Marrakech: a journey into a fascinating universe
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!
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.
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.
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!