Marrakesh --- just the name conjures up images of the exotic. A colorful tapestry weaving together not only the old and the new, but an intoxicating blend of cultural influences derived from the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. Marrakesh has been called the “Jewel of Morocco” and it certainly seems to live up to its title.
Marrakesh was one of the four ancient Imperial cities, once a celebrated capital that lies only 150 miles from the present-day capital of Rabat. Today this sprawling 4th largest city in Morocco seems to be growing in all directions. Founded around 1070 AD by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, a cousin to the then reigning Berber Almorovid king, Marrakesh was once a very important stop and trade center on caravan routes crisscrossing the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. It was at times a place of great wealth, but also one that saw decline and turbulence, and became part of the French Protectorate under the Treaty of Fez from 1912 until 1956 when Morocco gained its independence.
Although sources vary in the actual count, tourists flock to Marrakesh in the millions these days. While Marrakesh can many several attractions, most visitors are drawn by the
charm of the chaotic labyrinth that is Marrakesh’s medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Encircled by 12th century walls, the medina gathers her extensive treasures such as palaces, souks and the Djemâa el Fna Square like pieces of a puzzle coming together to form an amazing scene. The medina alone demands much more than just one day’s visit to fully appreciate it.
On Day 9, following our visit to Aït Ben Haddou, we traversed the High Atlas Mountains via the Tizi-N-Tichka Pass on our way to Marrakesh. The geography seemed to change rather quickly after our last stop in the mountains when we descended into the nearly flat Haouz Plain where Marrakesh is located. Navigating towards the heart of the city, we drove through the outlying, newer sections of the city including the Ville Nouvelle, Hivernage and Guéliz; closer to the historic center and the medina itself, we had a drive-by view of Katoubia Mosque and even caught a glimpse of Djemâa el Fna Square.
Our accommodation for three nights was the Opera Plaza Hotel in Guéliz at the intersection of Avenue Mohamed VI and Avenue Hassan II. The Opera Plaza Hotel was modern and very
comfortable, though lacked the traditional Moroccan architectural charm that some people would hope for. Still, the hotel offered many nice amenities: a large pool, the Havanita Wine & Cigar Lounge, gift shop, spa, bowling, entertainment and several restaurants on premises. While in Marrakesh our daily agenda was quite full which didn't allow too much time to enjoy the hotel itself except for dining in the nice buffet restaurant, and having a nightcap from the bar while sitting outside by the pool in the evening.
Our huge, comfortable room on the 4th floor was well appointed and came complete with a glitzy bathroom as well as a nice-sized balcony. Our room overlooked a major intersection, faced the Royal Theater across from us, and to the left of us the central train station occupied a major portion of the other corner. The far corner of the intersection included a building with a wall-sized mural of an elderly man's face.
The noise from the traffic at this intersection would have been a major problem but wasn’t thanks to double set of sliding doors leading to the balcony which blotted out virtually all sound. Oddly enough, this busy intersection with its roundabout
circle became a mini-attraction to us precisely because of the wild traffic, which included a mix of vehicles -- cars, taxis, bikes, buses and motor scooters as well as pedestrians -- making haphazard patterns in their hurry or fury to get where they were going; even so, we never saw a single accident! The traffic here reminded me somewhat of another city, Lima, Peru, where the sheer volume of cars, speed, and lack of adherence to traffic law was mind boggling but there also we never witnessed an accident.
Dinner on this first evening in Marrakesh was scheduled for the hotel’s Le Rossini International Restaurant. This buffet restaurant offered a variety choices from the many types of salads, to main dishes, breads, desserts, and beverages. Bottled water, coffee and tea were always included with meals as were bottled beer and wines in most restaurants we dined in. However, wine and beer were not included at Le Rossini but could be ordered.
Our included breakfasts were always served in this same restaurant, and in addition to buffet items there was a smaller buffet line where we had choices of freshly made-to-order omelets, or any style eggs, plus Berber beghrir
(Moroccan bubbly-looking pancakes), msemen, or meloui which I preferred. Here it was nice to enjoy a meal at a table for two, but I became so use to having the company of our other travel group members at meal time that eating alone, buffet style, felt a little impersonal.
We didn’t venture out of the hotel that first evening, but in some ways I felt it a mistake not to make use of every moment while in this exciting city when there was free time. Some of our group actually walked the roughly 45-minute distance in the evening to Djemâa el Fna Square. The Square takes on another personality at night and one shouldn't miss that!
Taxis were readily available and we made use of taxis several times for transportation to/from the Square. Taxis for this distance were inexpensive generally though prices doubled at nighttime, and making sure of the fare in advance of your ride is a must as meters seemed absent. One thing I regret was not visiting the legendary 1923 hotel, La Mamounia, filming location for a portion of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The Djemâa el Fna Square also
played a prominent part of the story line and served as a filming location for this movie as well.
Though there was a minibar in our room, my husband preferred to order a nightcap from the Havanita Bar just off the lobby each evening. So ended our first night in Marrakesh. I especially hoped to get a good night's sleep because our first full day in Marrakesh promised a full agenda from morning til evening.
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