One of the four original imperial cities of Morocco, Marrakesh holds a special place in the hearts of Moroccans and tourists alike. The official capital of its region and unofficial capital of southern Morocco, Marrakesh has been drawing visitors for centuries with its exotic beauty, exciting street life and ancient architecture.
The beating heart of Marrakesh is its central “medina”. While modern development continues to expand outside its ancient walls, inside the medina traditional Moroccan life carries on, in many ways unchanged for centuries. Crowded, frantic, boisterous, colourful and endlessly fascinating, the experience of visiting the Marrakesh medina is unparalleled (except, possibly, by that of its northern counterpart in Fes). Within these walled fortifications, the streets (a term which I use very loosely) are narrow, busy and hectic. And, while this may sound unappealing to some, the vibrancy, variety and communal atmosphere are somehow compelling. Although it usually smells pretty bad.
There are two main activities that need to be experienced during any visit to Marrakesh. One, a slow, meandering exploration of the “souqs”. This ancient term refers to a market or commercial quarter, common throughout Africa and the Middle East. The medina is divided into many different souqs, each dedicated to a particular industry or product. Don’t be fooled by that vague attempt at organization, however, as the covered walkways still wind confusingly through a maze of shops of all sizes and styles, with seemingly little thought to logic or direction. The shops within sell everything you could possibly imagine – from handcrafted teapots to fresh leatherwork to tourist t-shirts to precarious pyramids of spice to colourful scarves to the ladies underwear that trio of young men leeringly sell in bulk. Whether you plan to buy, in which case I recommend 20-30 hours of online haggling tutorials before you arrive, or simply want to browse, marvel and recoil as the situation warrants, the souqs are an unforgettable adventure. The second activity that shouldn’t be missed – getting hopelessly lost among the souqs. Don’t worry, this one doesn’t require any special preparation.
Surprisingly, though, hidden within all this mess of madness and humanity are hundreds of beautiful “riads”, classic Moroccan homes. Often indistinguishable from the outside, visitors step through a heavy old door, leave all the noise and pandemonium behind and suddenly find themselves amid tranquil beauty, exotic architecture and the shocking green of the central courtyard areas around which the riads are built. The surrounding rooms tend to be cool, dark and intricately decorated, and the nicer riads often feature a rooftop terrace with views and a lounging pool. Needless to say, staying in a riad in the heart of the medina is a great way to increase your enjoyment during a visit to Marrakesh.
The true soul of the city, however, is Djemaa el-Fna. This is the main square, and the place around which all medina life revolves. Surrounded by beautiful old restaurants with terraces overlooking the action, circled by horse-drawn carts called “caleches”, and filled with every type of street hawker known to man, Djemaa el-Fna feels like if you were pulled out of the crowd and forced to participate in a 16th century circus where all the acts involved either an endangered animal or someone lying to you. And then still having to tip. As soon as the sun starts to go down the food stalls are pulled in, coalescing into a dense pack of crowded, raucous, pungent pots and sizzling grills, a constant cloud of smoke lingering overhead while tourists and locals sit shoulder to shoulder eating tajine, couscous and harira. The after-dinner entertainment can include anything from snake charming to traditional dancing to tarot card readings to some old man doing clumsy cartwheels. And that, my friends, is Marrakesh.
1. Some perspective on the affordability of Morocco: most beautiful, timeless Marrakeshi riads cost roughly the same as the beautiful, timeless Motel 6 in Billings, Montana.
2. Not only is Marrakesh one of my all-time favourite cities, it is definitely the first place I go when I need to buy a severed sheep’s head.
3. A souq is like the ancient version of a mall, but with more donkeys. A lot more.
4.Many young Moroccan men hang out near the most confusing sections of the medina and charge tourists a small fee for directions. They are not particularly concerned with where you are actually trying to go, however.
5. Our riad featured a lethargic turtle with half-closed eyes. Is that something you might be into?
Dean Johnston is the author of three travel books, the most recent of which, Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth, was recently hailed as “odd”. Prior to Christmas he reacquainted himself with the traditional Canadian art of brushing snow off cars. Read more about his travels at routinelynomadic.com.