Marrakech is known as ‘the red rose city’ because of its pink-tinged buildings and the rose hue that envelopes the city. The city nestles like a rose-quartz gemstone near the foothills of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountain. Outside the city walls, the rock-strewn fields turn into a desert with little vegetation except for patches of irrigated farmland where there are orchards and old olive groves. But inside those high walls, Marrakech is a spectacle of exotica.
In the medina (old town), donkeys pull carts loaded with produce and pottery, many heaped with fresh mint. The scent of mint permeates the air along with the colourful heaps of spices from vendor’s stalls.
Marrakech is probably one of the most exciting cities I’ve ever visited. My enchanting old hotel, the Hotel du Foucald, is well situated for sightseeing. The famous Djamaa el Fna square, is just a block away. Snake charmers, musicians and acrobats entertain the crowds. Water vendors dressed in distinctive red suits and wide-brimmed hats with jangling bells offer their wares. Story-tellers, ebony-skinned dancers in brightly hued costumes and other assorted side-show attractions entertain the passersby.
Watch out for pickpockets in these crowded market areas. Wear a money belt, and never carry a purse on a strap or a backpack which can be sliced open. Don’t try to take photos of these colorful entrepreneurs without expecting to pay, and make sure you only pay half of what they ask. Once you know your way around and have a feel for the place, its fun, and during the day not dangerous to wander on your own.
I make my way into the maze of colored walkways in the souq. Almost anything is sold and bartered for in this bazaar, from broidered saddles for camels to potions for casting spells. Be firm but polite. Haggling is part of the Moroccan experience. Just say “no, merci.”
At a spice shop I am given a demonstration of herbal medicines and blends of spices including the world’s most expensive spice, saffron. Weavers and coppersmiths work their trades. Herb doctors assure us their products are better than viagra. You can buy almost any unusual medicine: goat hooves for hair treatment, ground up ferret for depression, and I even saw a dried fox head in the shop that sold magic potions.
The merchant at a carpet shop explains the distinctive patterns of his wares, which are woven in wool and silk. I buy a small saffron and lapis-blue colored Berber prayer rug. Today it sits in front of my fireplace and I call it my ‘magic carpet’ because each time I stand on it I am immediately transported back to my visit in magical Marrakech.
If you want a respite from the bustling crowds and hawkers of the Djamaa el Fna and the souq, walk down to the Avenue Mohammed V to the Arsenal Artiste craft market. Prices are set here so you can make purchases without haggling while you watch the artisans at work.
After shopping in the more peaceful atmosphere of the craft market, to get a sense of what it’s like to live in a Moroccan house, I visit the Maison Tiskiwin, a 19th century house owned by Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint. It houses a stunning collection of jewelry, clothes, fabrics and carpets. The house is windowless, with rooms opening to a sun-lit inner courtyard, the walls hung with woven tapestries and floors paved with lapis and turquoise tiles.
Marrakech is one of Morocco’s imperial cities, a Berber/Arab fortress settlement nine centuries old. Within its 11th century medina is the Koutoubia mosque with its elegant 65-metre high minaret. The golden balls on top are said to be a gift of a Sultan’s wife who melted down her jewellery as an act of penance because he ate three grapes during the Ramadan fast. There are several elaborate palaces such as the El Badi where storks nest on the ramparts, and the Palais el Bahia with its lovely gardens. I spent a day visiting these historical sites as well as the Mausoleum of the Saadiens and a 16h century religious school for students of the nearby Mosque of Ben Yussef. The mosaics and cedar carvings in the richly decorated spacious courtyard of the mosque are a contrast to the sparse, cell-like rooms occupied by the students.
After a morning of touring historic sites, I take a caliches (horse-drawn carriage) to the Jardin Majorelle in the European quarter. These beautiful botanical gardens were created in the 1920’s by the French Orientalist painter, Jacques Majorelle. They were owned by fashion designer Yves St. Laurent and after he died in 2008 his ashes were strewn in the gardens. The gardens are a tropical paradise of tall cacti and palms set against a pink towered buildings and grill-worked gateways. Bougainvillea, hibiscus and flowering potted plants line the cobbled pathways. The colours of the buildings and clay pots are dazzling blue, turquoise, pink, yellow and orange, complementing the colours of the flowers. Birds twitter in the trees and trellises hang with flowering vines. The artist’s studio has been converted into a small Museum of Islamic art and displays St. Laurent’s fine collection of North African carpets and furniture as well as Majorelle’s paintings.
That night I dine at my hotel on a delicious buffet of lamb tagine, salads and honey-drenched desserts. Then it’s time to pay one last visit to the Djemaa el Fna. The velvet sky is ablaze with stars. The smoke of barbecues fills the air with the tantalizing aroma of the delicious tidbits sold by the street vendors. I sit upstairs in a restaurant sipping hot mint tea, with a ringside view of the activities below. Few places I’ve ever visited are as colourful and exciting as this. If you’re a traveler like me who seeks the exotic, Marrakech will not disappoint you.
Where to eat
For people-watching, sit in a cafe terrace and enjoy a cafe au lait and a fresh pastry. Moroccan food is delicious. Try the food stalls and juice stands. Provided it serves a crowd you can be sure the food is fresh. In Marrakech head for Marche Central, buy a picnic and enjoy lunch with a view. The Cafe de l’Hotel de Paris in the Djmaa el Fna has excellent views at sunset. There are many good hotels where you can dine. Morocco is a ‘dry’ country. Wine and liquor may be bought at the airport duty-free otherwise it is difficult to find a wine shop. Most five-star tourist hotels will serve wine or beer with meals. From the five-star Hotel Mamounia to the food stalls in the Djmaa el Fna, enjoy the spicy flavour of Moroccan food accompanied by a steaming cup of mint tea.
Getting around Marrakech
Once the price is agreed, a caleche is a hassle-free way to discover parts of the medina. You can easily walk from the Djmaa el Fna to most of the museums and places of interest. A complete tour, starting from the Gate of the Gnaoua near the Mosque de el-Mansour will cover approximately 3 kms and take 5 hours. Avoid lunch time when most sites are closed.
If you are traveling with a group the entrance fees are usually included in your tour price. Most sites are open from 8.30 am until noon, and from 2.30 pm – 6 pm. Prices of entry vary. There are a few sites such as the Koutoubia Mosque that allow entry to Muslims only.
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com