Ehren Joseph
The Terre Resort & Spa in Palmeraie, just outside Marrakech
The Terre Resort & Spa in Palmeraie, just outside Marrakech
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Marrakech Spotlight

In Marrakech, a recent spate of new hotels, sumptuous restaurants, and buzzing bars now complement the snake charmers, souks, and mazelike Medina

By Stephanie Johnnidis

September 28th, 2009

It’s mid-morning in Marrakech, long after dawn’s first call to prayer, and the roosters have finally calmed. On a quiet hotel terrace, a young couple sprawl out on white-cushioned loungers and chat about going for a swim in the courtyard pool after breakfast. From their perch, they can peer out over the jumble of ramshackle Medina rooftops to the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Meanwhile, in the labyrinth of streets below, the Medina is already moving at full speed. Craftspeople scurry from stall to stall, sellers call out to passersby, children chase a soccer ball, and donkeys totter along, all while mopeds whiz by. Sunlight streaks through the alleys. It’s warming up and the air is thick with the smells of spices and food.

Morocco has long been a country where grit and glamour mingle, where hedonism and faith coexist, and Marrakech, an ancient city located in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, is the epicenter of its famous dichotomy.

The country is in the middle of a growth spurt, spearheaded by its monarch, King Mohammed VI, who took the throne in 1999 and immediately began improving the country’s infrastructure, vowing to quadruple tourism by 2010. These developments have had the greatest impact on Marrakech, where in the past few years, a handful of fine new hotels have opened with another dozen or so on the way.

Gone are the days when Western visitors like writers William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles came searching for what they considered exotic and sought risqué encounters and inspirational isolation. Yes, the snake charmers and belly dancers can still be found (indeed, these customs are deeply rooted in the culture), but so can modern design, haute cuisine, and couture – influences made by visitors such as Jean Paul Gaultier and the late Yves Saint Laurent. And while many residences within the Medina are hidden behind unassuming doors, new condo high-rises loom over the broad avenues in the Ville Nouvelle (the new quarter). This mix of old and new, of North African and European, is what makes the city so fascinating.

Marrakech’s oldest section is the pink-hued Medina, or old city, encircled by 10-mile-long ramparts. Just outside the Medina’s enduring walls is the Ville Nouvelle, including the Gueliz and Hivernage neighborhoods where the French settled, where the wide avenues, streetside cafés, vibrant nightlife, and neoclassical architecture wear a distinctly European look.

A fruitful week can be spent exploring the city alone, starting in the Medina and working outward. Another week could be whiled away visiting the harbor town of Essaouira on the southern Atlantic coast and trekking into the High Atlas Mountains.

View our Morocco slideshow by photographer Ehren Joseph for a closer look at this North African jewel.

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