Discovering The Magic Of Marrakech.
When one thinks of a ‘magical’ country, Morocco will be one of the first that will come to mind, with it’s vast deserts, high mountains, azure blue seas and cities with deliciously exotic names, Tangier, Fes, Casablanca and Meknes, but the grand sorcerer of them all has to be the splendid city of Marrakech.
Clinging precariously on the edge of the mighty Sahara, almost in the shadows of the high, snow covered Atlas Mountains, this sprawling metropolis has grown over the centuries from a small market town to become one of the great cities of the Maghreb; the major crossroad of the sub – Saharan continent. For the first time visitor, Marrakech can seem a little daunting, as on entry one is surrounded by red baked – mud medina palaces all enclosed by a powder-pink ring of ramparts, 19 Kilometers long, built to try and protect the 1000 year old city.
Marrakech has however managed to survive coups, sieges, invasions and countless wars only to rise phoenix- like from the ashes to thrive and prosper seemingly able to nonchalantly to shrug off its turbulent past.
This isn’t one of those historical places where tourists come to stare at ancient ruins; rather it’s a place bursting at the seams with vendors, packed tightly into tiny spaces in the medinas. It heaves with an intense density of life like teams of tethered stallions straining to break free. This isn’t a place you glide through, instead it’s a bit like taking an exhilarating roller coaster ride with all it’s loops, twists, and turns that, once done will leave you exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.
Marrakech is a citadel city built primarily from red sandstone, which has given it its much – loved nickname, “The ochre city.” Within its walls there are eighteen souks employing thousands of merchants and artisans creating elaborate clay pots, silver bracelets, rings, copperware, carpets and leatherwear. The souks offer an incredible shopping experience as one wanders through the myriads of narrow, twisting streets, which lead to smaller markets clustered by trade.
Nondescript doorways, often lead to an Aladdin’s cave bursting with exotic goods piled to the ceiling run by smiling vendors who will urge you to take a small cup of mint tea and, over the next thirty minutes will seduce you into buying their wares.
Further into the medina a cacophony of squawking chickens and roosters greet you as you round a corner and find yourself in the poultry market sitting cheek by bloody jowl next to the open air stalls where butchers ply their trade masked by a thick curtain of flies.
Wandering these narrow streets can take an entire day but eventually you will find yourself tumbling out into Djemaa el- Fna square, the sprawling centerpiece of the city and the largest and busiest marketplace in Africa. This space represents a bridge between the past and the present where ancient traditions collide head on with modernity. Its name translates roughly as, “ the assembly of trespassers,” which is rather apt given the diverse nature of the citizens who ply their trade on the cobblestones.
It feels as if nothing has changed in a thousand years filled as it is with snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats, young dancing boys from the Atlas tribes, sorcerers, magicians, mystics, monkey trainers, herb sellers and dentists all watched over by scores of young pickpockets. (Watch your wallets!)
After a day walking the souks, one of the best ways to rejuvenate both body and soul is to take a soothing hammam (steam bath), either at your riad, (hotel) or at the beautiful Hammam de la Rose. Attentive staff will offer a eucalyptus scrub; a rose petal mud mask, a foot massage and final rub down with enriching Argan oil. (All for about $70.)
When the call to prayer rings out at sunset from the iconic Koutoubia mosque, head back to the square and try to secure a coveted plastic chair at the Café du Grand Balcon (northwest corner, Djemaa el-Fna) for this is certainly the best seat in the house to overlook the nightly carnival of the Djemaa el-Fna as it morphs from its daytime activities to become a nighttime gathering point for the evening meal.
It’s easy to simply to join the throng and to pull up a seat at one of the communal tables and feast on barbecued kebabs and snail soup beneath shimmering lanterns that dot the square. If this type of cuisine is not for you, try the hip, restaurant Pepenero whose sophisticated fusion menu is a gentler introduction and showcases modern Moroccan cooking at its best.
Of course, Marrakech isn’t all about souks, shopping and tasty cuisine as for it offers some exceptional sightseeing opportunities. The Palace of the Medersa Ali Ben Youssef and the green cacti gardens of the Jardin Majorelle gardens on Avenue Jacoub el Mansour. This tranquil oasis was faithfully restored to its former glory by Yves St Laurent who was one of the early wealthy visitors, along with the Rolling Stones and The Beatles who put it on the tourist route in the mid- sixties.
With its soaring minarets, mesmerizing calls to prayer, intricate geometric artwork, much of what thrills visitors to Marrakech is inspired by faith. Aside from dozens of mosques, Marrakech has seven marabouts (patron saints), but their tombs, like the mosques are unfortunately closed to non-Muslims but there are plenty of religious and historical sites to keep the visitor occupied for days.
The city is full of surprises especially after the sun goes down so, if you have the stamina be sure to get to Club Pacha Marrakech on Avenue Mohammed V1, Africa’s biggest night club and, if you need a midnight snack after all of that dancing swing by the nearby Café Clock for a delicious camel burger.
In so many ways Marrakech is a city that should be on every traveller’s bucket list for, once visited it is never forgotten, so, what are you waiting for? Hop a plane and discover something entirely unexpected but do hurry, as Marrakech doesn’t much like to hang around.
First featured in Arabic Airlines in- flight magazine 2017