Keen to unlock the treasure troves of the Red City, I exchanged grey English weather for Marrakech’s warm light and century-old sights. In little over three hours, the plane descended to reveal a terracotta city overlooked by the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas mountains.
Upon arrival, we made our way to our home away from home, the Riad Dar Rbaa Laroub. Nestled in the maze-like medina, this word-of-mouth spot is frequented by a loyal following of artists and travellers with a penchant for homely vibes. It’s not an easy find, hidden behind an inconspicuous door in one of the myriad alleyways, but paradise rarely is.
The 29 year-old guest house, one of the first in the city, is owned by the ever-welcoming Jean-Noël Schoeffer, a charming Frenchman whose love for Marrakech is infectious. The seven rooms each differ in their layout and design, each one overlooking the central courtyard open to the blue skies above. Look out for the Colonial KO Room, a tribute to the iconic architectural duo of Studio KO who spent many months here and, incidentally, crop up throughout my trip.
Most rooms are fitted with a traditional fireplace, ensuring your room is toasty after a day of exploring, dark wooden furnishings and boho-chic textiles. Climbing vines and cacti occupy every corner of the riad, with a rooftop terrace akin to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where various secluded alcoves promise privacy and tranquillity throughout the day. Here, we enjoyed breakfasts to the tune of singing birds and sunrise views, revelling in deliciously greasy delicacies, crêpes and cups of sweet Moroccan tea. Lunches, available on request, arrive at tables laid with emerald-glazed plates, soon to be disguised by colourful mezze-style dishes – think stewed aubergine, stuffed courgettes, artichoke hearts and spiced carrots, followed by flash-fried whiting and a suitably French dessert of poached pear clafoutis.
Our evenings were spent discovering dining spots elsewhere in the city. We spent our first night at Grand Café de la Poste, a destination for brasserie-style dining since the roaring twenties. The classically chic power-couple Helena Paraboschi and Pierre Pirajean, owners of the stylish 105 by La Cantine (read about my experience here) teamed up with Studio KO in 2005 to revive the historic spot, maintaining the authentic colonial-style decor and introducing a menu of French riffs on Moroccan cuisine.
A commanding staircase connects the split-level establishment. At ground level, you’ll find tables dotted across the black and white chequered floor, while the straw-clad mezzanine suits intimate drinks, and the lounge-like rooftop salon befits romantic tête-à-têtes. The latter was my favourite area, a candlelit hideaway which evokes a time gone by with its eclectic furnishings hailed from different eras, and jazz soundtrack. The restaurant’s menu is underpinned by fresh seasonal produce, with ingredients sourced from a small organic producer – a perfect example of farm-to-fork dining.
Guided by Eric, the world’s most welcoming restaurant manager, we indulged in a prawn and monkfish tagine presented in a sizzling terracotta pot, a delicious ode to classic Moroccan cuisine. We returned to the restaurant on our last day to experience dining in the pergola. Sat at wicker chairs beneath sand-hued awnings, we enjoyed the suitably light curried monkfish skewers, accompanied by fluffy gluten-free flatbreads.
Along with the lunchtime clientele at Grand Café de la Poste, we flocked to hotspot Bô&Zin to dance the night away with exquisite fusion cuisine and top-class cocktails. The restaurant might be situated on the outskirts of Marrakech, but its popularity is a sign of its excellence. In this villa-like space, candle-lit lounge areas are furnished with plush banquettes, while foliage-strewn dining rooms exude elegance. In the winter months, a pergola kept us warm while still maintaining the illusion of alfresco dining. Outside, bamboo-shaded alcoves and water features are the main draw in summer.
Bô&Zin’s menu is a tantalising read – Asian appetisers span from spring rolls to gyoza while mains include sticky caramelised chicken and tuna tataki. The black cod in caramelised miso, served with silky black rice, is a true pièce de résistance, one we would be happy to eat for the entirety of the trip. Meanwhile, a lazy susan filled with a selection of miniature desserts honours the restaurant’s French heritage – think crème brûlée and fondant au chocolat.
As the sun falls, so does the chill out music, seamlessly transforming the restaurant into a club with house tunes, dancers and live performances. Music is central to Bo&Zin’s nightlife character, with a soundtrack curated by the vibrant co-owner Cyril Gil Durand, while there are plans for a club in the pipeline – an exclusive getaway from the hectic medina.
Whether you’re deep in the Medina labyrinth, where petrol-fuelled motorbikes barely miss you as they weave through the maze-like backstreets, or heading to the showrooms further out of town, Marrakech is filled with fashionable independent boutiques, which are sure to push your luggage weight restriction over the edge.
Chabi Chic Marrakech on the outskirts was a particular favourite, filled with homeware and other quaint knick-knacks, while the colourful Belgian-Swiss brand Max and Jan in the medina offers fashion garments in an indoor-outdoor high-ceilinged space with warm tiled floors.
Twenty kilometres from Marrakech lies the Montresso* Art Foundation, a vast art space founded by Jean-Louis Haguenauer, reached via dust-tracked roads at golden hour. The Jardin Rouge residency program invites artists to its six studios, with all their materials, accommodation and food supplied without charge – it is a hub of international techniques, ideas and attitudes. On our visit, French artist Kokian was at work on a ‘jeu de tarot’ series of paintings, while the contemporary art space saw the return of German artist Hendrik Beikirch, whose soulful picture-like portraits expose the hardships of citizens in the remote parts of Siberia.
Montresso uses its space wisely, using its vast swathes of land to display additional œuvres. This particular sculpture belongs to David Mesguich’s ‘Conditions Suspensives’ collection, which explores man’s place in the urban environment and the boundaries that restrict freedom of thought.
We were lucky enough to experience a sliver of the artists’ lifestyle, invited to join them for an apéritif before they shared traditional dishes from the Ivory Coast, courtesy of one of the visiting artists. It is a residency in all senses of the word, a truly special place which deserves to be cherished.
Better known is the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, located in the city beloved by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Designed by Studio KO, the terracotta brick building pays homage to Moroccan materials, though uses them in a more modern and abstract design. A central courtyard open to the skies changes throughout the day thanks to the Moroccan sun, which casts shadows across the building.
A rotation of the couturier’s 500 timeless creations dazzle in the dimly-lit main room, organised by theme rather than chronology. Saint Laurent’s redefinition of femininity is given particular attention – spot the ‘smoking’ jumpsuit – while his interest in art movements is exhibited through the Cubist appliqué on a woollen cloth cape. The temporary exhibition hall is equally impressive – during our visit, there was an exhibition dedicated to The Moroccans, a striking series of portraits by the late Franco-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui.
Don’t pass up on the chance to dine in the museum’s alfresco courtyard, a casual space with gorgeous Moroccan specialties and an exquisite house-made spinach and ricotta ravioli on a bed of ratatouille.
On our last day, we paid a visit to MACAAL, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden, which offers a professional platform to art from the continent. Its fifth exhibition, Esoteric Writings, celebrated the roots of self-taught artists from diverse backgrounds, with a beautiful collection of colourful pieces filled with everyday life stories.
A theme ran through each of the cultural sites we attended, each one intent on involving the community in its work, carrying out workshops and educational outreach programs to break the physical and intellectual barriers that suggest that museums solely cater to well-educated and affluent tourists. Musée YSL Marrakech packaged goodie bags for schools upon our visit, while MACAAL spoke of its weekly couscous dinner – a collaboration with a non-profit organisation which offers women culinary training. The latter takes place in the museum’s beautiful garden area, open to all regardless of wealth or background.
Whether you’re looking to delve into the past at Grand Café de la Poste, put on your dancing shoes at Bô&Zin, or develop your artistic education at the city’s various galleries, Marrakech is a magical spot for all three. Upon leaving the city, we spotted one of Beikirch’s murals, an example of Montresso’s off-site projects and the perfect visual end to our magical séjour in Marrakech.