Exploring Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains - February Half Term 2019. Part 1: Marrakech
Just a short 3.5-hour flight from the UK, Morocco is an easily accessible, yet fascinating introduction to north Africa. With a dizzying mix of colours, culture and landscapes, our children were excited to spend their half term exploring a small taste of what this ancient land has to offer.
We took an early morning flight to Marrakech, picked up our hire car at the airport and were greeted by the adhan or call to prayer, which echoes across the country five times a day. Our kids were intrigued by the ‘singing’ which offered our first insight into a culture very different to our own and set them up perfectly for a week of discoveries.
We’d spotted our first camel within two minutes of being on the road and with the help of google maps on our ‘switched off data roaming’ smart phones, we made it across the city, through sleepy villages and along a dusty dirt track into an oasis of calm; a small boutique villa complex, just 10km outside of Marrakech. We opted to stay here for our first 3 nights, to allow the children some space to run around in the 3.5 acres of Moroccan countryside. Complete with children’s toy baskets, table tennis, an arts and crafts shack, well-kept gardens with a roaming resident donkey, a football goal and (of course) a fab swimming pool, it is the perfect place for families travelling with young children. Our garden villa had a private living room with a roaring log fire to help keep the February evening chill at bay, a private dining space, bathroom and 2 bedrooms. It was an ideal spot and allowed us adults to enjoy evening tagines in peace, with the children safely tucked up in bed.
Although we could have quite happily spent our time lazing around the gardens and enjoying all that the villa had to offer, with Marrakech just a 15-minute drive down the road, we did do a fair bit of exploring.
Here are our top picks for visiting Marrakech with kids:
- Marrakech Hidden Sights, a guided tour of the Medina
We decided to employ the services of an expert local guide for our first visit into Marrakech’s hectic Medina with kids. We arranged to meet Nouradine, owner of Marrakech Hidden Sights, outside the conveniently located Koutoubia Mosque car-park. After warm introductions and a fascinating introduction to Marrakech’s history we headed for the Medina. Our first challenge was learning how to cross the busy dual carriageway, that loops around the walls of the old city, Moroccan style. As a range of vehicles from horse draw carriages and mopeds to coaches and small bright-yellow taxis trundle past it can seem like a case of who dares wins. In fairness there is a perfectly located pedestrian crossing, and drivers are happy to stop to let groups across. With that successfully navigated, the streets immediately transformed from wide-open sun-drenched thoroughfares to a criss-crossing maze of narrow passageways, tunnels and hidden corners as we entered the medina via one of the smaller entrances. As we initially meandered through a quieter part of the old city, the kids absolutely loved running off ahead trying to second guess our next turning. The brightly coloured and intricately decorated doorways and arches provided constant distractions and the occasional orange-laden cart expertly guided by a local vendor caused much amusement as we dodged our way through. Nouradine was instantly at ease with our children and had soon nick-named our youngest as ‘the leader’ after he decided to take over navigating the back streets and alleyways. The tour took us through the various souks with Nouradine providing an additional level of insight to their histories and the usage of the various buildings we passed. We ducked into what, from the outside, appeared nothing more than a tiny unused room, but opened up (Tardis-esque) to become a local communal bakery, where residents brought their various doughs to be baked in a giant wood-fired oven in exchange for a few dirhams. We also visited a Dar which, while like a Riad, is a more traditional term for an old house. The true difference between the two is that a Riad has a garden, while a Dar will often have a small central uncovered courtyard. In the souks we saw a leather auction taking place with local artisans bidding on the various cow-skin sheets. Around the corner, a narrow alleyway was packed with tiny workshops where the sheets of leather were being artfully crafted into shoes, belts and bags. In the woodwork souk the children stared with genuine amazement as men used both their hands and feet to carve intricate patterns into bowls and plates or spin a perfect animal or chess piece. We eventually weaved our way out to the giant Djeema al Fna, a huge open square that acts as a centre-piece to Marrakech’s labyrinthine souks, where we parted ways with Nouradine. It was exactly what we had hoped for, an interesting and insightful walk around the souks of Marrakech’s old city, taking in all the main sights as well as allowing us a glimpse into the life of a few locals by seeing some otherwise hidden gems. It gave us the confidence we needed to tackle the medina on our own, something we wanted when exploring with kids in tow.
- Jardin Majorelle
A gift to the city from famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, Jardin Majorelle began life back in 1924 when original owner Jaques Majorelle first cultivated the garden. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought the electric-blue villa and its garden and saved it from abandonment and disrepair in 1980. Since then over 300 species of flora have been added from all over the world, and today the garden is a little slice of colourful tranquillity in the heart of the city. It provided a lovely change of pace as we ambled along the shady pathways amid giant trees and exotic flowers. The children particularly enjoyed the cactus garden, displaying various fantastically shaped and spiked plants and shrubs from an array of continents. All the pots are painted in bold colours, and the bright blue villa, a shade supposedly borrowed from the Atlas Mountains, combines with the lush greens of the garden. We didn’t spend a huge amount of time here, although older children may want to visit the excellent Berber Museum attached to the gardens, but it was a lovely change of pace for adults and kids alike. Directly outside the garden there are several shops and cafés that line the pretty cobbled street, one of which offers up delicious pastries and ice creams.
Entrance for our family of 4 cost us about ten pounds, as children under 12 are free, and there’s a very handy speedy queue for families with young children. It’s worth getting there early (the park opens at 8am most days) to avoid both the crowds and the midday heat.
- Bahia Palace
The other major attraction that we visited was the Bahia Palace, located to the south of the medina at the very edge of the old city. You enter the palace via a walkway lined with orange trees and our kids were soon ducking off the path to stand amongst a vivid sea of fallen fruits. After parting with another ten or so pounds we entered the palace and immediately whipped out cameras, as the striking green and blue tiling that lines the entire floor and ornately carved wooden door frames combine to provide photo opportunities galore. It was great fun strolling from room to room and admiring the fabulous décor and there was enough space for the kids to roam relatively free especially when we arrived at the huge central courtyard and neighbouring garden. We’d picked up a couple of pastries from the Al Jawda Patisserie on an earlier visit to the souks and found a quiet shady spot to snack on our delicious treats. The children then discovered a luminous rainbow created by the sun pouring through one of the palace’s stained-glass windows and were soon dancing away. We exited the same way we’d arrived and decided to nip up to one of the many roof-top cafés to have a freshly squeezed orange juice in the glorious February sunshine.
- Le Jardin Secret (Secret Garden)
During our independent exploration of the souks we decided to check out the Secret Garden. A former palace twice rebuilt, the complex has a fascinating history involving 16th century Moroccan royalty, poisoned tea, a house swap and a very recent (2016) reopening following years of disrepair. The garden is split into an exotic garden and an Islamic garden and showcases outstanding examples of Islamic art and architecture, an abundance of flora from around the world, but also the peace and tranquillity that encourages 'idleness and contemplation'. It was a huge hit with our children who sprung freely from hand holding following the craziness of the surrounding souks. A tiny pond with stacking turtles, an airy and beautifully tiled gazebo and lots of chirping birds all provided great entertainment, while the grid of pathways led to a few games of hide and seek. At the top of the rear building, with fabulous views of the gardens below and the terracotta rooftops of the city, is the in-house café. Serving fresh salads and wraps it’s a wonderful spot for lunch, an oasis of calm in the heart of Marrakech’s medina.
- Child-friendly cafes
We tried out a handful of the hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of little eateries and cafes dotted throughout the Medina.
Our first was the Henna Arts Cafe to fulfil a pre-departure promise to our 5-year old daughter that she could have a small and discreet henna tattoo. There are two cafes of a very similar name. The other (remove 'Arts' from the title) is located just outside the souks, but both are all about empowering the local Henna artists and ensuring they are fairly paid and treated, not always the case for the women offering a similar service in Djeema al fna. Our simple Moroccan inspired lunch was good and very reasonably priced (£4 per main) and, after carefully leafing through the giant catalogue of available designs, our daughter opted for a flower from page one and popped herself down in the room next door. After about ten minutes of incredibly impressive hand 'painting' and a further 30 minutes drying we were off with one extremely chuffed 5-year old and her lovely little henna hand flower.
One lunchtime, as we intrepidly sought our own trails through the Aladdin-esque streets of the souks, we found ourselves on what is definitely Marrakech’s ‘eat street’, Route Kenaria Dabachi. We opted for the cosy Corner Café primarily because our kids were wowed by the sight of a huge tropical smoothie complete with a fresh fruit mountain rising out of the top of the glass. This was arguably the best food we had in Marrakech. A delicious tagine, fresh bread and fantastic juices. It’s a very popular spot with several groups and couples having to be turned away by the friendly owner during the hour or so we were there. There are two or three small tables outside, a tiny downstairs area, where the kitchen is, with space for a further three tables and a mezzanine with three tables upstairs. The menu, whilst not specifically for children, was perfect for a kids/adults combo lunch and the juices and smoothies were a real hit.