Marrakesh’s shift in tourism post covid means less hassle and more modernity
Marrakech is back with a bang. After a recent stay in Morocco’s capital of culture, food and shopping, I discovered a destination that has reinvented itself after a seemingly endless period of strict anti-Covid measures.
The locals have woken up to how dependent they are on tourism, and from the first day I plunged myself back into the maze of alleyways of the souks of the Medina, I was immediately aware of a new atmosphere and a radically different atmosphere and attitude.
In the old days, tourists here were easy targets for nuisance every two minutes – people tugging at your jacket to drag you into their shop, rude demands for tips and shady guides insisting on helping you find your way. Well, that has all changed.
I wandered around for a week, unaccompanied. Aside from my phone’s GPS, no one bothered me. Even in the deepest and darkest corners of the market, the shopkeepers were genuinely welcoming, friendly and polite. Although, of course, you still need to accept their offer of a cup of mint tea and then start bargaining. But with prices affordable for any budget, Marrakech is thriving, with hotels and restaurants filling up again, and irresistible new shopping deals waiting to be discovered.
The entrance to the medina, the enormous Jemaa El Fna Square, is the only part of Marrakech that hasn’t changed – still filled with snake charmers, musicians and monkeys. But I quickly walked and entered the historic Samarin Market.
While there’s still traditional Moroccan craftsmanship – from exotic babouche slippers and gorgeous handcrafted metal lamps to carved wooden furniture, there’s also a diversity in the goods on offer, reflecting not only more modernity, but also more social and environmental awareness.
Local designer Enosse Titif’s luxury boutique Caftan Soltana showcases his one-of-a-kind fashions, which are recycled using old fabrics, textiles, and even rugs he creates from all over Morocco. Most daring is the irreverent Vintage Arabrock collection on display at Le Bronx Deluxe, designed by Swiss designer Marcus Edmund Burgod, who has reimagined traditional Moroccan fashion. His Berber dress adorned with a Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey makes a great souvenir for fashionistas.
With the emergence of the market alleys of the busy Place des Epices, officially the Place Rahba Ladima, there is a new trend for traditional “herboristes”, such as Herboristerie Arganie, who now offer organically and biodynamically certified beauty and health products, along with their most exotic healing elixir, eucalyptus crystals. Magical and jasmine perfumes.
Restaurants change too, as evident at Ayaso’s farm-to-table, where dishes are gluten- and dairy-free, and organic couscous and tagines are best sampled on the shady rooftop terrace. Head down Place des Epices down Rue Amsafah and you’ll find yourself in the medina’s casual fashion alley, which is lined with a new breed of concept stores, including Kissa, showcasing stylish and affordable creations by young Moroccan designers.
It’s not just boutiques and attitudes that change in markets. There is a coordinated action plan led by the government to renovate the 1,000-year-old ancient city and return it to its former glory. Everywhere I look groups of stone masons are busy restoring ancient mosques, madrasahs and baths, rebuilding crumbling walls and mending roofs.
Walking through the market’s narrow lanes, as well as dangerous donkey carts and noisy motorbikes chugging through shoppers, you now have to dodge workers pushing wheelbarrows piled high with rubble, and even small bulldozers. Even more impressive is a program to bring back to life the ‘City Founders’, traditional caravanserai accommodation for the merchants who bring goods to the markets. Most of these two- or three-storey character stores were once derelict and fallen down, but today, the restored Foundouk El Bacha looks like a modern shopping mall.
Even the city’s famous street food stalls are having to clean up their act, quite literally, by following strict new hygiene regulations. Chez Lamine’s famous roast is still slow-cooked in deep earthen ovens below the restaurant, but there are now clean tables to sit at to enjoy the succulent lamb, rather than eating standing on the dusty pavement.
Marrakech is as famous for its fine dining as its street food, and there are a host of new gourmet addresses to check out. The Royal Mansour, the city’s best hotel, is always one step ahead of the rest, as Italian three-Michelin-starred chef Massimiliano Alamo has installed his brigade at the luxurious Sesamo Hotel (which recently made it to the list of the 50 best restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa).
At Mamounia, celebrated New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten surprises diners with exotic Chinese fare at L’Asiatique. And just outside the centre, in the lush and stately grounds of Mandarin Oriental, Frenchman Akram Ben Allal brings his creative take on traditional Moroccan cuisine to Shirvan.
My most surprising meal was at the newly opened Sahbi Sahbi, where the true torch-bearers of Moroccan cuisine, chefs known as dadas who follow family recipes handed down through generations, take center stage in an open kitchen in the middle of the dining room. . Don’t miss the grilled sardines caught from Essaouira and the grilled lamb liver and kidney skewers followed by the tender beef stew braised with raisins and chickpeas.
One last great tip for the perfect market souvenir to take home – one of those hand painted enamel signs for sale in every aisle. They graphically illustrate professions ranging from artist to soccer player, mechanic to butcher, and in what other city in the world they would be mass-produced in China and sold as local works of art. But here in Marrakesh, skilled local artists are happy to produce them in the artisans’ hidden ateliers in the Medina.
Updated: Feb 02, 2023, 7:15 a.m