What can be said of Marrakech that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? Plenty. A city so alluring that Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes are scattered here in Jardin Majorelle. Marrakech’s magnetism is very real. It charms your soul out of your body like a snake…teasing it, caressing it and hypnotising with colours, noise, smells and an unforgiving heat. You will watch your soul dance a slow dance in a hazy mirage in front of your very eyes. And it will mesmerise you. I experienced serious deja vu here. The unmistakable feeling that somehow, I had been here before, in another time. That I had yearned to be back for all eternity.
A Perfect Arrival
From the moment my feet touched the red earth, all five senses went in to over-drive. The pre-arranged airport transfer seemed perfectly normal until the driver stopped in the middle of traffic and declared that we had arrived. I could see nothing but a chaos of vehicles, animals and people. Cars and trucks moved around with no clear direction and motorcycles weaved in and out of the way of the cars. Donkey carts, monkeys on chains and watermelon sellers (also on carts) weaved themselves in between the cars and the motorcycles. The heat burned in to my skin. In utter confusion I climbed out of the car, to the middle of traffic, as my driver pointed to a hand cart, “You have to take this rest of the way.”
My first thought was that this was a prank. It wasn’t. Another man to whom the driver referred to as “Ibrahim” simply took my bags out of the car, without a word, and loaded the cart. “The car cannot go to your hotel”, I was told. I had little choice but to trust and follow Ibrahim across the road, dodging cars and donkeys. As we walked off, the driver yelled, “Don’t worry. He works for your hotel.” “Perfect”, I thought. I had arrived in Marrakech.
As it turned out, Ibrahim did work for my hotel and he and I became friends along the way. As we walked, I realised that the lanes inside the medina, where I had chosen to stay, were too narrow for cars and all of this was perfectly normal. Ibrahim pointed things out to me as we walked. He showed me the local school, where he prayed and where to go for food. Our walk together only lasted 5 minutes and I was sorry when it ended. I was having a great time! I couldn’t have planned a better arrival than this.
I was staying at a small, traditional Morroccan riad, a stone’s throw from Jemaa el-Fnaa, which inspired the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. So, needless to say that there was plenty to see, hear and touch but more on that later. We walked through narrow winding lanes past beautiful doors and arrived at the riad. It was all that I could have hoped for and more. They had prepared for my arrival and I had the “best room in the house” – a 3 level room that opened out to the indoor courtyard and fountain. There was an orange tree heavy with fruit outside my window. To the right, Bougainvillea climbed up a pillar and covered the balconies above. I had arrived at a Garden of Eden, without the sin.
I could hardly wait to get outside and feel the full Marrakech effect. I showered, changed and headed straight to Jemaa el-Fnaa. The narrow passages of the medina, which surround this main square, were packed to the brim with colourful objects of every kind; spices, shoes, bags, stones, clothes, soap, tea, silver, glass. It was all here. Hawkers shout across to each other as well as to passers by. There are deals to be made and bargains to be had.
I walked around this market for so long that I got lost and couldn’t find my way back. A word of advice to anyone wishing to do the same…download the City Mapper app. It works well inside the medina and you will not be at the mercy of the locals to find your way out.
Eventually however, I did find my way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa and was lucky enough to watch the sun go down over the square. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and people made shadows against the backdrop of Koutoubia mosque as people moved around in an invisible maze. Tourists and travellers flocked to nearby restaurants, cameras in hand, to watch the evening unfold.
I ended my day with dinner in the main square sat at a long table occupied by a mixture of locals and tourists. The mood was light and everyone was enjoying the aromas rising out of the medina. Mint tea flowed like water, open fires grilled meat, fish and seafood and colourful tagines and crockery click clacked against the chattering of people sitting down to their evening meal. It was almost midnight before I left the table.
Madrasa Ben Youssef
The next day, I ventured to Madrasa Ben Yousef. I walked in the opposite direction to the main square and entered what felt like a burrow of even narrower passages which abruptly ended at the Madrasa. Ornamental doors added colourful breaks along what seemed like unending lines of decorative arches and terracotta walls.
The Madrasa is a 14th century Islamic school and is an incredible building of intricate geometric patterns carved into walls, ceilings and the roof. The floors are lined with tiles of every colour imaginable. There is an entrance fee of 20 Dihrams or 2 Euros so if you’re visiting make sure you carry change. The queue was long here but once inside, the scale of the building and stunning courtyard are majestic. I moved around and made my way upstairs to the classrooms and living quarters which are carved in cedar wood and marble. Tiny decorative windows overlook the large courtyard. It is from up here that you can truly appreciate the architecture of this building which may have housed as many as 900 students.
I planned little else after this as I wanted to return to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It is a great place for people watching as well as absorbing the energy of Marrakech. Spending the day here was effortless. There is a lot of activity in this big open space – snake charmers with flutes, medicine men, tooth pullers, acrobats, musicians, fortune tellers…an endless list of intriguing humans. To cool down there are stalls which offer orange, mango, pineapple, avocado or banana juice. There are also handcarts of freshly picked fruit, dates, dried figs, almonds and walnuts. As the evening drew in, the square began to fill until it was a heaving carnival of wonder. If you wish not to be so immersed in this spectacle it is also possible to watch it from the many rooftop terrace cafes dotted around the square. Finding the entrances to the rooftops can be tricky but the locals are happy to help so you’ll get there in the end.
I spent just two days in Marrakech and it certainly wasn’t enough time. It was not so much a matter of trying to ‘fit’ things into a schedule but more that I really just wanted to BE there. I felt a certain liberation from being lost amongst the immense sea of faces. There was a familiarity that I still cannot explain. As I headed back to pack my bags for the following day it did not seem in any way like ”goodbye”. It was definitely a feeling of ”until next time”.