Thursday, 10 February 2011

Express Marrakech: 48 hours in Morocco

Dodge the donkey and cart, step out of the way of the family teetering past on a scooter, apologise for bumping into a passer by, ogle the sticky pastries in the street-side cabinet, ignore the restaurant tout and... you're in the Djemaa el Fna. If we thought the collision course of Derb el Bacha (the road leading from our riad to the main square) was a whirl of sound and motion, it was only a gentle introduction to the assault on the senses that is Marrakech's main square.

The name Djemaa el Fna apparently means 'Assembly of the dead', but there's nothing dead about the medina's hub at any hour of the day. As the morning sun warms the square, stalls serve up freshly-squeezed orange juice and dried fruits, while snake-charmers and monkey handlers prowl around hoping to slip their charges onto the shoulders of snap-happy tourists. Come late afternoon, food vendors begin the daily assembly of their sit-in stalls, offering up salads, cous cous and barbecued meat and fish to diners. Towards sunset, the soul of the square takes over: musicians and story-tellers congregate against the backdrop of smoke from the stalls' grills. Our first experience of the square was early on Friday evening, just as it was coming to life. Wandering past the stalls, we were soon enticed to dine by promises that '117 will take you to heaven' from the tout (my 'brother from another mother', apparently), having resisted such lines as 'Cheaper than Primark, better than Marks and Spencer' and invitations to 'have a butchers' at other stalls' fresh produce. Satellite TV has clearly made its mark on the locals' lingo. Once seated in the al-fresco dining area, we were presented with dishes of flatbread, tomato dips, salads and grilled aubergines, before the mains of meat and fish arrived. Most stalls offer similar fare, largely Moroccan dishes aimed at the tourist market, although some offer more local delicacies such as harira (a spicy chickpea and lentil soup) and lambs' brains. There's also a row of stalls offering a mysterious cake (possibly ginger, was our expert verdict after trying some) washed down with a glass of spicy tea. I have to say we didn't make it through the pearly gates after our dinner as promised, but it was certainly a lively dining experience.

Mint tea

On most Friday nights, a glass of wine or two would be on the agenda, but as a Muslim country, alcohol isn't supposed to be sold in the sight of mosques in Morocco - which should rule out almost all bars. However, more upmarket establishments do tend to serve the hard stuff. If you're looking to soak up the atmosphere of the square though, you'll find that you're much more likely to find mint tea than G & T in the surrounding bars. Several have panoramic terraces, offering a calm vantage point over the buzz of activity below. Back on ground level, it's worth taking a stroll around the square to get a flavour of the various performances that contributed to making the Djemaa el Fna a UNESCO World Heritage site: story-tellers (sadly their words are incomprehensible unless your Moroccan Arabic is up to scratch, but their dramatic arm gestures and the enthralled crowds suggest they've mastered their craft) and musicians of all kinds fill the square, along with a number of over-enthusiastic henna tattoo artists who'll start the first flourishes of a flower design on your hand if you so much as hesitate when walking past.
Koutoubia minaret

After an evening checking out the square and the nearby minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, one of the city's most prominent landmarks, we headed back to Riad Splash for some much-needed rest. Run by friendly Scot Andy, who also has an adventure tours company, the relaxed riad is in the heart of the medina, tucked away in a quiet sidestreet. Just steps away from the chaotic whirl of Derb el Bacha, hardly a sound penetrated the riad's walls. The next morning as we sat in the courtyard under the gorgeous January sun, eating our substantial breakfast of fresh orange juice brought from the square and thick honey-soaked local pancakes, toast and cereal, my friends and I felt relaxed and ready to step into the the maze of Marrakech's souks (markets). Partially covered streets which wind away from the Djemaa el Fna, the souks sell everything from leather goods to lanterns to chickens, and it's still possible to catch sight of craftsmen at work as you wander through. Difficult to navigate (unless you're an expert map-reader, like one of our party), the best way to enjoy the souks is to dive in, wander through and not worry about where you emerge, hopefully with a bargain or two in tow. Haggling is essential here, so be sure to unleash your best bargaining lines before parting with your dirhams.

Ali ben Youssef Medersa

Although more famous for its atmosphere than its sights, those seeking an itinerary offering more than food, shopping and wandering the medina's alleyways won't be disappointed by Marrakech. Historical sights include the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a former Quranic school set around a beautiful central courtyard featuring intricate plasterwork and colourful mosaics. Upstairs, you can step inside the students' quarters and marvel at the fact that 900 students were once housed in its 132 tiny dormitories. In addition to the King's Marrakech residence, the city has two other palaces which are open to the public: Bahia and the ruined El Badi. We chose to visit the latter on a sunny Sunday morning, and were charmed by the beauty contained within its red walls. A ruined shell may not sound worth your time, but the once-glorious sixteenth-century structure is now a welcome slice of calm in the midst of the medina. Large pools lie in the centre, with palm trees and shrubberies around the edges. Visitors can join the families of storks on the ramparts, which offer a wide-reaching view over the city's rooftops and to the Atlas mountains beyond. For those looking for something a bit more modern, Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Majorelle, a taxi ride from the medina, is a riot of colour and fun, while contemporary art can be found at a number of galleries including Matisse Art Gallery on Passage Ghandouri.

El Badi Palace


Surprisingly, 48 hours gave us enough time to explore the medina at a relaxed pace, although the ville nouvelle (new town) and outlying sights will have to wait until our return visit. It also proved sufficient to delve into Marrakech's culinary scene, although again, the modern trendy restaurants of the new town remained unexplored. Our dining spectrum ranged from the street food of the Djemaa el Fna and the delicious cous cous in no frills Cafe Toubkal (also on the square), to the decidedly more elegant experience on offer at Cafe Arabe on the Rue el-Mouassine close to the souks. Spread over three floors, this upmarket but laid-back restaurant is a lovely spot to while away an afternoon or an evening. Fashion designer Matthew Williamson clearly thinks so too, as he was enjoying a drink there on our visit (my excitement at this celebrity spot was only slightly dampened by my friends' chorus of 'Who?') We made for the upstairs roof terrace, sprawled on the cushion-covered benches and tucked into tagines, cous cous and pastilla washed down by white wine. For around £10 per head, this was the most pricey meal of the weekend, but well worth it for the superior setting.


Despite the constant chaotic motion of the medina, Marrakech is a relaxing destination for a weekend break. Unlike modern metropolises such as some European capitals, the hurry and bustle of Marrakech never feels stressful, and visitors can easily sit back and observe (from a safe, scooter-free vantage point, of course). Out of season, it's also an excellent value city: food is a purse-friendly commodity, and for 2 nights' bed & breakfast accommodation, we paid just £50 each. And as it's just a three and a half hour flight from London, it's not quite as far flung and inaccessible a destination as you might think.

5 comments:

  1. What a cool story. Definitely have Morocco on our list but this makes a good case for Marrakech as a weekend. Have you seen any other cities in Morocco? How do they compare?

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  2. Thanks Andrew! This is the only time I've visited Morocco, but 2 of the friends I went with spent a while travelling around. They also enjoyed Fez and Chefchaouen, but Casablanca less so I think. From what I've heard, Marrakech is one of the most accessible cities to visit (and probably the most beautiful and best preserved), so might be a good place to start. I hope to go back!

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  3. I loved Marrakech, especially the mint tea...I totally got addicted to that stuff! :)

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  4. I loved mint tea in Morocco as well. It's somehow funny that I was actually first introduced to this lovely drink back in Newcastle upon Tyne. And it was served by a Polish bloke :)

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