It was only halfway through my second day that I’d managed to adjust my senses to the sounds, sights, and sheer chaos of old town Marrakech. The labyrinth-like walkways of the souks feel claustrophobic as stall owners clamour for your attention. Motorbikes weave in and out of paths that should be the sole preserve of pedestrians. When you eventually find your way out of the maze you pop out into the wide expanse of the Jemaa el-Fna square where the oddities of the souks are replaced by more mayhem; a sensory overload of street hawkers, snake charmers, drummers, dancers, monkeys, and the smoke and sizzling meats of the food stalls.
The medina of Marrakech is a busy, busy place, especially at weekends where bus loads of North African tourists mix with plane loads of non-African tourists. However, it’s a marvellous place to visit, rich with history, intricate Arabic design, and beautiful buildings and gardens which can even offer some peaceful respite from the maddening crowds.
This was my first visit to North Africa and, for someone used to spending short breaks in various European cities, it is a culturally different experience and can take a bit of adjusting to. When I travel I try to blend in and pretend that I’m a local. This is not possible in Marrakech, where I and my blond-haired wife could not possibly pretend to be Moroccan, although I did enjoy observing the sport of ‘guess the nationality’ played by the stall holders as they greet you with ‘bonjour monsieur’, ‘hola señor’, ‘hello sir’ as they battle for your spending attention. Apparently, I look more French than English to the shopkeepers of Morocco, but all nationalities are treated equally; we are all customers.
Despite the tenacious spirit of the shop keepers, the Moroccan people that we encountered in Marrakech were very friendly, hospitable, and glad to have you visiting their city. Marrakech has been a trading city for more than 1000 years, so they are used to people from different places, and this is maybe why that – for such a conservative country -they are relatively open minded to difference and the western ways of tourists. We had done our research beforehand and dressed to be respectful to Moroccan expectations, although we noted that some other Europeans dressed as if on holiday in Spain without encountering too many disapproving glances. It’s strange how people from different geographical locations view the same temperature. 22 degrees centigrade was t-shirt weather for many northern Europeans, whereas the Moroccans dealt with these wintery lows with down jackets and layers more suited to February mornings in Stockholm.
We spent our first day roaming the souks to try and get a feel for the pace of the city. The best piece of pre-travel advice I read was to download an offline map of the souks which was very useful for navigating the myriad of pathways through the markets. If you are used to paying for something that has a price on then haggling for everything you buy, including taxi fares, is a different experience but worth getting stuck into, at very least for seeing the great actors at work. Moroccan salesmen are masters of their craft, mentally pricing their products to suit how much their prey is likely to part with. They go through their full range of negotiation expressions from faux-insulted to your best friend in Morocco, whilst all the time upselling additional products that you doubtlessly do not need but are talked into purchasing whilst in the eye of the bartering storm.
We went to some food markets at the edge of the medina where we were told we would get the best price for saffron. On entering the markets, it became clear that this was a fabulous place to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and spices, and a very bad place to be a chicken. We targeted the friendliest looking spice seller, or maybe he targeted us, where we started with pleasantries before entering negotiation for the saffron. He started at 40 dirham per gramme, I went low at 20, he laughed and asked if I was mad, and said this was not possible before we ended up at 30 dirham per gramme but only if I bought 5 grammes. At this stage I had no idea what I was doing and felt I was faring no better than the chickens I had seen on my way in, so I tried to catch glimpse of the other stall holders to see if any of them were smirking at the price I was willing to pay but they were giving away nothing. By the end I’d paid 130 dirhams for 5 grams of real saffron, a small tub of eucalyptus salt (good for clearing your sinuses), some nigella seeds, the head of some sort of cereal plant, a powdered lip stain, and a terracotta pumice stone. I’m not sure why we ended up with all of these products, but I left thinking that I got a deal, but probably not as much as the spice seller did.
There are some fabulous buildings to visit in Marrakech. The Koutoubia Mosque is the most prominent landmark in the city sitting at the edge of the old town beneath Jemaa el-Fna square, but the interior can only be visited by Muslims, so we had to make do with watching the sunset behind the minaret on a warm sunny evening.
The extravagant mausoleum of the Saadian Tombs was only rediscovered in 1917, and tests the long-held theory that you cannot take your wealth with you when you go. Located in the Kasbah area of Marrakech, the Saadian Tombs were built by the Sultan al-Monsour as the final resting place for members of the Saadian dynasty. The Chamber of the 12 Pillars is an opulent construction, comprised of Italian Carrera marble, with intricate carved decoration in its walls and ceiling. You’ll probably have to queue to see the Chamber of the 12 Pillars as the viewing window is only wide enough for two people at a time but it’s worth the wait and the tombs are a peaceful place to sit and contemplate. Outside, the streets of the Kasbah are also worth exploring with small market stalls lining the side streets and selling all manner of herbs, vegetables, meats, and fish.
Only a short walk away from the Saadian Tombs is the Bahia Palace and gardens. Built in the 19th Century by the viziers to Morocco’s sultan, it is a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture; detailed ceramic mosaics, painted wood ceilings, and lush gardens. We saw this detailed Arabic design in lots of places during our trip to Marrakech but nowhere better than in the Bahia Palace. This was how the other half lived in Marrakech and the grandness and spatial gardens are in direct contrast to the hubbub of the busy streets outside its walls. The harem which used to house Bou Ahmed’s four wives and 24 concubines has a particularly detailed ceiling design which was created by the finest Moroccan craftsmen of the time. We left the palace with neck ache from constantly staring upwards but also with a new-found love for arabesque design.
Both the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa and the Dar Si Said were also on our to-do-list but unfortunately both were closed for renovations during our visit. Instead, we headed for the Maison de Photographie which as well as providing a window into Morocco’s past through its beautiful old photos, also provides a magnificent viewing point from its rooftop cafe over Marrakech and east towards the Atlas Mountains.
We also ventured out to the new town to visit the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, Jardin Majorelle, and Musée Berbère. Each was interesting and different from the rest of our experiences in Marrakech. The influence of foreign investment was evident in both the design of the museums and the ticket price, but they were interesting to walk around, and the Musée Berbère had some great examples and artefacts of the life and culture of the Berber people of North Africa. Just as entertaining was the taxi ride to and from these museums including another education in negotiation from the hard-nosed taxi drivers. Anyone familiar with video game Mario Karts will recognise that the game must have been conceived in the roads around Marrakech as taxis bump, jostle, and push their way through the traffic with no respect for personal car space. At one point we could have reached out and beeped the horn of the cab next to us, if he wasn’t already incessantly beeping it himself. We also saw a man transporting what seemed to be the best part of a house on his motor bike, but he seemed more confident than we did that he and his belongings would reach their intended destination.
Food and accommodation can make or break any trip and we were lucky on both counts. We stayed at the Riad le Clos des Arts which is in a great location in the medina, just 5 minutes walk from Jemaa el-Fna square. It’s a beautiful building with an attention to detail in the rooms and communal spaces which reflects the owners’ love for architecture and Morocco.
The hosts are a Swiss woman and her Italian husband whom have lived much of their adult lives in various countries in Africa. We enjoyed breakfasts on the rooftop and had some fabulous evening meals there, but I would be happy to return just to listen to Massimo’s tales of African life and cultures.
We ate at Nomad and Café des Epices in the Place des épices, both of which are sun traps, serve fabulous food, and afford great views down to the busy markets below. Dar Cherifa was another beautiful building serving tasty traditional food. We enjoyed a mix of different and interesting delicately spiced salads before delving into some slow cooked meats for our mains. Moroccan food is amazing and until this visit I had not appreciated the fine balance that Moroccan chefs make in mixing their delicate ingredients, such as rose petals and water, and spice blends like ras el hanout and harissa.
Finally, we must talk about Jemaa el-Fna. The square is the centre piece of the old town and it’s worth several visits as its character changes throughout the day. Early on the square is relatively peaceful as the markets set up and tourists begin to traipse in. By late afternoon, the mayhem is in full swing. Whilst you walk you will need to make decisions about whom you are trying to avoid or what you want to see. West Africans try to sell you watches or cigarettes, henna artists want to tattoo your hands, and if you take your eyes off them, the snake charmers are not averse to hanging a snake around a tourist’s neck. There is an awful lot going on, and without doubt the square is a massive tourist trap, but then, we are tourists. We headed up to the roof top of the Cafe de France for some refreshments and to watch the late afternoon chaos from up above. This was a great vantage point for people watching and listening to the sounds of the square below, as well as monitoring the long shadows cast by the setting sun behind the Koutoubia Mosque.
We dropped down to the square to take some photos with the snake charmers who drove as hard a bargain as the souk sellers for payment in return for photos with the snakes. As sunset turns to dusk the square is at its busiest as the evening food markets cook up all manner of delights for hungry tourists including delicacies such as sheep heads and brains. We took photos rather than sample these delights, so I’ll save them for my next trip.
And that is Marrakech. It is indeed a marvellous place and I’ve not even mentioned its number one most fabulous thing. It’s a love that both the Moroccans and the English share in equal measure; tea. Mint tea, Berber tea, spiced tea, ginger tea. The Moroccans do tea better than anyone else and a soothing tea is just what you need when in Marrakech.