Marrakech Morocco, it’s bold and it’s beautiful. Colours collide here and eyes and ears are put to an endurance test. Every morning I woke up in the Red City, I fell in love with it, over and over again.
The early foreign travellers to Morocco called Marrakech ‘Morocco City’. The city of old has expanded over the centuries since its origins but it is those beginnings that have kept it as mesmerising and traditional as it was in the past. It’s still a marketplace.
It is the ‘Red City’, soaked with the natural red ochre pigment that is the walls and buildings dominating the city, souks and medinas, but there are other colours too that fight for space – colour is king in Morocco. A variety of blues and bright yellow and pink fight for your attention.
To try and give a blanket narrative on this magical place is like trying to cover an oval of brilliant blooms with a handkerchief. Following are observations, ideas and suggestions of how to experience the beauty, colour and movement of Marrakech.
Playing the market
Marrakech has Berber rather than Arabic origins as it was originally the meeting place of the Atlas tribes. It was the centre of the past for gold, slaves, ivory and leather brought to Morocco by caravans from far away empires via the desert port of Timbuktu. The visiting and trading population swelled the city’s souks and its way of life.
In the heart of the medina (a medina is a distinct city section in north African cities, typically walled, it has narrow lanes and streets that are maze-like), is the wide open spaced Djemma El Fna or Jemaa el Fna (this has many spellings) – the city’s main market where all aspects of north African life is on view and the space becomes a theatre. The main souks are to the north of the market place but this is where the action is.
The epicentre of Marrakech is Jemaa el Fna, weaving its chaotic magic all day and all night.
The famed “night market” at Jemaa el Fna is a bizarre microcosm of entertainment, food, and tradition. Since the mid-11th century, this plaza has been the beating and sometimes bloody heart of Marrakech’s old city. A thousand years ago, executioners plied their trade here (hence one translation of the plaza’s name to mean “assembly of the dead”). Today, the only gore you’re likely to see is from the skinned sheep’s heads ready for barbecue that await the market’s hungry patrons. The market is eminently intriguing in all ways – in a can’t-look-away kind of way.
You have to keep moving at a steady pace throughout the market to avoid the snake charmers because if you stop for a brief moment to look at the reptiles, you’ll find one or two wrapped around your neck and shoulders. They’ll stay coiled there until you pay up for the experience – or else you might choke!
There are fortune tellers, water sellers, jugglers, acrobats, garment makers, sellers of strange things in bottles and one stall that I cannot ever unsee – the man selling the teeth.
Day and night this middle-aged man sits on a folding chair at a card table presiding over a mounds of teeth. Some of the teeth have been worked into half dentures, delicately displayed for toothless shoppers (and generally the people of Morocco have terrible teeth due to to amount of sugar they consume daily).
Where did he get all these teeth?
A charming sight is the water sellers dressed in colourful garb as they have been for centuries with pompom hats fringed with coloured wool. In the local dialect they are called Gharrib and they carry goatskin tar lined bags holding water. They are mostly wandering entertainers these day but the Moroccans consider it lucky to drink the water they sell (see picture above).
After wandering around and if you aren’t stopping to eat a barbecued cow’s head, or skewered chicken feet, go to a café on the perimeter of the square, grab a cold beer and watch the amazing dance of pedestrians below as they shape shift thought the market.
Colour and culture
Take an historical tour of the Bahia Palace and the Saadian Tombs are exquisite examples of refined architecture and tradition. Bahia (Bahia means brilliance) Palace was built in the 19th century and captures the the essence of Islamic and Moroccan style.
It’s interesting to explore the layout and see the rooms of the harem which includes a vast court with four rooms built for Si Moussa, the grand vizier’s wives and many more for his 24 concubines. School rooms for the great many offspring that were produced on a regular basis.
A visit to a souk is mandatory. If you’ve run out of spending money – sell a kidney. Beautifully made shoes and leather goods, carpets, embroidered caftans, spices, brass and copper goods are begging to be snaffled up.
In the early morning when the traffic is cool and calm, hop into a caliche (horse-drawn carriage) and let your destination be spectacular Jardin Majorelle, with its abundance of giant bamboo, yucca, palm, cypress and banana tree, bougainvillea and otherworldly cacti. These earthy, natural colours contrast vividly with the cobalt blue façade (called Marjorelle Blue) of the villa lovingly restored by Yves Saint Laurent.
The French fashion legend said he ‘found colour’ in Morocco and made it his second home. The Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is a joy, a revelation and to see the exhibits is an emotional experience. The building is made from local bricks and the architecture is formed like the fabric of a dress with the curve of a draped cloak. There’s a rotating cast of 500 fashion items of clothes, and 50,000 pieces of accessories on display to be absorbed.
Saint Laurent dedicated his later years to this museum and created the extraordinary Berber Museum and stocked it with glorious, historical garments and accessories from the diverse Berber community that he had collected in his travels over the years.
Shuffle through the medina to fill your heart and soul with the essence of Morocco and once you’ve had your fill of the sights and sounds, the people and the donkeys crowding the medina’s alleyways step back in time to the 12th century. Count the 19 grand gates surrounding the medina – the grandest of all being the Bab Agnaou. And before you leave the distant past behind, walk the grounds of El Badi Palace, a 16th century ruin (but in very good shape) that still has an orchard growing ornamental oranges.
Close by to the museums and gardens there’s a small local and French designer section of new buildings promoting modern, collectible goods and there’s a cool café to calm the shopping ardour.
A taxi ride back to Jardins de la Medina a superior riad (a type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden, courtyard and fountain) to shake off the heat of a heady Marrakech day and perhaps take a dip in the pool set in luxurious gardens or maybe a spa with hammam (a traditional cleansing ritual), steam bath and traditional Moroccan beauty treatments.
Marrakech has centuries old layers to be uncovered and enjoyed. So much of its history is on display and open to touristic scrutiny but remember it has secrets – just think about the streets lined with orange trees, so pretty and not quite what they seem.
The trees are for ornamentation only – you can’t eat the fruit.
The author travelled to Morocco with http://www.bypriorarrangement.com
This story was first published by https://letstravelmag.com/
I have to fess up – I did not drink the water.