Marrakech first seduced me when I visited in 1988. So it might seem surprising it took me over seventeen years to get there a second time – what can I say, so many countries, so little time! And it just confirmed to me all over again, how much Marrakech enchants me. So what makes it so special?
The colour pink.
How can you not love a city where all buildings are required to be an acceptable shade of pink. A dusky pink that mirrors the earth it is built on, the sand that blows through it. A shade of weathered pink that I imagine has survived hundreds of years, many sandstorms and a good few camel trains. In 1988 there was a lot more dust coating the average pink dwelling, by 2005 there is clearly a lot more renovation and repainting going on, but both create a feeling of being in a different time and place, a romantic vision of old explorers.
The food ( and drink )
Tagines – both the classic cone shaped lid and casserole, and the delicious melt in the mouth meat (or vege these days) stews with mouth watering spices, perhaps some softened dried apricots, soaked up with a good couscous. In 1988 I bought a solid terra-cotta glazed pottery tagine and have lugged it around every country I have lived in since, still using it regularly every winter.
BBQ’d garlic snails – this may not be the food most people associate with Marrakech, but it is for me. It’s partly the French influence – it also means the coffee is great and there are surprisingly good croissants and pastries. Like many towns, the night markets in Marrakech have all sorts of interesting food stalls.
I remember watching snails being grilled in their shells, and being dared by one of my fellow travelers to try one. Bear in mind this was a guy from England who had strong views on food – he would only eat meat and potatoes, no other veggies, and hated any herbs or spices, only salt – he wouldn’t even add tomato sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to let him win a food bet. The stall owner showed me how to fork the snail out of it shell, dripping in garlic butter, and savor it as it slid down my throat. Not expecting to like it, I found myself demolishing a dozen and coming back again the next night.
Oranges, dates, apricots and pistachios. Morocco is a fruit bowl slightly at odds with it’s reputation as a dessert destination, but I guess that where the oasis’ come in. The selection is much wider than I have mentioned but suffice to say, I have never taster sweeter dried apricots or dates, more delicious fresh orange juice or more moreish pistachios before or since. My mouth is watering just remembering that five years later.
The Souks of the Medina
You may have figured by now that I love a good market, and the souk in the walled old town in Marrakech is a good one indeed. It’s a maze of crooked alleys lined by stalls, occasionally opening onto a small square open to the sun, before you dive back into the covered alleyways again. The range of things to buy is endless, embracing tradition and more modern interpretations, and yet stays definitively Moroccan. It rarely falls into the generic “backpackers market craft” that turns up in so many markets around the world.
There are literal aladdin’s caves of bright multicolored and bejeweled pottery, while another stall is all minimalist pottery designs available only in bright red. There are traditional carved and punched leather belts and buckles, and studded punk inspired versions. There are stalls selling centuries old (dodgy) medicinal remedies along with chameleons and scorpions and bugs I don’t want to identify, and there are stalls of organic soaps and lotions worthy of any five star spa.
There are still donkeys carting in the market supplies, but vastly outnumbered by mobile phones for communication with suppliers, and credit cards are readily accepted.
On this trip I buy two kilims, strongly colored in the reds and blues of the land and sky, woven in intricate traditional patterns. Although new, they smell strongly of old dust and camel piss, a marketing trick I suspect, to make the whole buying prices strangely more evocative. Sealed tightly in thick plastic bags for the rest of my trip, to try and avoid stinking out my bag and clothes, I have to hang them in the sun for a week and then leave them on the garage floor for six months when I get home, before they can be safely brought inside. I think they look fantastic in my hallway.
The Djemaa el Fna
The famous central square of the old walled city is no square, it’s a huge crazy zigzagged open space, surrounded by buildings with great rooftop vantage points, usually on the third floor, many cafes, and the start of dozens of alleyways into the souks which surround three sides of the Djemaa el Fna. The open space fills up with stalls no more than a blanket on the ground and food stalls with tables and chairs to accommodate the local families who congregate every evening. Rows of juice stands are all arguing that their wares are the best, and for the tourists there are snake charmers and watch salesmen in equal quantities.
Every night the square is full of locals promenading, it’s like Edwardian England crossed with Arabian nights, it’s fantastic people watching. It’s a delicious and very cheap place to eat a wonderfully fresh dinner, and of course it’s where I originally experimented with snails.
The Riads and the people.
Accommodation options were a lot more limited in 1988, although given that usually we were sleeping in bunks in a double decker bus, the plain square room with a roof terrace overlooking the markets was a real luxury back then.
But now the old city is brimming with restored riads, the traditional housing, often three stories high around a central courtyard, which might hold a fountain or even a pool, and a roof terrace with billowing fabric overhead to give shade while lounging on the day beds. Most have been painstakingly restored, with beautiful mosaics of tiles, wrought iron and plush fabrics. They are some of the most glorious B& B’s I have found anywhere, and there is wide price range for just about any budget. And they are found in all the hidden lanes of the souk, but are cool and quiet as soon as you close the door to the street.
There are no vehicles in the medina, so your riad will send someone to meet your taxi at the medina gate, and wheel your bags through the medina to their front door, which gives you instant immersion into the culture. Don’t even think about staying in a hotel outside the walls of the old city, get online and book yourself a riad and ensure a unique and relaxing experience.
And as true here as anywhere, what ultimately makes the experience for me is the people. The Moroccans I encounter are friendly, shy, intriguing, hospitable,enthusiastic, and charming, and they make Marrakech great.