Marrakech from the rooftop bar and terrace of El Fenn hotel
with the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque in the distance

David and I were lucky enough to have the chance to attend five nights in Marrakech celebrating the wedding of American friends’ daughter to a Moroccan-American man. As this was a private event, I won’t write or share photos of that except to say our hosts went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their guests had a fabulous time. (And we did!) Instead, I’ll keep this post to a relatively short travelogue, sharing some photos and a few places we really enjoyed. It wasn’t my first time in Marrakech, but it had been some years and there were new places to discover (and a cautionary tale to share).

Around the medina of Marrakech

We stayed in lovely Riad XO with the family of the bride. (A “riad” is a traditional villa surrounding one or more courtyards.) Riad XO is newly remodeled by its French owner and boasts many rooms of varying sizes, multiple courtyards and terraces on several levels. The owner is charming and speaks excellent English in addition to his native French. The location in the medina, or old town, is excellent, just a few minute’s walk to the Ben Youssef Medersa (madrasa), Ben Youssef Mosque, Marrakech Museum, the 12th century Almoravid Koubba dome, and many souks (shops) and restaurants.

Between lots of fun wedding events over our five-nights in Marrakech (a hammam spa morning, camel ride, shopping for traditional wedding attire, dinners, a cocktail party, henna-ing of hands, simple socializing at the riad…), we enjoyed visiting the Jardin Majorelle and exploring the medina. At the suggestion of Riad XO’s owner, we lunched one day at the rooftop Terrasse des Épices restaurant. It was enjoyable, but clearly aimed at tourists willing to splurge as the prices are very high in comparison to other restaurants in the area. Waiters sported big straw hats with the restaurants name to protect from the sun and identical hats were left at the tables for diners. Although Terrasse des Épices occupies a large rooftop space, it didn’t really have the great view we expected since it is surrounded immediately below by barren plots of land and the backs of ramshackle structures. I had the impression from Riad XO’s owner that the Terrasse des Épices overlooked Le Jardin Secret, a restored palace and gardens. It doesn’t, but it is a short walk between the two.

Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé’s Jardin Majorelle and Berber museum

We actually enjoyed more the tiny rooftop terrace of Les Almoravides restaurant which overlooks the plaza in front of the Ben Youssef Mosque and the Almoravid Koubba. (Google Maps gives the address as J2J6+MX4, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco, although you can just search Google Maps by “Les almoravides”.) The views are great as is the food and the prices are hard to beat. Service is friendly and English and French are spoken. We liked a coffee and pastry break so much that we went back another day for a delicious lunch. The tangines were excellent with “Berber style” offering lots of veggies in addition to (or without) meat (chicken, lamb or beer). In worse weather Les Almoravides also offer charming indoor dining areas on its multiple floors and takeaway from its street-front counter. It’s a casual little place and stairs to the upper floors actually take you past a corner of the compact kitchen. [Note: Several flights of narrow stairs are required to get to the rooftop.]

Looking over the medina of Marrakech: The light tan dome immediately ahead in the thumbnail above is the Almoravid Koubba; immediately to the left is the Ben Youssef Mosque; and, at the far end of the plaza is the Marrakech Museum.

With our on-our-own time limited, we had to choose between visiting the Ben Youssef Medersa and the Marrakech Museum. We opted for the former and enjoyed our unstructured ramble through the restored Islamic school with its many dormitory rooms and decorated corridors around a central courtyard.

Ben Youssef Medersa

Throughout the medina we saw signs of the 2023 earthquake. Collapsed buildings, rubble and cracked and braced towers were common. The medina can be sensory overload: colors, beauty, squalor, history, odors and sounds and a bustling humanity. We enjoyed diving in and we enjoyed finding oases of peace to get a break from it all: Lunching with friends from the wedding at Zeitoun Café before haggling for wedding clothes in the souks, a special dinner with our hosts in the oh-so-different French Quarter at Grand Café de la Poste which felt like something out of the old movie Casablanca. And, of course, there was always the delightful refuge of Riad XO.

View of the Kutubiyya Mosque from Zeitoun Café

That cautionary tale: As we were heading back to Riad XO one afternoon through the maze of of souk-lined streets that make up the medina, one of the shopkeepers who called out to us said we were lucky to be in town for a Berber leather auction and that it was just a couple turns away. I’d seen Moroccan leather tanning in Taroudant and thought it would be fun to see again with David. Another man passing by said he worked there and was heading that way and we could follow him. As this second man strode swiftly through an increasingly long walk, I realized something was off. When I ducked into a courtyard with the stone pits I recognized as inactive leather tanning vats, a local called out to me to ignore that as is was closed, pointing at the man ahead of us who had reached his destination. We followed him down a crumbling alley, squeezing past a laden donkey cart, to come out in an odiferous courtyard of sorts filled with leather-tanning vats. The stench was horrible and our “guide” introduced us to a gap-toothed man who handed us wilted bunches of mint he called “Berber bouquets” for us to hold under our noses to combat the smell. As this man sought to lead us further into a maze of vats, I’d had enough. No way was I getting farther from the main road. I put a hand to my head and another to my stomach, claimed illness, and turned to walk quickly out of this place with David. The gap-toothed man called after us, but we ignored him until we were back on the main road. There, we stopped and he demanded ten dollars for the “tour” and gesturing at a painted sign in Arabic over the alley entrance. David argued with him, telling him we never wanted a tour and we didn’t have dollars, while I upped my feigned illness routine and began to walk off. David finally handed over about $1.70 worth of dirham and turned to follow me as the man complained this wasn’t “fair.” It was a scam from the start with the first shopkeeper and the guy who claimed to work at the leather auction and I should have cut it short sooner. Oh well. We got off with no real damage, a view of leather tanning, and a good reminder to remain vigilent.

We shouldn’t have followed the guy in the “Pink” jacket…
but we did see leather tanning (and cats! :)).

Other wedding guests had brushes with similar scams. One of our group thought a man was helping him get back to the riad, but was led out of his way then confronted by a group of men and asked for $50 when he got near the riad. Our friend pointed out the security cameras above the riad and offered $10 or nothing which the men accepted, calling him “no gentleman.” The name calling would be funny save for the clear intimidation. The bridegroom confirmed that these volunteer guides who lead tourists astray is a common scam in the medina. There is a lot of poverty there brushing up to tourists who seem fabulously wealthy by comparison. I never carried a purse or wore jewelry in the medina save for clearly inexpensive costume pieces and strongly advise the same.

Our time in Marrakech flew by. With our five nights over and the bridal couple happily married in a lovely ceremony, we headed back to the ultra-modern Marrakech Menara Airport for the 3+ hour Royal Air Maroc flight back to Paris. We only had a few nights there before we were off again to visit family in Texas… and experience a total solar eclipse!

Practical info:

Lots of restaurants and souks (shops) take credit cards, but not all do. Multiple ATM’s at the airport did not work for us despite trying multiple cards. We got the local currency (dirham) from a money exchange booth en route to our first stop, the Jardin Majorelle. There are a few ATM’s in the medina, but we were told by the bridegroom that the exchange rate was about the same between live money exchanges (which are much more common) and ATM’s (which don’t always work, as we discovered). We only needed to change money that one time.

As a popular tourist destination, western dress is very common in Marrakech and head coverings for women tourists are totally unnecessary. It is a more modest culture, though, and short shorts and skirts and revealing clothing could be misinterpreted. Wanting to be respectful, I opted for skirts and pants that covered my knees and tops that covered my shoulders.

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