The Sights and Smells of the Souk
Mark Nicholls visits Marrakech and absorbs the ambience of a remarkable city and its ancient medina
A pale rouge city of labyrinthine souks, fertile gardens and historic mosques, Marrakech has long been the beating heart of Morocco. Dominated by the medina, you can wander this vibrant network of shops and alleys at will and lose yourself, or sit and simply permit time to stand still over an aromatic glass of mint tea.
Exploring the medina, bound by ancient red sandstone walls, is one of the highlights of a stay in Marrakech. The approach is dominated by the landmark Koutoubia mosque, dating from the late 10th Century with four golden orbs at the top of the square 69-metre minaret. From there you can cross into the medina, which dates from the same era and was created by Berber dynasties from the south of the country at a time that Marrakech was the country’s capital and Africa’s key trading hub.
Today, the medina is a meeting place underpinned by the institutions of the souk – mosque, market, bathhouse and tea-shop – a place where people meet, converse, trade, wash, pray and while away the time. Within the maze-like alleys of pale red sandstone are stalls selling lanterns and ironware, potteries, spices, leather goods, textiles, souvenirs and traditional Moroccan foods. But behind ornate doors or down darkened passages lay hidden treasures.
Wander down one and it leads to a community oven, where locals still bring their dough to be raised into bread or have sunflower seeds roasted for a few dirhams.
Further along the souk opens into a small square, a fondouk, which was a hotel for travellers and used by the people of the caravanserai who had travelled up through Africa to trade in Marrakech. Walk deeper into the network and you come across a 16th Century medrese – an Islamic school – with prayer halls and cell-like accommodation for the students. From the community oven, you don’t have to look far for that other great institution, the hammam, or public bath. We may be familiar with the steam and cleansing slabs but rarely see what goes into keeping the water hot 24 hours a day. That task falls to a two-man team, constantly stoking the fires with discarded wood shavings to heat the water.
But in the medina where there is fire, there is food and the hammam stokers are also experts at slow-cooking the tangia. Not to be confused with tagines, tangia is a pot similar to a Roman wine vat in shape and the dish – with ingredients of lamb, garlic, cumin, salty butter, citron, olive oil, saffron and a cup of water – is a specialty of Marrakech. “People bring their tangia to the hammam fire where it is cooked slowly for several hours and then taken home to eat,” explains my guide Youssef Kharroubi.
Food and drink underpin life in the medina. Every so often, there will be tea shops or small openings where the flat, flavoured khobz bread is baked, its savory ingredients hinting of mild spices and herbs, onion and tomato. Another shop has a different specialty – grilled sardines stuffed with parsley, garlic, coriander and other spices- while a butcher prepares lamb on a slab and another stallholder proffers snails. All is here to eat, and enjoy – the medina is not just about sights and smells, but of taste too. The medina has numerous exits but many empty out into the main square of Djemaa el F’na – the assembly of the dead – where executions once occurred but today is the domain of food stalls, musicians, dancers and snake charmers. Not far from Djemaa el F’na is our hotel, the five-star Es Saadi Palace, which remains blissfully peaceful with its pools and restaurants, innovative artwork, a spa to be pampered in and a mesmerising air of serenity.
The Es Saadi, with its 84 exquisite suites, sits in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the 11th century medina’s shops, eateries, mosques and hammams, with the name originating from the word “le bienheureux”, which translates as “the blissful one.” The Palace oozes North African charm, and despite only being built in 2008 has the ambience of a much older structure. Created by the craftsmen of Morocco with glazed tile floors, marbled inlay, and fabulous artworks, it is a favourite with the Hollywood A-list when they are in town for the International Film Festival every December. Sir Ben Kingsley, Leonardo di Caprio, Martin Scorsese, Sigourney Weaver and Jason Statham have all signed the guest register and stayed in the luxurious rooms, or in the 10 themed villas in the 20 acres of grounds of the Es Saadi complex.
It was was also a location in the recent TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager, as the fictitious Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo, where the British actor Tom Hiddleston’s character manned the concierge desk. The Palace’s three restaurants offer a diverse dining experience – the Lagon & Jardin Brasserie has the al fresco appeal, with the Island Bar in the centre of the expansive lagoon pool, while the premier restaurant at Penthouse level, the Cour des Lion, champions Morocco’s finest dishes with tagines, couscous and seven-hour lamb in oriental spices.
We enjoyed the harira marrakchia soup followed by tagines – the “Sardi” lamb was succulent and fruity with peppers and prunes, with a couscous of sultanas and almonds.
There is also the bistro-style L’Epicurien within the casino and the Restaurant Gastronomique at the hotel, with its menu of French classics.
Hosting the largest pool in Marrakech, the Es Saadi’s is set in the extensive and tranquil gardens, beautifully landscaped with palm, banana and orange trees and with sun loungers surrounded by roses and bougainvilleas, it is perfect for relaxing by. Its priceless gems are the wonderful themed villas and the award-winning spa. The villas include the vibrant blue of Villa Persane with an aura of Iran to the magnificence of Villa Sultane. Six are single bedroom, four are double and there is also eight traditional Moroccan styled Ksars, Berber-influenced private duplex villas.
The state-of-the-art Es Saadi Palace Spa with a world-famous Dior Institute – one of only two in the world – offers treatments ranging from facials and massages through to specific, innovative and invigorating therapies that rejuvenate, revive or simply pamper. Spread over three floors with 24 treatment rooms, pool, hammam area and reception, the spa is built around an old eucalyptus tree which rises through the centre of the complex and was named Best Luxury Resort Spa in Morocco in the World Luxury Spa Awards in 2016. Some of the treatment rooms have views over the ornate gardens and to the city – and on a clear day – to the Atlas Mountains and there is the “spa within a spa”, a private room with all the facilities including its own hammam, whirlpool bath, treatment tables and showers. The expertise of the therapists is regularly updated to take in the latest techniques, and offer the best treatments.
As a city, Marrakech lies before its visitors to explore, savouring the atmosphere and admiring its gardens such as the Jardin Majorelle – gifted to the city by Yves St Laurent – or enjoying the museums and monuments.
From a fascinating few hours absorbing the vibrancy of the city, and its medina as one of North Africa’s great treasures, the poolside at the Es Saadi Palace is a wonder in its own right to retreat to…perfect to have a swim or a cocktail on the island before dinner.