Discover the most beautiful spots in Marrakech through Leonie Zaytoune's camera lens
Written by: Arianna Meschia for The Nopo
As Marcel Proust wrote "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” and for us this couldn’t ring more true: the beauty of travel lies in the fact that every single place will have a different look and feel according to the traveler’s eyes.
That’s why we’ve asked photographer extraordinaire Leonie Zaytoune to take us through her very own version of her beloved Marrakech, a place which she has been calling home for over four years now.
Originally from a small village in the Netherlands, Leonie first visited Marrakech ten years ago, while studying to become a Spanish teacher. Fate, however, didn’t care about her plans when it put Soufiane, a Moroccan man from Marrakech, on her path. The two fell in love in the brief time Leonie was there, but since they each had studies and work plans of their own, they decided to try a long-distance relationship.
“I thought I should at least attempt to find a job as a Spanish teacher, after spending so many years studying for that! I kept moving between random jobs until I landed work as a teacher and students’ coach in a school in the Utrecht periphery.”
The reality Leonie was confronted with was harder than expected, with students coming from broken families and very disadvantaged backgrounds. Six long years flew by for Leonie, in between work pressures, trips to Morocco during her free time, fears of leaving it all behind, and continuous fights against her innate feeling that her place really was in Marrakech with Soufiane.
“Every time I got home after work I wondered what I was doing in an empty flat having dinner alone and going to bed by myself. The guilt of leaving my parents alone and the fear of leaving everything were paralyzing.”
It took many conversations with friends and a push from her parents who convinced her they’d be fine on their own for Leonie to finally move to Marrakech after she and Soufiane got married in the Netherlands. Because the town was so familiar to her, it took Leonie a few weeks to realize that she wasn’t on holiday anymore, she actually lived there!“Photography had been a hobby of mine back home, so I picked up my camera and started roaming the streets of the medina and the new town of Gueliz. Having a camera in my hand gave me a purpose, it focused my gaze and allowed me to explore corners of the town I might have missed.”
Word of mouth worked its magic, and after a friend asked Leonie to take headshots for her, the requests started trickling in, until one day someone asked Leonie what her hourly rate was. “I didn’t have one! Professionals get paid, not me. The thought of charging to take pictures never crossed my mind, I just love sharing what I see, and if others love it too, all the better.”
Leonie went on a training spree honing her photography skills while learning Darija, Moroccan Arabic, until one day a few years later she looked back and found herself in this beautiful town with the love of her life, with her biggest passion as her job and the love and support of friends and family back in Holland. “I thought of myself crying my eyeballs out after work back in Utrecht only a few years previous. I would never have thought I’d lead this amazingly inspiring life”.
When asked to describe Marrakech in three words, Leonie had no doubt. “To me, Marrakech means alignment, because here I rediscovered myself and got aligned with my purpose, photography. It is also a constant surprise, because the city, its sights, smells, sounds, and people are always astonishing in (mostly) pleasant ways, which keeps life interesting and varied. And it is also dynamic, because no two days are the same here: I may wake up in the morning having planned something and end up doing something completely different by the afternoon. I love the feeling of moving freely through my days.”
Discover this enchanting town through Leonie’s eyes with her very own shortlist of the best nooks and corners in Marrakech, from old medina streets to charming villages on the rocky Atlas Mountains, via delicious patisseries and peaceful gardens.
Le Jardin Secret
121 Rue Mouassine, Marrakesh 40030, Morocco
A private garden with beautiful Moorish architecture and a little restaurant in the middle of the medina. Even though it is a tourist hotspot, I still find it a calm oasis within the hectic Old City: the smell of the flowers in bloom, birds singing, the water gurgling in the fountains… It’s great to sit with a cup of tea and a book or walk around and take photographs. Pro Tip: buy a personal year pass for only 200 Dirhams ($55) for unlimited access.
Corner of Riad Laarouss / Sidi Ben Slimane
This neighborhood was one of the first I really got to know well in the medina, since I worked here helping my husband manage two riads. Riad Laarouss was a common meeting point for our guests, and also for friends to go for lunch or a coffee. It's just a very central and familiar place in the old medina that is easy to recognize by the old palm tree right in the middle, one of my favorite photography subjects!
This piece of stunning architecture right outside the medina caught my attention for many years while seeing it in the distance on my way home. One day I finally decided to stop and walk up there to have a closer look and take a few photos. What I love about it and why it really caught my attention is the fact that it really stands out amid the ever-present ochres and reds of Marrakech, with its pure white dome and crenelated walls.
Tahannaout is a small village a half-hour drive from Marrakech, recognizable by the long main street with the pretty lanterns, the village on your left and a stunning green valley on your right. The main street ends in a small rocky cliff topped by the hamlet of Douar Azro (douar meaning village in Arabic and azro meaning rock in Berber). A friend of ours has a house here and we often visit for tea, a picnic, or a short hike. You can follow the red soil paths and water streams that lead you among olive trees, pastures with sheep, goats, and donkeys and pass by other small villages on the way. Or you can climb the hill to the beautiful views of the area, then head into enchanting forests. We come so often that the locals now greet us when we arrive, and that almost makes me feel like I’m back home in the small village where I grew up in Holland!
Le Petit Fours and Espace Othmane
171 Avenue Mohammed V, Marrakech 40000 & 40 Rue Moulay Rachid, Gueliz, Marrakech
If you want to escape the tourists and find a beautiful place where only the locals go, head to Le Petit Fours in Gueliz, one of the oldest patisseries in town: locals go here for sweet treats and their fruit juices and shakes are to die for! Just around the corner, Espace Othmane is a tiny place where both locals and tourists love to take breakfast. Pro tip: come early because tables go fast! They are famous for their omelets with cheese or khlia (jerk meat) served with warm batbout bread, mint tea, and fruit juice. The ftour beldi is another favorite: fresh bread served with olive and argan oil, butter, and amlou (a paste of argan oil, almonds, and honey).
228 Assif C Avenue 18 Novembre, 40000, Morocco
Dar Yemma is a lovely café and restaurant in the Assif neighborhood of the new town Gueliz. My husband was born here and most of the family still lives in this street. I used to come to the café to do my Darija homework since both the café and area are well off the tourist path. It quickly became my favorite remote working spot, I’d spend hours editing photos and sipping my nous-nous (Moroccan coffee). The decor is light and comfy, and they have their own bakery, so you can pick your favorite treat and have it served with your coffee in the café.
Continue your exploration of Marrakech through our curated collection of exquisite Moroccan handmade, artisanal products.