The illuminated Koutoubia Mosque looms high and imposing over the Djamma el-Fna, the centuries old heart of Marrakech. A call to prayer bellows into the ether; an Islamic crescent moon appears aptly in the deep indigo sky.
Just two hours from Algeciras, a ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar is all that separates a Spanish vacation from being spiced up with a little Moroccan flavour. Though just two continents apart, setting foot in Morocco might make you feel like you’ve ventured into a completely alternate world. With a few days to kill before returning north to Barcelona, we hit an adventurous streak and planned to make a fast track for Marrakech. It is the third largest Moroccan city after Casablanca and Rabat, and we were determined to take in the sights and indulge in some spur of the moment Moroccan action.
A night train from Tangier took us direct to our chosen destination. Arriving early the next morning, we found our way in the muggy, scorching heat to the nearby Median locale, an intricate labyrinth of thin ochre alleyways, dusty and lined with cosy stores. It is an assault on the senses, an odorous fusion of spice, incense, donkey droppings and petrol fume.
After a brief trundle through town we checked into Hotel Chella, a comfortable riad style hostel with a leafy centre courtyard and tiled Moroccan ambience just off the main square. The Heart of the Medina Backpackers hostel is a recent addition to the locale and would also be a top choice. From the Medina the sights of Marrakech are walkable and in abundance, and with limited time in this fresh, exotic place, we set off on foot to make the most of it.
The souqs were an early highlight – a massive cluster of stores and shops, selling everything from rich coloured spices, to trinkets, jewelry, kaftans and shoes. Leather is also a big trade in Marrakech, so if you’re in the market for a smooth leather jacket or belt, this is the place. Make sure you’re armed with swift bargaining skills as ardent bartering is the local custom and the store owners will certainly give you a run for your money.
We would later experience the raw reality of the leather trade, taking in an informal guided tour of the tanneries. Deep concrete vats of pigeon droppings and sludge are used to treat and tan the cowhide, and this is an integral part of the leather production process. This, again, was a brutal assault on the senses – though our guide generously offered a sprig of mint to sniff as we walked through, making the experience somewhat more tolerable.
Dar Si Saïd Museum was a gem, replete with historical Moroccan artifacts, woodcarvings, weapons and ceramics. The Ben Youssef Madrassa also proved an impressive stop off, home to a fine and extensive collection of beautiful artwork and Moroccan architecture.
Night soon fell on the Medina, transforming the daytime hubbub to a veritable carnivale. The Medina had, indeed, metamorphosed like clockwork into a mystical, magical, otherworldly bazaar.
A haze of charred meat smoke fogs and hovers over the Djaama ElFna. Chefs carve meats and lay out endless bounties of seafood at a melange of indistinguishable food stands. Drums boom, reverberating across the Medina, while yelps and cries echo thunderously across the North African hinterland. Snake charmers pipe asps skyward, mystics tell fortunes, and witch doctors, storytellers and buskers captivate the well-fed crowds.
We settled into one of the stalls, sampling olives and succulent lamb tajines. We were intoxicated by the flurry of furious activity, eyes wide and senses honed, spellbound by the disparity of existence between here and anywhere else on earth.
Written by Cam Hassard for EuropeUpClose.com