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Travel Talk – Marrkech rated No. 1 destination (May 6, 2015 issue)

Every year, the website TripAdvisor ranks top destinations and sites around the world. This year’s number 1 destination, according to voters on the website, was Marrakech, Morocco which incidentally has also been one of my favorite trips. Marrakech is a beautiful, lively city full of rich history and culture. Located in North Africa, along the Mediterranean and across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, Morocco is a cultural bridge between the West and Africa and the Middle East.
Marrakech is home to Berber, Muslim, and sub-Saharan and Western (namely French) cultures. There is plenty to do in and around Marrakech, and any visit will require a difficult decision. Inside the city, you will find busy souks (open-air markets), old mosques, beautiful palaces, and relaxing hammams. Marrakech is also very close to a number of natural wonders including the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert.
You will have many options in Marrakech, but a trip to the “Red City” would be remiss if you don’t visit at least one of the beautiful, old palaces. I would first recommend the Bahia Palace and the Jardin Marjorelle. The Bahia Palace was built in the 19th century and was meant to be the greatest palace of its time. It is a quintessential Moroccan and Islamic building with highly detailed mosaics in rooms that open into courtyards and gardens.
You will be most struck by the exquisite arches and geometric tile work that was popular at the time of construction and is unique to Islamic art and architecture. The Jardin Marjorelle (Marjorelle Garden) is another popular site in Marrakech where you can get away from the bustle of the busy medina. The garden comprises 12 acres and was designed by French artist Jacques Marjorelle when Morocco was a protectorate of France in the 1920s and 30s.  The garden is known for its beautiful landscaping as well as the bright primary colors that accentuate some of the small buildings and fountains within the walls of this small oasis.
For an additional price, you can also visit the Berber Museum inside the garden to learn more about Morocco’s original settlers who still maintain their unique culture and language as Morocco’s largest minority group. The museum gives visitors a glimpse of Berber art and allows you to more fully appreciate how these people have contributed to the history of North Africa.
A trip to Marrakech would necessarily include a visit to the old Medina (think downtown area) where you can see the sprawling souks (open-air markets), the Djama el Fna (city square), and the Koutubia Mosque which stands above the city. The mosque is the most notable landmark in Marrakech, and was originally constructed in the 12th century. It inspired the architecture of numerous other minarets and bell towers. The outside is beautiful and eye-catching, but non-Muslims may not enter the mosque.
One could spend days wandering the souks of Marrakech where you can buy every souvenir and gift imaginable. Marrakech is home to several tanneries, so genuine leather goods make a great and affordable memento. Come prepared to haggle! Sellers tend to be very aggressive, but if you walk away, you’ll probably get a better deal! The Djama el Fna is the heart of the Medina, surrounded by restaurants as well as smaller vendors. During the day, the square is also full of snake charmers and other entertainers, usually with monkeys or other small animals. While this is certainly entertaining, know that pictures are not free and be prepared to pay a few dirham. Find a restaurant with rooftop seating to try the traditional and delicious couscous or tagine with sweet mint tea. The square is also beautiful and very lively at night. More food stands appear at sundown, and this is a great place for an inexpensive dinner side by side with fellow tourists and locals.
The sights and sounds of the medina can be overwhelming, so to relax, book a visit to a hammam. The hammam is similar to a Roman or Turkish bath, and is an old Moroccan tradition where you can get a massage and truly clean off the dust of the city. The experience will vary depending on what you choose, but the set-up is essentially the same. Each hammam will have a few rooms for different purposes. You may start in a sauna to acclimate to the heat and open your pores, then the bath which consists of a bucket of hot and cold water. Lastly, you lather with a black soap which will remove layers of dirt and dead skin.
You’ll come out feeling fresh and cleaner than you thought possible. It’s a wonderful experience that all travelers will enjoy. You can find more traditional hammams where you’ll encounter more locals while others are marketed for tourists and vary in terms of luxury. You will have an attendant who will help you wash and teach you the very-detailed process of the Moroccan baths.
While there is yet more to do and see in the amazing Red City, visits to the medina, a hammam, and at least one of the palaces or gardens in Marrakech are necessary. You’ll want to stay in a riad close to the medina since you will have to do a lot of walking. If you plan a longer visit to Morocco, you may also want to visit two incredible natural landmarks, the Sahara Desert and the Ouzoud waterfalls.
Regardless of what you choose to do, this city and country will amaze and surprise you with its beautiful and diverse landscape and warm people. Any journey to Marrakech will be an incomparable adventure.