Marrakech: how the Red City is embracing its green side

Its imposing clay walls have earned Marrakech the moniker the ‘Red City’, but dig a little deeper and the city’s green side reveals itself, too, from rooftops teeming with wild birds to artisans upcycling used materials in the heart of the medina.

By Emma Gregg
Published 24 Apr 2022, 12:00 BST
Marrakech is known as the Red City, but there’s a green side, too.

Marrakech is known as the Red City, but there’s a green side, too.

Photograph by Getty Images

“Perfect timing,” says the receptionist at Riad Nesma, pointing towards the intricately tiled stairs. I bound up and emerge, four storeys higher, to find the huge desert sun dipping low over the medina, tinging it with gold. 

As the many nearby muezzins strike up their call to prayer, I gaze out over the crowded neighbourhood. Here and there, in similar buildings, others are doing exactly the same. It’s as if the medina is an archipelago — each rooftop an island in the sky.

With their pools and potted plants, Marrakech’s rooftops aren’t just chill-out zones — they’re also landing pads for birds. The next morning, braving the morning chill, I share an outdoor breakfast with a gaggle of house buntings. My table is so loaded with baghrir pancakes, msemen (fried flatbread) and fluffy khobz bread, it’s hard to know which crumbs to offer first. And as the day unfolds, other birds catch my eye: doves strutting through the orchard beside the Koutoubia Mosque, storks canoodling on the El Badi Palace walls and swifts speeding overhead. 

Marrakech is known as the Red City, but there’s a green side, too. When the 11th-century Muslim Amazigh Almoravid dynasty made it the capital of their African and Iberian empire, one of the first things they did was fuzz its fringes with date palms, watered via underground aqueducts known as khettaras. Almost 1,000 years later, Marrakech still has many palm trees — there are dozens among the olive trees in the Menara and Agdal Gardens, and thousands shading the villas of La Palmeraie. Water, too, is just as pertinent as ever: the affluent neighbourhood recently welcomed the Mohammed VI Museum for the Civilization of Water in Morocco. Sleek and ultra-modern, it examines Morocco’s aptitude for the apparently impossible — harnessing water in the desert — and asks pressing questions about climate change.

Since 2016, when Marrakech hosted the COP22 conference, such questions have risen ever higher on the city’s agenda. However, making its historic infrastructure more eco-friendly presents complex challenges, particularly in the frenetic medina. Exploring with walking guide and artisanship expert Atika Aït Nejjar, we have to keep our wits about us. The lanes are narrow and motorbikes are constantly zipping by. “Banning them just wouldn’t work,” she says. “For people in a hurry, there’s no faster way to get from A to B. We have electric buses in the suburbs, but we need electric bikes and mopeds to become more affordable. That would make a big difference.”

A cat finds peace in the bustling medina. 

Photograph by AWL Images

Atika and I are on the hunt for sustainable souvenirs. Around Jemaa el Fnaa — the medina’s thrilling, pulsating central square — the souks are so dazzling, it’s easy to be sidetracked by mass-produced, chemical-dyed wares. But Atika introduces me to Al Nour, a social enterprise supporting women with disabilities, which produces hand-stitched clothing that’s sold in Al Nour’s own boutique. Next, at Koutoubia Herbal, we sample organic argan oil, derived from the hardy trees whose deep roots help protect southwest Morocco from desertification. Elsewhere, in the woodworkers’ souk, I meet Ibrahim Albaz, who builds furniture from eucalyptus wood, upcycled fabric and leather. “The skins come from animals that have been sacrificed during Eid al-Kabir,” he says. “Normally, they’d just go to waste.”

But perhaps Marrakech’s greatest treasure is its private gardens. I wander the lavender-scented paths of Le Jardin Secret — created in the 16th century and originally watered by khettaras, it’s serenity itself. Even in the Majorelle Garden, where visitors in big hats and floaty dresses twirl for Instagram snaps, there are pockets of peace.

This beguiling, complex tangle of a city is making space for eco-friendly eating, too. There are modern, deli-cafes such as Ethnobotanica Café and Shop — based at five-star hotel Jnane Tamsna and run by a conservationist — and organic concept store Ayaso. But most of all, I’m drawn to the rooftops, where, at Nomad and L’mida, in the heart of the medina, I dine on vegetarian feasts, including pomegranate-jewelled salads and succulent vegetable tagines, with the muezzins’ soulful calls all around. 

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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