The drums beat and trumpets bleat amid the smoke and hustle of the Djma El-Fna. Beneath the minarets and palms and myriad of mismatched flat roofs and satellite dishes, snake charmers, story tellers, fire breathers and medicine men are gathering crowds around them as they go through their routines. The smells of spices and meat wafting over the the square and intwine with the chatter of tourists and locals alike as camera flashes light up the Moroccan sky.
Im sat in the open at the Terrasses De L’Ahambra enjoying a succulent lamb tagine… Flavour oozing from the tender meat and lightly spiced sauce. Beneath me is a cacophony of noise… Four teenage boys appear in front of the restaurant and begin an acrobatic dance routine… A trader pushing a cart of ceramics finds a way through the crowds as two dazed tourists, clearly overwhelmed by the place, dart into a nearby restaurant for some Berber Tea. Behind me the snow capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains form a dark silhouette amongst a sky full of life.
Marrakech today is in many ways exactly the same as it has been for centuries… Yet in other ways, in couldn’t be more different.
Sitting on the northern edge of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech has a rich history and the mere mention of its name still conjures exotic images of genies, minarets, palaces and mysteries of the desert. Originally a small settlement inhabited by berber farmers from neolithic times, the city was founded in the 11th Century by the Almoravids… A race of pious warriors from the desert. Under their control, the city grew into a trading centre where strange men from the desert would come to sell new and exotic spices and goods such as Ivory. Quickly, Marrakech became an important cultural and religious hub and the capital of the Almoravid Empire which stretched from Senegal to Spain.
The Almoravids were driven out in the 12th Century by the Almohads from the High Atlas, who built many new palaces and mosques on the ruins of the Almoravid city, including the Koutoubia Mosque. Thereafter the city saw a period of gradual decline and Fes and Meknes overtook it in terms of importance, but by the 16th Century Marrakech was once again capital of the kingdom.
Marrakech today still consists of a walled old town (The Medina) as well as a more modern and European influenced new town. However, it is in the Medina where the best delights of this city can be found.
The day starts early in Marrakech as the morning call to prayer is amplified across the low city skyline. Marrakech has always been a city of trade and even at 6AM, traders are busy rushing across the city preparing their stalls for another days trading.
I slip out of my Riad early and the early morning sunrise is blending beautifully with the red walls of the buildings and city fortifications. The backstreets are quiet now, while only a few hours ago they were alive with locals in an assortment of different football kits playing fiercely competitive street football matches. As I walk towards the Hammam, a cockerel crows from its cage and a shopkeeper pours a bucket of water on the dusty street and sweeps the instantly dirty water away from his shopfront.
On my way back to the Riad for breakfast, the city has truly come alive and I found myself repeating non merci over and over as I’m offered a range of goods from Babouches to Jellabas to a baby Terrapin. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones stating that he could find a particular item in Marrakech and even today it feels that this is a city that could produce any good you wanted.
By midday, the temperature is approaching 40 degrees celsius and the souks are a hive of activity. Terrasses Des Epices in Place Tassareg offers a modicum of relief as a water sprinkler system douses a cold and refreshing spray of moisture whilst I sip on an ice cold Coca Cola. Marrakech is an ideal place to engage in people watching and the small square is a veritable feast of people to watch… I found myself spending several minutes transfixed by a gentleman selling Berber wooly hats… Even in the height of summer, within a few minutes his sales patter has convinced several tourists to part with a huge amount of dirham.
Within the Medina small cobbled streets open into larger squares and even the dingiest looking alley or doorway can suddenly open up into a lush courtyard of colourful mosaics and verdant vegetation. The main sights of Marrakech are well known, but if you are prepared to explore, this is a city that will reward you and a city with a myriad of secret attractions waiting to be found.
Whether its the archways, the artwork, the buildings or the souks, there is something in Marrakech that will capture your spirit and imagination and never let go. No matter how far and wide you travel, Marrakech will always surprise and delight in equal measure. It truly is the nearest far away place you can go.
As I prepare to leave Terrasses De L’Ahambra, I take a final sip of super sweet Moroccan Mint Tea and gaze over the scene below me. The glory days of trans-Saharan trade may be over, but you still get the feel of a city on the edge of a great desert; a city where mysterious people from a land far away still emerge from the sands to sell exotic goods. Beneath the starry sky, story tellers still regale the audiences with tales from lands on the edge of the Earth. This is a city that stirs something from deep inside you and a place that makes you believe that actually, there is some magic in this world, shrouded within the exotic mystery of Marrakech.