Chances are you have heard the name “Marrakesh”. Chances are when you think of this name images of a legendary Saharan oasis filled with chaotic bazaars, camels, and snake charmers appear in the back of your mind. If this is what you imagine it to be, then you will not be let down by Marrakesh. Marrakesh has been a traveler’s haunt for many generations. Luring adventurers, explorers, and those who genuinely want a different, more exotic experience. Marrakesh is everything alluring, everything you dream of finding on a true adventure. Marrakesh and Morocco, in general, is a travelers dream.
Getting to Marrakesh
The Muslim call to prayer reins over Marrakesh. The warm air begins to have a slight chill to it as the fiery orange sun sets beyond the nearby mountains. I sit atop a café balcony overlooking Djemaa el-Fna, sipping my mint tea and reminisce about my journey here.
I was living a few countries over in Libya. Having to leave the country without notice because of rebel fighting, war, and political issues that could result in me losing my life. I choose to come here. Marrakesh one of my most favorite cities in this world. I decided to come here to reflect on my life and the future.
I have been here in the past. My first trip here I flew directly from Paris via Ryan Air who made this flight easy and accessible. But this trip I came overland from Casablanca. From here it was only a few hours by bus to Marrakesh. The bus’s these days are quite different than the bus’s in the past. Goats on the roof, chickens under the seat, packing passengers like sardines, have all been replaced with a sophisticated bus that offers AC and even WIFI.
Staying at a Riad in Djemaa el-Fna
I arrived at the inconvenient north terminal in Marrakesh. From here it is a ten min taxi ride to Djemaa el-Fna. Be ready as taxi men wait outside the terminal ready to prey on the unsuspecting tourist. My driver, a man named Ali, was incredibly pleasant, as are most of the people of Morocco.
Ali dropped me of near the Koutoubia Mosque just on the outskirts of Djemaa el-Fna. It has been several years since I have been here. Not much has changed here, and that’s a good thing. One thing that has changed, is me. Since my last visit, I have traveled five continents and numerous countries. I have lived in Libya and experienced what most don’t experience in a lifetime. Whether the change in me is a good thing, I don’t know. One thing I do know is the sound of Moroccan music nearby, families playing games, and the smoke from Kebabs wafting in the air. I was back, and it felt good.
I walked into the Djemaa el-Fna back to my favorite Riad, only to find it was completely booked up. Luckily I have another place in the Djemaa el-Fna I adore. Ducking down an alleyway filled with spices, snake skins, and pointed hoods, I arrived at the Hotel Sherazade.
Why do I love this Riad you ask? Walking into the Sherazade brings you back to another time. Its traditional courtyard is surrounded by it’s few rooms which to enter you must go through a Moroccan keyhole doorway. The rooms are lit by lanterns, and the call to prayer can always be heard. Walk outside the Riad and your right in the madness of Djemaa el-Fna
Riad: A traditional Moroccan style hotel. Usually made from mud brick, these structures have housed Moroccan families for centuries. Rooms are centered on a garden courtyard which most times includes a fountain. Many Riads are equipped with a basement Hammam (Moroccan Steam Room).
There I was. Checked into my Riad, and finishing my mint tea looking over the main square of Djemaa el-Fna. With the sun setting, and the final Adhan called, I went to explore the Medina.
There are three parts of Djemaa el-Fna. The first part is the main square’s entertainment. During the day this part is filled with snake charmers, acrobatic musicians, street dentists, witch doctors, and of course carpet sellers. When night falls, these are replaced by games in which you can bet money, and live musicians playing the beautifully entrancing music of Morocco.
This is the first part of the square I came to. Many tourists get overwhelmed in this part as the constant harassment to buy a carpet or take a photo with a snake is present. Show respect to them however and you will receive it in return. A simple “As-salamu alaykum” will suffice. I sat down and talked with the snake charmers to learn how they tame the cobra, and how it actually doesn’t listen to the music they play. Then I entered a carpet shop, where after many cups of tea I was shown how much effort is put into making these exquisite pieces of art.
The second part of the square doesn’t show its true colors until nightfall. It is why travelers are drawn here. This is, of course, my favorite section, the food stalls. Here you can find all the delicacies of Morocco. Fancy some bubbling sheep head stew? Why yes I do! How about kebabs, tea made from many exotic spices, salty snails slurped out of the shell, sweets made from dates, and my all-time favorite Mishwee (Lamb cooked deep in a fiery hole in the earth for many hours)? All great choices.
The Third Part of Djemaa el-Fna cannot be seen from any rooftop, or from the main square. It’s the Medinas back alleyways that spread like a network of interlinked spider webs. These alleyways are filled with the handicrafts and wares of Morocco. Carpets, incense, leather products, banging copper into cookware, antiques from West Africa, tea, Moroccan lanterns, djellaba’s (Moroccan pointed hood long shirt), you can find anything you wish here.
After hanging out with the local artists, and stuffing my face with lamb head stew I entered the back streets of Djemaa el-Fna. You get lost here. The kind of lost you want. Time ceases to exist. The colorful lights of lanterns and smells of sweet perfumes take you to another world. A world in which you become a child again. Curious about all the new sights and smells you are encountering for the first time. You can spend hours here without even realizing it.
Sights of Marrakesh
I woke up early to the alluring sounds of the call to prayer. Being familiar with this city, I wanted to revisit my favourite landmarks here. All of them are within walking distance of the Djemaa el-Fna. I strongly encourage you to walk to them, as it gives you a more expansive look at how amazing this city is. It takes you the whole day to walk to all these sights so it’s best to start early.
In the heart of Marrakesh near to the Djemma El-Fna is the Bahia Palace. Set up in the late 19th century by Si Moussa, this palace is a great place to spend an hour or two admiring the Islamic Moorish architecture.
I came early in the day so there were little to no tourists, only a few stray cats which really added to the spooky empty corridors. It was great to just chill out here in the lazy hours of the morning.
On the South end of Djemma El-Fna towering over the square is the Koutoubia Mosque. Marrakesh’s largest mosque was completed by Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur between 1184 and 1199.
Unfortunately, it is closed to all non-Muslims, but traversing its exterior is well worth leaving the market for. During evening prayer, Koutoubia shows its true magic. Hundreds fill its halls usually spilling out into the main square so they can pray. While the exquisite Adhan calls out, watching the faithful pray in a uniform order is quite the sight.
Built between the years of 1578-1603 by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the Saadian tombs were not actually discovered until 1917. Now, these tombs are one of Marrakesh’s greatest monuments. Beautiful hand painted tile work, intricately carved stonework, and some of Morocco’s most stunning Moorish architecture make up these tombs.
The most well-known tomb is the room with the twelve columns. This tomb contains the grave of the sultan’s son, Ahmad al-Mansur. Visit here early in the day or during lunch to beat the crowds!
Housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace and built at the end of the 19th century by Mehdi Menebhi the Marrakesh Museum is less of a “museum”, and more of a glimpse into Marrakesh’s royal past. There are plenty of old artifacts to be found here although. Old Berber coins, weathered Qurans, and a few other antiquities depicting Marrakesh’s history as one of Africa’s main trade hubs. The main draw for the museum is the giant chandelier decorated with fine geometric metal plates.
Shopping and eating in the Djemma el-Fna
When all the sights have been seen there is one last thing to do. Shop, eat and get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways in the Djemma El-Fna. On my last evening here, which also happen to be the final day of Ramadan, I waited until the last Adhan rang out and joined the hungry locals in a feast of snails, lamb head, and Kebabs. Of course, after finishing the meal I washed it all down with a glass of mint tea.
When dinner was finished I spent the rest of the evening in the market shopping for a Djellaba to keep me warm for tomorrow’s journey into in the Sahara!
Location: Marrakesh, Morocco
Daily Budget: 30 – 50 US
Recommended Guide: Lonely Planet Morocco, Lonely Planet Arabic
Tips: Just Get Lost! Marrakesh is one of those cities where every corner can reveal something new.
Getting Here: Bus from pretty much anywhere in the country, Flights from Europe.
Must Eats: Lamb Tagine with Prunes, Spiced Tea, Pastilla (Pigeon Pie)