time with Younos was up, we ambled to his car and he kindly drove us to the Majorelle Gardens for us to spend the rest of the afternoon out of the bustle of the medina. These botanic gardens are a two and a half acre created over 40 years (from 1923) by French Orientalist artist, Jacques Majorelle. Designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the property in the 1980s and restored it to its former glory after its neglect post Majorelle’s divorce. The special shade of cobalt blue used extensively throughout the gardens and inspired by the colours of Morocco was created by Majorelle and is known as Majorelle Blue.
A full entry to these gardens also includes visits to the Berber Museum (focusing on the ancient culture of Morocco) and the Yves Saint-Laurent Museum. Both were informative, with the latter being particularly sleek and stylish, as you would expect! Unfortunately, the iconic designer’s museum did not allow photography, but it was a thorough and gorgeous display of his designs throughout his illustrious career.
As we had devoured our flat peaches hours earlier, we were ready for refuelling and had a very late lunch at the museum’s Café Le Studio at 3:30pm. We are smitten with the standard entrée on menus at most food places – a Moroccan salad. This offers a medley of small, tasty cold dishes that give variety and flavour (AND they are often vegetarian). We chose the avocado dish (coated in a light Moroccan spice mixture), baked eggplant (always a winner), pumpkin and cinnamon (a sweet, thick mash), quinoa and aragon oil, carrots and herbs, and cucumber and olives. There were others to choose from, such as peppers and tomatoes, but ordering a tray of six meant we had to limit our options. This was accompanied by a side salad, fatoush and bread rolls, and it was only $14 AUD (and this was tourist prices at a designer museum!)
Today was a big day exploring this unique and surprisingly cosmopolitan city. Most of our time with Younos was spent listening, enraptured, to his stories about Marrakech, its interesting people and history. What was made abundantly clear was that three nights in Marrakech is nowhere near long enough!
[For our cooking class adventure in La Maison Arabe, check out the food section of the hotel article.]
Iconic Hotels of Marrakech
Even though we loved staying at our gorgeous boutique hotel, La Maison Arabe, we had also been advised to pop into a couple of the ‘biggies’ for a drink or two while in town. So on our last night in Marrakech, we frocked up a little and sought out La Mamounia and Royal Mansour, two grand 5 star hotels, for a bit of ‘bar-hopping’.
We began at the palace hotel, La Mamounia, where “an elegant dress code is required in all public spaces.” Countless artists, statesmen, Hollywood stars, authors and others have stayed in the luxurious rooms, one of the most famous being Winston Churchill (who told Roosevelt that Marrakech was “the most lovely spot in the whole world”). Fitting then that this hotel has a spot called Le Bar Churchill within its walls, full of history and atmosphere. When we arrived at 6pm for pre-dinner drinks, the Churchill was being ‘packed down’ after what looked like a kaftan photo-shoot, so we had to amuse ourselves until 7pm when they would be re-opening. To kill time, we headed to another of their four bars, L’Italien, located in the centre of the hotel in a busy thoroughfare through to the outdoor area and pool. Resigned to the fact our bar-hopping evening had blown out from two to three bars before we had even started, we made ourselves comfortable and looked at the cocktail list.
Bar #1 provided an excellent people watching opportunity, which is always interesting in a high-end place like this. At least we had a piano, drums and bass jazz trio to underscore the whole traipsing back and forth of designer clad members of the upper echelon of society. One family trooped by in immaculately put together outfits – one couple, four kids and two nannies, and no one looked happy.
We ordered an Estragon Margarita (with tarragon infused tequila) and a Negroni Sbagliato. The complimentary snacks were impressive, too – spicy green olives, almonds, and an almond, dried fruit and sugared lime combo, AND with offers of refills.
The Churchill, the real reason we were at La Mamounia, was calling, so we moved on to bar #2 of the evening. I ordered a Taittinger Rosé champagne and John a Bruichladdich whisky on the rocks, served with more of the same snacks – sweet! At 7:30pm on a Friday night, we were the only ones in the bar. Odd, especially with all the hype and concern of not getting in without a reservation. Maybe it was more a nightcap drink venue rather than an aperitif drink one. Who knows? But we had a lovely time chatting to the hostess, who was the antithesis of what others had said of service at this high-end joint. But I have a theory about this: if as a guest you smile and treat the staff with kindness and respect, they are lovely. When sitting in the other bar watching the glitterati swan past, refusing to make eye contact with ‘the help’, it’s no wonder that they in turn are aloof.
From La Mamounia we walked the 600m to our next stop, Royal Mansour, for our third bar experience of the evening. This is another palace hotel, with a very long driveway, full on security, and this evening had a wedding in progress. We had intended to sit in the Main Bar, “an ode to Art Deco glamour…hand sculpted silver ceiling, walls lined with rose gold leaves, vintage carved chairs…” It was an exquisite 1920s inspired creation of light lime green, creams and gold. The maître d’ showed us the Fireplace Lounge as well so we could make an informed decision, and in the end, it wasn’t so much the “charming woodwork and British style” of the lounge, but rather the live music that influenced our decision. There was a duo performing – a guy on piano and a female vocalist. He did all the arrangements of classic jazz and lounge numbers, giving them new life and inventiveness, and her voice was delicious! Hearing a rendition of our wedding song just made our night. The drinks to accompany more snacks and entertainment were a Velvet Red (full of strawberry, raspberries and alcohol) and a whisky.
What we had planned as a relatively short cocktail hour of pre-dinner drinks became the whole evening. Our day was full to overflowing, so a leisurely stroll back to our hotel in the cooler evening air at 10pm brought our time in Marrakech to a close. Shame it was such a short visit, but it certainly gave us a determination to return for a longer sojourn.
Accommodation: La Maison Arabe
Tour Guide: Younos from Special Tours Marrakech