Three Peaceful Retreats in the Marrakech Medina

September 17, 2013 5:11 pm

That the medina of Marrakech is overwhelming is a fact bordering on the cliché at this point — the words “hectic, information pills ” “labyrinthine, page ” “chaotic, symptoms and “sensory overload” are bandied about with increasing regularity in travel articles. Might I add “stray cat-and motorcycle-ridden obstacle course,” “cornucopia of smells your nose never fathomed,” and “sweat factory” to the mix?

Sometimes you need a break, but you’re not hungry, not up for spending hours being swindled at a carpet shop, or not ready to go back to your riad, lest you get swallowed up and never want to venture back out. Where to hide from the onslaught of donkeys, perhaps with a cup of coffee? Here are my three picks for soothing oases in the thick of the medina thrum, where you can retreat to regain your sanity.

Dar Cherifa: Bookworm’s Delight

When you stumble in through the door of this riad, you might find yourself blinking numerous times. This is normal: when your overstimulated eyes have been accustomed to startling shades of crimson, indigo, and saffron, it may take awhile to adapt them to the stark whites and neutral palette of this literary café.

Dar Cherifa Courtyard

The lovely 16th-century property is one of the oldest known restored buildings in the medina, and is now a cultural gathering ground for tourists and locals alike. The intricate aged doors and arches stand out that much more against the earthy walls and white seating. Above all, it’s a serene place to relax, order a coffee, read a book, and check out the current art exhibition.

Dar Cherifa Aerial

Dar Cherifa details But anytime you’re missing the hubbub of the souk (I had a suspicion you were a masochist), you can always head up to the roof terrace and remind yourself exactly where you are (while checking your e-mail — spot me in the picture? Hooray for terrace Wi-Fi!).

Dar Cherifa Terrace

The sun also hits the Dar Cherifa courtyard in a very special way. The combination of beautiful doors, peeling paint, and camera-ready lighting meant… photo shoot time! Much thanks to Faatima Tayob for obliging me.

DC modelingA note of warning: there is a little fountain in the middle of the courtyard, as is always the case with riads, only this one is more like… a puddle. Keep that in mind while you’re backing up toward it to take pictures of the dramatic doorways, lest you find yourself in it and spend the rest of your day splish-sploshing around the medina in soggy shoes. Not that this happened to me or anything.

Riad Yima: A Touch of Kitsch

Morocco is riddled with riads, palaces, and restaurants designed to fulfill your most ostentatious Arabian Nights fantasies, but all the arches and lanterns and belly dancers and carpets get old after awhile. I’m a big fan of Indian kitsch — retro Bollywood movie memorabilia, modern takes on classic icons like the ubiquitous “Horn OK Please” signs or auto rickshaws — and I was intrigued to see what Moroccan kitsch might look like. So I tracked down Riad Yima, a Pop-art gallery and boutique owned by celebrated Morocco- and UK-based photographer Hassan Hajjaj.

Riad Yima Courtyard

You’ll find his edgy portraits along ide a carefully curated range of funky shirts, caftans, and babouches (unlike any you’ll shop for in the medina, I promise you), and yes, those are lanterns in the pictures below — only these are recycled from household cans made for paint and sardines.

riadyima Riad Yima DetailsHajjaj takes all your preconceived notions of Moroccan design and turns them on their head. Have some mint tea sitting on a bench made from red plastic Coke crates at the cute little tables fashioned from Arabic stop signs and soak it all in. Forget the Orientalist approach: you’ve never seen Morocco look quite like this before.

Riad Yima Room

Maison de la Photographie: An Artsy Respite

If your photography tastes veer more toward the classic than the Pop, Maison de la Photographie might be a better bet for you.

Maison de la Photographie 1

This particular riad has been converted into a photography museum housing collections of vintage shots depicting Moroccan life. The first floor houses the early period from the 19th century, mostly from Tangier; the second floor has images from Morocco’s modern European era (though it’s amazing how little the medina has changed since then, other than attire!), and the third floor shows documentaries.

Maison de la Photographie 2

There’s also a terrace here, of course, but this one has a café and some of the best views of the medina I saw my whole trip!

Maison de la Photographie terrace

Do you have your own favorite little secret spot in the medina?

Photographs courtesy Faatima Tayob

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