My Marrakech Is Better Than Yours
When she isn't trying to open a hotel or being a professional shopper, Maryam Montague blogs about life in Morocco. We can't think of a better guide to this bewitching—but often rather bewildering—city.
I'm an American, but for my whole life I've been a nomad. It started in Cairo, where I was born. (My dad, a New Yorker, was on assignment in Egypt.) My travels have continued through more than 70 countries--Cambodia to Colombia, Iran to Italy, Namibia to Nepal--and my work as a specialist in human rights and democracy means the list keeps growing.
Every place I've visited has been compelling in its own way, but I never found a city that made me want to settle down until I came to Marrakech. Its appeal comes from so much more than the snake charmers, the fortune-tellers, and the souks--though they help, too. The hospitable people, the delicious food, the mysterious architecture, and the fascinating Moroccan culture all add up to make Marrakech a city like no other. Borrowing the words of little Goldilocks, Marrakech felt "just right" somehow.
So two years ago, my husband (an American architect), our two children, and I traded in our nomadic existence for a nine-acre olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech. We then set out to open The Peacock Nest, an online shop selling beautiful Moroccan things, and to design and build a stylish, ecofriendly boutique hotel called Peacock Pavilions (peacockpavilions.com); both are named after the peacocks that roam the property. If all goes to plan, the 10-room hotel will be ready by July.
Somewhere along the way, I decided to start writing a blog, My Marrakesh (mymarrakesh.com), a great big love letter to my new home. I enjoy sharing my passion for Marrakech with anyone who will pay attention. And they do: I'm not exactly sure why, but thousands of people read My Marrakesh every day. Either my mother is paying them all--she always wanted me to be popular in high school--or people are genuinely interested in the enchanting city that I'm lucky enough to call home.
Wait, is it Marrakech or Marrakesh?
BT's style is to follow Webster's Geographical Dictionary for place-names, so we spell it Marrakech. Montague, however, calls her blog My Marrakesh because that spelling is closer to the way the city's name is pronounced.
Morocco is famous for its food, and no wonder. It's mouthwatering and eclectic, and there's something for everyone. The best-known dish is the tagine, a filling stew slow cooked in an earthenware pot with a conical lid. In addition to chicken, beef, lamb, fish, or vegetables, tagines often include stewed fruit, olives, onions, or almonds. Many restaurants also serve couscous, particularly as a traditional family lunch on Fridays. The seven-veggie couscous royale, topped with a raisin/onion concoction, is not to be missed.
Brochettes (skewers of meat or chicken) are always a safe bet and are especially popular with the junior set. Harira, a soup made with tomatoes and chickpeas and served with bread and dates, is a warming and often vegetarian alternative. If the food strikes you as a touch blah--you chili fiend!--request harissa, a hot sauce that'll send your taste buds into overdrive.
There's a wide variety of places to nibble and dine in Marrakech, from street stalls to opulent restaurants out of The Arabian Nights. And café culture is omnipresent--thanks, no doubt, to the country's history as a French colony. I provide a range of food choices below, from the super cheap to the save-up-your-pennies splurge. Also included are some non-Moroccan options for those who want to mix it up a little.
Marrakech's bountiful tangerine and orange trees make for fresh juice everywhere. Yay! By day, head to the orange-juice stalls on the Jemaa el-Fna, the city's famous central square. There are dozens of juice stalls, all of which are numbered. I haven't ever really noticed a difference between the juice at No. 1 and the juice at No. 23. So pick the stand with your lucky number and make a beeline. A smile usually gets you a free half refill.
By night, the juice stalls are wheeled away and dozens of open-air kitchens are set up in tidy rows, with communal bench seating. I'm partial to the stall where a chef with a handlebar moustache makes harira. Be sure to check out the stands that specialize in exotica like sheep's head or snails (you slurp them from a cup). Sadly, no beer is on offer at any of the stalls.
On the sidelines of the Jemaa el-Fna is Ice Legend, an ice cream shop. It's particularly enticing for the little ones in the group, but adults too will appreciate a scoop of one of the 50 homemade flavors. Café des Épices, in the medina's spice market, is a charming and aromatic spot for breakfast or a glass of hot mint tea. Further down the medina's serpentine alleys is La Terrasse des Épices in Souk Cherifia. (It's owned by the same guy who owns Café des Épices.) Salads start at just $6.50, and you can bask in the sun on the huge terrace.