Marrakech – Part 1

The city of Marrakech is a real favorite of ours, as Karen and I have each been there three times – together the last two. In fact, the name “Marrakech” was the first subject she and I ever spoke about! Together with our dear friends Molly and Carl, we spent six nights in this delightful place on our recent Moroccan tour.

Koutoubia Mosque

Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco. The city is situated west of the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times. The city was founded in 1070 by Emir Abu Bakr ibn Umar as the imperial capital of the kingdom. Beginning in the 17th century the city became popular among Sufi pilgrims for its seven patron saints who are entombed here.

Marrakech comprises an old fortified city packed with vendors and their stalls. The medina quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco, with some 18 souks selling wares from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics. Crafts employ a significant portion of the population, who primarily sell their products to tourists.

Our first day was primarily taken up with a medina tour conducted by Fatima, a lovely young tourist guide. We met at the Koutoubia Mosque, a familiar landmark in the city. The mosque features intricate tile work, salmon-hued walls, expansive archways and an impressive 253-foot tall minaret. It was built in the 12th century.

Our first stop was a visit to the Saadian tombs. This cemetery features more than 160 tombs filled with the remains of prominent Saadians, who were members of an Arab dynasty and descendants of the prophet Muhammed. The tombs date back to the 14th century and the decor from the 16th century includes cedar ceilings, colorful mosaics and Carrera marble headstones.

We then visited the Bahia Palace. This 19th century palace exemplifies the lavish lifestyle of the Moroccan elite. The property housed various Moroccan royals. The public areas are open and feature rounded entryways that lead to colorful mosaics and intricate latticework, as well as cool shady walkways that lead to vast, sunny courtyards and gardens.

We then enjoyed a delightful lunch at the LeJardin Restaurant.

After lunch, we diverted from museum-like visits to wandering and shopping in the souks. There are literally miles of narrow, winding “streets” (no cars, only people, donkeys and motorbikes) with shops, cafes, bakeries, hammams, spice stands, etc. to ogle at. The bakery was quite interesting. Each neighborhood typically has a local bakery which bakes bread supplied by the residents.

And nearby a man is heating fires to supply steam for the adjacent Hammam (Local baths) and cooking tanjias for a local restaurant – beef or lamb dish baked in a clay pot under ashes.

And then the souks and shops.

A major highlight in Marrakech is the main square known as Jemaa el Fna, filled during the day with food stands, vendors, orange juice stands, snake charmers, donkey carts and hundreds if not thousands of people milling around. Then at night the hot food stands come out, offering sheep’s head, tagines, tangias, fried seafood, snails and other Moroccan dishes.


Volubilis is a partially excavated Berber-Roman city near Meknes, Morocco. Established late in the BC era by Juba II, it became the capital of Mauretania and was one of the most remote Roman cities of the time. It is quite near the holy city of Moulay Idriss, which overlooks Volubilis from the adjacent hillside.

It was once home to about 20,000 people, it was actively part of the Roman Empire until the Romans left in 285 AD. The Berbers took over the site in the 800 AD range, managed by Idriss I.

The French began early excavation of the site in the 1830’s, and work continues to this day. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997. Volubilis is well worthwhile visiting as part of a stay in Fes. There is a nicely done visitor center with historical information, pictures and a few exhibits.

Moulay Idriss


One day while in Fes, we drove about 3.5 hours north through the farmlands to see the beautiful city of Chefchouen (“the Blue City”) in the Rif Mountains. The city nestles in the hollow of the two mountains -ech-Chaoua (the Horns) – from which it takes its name. Steep narrow streets with white and indigo limewashed buildings, small squares, ornate fountains and houses with elaborately decorated doorways and red tile roofs make this a delightful town. It was founded in 1471 by Idrissid shorfa, descendants of the prophet Mohammed.

The Drive

The drive was beautiful as the road would through a somewhat hilly terrain filled with farmlands, orange groves, small villages – and the most olive trees in existence!

The City

Many of the older buildings in the medina are painted blue. We heard of several reasons, including “to look nice”, to attract tourists”, “it repels mosquitos”, “blue is the sky according to the Jews”, “blue is cooler”, “blue represents water – essential for human life”. Who really knows but it is pretty!

Favorites in Morocco

We visited many places, saw a lot of interesting things, slept in several riads and ate many meals. Our favorites:

Riad Itrane, Marrakech

This is a lovely riad in Marakech, located within the medina in the Dabachi quarter and 200 meters from Jamaa el Fna, the main square. It is owned and managed by Charlotte and patrice, who are a delight to work with. It is a 17th century house and is quite magnificent with many treed terraces, seating area, rooftop and comfortable rooms. We also ate several meals at the riad, including chicken tagines and a wide selection of Moroccan salads.

Villa Maroc, Essaouisa

Thia is a lovely 18th century riad hotel located in the midst of Essaouira, with access to souks, waterfront, restaurants, harbor and historical sites in a beautiful city. The riad has 21 rooms, each one different from the other, spread among three floors. Many have views of the Atlantic. Very comfortable and convenient place to stay.

Le Fondouk, Marrakech

Located in a rather shabby area, one gets to this restaurant led by men in cloaks with lanterns down a dusty alley to a luxurious building. After three flights of stairs, one enters a lovely rooftop restaurant. The food is equally enchanting.

Pepe Nero, Marrakech

Pepe Nero is a delightful Italian restaurant located a five minute walk from Jamaa el Fna. It is housed in the Riad Al Moussika, the former residence of the Pasha of Marrakech. One enters into a Moorish courtyard, complete with pool, trees and wonderful scents. And the food is delicious and very nicely served.

La Table by Madada, Essaouira

This is a delightful restaurant as well, which used to also be home to a cooking school that Karen and I attended a few years ago. It is located a two minute walk from Villa Maroc in a very clean and safe side street.


Fes, founded in 789 AD, is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities. It is located on the River Fes near the Middle Atlas, and is Morocco’s third largest city. Fes is a World Heritage site.

The Riad

We stayed in Fes for four nights at Riad Idrissy, located within the medina. The riad is a 400 year old building with thee floors, and very steep stairways. It was named after the founder of Fes, Moulay Idriss. Riad Idrissy was totally restored beginning in 2006. Meals are served in the Ruined Garden, complete with mosaic floors and fountains and a somewhat overgrown garden.

We spent just one day in Fes itself. Our tour included a ceramics factory, the Jewish quarter, an overall vista of the city and the souks. We actually finished the tour at an Jewish antiques store owned by the father of our guide. The souks are always fascinating of course.

Entrance to Medina

Jewel of Casablanca

We began our recent two week trip to Morocco with a flight into Casablanca. Karen had been in Morocco 12 or so years ago, and was taken to see the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. However the tour guide had failed to confirm that the mosque was open for visitors! So Karen was insistent that we visit the mosque on this trip, and it was open indeed.


On his birthday in 1980, the Moroccan king (King Hassan II) declared that the great Hassan II Mosque was to be commissioned and built giving Casablanca a unique monument. The construction of the mosque, designed by French architect Michael Pinseau, began in 1986 on reclaimed land in a dilapidated area near the ocean front. It was completed in August 1993. Almost all the materials in the mosque come from Morocco, except for the imported white granite columns and glass chandeliers (from Murano near Venice). The cedar comes from the Middle Atlas and the granite from Tafraoute.

Over 6000 Moroccan masters and artisans were employed to work these local materials into intricate decorations that embellish the entire structure.

About the Mosque

The Mosque is magnificent in size and in the quality of the building. It is one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in the world after the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

The minaret at 210 meters is the tallest in the world. A maximum of 105,000 believers can gather for prayer; up to 25,000 can be accommodated in the prayer hall, while 80,000 can be accommodated on the esplanade. The main prayer hall measures 100 meters by 200 meters, and is 65 meters high (all three measurements dd up to 365).

What to See

The mosque is open to all Muslims during prayer times. Non-Muslims can enter on tours that are held several times per day. The most distinctive feature of the mosque is its spectacular location on a platform above the Atlantic. Part of the floor is made of glass, so that worshipers can kneel right above the sea.

The style of the Mosque shows strong Moorish influences reminiscent of the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Horseshoe arches are common both inside and inside, and the walls and pillars of the interior are finely carved in a variety of intricate patterns. There is a huge women’s gallery to the right as one turns from the prayer area, which is beautifully carved out of dark wood. On the ground floor, there are Turkish style baths and fountains for washing.