Marrakech: journey into a fascinating world

A few minutes navigating the crowds gathering at Jemal el-Fnaa Square are enough to make you realise you have entered a different world. In Marrakesh there are many ways of either getting lost or finding oneself: in the streets and curves of the medina quarter, the flavours of traditional food cooked in tagines, the beauty of temple doors, the freshness of the gardens and the surprises of the ancient Moorish culture.
Meeting at the Square

The scorching sun begins to set and projects uncanny shadows on the ground. Sounds of islamic prayers emanate from countless minarets. On several lanes of restaurant-tents, the evening meals are being cooked and the smells of spices fill the air. Northwards, you can see cafés where men drink tea and smoke waterpipes. To the south, there is a crowd of young people rushing by in motorcycles, street musicians, carpet and souvenir salesmen, jugglers and curious tourists — a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells and images that overload our senses. Welcome to the Jemal el-Fnaa Square, the traditional market of Marrakech’s Medina.

This is the ideal starting point for exploring the medina quarter, since every street leading out the square will take us to somewhere interesting. With all its shops, restaurants, cafés, salesmen, street performers and colourful characters, Jemal el-Fnaa is a window that provides us with a general image of life and culture in the Maghreb.

This is also where you will find the first of Marrakech’s many historic curiosities. To the southwest of the square, you will cross a refreshing garden before you arrive at Koutoubia, an important mosque built during the 12th Century and easily recognised by its minaret, whose very high tower dominates the surrounding landscape.

A labyrinth of aromas and colours

Marrakech was founded during the 11th Century by an Almoravid nobleman and was once the capital of Morocco and is still regarded as one of the most important cities in the Arab world. That history is present on the winding streets of the Medina of Marrakesh, a UNESCO World heritage site. It is easy to become lost in this labyrinth of old buildings, crowded markets, alleys, temples and unexpected corners, so our advice is: get a good map... or a trustworthy guide. 

In the medina’s many souks and markets, merchants will constantly — and assertively — try to get your attention. In these typically Moroccan bazaars, everything is for sale: clothes, shoes, carpets, jewelry, handicrafts, spices or cellphones! Get ready to haggle: it is a local tradition and shop owners actually find it strange when they sell something without discussing the price!

At this point, some words of caution are in order: in certain parts of the medina, your senses will be overwhelmed by the smells emanating from the Tanneries where leather goods are dyed. In any case, a visit to the dyeing pits might be interesting since most of these tanneries use ancient traditional dye making techniques. Our advice: cover your nose.

Museum City

Several secrets of local history and culture are hidden within the median quarter. Right at its centre, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an old Medieval Islamic school, is nowadays an open public monument. On the southern part of the quarter you will find the Bahia Palace: a 19th Century complex of mansions and gardens designed by the architect El Mekki and including works and carving by some of the best artisans of those times. To the east are the ruins of the El Badi Palace, built by order of the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur after the victory in the 1578 battle of Alcácer Quibir against the Portuguese. The palace is a remarkable archaeological site and it still retains its walls and a complex of large pavilions. Nearby you can visit Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, where you will find the city’s largest spice market.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the medina’s centre, we can discover peace at the Saadian Tombs, another legacy of Sultan al-Mansur. This amazing mausoleum was discovered in 1917 and contains the tombs of over sixty members of the Saadi royal dynasty. Curiously enough, the mausoleum courtyard  also includes the graves of several of the family’s servants and soldiers, some of them buried in Jewish and Christian graves. Much like the El Badi Palace, this magnificent structure was built with marble and the archeological details sculpted in stone are extraordinary.
Gardens, Terraces and Culture

All over the city you will find cafés, bars and restaurants with pleasant terraces. Depending on what time it is, you can protect yourself from the burning light of the sun at noon, or take shelter from the night cold. Enjoy the local cuisine: lamb meat cooked in tagines (traditional Moroccan clay pans) or a plate of couscous and vegetables, with almond sweets and hot spicy tea for dessert.

In this hot city in the middle of a country dominated by a desert, green areas are of particular value. An example of this is the Jardin Majorelle — a space designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle — which includes typical regional plants around a blue house containing a collection of Berber art. Away from the city centre, the Menara Gardens are certainly another good option for a refreshing afternoon.
The Majorelle proves that Marrakech is not just about strolling and history. There is a vibrant  — and modern — cultural scene that is developing in a less visible layer of city life. The El Badi Palace, for instance, houses the Museum of Photography and Visual Arts. The Marrakesh Museum has both an historic items collection and sections dedicated to contemporary art. The city also welcomes artists from all over the world during the Marrakech Biennale, whose events (exhibitions, performances, music) take place mainly at Nouvelle Ville (the new part of the city), away from the historic centre.

Mountains and dunes

Still have some time left? Maybe you can explore the region around Marrakech. Rent a car or contact a tourism operator and travel through the Atlas Mountains, where you will be amazed by the valleys, mountains and traditional villages. Alternatively, you can join a tour group heading for Zagora or Erg Chebbi and visit the Sahara Desert! Ride a camel, follow the Berber guides to the campsite, sleep under the stars and watch the sun rise behind the sand dunes — an experience you will surely never forget!

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