by Sarah-Jane Williams
A Magical City of Mayhem
If you’re arriving by plane, the elegant Islamic architecture and pale colours in Marrakech Menara Airport prepare you for the wondrous sights to come. Driving into the heart of the city, though, along wide, clean, and palm-tree lined roads with gleaming modern shopping malls alongside, belies the evocative and exciting charms that await.
A former imperial capital, Marrakech manages to capture the essence of times gone by whilst offering plenty of modernity. It invokes a range of emotions and thrills the senses, whilst still providing comfortable pockets of familiarity.
Calmness of Modern Gueliz
Gueliz offers a taste of Marrakech light; it’s the newer part of the city, home to designer shopping centers, fancy restaurants, and elegant spas. It might feel rather like a city in Europe or Northern America, until a man in a traditional Moroccan djellaba strolls past you.
Whilst both men and women may wear this type of long-length, long-sleeved, loose-fitting, and hooded item, it somehow catches the attention more when worn by a man, especially when he has the pointed hood pulled up over his head.
Gueliz is also the place to go if you’re seeking a wild night scene. Perhaps surprisingly in an Islamic nation, this part of the city has many bars and clubs, ranging from darkly-lit and dingy establishments, complete with floors that you stick to and a slightly seedy atmosphere, to uber-modern and trendy bars that play all the latest tunes, offer a wide variety of imported international drinks (for quite hefty prices), and attract a hip and stylish crowd of locals as well as visitors.
Prostitution is rather rampant, and it’s fairly easy to spot the hookers; they’re generally done up really glamorously with bright red lips, teeteringly-high shoes, barely-there clothing, and have a hard glint in their eyes as they survey the scene for punters. And, let’s not forget the men.
There’s a stereotype that many Moroccan men will do anything to snare a foreign woman who can offer (relative) wealth, security, and a visa to a land with more opportunities.
Whether this is a fair assumption or not, some of the bars and clubs of Gueliz do contain a reasonably large number of hot, young Moroccan men, swankily dressed, hanging off the arms of older women.
Look around and do the maths, and you may be left wondering whether beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, or whether something else may be a little more magnetic than looks or a lovely personality.
Gueliz is a little short on sightseeing attractions, though it’s well worth paying a visit to the train station; not only does the striking façade boast some intricate architectural designs, but the hustle and bustle inside the station may prepare you somewhat for a journey deeper in the city.
The Majorelle Gardens are a popular tourist attraction in the locale, though personally, I didn’t really find the gardens to be particularly impressive. Nice, yes. Stunning, no.
Filled with a selection of colourful and fragrant flowers, exotic plants, palms, bamboo, and cacti, there are peaceful and semi-secluded benches where you can chill out with a book, sneak a quick kiss with a significant other, or simply enjoy the calm atmosphere.
There’s a small Berber Museum within the grounds, as well as an assortment of fountains, statues, and a memorial to the late French fashion designer Yves St Laurent, who was a huge fan of Marrakech.
Madness within the Medina’s Walls
In stark contrast to Gueliz, the medina is the older part of Marrakech. Built in the 1070s, the walled city was once at the heart of local politics, economy, education, religion, culture, and trade.
A major influential hotspot amongst the western Islamic world, take a step back in time and explore the narrow, dusty, and maze-like streets of the medina. Nothing can quite prepare you for life behind the high terracotta-colored walls!
Almost like something out of a movie, a map is essential to navigate the endless alleyways that look largely the same. Chaotic is perhaps the best word to describe many parts of the medina. There are, however, larger squares here and there to punctuate the constricted spaces.
Some people sell things from small hole-in-the-wall shops and eateries. Some people amble along, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.
Some people stop to chat in small groups, with congregations of teenage boys a particularly common sight. And there are those people who attempt to hurry through the crowded streets, dodging the other people and obstacles that are in their path.
But that’s only the people. The chiming of a bicycle bell or the honking of a scooter horn alerts you to jump out of the way, as two-wheeled vehicles move at varying speeds along the narrow streets.
Even more impressive / scary, depending on your point of view, are the cars and minivans that seem to defy space and logic as they squeeze past each other and pedestrians with just a hair’s breadth, dexterously driving at speeds that are probably too fast for the environment. And then, there’s the donkeys. Braying and toiling, moth-eaten (for the most part) and over-worked donkeys pull heavily-laden carts through the already-cramped streets.
Stray cats seem to be everywhere, from those that look relatively well fed to those that are scrawny, ragged, and flea-bitten. Encounters with chickens and other farm animals are also not uncommon. In the run-up to Eid, many a male sheep is led to his final destination, ready for the sacrificial rituals.
Whilst the buildings may, at times, look a little ragged, the decorative doorways more than make up for the jaded walls.
The medina really is quite captivating, in its own special way.
Electric Energy of Djemaa El Fna
There are several attractions within the medina, including the former religious school of the Ben Youssef Medersa, the somber Saadian Tombs, and a handful of museums. But nothing (except perhaps the souks), comes close to being as hypnotic as the huge open-air square of Djemaa El Fna.
During the daytimes, market stalls sell an array of trinkets, clothes, and other wares. There are a few eateries in the square itself, though there are many other restaurants and cafes surrounding the edges of the square.
Vendors sell some of the sweetest and most tongue-pleasing orange juice that you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting. People wait poised with semi-tame monkeys, waiting to thrust them onto your shoulder and demand quite large sums of money in return for a picture.
Snake charmers play their melodic tunes as fearsome cobras sway and giant pythons lay coiled on the ground. A few women offer intricate henna tattoos, and you would be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. Visit at night time, however, and you’ll find that the days are a pleasant walk in the park.
The whole area goes through a momentous transformation as darkness falls, becoming rather like an eclectic, pandemoniacal, tumultuous, tempestuous, and hypnotic open-air theatre. Competing sounds create a veritable cacophony, there are abundant sights to see and take in all at the same time, and the scents of spices and grilling meats fill your nostrils.
Push through the crowds (and beware of pickpockets) to see jugglers, tarot card readers, dancers, acrobats, and people dressed in traditional and regional outfits looking for tips in return for a selfie with them.
And that barely scratches the surface. People rhythmically beat drums, your heartbeat seeming to pound in time. Even more ladies offer henna tattoos (some, unfortunately, whether you want them or not). No two nights are ever quite the same in Djemaa El Fna.
The terraces of the surrounding restaurants and cafes offer the perfect vantage point for surveying the scene from a place of calm.
Persistence of Vendors in the Colourful Souks
Marrakech is known for its extensive souks, selling an assortment of colourful and interesting items. It is also known for its persistent vendors, who will push and push to try and make a sale.
Whether you want to buy some clothes, a drum, a vibrant lamp that looks like it came right out of Aladdin, aromatic spices, argan oil products, woven rugs that look like you could fly away on them, attractive paintings, locally produced leather goods, a tagine cooking pot, pointy-toed slippers, a cheesy toy camel, or something else entirely, you need to put your haggling head on first!
Prices normally start out ridiculously over-inflated, and it’s your mission to get the vendor, though increments, to agree to a lower price. Do remember, however, that people are trying to make a living, and be aware of the actual sums of money involved – don’t be that person who stubbornly becomes entrenched over a dollar! At the end of the day, haggling can be fun. Both parties should end the transaction feeling satisfied. If you can’t agree on a price, you are always free to walk away.
Something to watch out for in the souks though is unofficial guides. A pleasant conversation or a helpful recommendation can quickly go sour when you realise that your new-found friend actually wants a fairly substantial backsheesh, or tip.
There are, unfortunately but fairly rarely, times when matters can become quite unpleasant and / or aggressive. It’s best just to avoid this situation altogether and go your own way or explore with a licensed guide. A pro tip is that walking round with a guide does prevent a lot of unwanted hassle and attention.
Harmonious Call to Prayer
As a Muslim nation, the call to prayer is issued to the devoted five times per day. A man, called a muezzin, sends his dulcet tones through the air from the top of the soaring minarets that are part of the mosques.
A reminder to people to pray, the sounds are harmonious, sure to make you really feel as though you are in someplace different. With a plethora of mosques around Marrakech, you might even start to recognise the voices of different muezzins, as their lilting yet powerful song-like commands over-power all the other sounds of the city.
The Koutoubia Mosque is Marrakech’s main mosque and, although non-Muslims are not permitted to look inside, it’s a nice place to soak up the essence of the city and take some great pictures.
Local Life in the Coffee Shops
Marrakech’s myriad coffee shops are terrific for seeing the local way of life. Whilst typically the domain of men, more Marakshi women are starting to socialise in the cafes too. Pull up a seat and order a strong sweet glass of hot coffee, accompanied by a glass or bottle of water, and observe life around you.
You may spot a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes, seeking refuge in a quiet coffee shop away from the prying eyes of parents and the police. You might see groups of men jovially chatting and laughing, having greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek.
It’s also common to see student-looking types and smart-dressed business people squirreling away on laptops, making full use of free Wi-Fi. As smoking is permitted inside many of the more traditional coffee shops, the busier ones may have a thick cloud of smog making the air a little hazy.
Don’t fancy coffee? Then order a mint tea! A popular drink in Morocco, the sugar-laden beverage is made using fresh sprigs of mint and hot water. Watch closely to see how people mix their tea, pouring it from the pot to the glass, back into the pot, then into the glass again, repeating and taking small sips to taste until it’s mixed to their liking.
Marrakech: A Magical City of Mayhem
When it comes to food, tagine and bread are omnipresent. Don’t be fooled though – tagine actually refers to the method of cooking, rather than the actual dish itself. No two tagines are created equally! Couscous is another popular dish, often available just on Fridays. Menus are often heavily meat weighted; vegetarians and vegans may find it tricky to eat outside of main tourist hotspots.
Horse-drawn carriages, known as calleches, clip-clop along the wider streets, with cars and other vehicles whizzing around them at speed as the horses work tirelessly carrying people around the city.
Whilst Marrakech does have a couple of water parks, olive-bush-filled parks, old palaces, and other attractions that are certainly worthy of visits, the real heart and soul of Marrakech lies in the bustling streets.
Mountains can be seen in the distance, and, if Marrakech becomes just a little bit too much, trips out to places like Ouarzazate, commonly referred to as the Doorway to the Desert, and Essaouira, a charming coastal town, can be just the tonic that one needs.
The traditional hammams, or steam baths, offer a great way to unwind at the end of a hectic day. The public single-gender hammams offer communal bathing; don’t be surprised to find yourself surrounded by naked bodies – clothing is not normal in a hammam!
Marrakech is definitely an assault on the senses, but the assault is generally very well received.