When one speaks of Marrakech, the bustling lively main square of Jemaa el Fna with its winding and crowded souks springs to mind. Its mysterious, exotic history and culture has drawn travellers from all over the world and is a much-sought after city by celebrities, writers and artists. Away from the medina, Marrakech is becoming like its European neighbours with high-end boutiques, classy restaurants and happening nightlife.
I came to Marrakech to get lost in the narrow alleyways, to be drawn into the noisy, crowded madness of the medina and to savour the traditions which are still close and dear to the people who are in the old town. I spent most of the time around the medina and would like to give travellers some essential tips to make their stay in this vibrant place a better one.
1. Get ready to pay if you want to take photographs of performers or even the food stalls
At the medina, you will find all kinds of performances – acrobatics, dancing, snake charming and even tricks-performing monkeys. A lady tourist was snapping away while a group of acrobatics were putting on a show. As she turned to walk away, one of the acrobat stopped her and demanded her to put some money in a pouch. She refused and the performer kept on following her and hurling angry words at the same time. Do get ready with some small change if you wish to take photographs.
As I was walking among the food stalls, I saw an interesting stall selling goat heads. I reached for my camera and took a photograph. Instantly the waiter from that stall stretched out his hand and demanded some money.
2. Do not follow anyone if they offer to take you to the place you ask direction for
I was heading towards the tannery when I thought I should confirm whether I was on the right track. So, I approached a gentle handsome young man to ask for directions. Speaking good English he insisted on taking me there despite my vehement objections. He said he has a brother and an uncle running some business near the tannery and he was on the way to see them. When we reached the entrance of the tannery, he handed me over to the “keeper of the door”. He didn’t have the friendliest of countenance and he led me through the door into a very unkempt tannery.
I had seen photographs of tannery in Fez showing pools of vibrant coloured dye with materials of all hues hanging nearby. It was a huge disappointment as this tannery is smelly, dirty and I had no desire to stay any longer than necessary. The keeper asked for money, as I expected, and I gave him an amount which I thought was reasonable. He started to get angry and shouted at me in his mother tongue. My “unwanted guide”, the young man, re-appeared by my side and advised me to give much much more. I told him no as he had told me earlier that I do not need to pay anything. So I quickly walked away from the keeper with the young fella hot on my heels. He started to get creepy and demanded a kiss for his service. That’s when I knew I needed to do something drastic to shake him off. I squeezed out every crocodile tear from my eyes and started to scream hysterically and at the same time waving my hands around wildly. You should see the horrified expression on his face and instantly he was gone. Yup…. definitely not his day.
3. Do dress modestly
Morocco is a devoutly Muslim country and in the old town, it was as if time stood still for the last 50 years. Donkeys are still being used to transport goods and the local people are conservatively dressed in their traditional clothes. For ladies, do keep your strapless T-shirts and tiny shorts away and don on skirts or shorts below knee length as well as keeping your shoulders covered. As for guys, this is no place for you to show off your biceps, triceps and six-packs. Wearing t-shirt is better than singlets and going shirtless is a no no. We ought to be sensitive to the culture and in this way, we show our respect by dressing appropriately.
4. Do try Moroccan food especially tagine
You really must try tagine when you are in Morocco and I really ate my fill in Marrakech. May it be chicken tagine, beef tagine, lamb tagine or vegetable tagine – they were all sumptuous and delicious. They are readily available in all the restaurants and even at the stalls at the medina. Moroccan tajine dishes are slow-cooked savoury stews with a combination of meat, poultry or fish with vegetables or fruit. To get the special flavours, spices like saffron, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon & cumin, nuts, and dried fruits are also used. Bread is normally served together with the tagine. I love to dip the bread into the flavourful thick stewy gravy. Little liquid is needed to cook the meat and vegetables as the cone-shaped of the tajine pot trap the hot steam and the returned the condensed liquid to the pot. This continual evaporation and condensation of hot steam and water cooked the contents in the pot.
During dinner-time, I was walking around the food stalls at the medina and saw people queuing up for some kind of thick soup. I waited for my turn and finally was able to squeezed myself between two amply endowed Moroccan ladies. The moment I tasted this soup, I knew why the queue was never ending for it was THE BEST soup I ever tasted. It consisted of some vegetables, a bit of meat, some short pasta-like noodle, beans, definitely few types of spices and they must have put some addictive stuff as well cos one bowl ain’t enough. Yum! This was my second favourite food to the tagine.
5. Knowing your bearing can be quite tough
The old city of Marakkesh is made up of a labyrinth of narrow alleyways lined with pinkish walls on both sides. Even someone with the keenest sense of direction is guaranteed to get lost in the twisting, turning, unmarked streets of Marrakech. If you have a terrible sense of direction, the old town is not the place for you to hone it. It is advisable for you to hire a guide. Rather than asking anyone on the road for directions, go to a shop or restaurant to do so. This way, you reduce the risk of being led to a place you do not wish to go or having an ending like mine (refer to tip No. 2).
Be alert when you are walking down the narrow streets because donkey carts, cars, motorbikes and bicycles are also vying for room to manoeuvre their way through.
6. Go to a rooftop of a restaurant to get the best view of the medina during sunset
In the morning, the medina is quiet with few people and a far cry from the acrimonious liveliness at night. When the sun slowly descends, the Jemaa el Fna slowly gets swallowed up by masses of people, food stalls, vendors, performers, fortune tellers and all other kinds of activities. One can get overwhelmed by the suffocating crowds, the constant loud cajoling of street vendors plus the loud music that accompanied the different kinds of performances that are going on. To enjoy the bustling and hustling of this place from a distance, go up to a high place.
I went up to the rooftop of Cafe de France, ordered a hot cup of cappuccino and enjoyed the sun setting over the medina. From there, you could take a panoramic view of the medina and enjoy this spectacular scene which is on the bucket list of many travellers.
7. Do drink the thirst quenching fresh fruit juices – cheap and clean
Marrakech can get pretty hot during the day and getting hydrated is imperative. During my 4 days’ stay in Marrakech, I must have visited this stall at least 10 times. Not only are the fruits freshly squeezed, juicy, sweet and clean, the vendor always deliver his drinks with a wide smile pasted on this face. Yeah… I am a sucker for smiling faces and I kept myself hydrated in the happiest way possible. There are at least 20 similar stalls but I gravitated towards Stall No. 9 each time I needed my fix because I found a happy friend there.
8. Do mingle with the locals
I love to check out nooks and corners and will peer into any interesting open doors. That was how I stumbled upon the local bakery. I discovered that the local ladies will knead their bread and their children will carry them to the bakery to be baked for a small fee. Wood was used to fired up and keep the traditional oven hot. It was a hot and tiny place and the young baker was kind enough to let me check out their working place.
I was contemplating buying a tagine pot and started a conversation with the English speaking owner of the shop. He volunteered to take a photograph of me and to make me more “beautiful”, he insisted that I should wear the colourful hat personally chosen by him. He directed me where to pose and I was his most willing subject. After spending some of his precious time with me, he sent me off with a wide smile and the direction to a nearby palace in spite of me not purchasing anything from him.
This lady was cooking outside her house and out of curiousity, I went to have a look at what was brewing. She has a grown-up son who speaks English and I was invited into their home for a cup of Berber whisky aka mint leave and some cookies. Her son translated our conversation and to return her kind hospitality, I gave her a bar of chocolate which I bought from Germany. It was a good thing I had it with me that day. I would feel bad not giving something back when she warmly open her house and her heart to a total stranger.
9. A final tip relating to tip No.2
So, I lost my bearing and needed to ask for direction. With the map in my hand, I asked a local guy to show me where I was. He said he will take me to the place I wanted to go but I rejected his offer. Reluctantly, he showed me the directions and later on, much later on (I got more lost thanks to him), I found out that he pointed me to the opposite direction. And people…. it happened to me twice!!!! After that, I asked at least 3 people and if 2 or more gave me the same directions, then it’s alright by me. It worked!!
Marrakech was a unique experience where I needed to be careful with the people I asked for directions but yet had to let myself go to be embraced by the warmth hospitality of those who genuinely welcome me into their hearts. I was glad I went! Hope you will enjoy your time in Marrakech as much as I have enjoyed mine.