Despite its huge number of visitors, cultural and religious traditions are fiercely preserved in Morocco, even in big centres such as Marrakech
Marrakech is a city divided in two: the old walled Medina and last century’s French colonial town. In the middle of the pink maze that forms the Medina, snake-charmers, jugglers, dancers, clairvoyants and henna-tattooists gather every day. Djemaa El Fna is a frantic place, where the music of flutes and drums blends with strident noises and the smell of smoke mixes with the mint tea aromas. We can see the Atlas Mountains from the cafe terraces that encircle the square, while life throbs in the heart of Marrakech. If not for the barely-clad tourists and Coke banners in Arabic, we could be in a medieval square, such as the ones found only in stories of flying carpets.
However, a closer look can reveal the real story of the square’s characters. Some people believe that Djemaa El Fna survives on tourism, but there are many locals listening to tales, watching the Berber dances and buying bizarre potions. The visitors, however, are the favourite target for snake-charmers and dressed-up water-sellers, who pose for pictures. If you want to stop and watch, make sure you have some coins to offer. To avoid harassment, it is even better to negotiate the value of the show beforehand and make sure you are allowed to take pictures. If you are not interested in having a snake around your neck or seeing the performance of a poor chained monkey, the best thing to do is to ignore the offer and carry on walking. To those sensitive to animal exploitation, it is better to avoid confrontation. We can’t forget that, in Morocco, life is far from being a fairy tale, not only for the animals but for many people as well.
Mind the usher
On the Friday, I found myself caught against the flow of a crowd that seemed to be organising a peaceful demonstration on the narrow streets of the Medina. In fact, they were leaving the nearby Kasbah Mosque, after the collective prayer of the week. According to Islam, apart from this, a good follower must pray five times a day: at dawn, at midday, in the afternoon, at sunset and at night. Loudspeakers on the top of the minarets don’t let anybody forget it. However, don’t expect to be allowed inside a mosque, unless you intend to join the prayers.
In the shadows of Kasbah, nevertheless, there is a place open to the public and definitely worth a visit. The Saadi Tombs are the resting place of more than 160 noblemen, soldiers and the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur himself. The engravings are beautifully restored, the tiles still preserve their deep colours, and all over the gypsum walls, the arabesques entwine with verses from the Qur’an. In some tombs, the inscriptions take us back to the turbulent period of Civil War, which shook Morocco for 70 years after the Sultan’s death in 1603: “Death will find you, wherever you are, even in fortified towers”.
Although El Badi Palace is from the same period, it didn’t enjoy the same fortune against plundering. Unlike the tombs, the fear of bad luck for robbing the dead wasn’t able to protect it. Today, there are only ruins left from the 360 rooms, which were once covered in marble and gold. However, its enormous patio is now the set for the Marrakech Festival (www.marrakechfestival.com) every year in July, the biggest in Morocco for popular culture.
Five minutes' walk from there, we arrive at Marrakech’s picture postcard, the Koutobia minaret. Like many other touristic points, it is a favourite of unofficial guides - children and adults who can stick to you like a real shadow. Their approach is very friendly, claiming they are not guides, but locals trying to help. However, be aware that this service rarely will end up without a generous tip (20 to 40dh). Dressing according to the local costume may divert their attention. If you really want a guide, look for one at an accredited travel agency (www.tourisme-marocain.com)
Heading north through Djemaa El Fna, we reach the fabulous souks, a definite highlight. Organised around the street Souk Marine, these markets spread through entangled little alleys that seem endless. Expect to get lost there, and enjoy it. From hens and eggs to textiles and spices, never forget that bargaining is the etiquette when buying anything in Morocco. You ask the price and the answer may come with the reply: “How much can you pay?” The fun has just started and, as the sellers say: “Take your time, my friend”. There is no doubt that bargaining is a national pastime and many think that no deal should be allowed without it. Time is money here and don’t be surprised if you reduce the price to a third.
Not far from the souks lies the 14th-century Medersa Ben Youssef(Rue Souk el Khemis) , a wonder of Moroccan architecture, which used to house more than 800 boys. The austerity in the rooms contrasts with the opulent wooden carving in the corridors and central courtyard. There is even a furnished room to show how the life of a Muslim student was in those days.
Although newer, the next-door Marrakech Museum (www.museedemarrakech.ma) is another good example of the local architecture, with its small collection of local art and gigantic metal lamps. Meanwhile, far from expecting glory and recognition, the everyday artists of Marrakech perform in the souks or on the stage of Djemaa El Fna, making their own survival something like a piece of art.
Where to stay
Stay in a riad. These charming houses have an internal patio with flowers and often a fountain. They reflect how wealthy Moroccans used to live in the past.
Small and cosy, it has five bedrooms and a patio with sofas and candles. The breakfast is served in the terrace, from where the storks on El Badi walls can be seen and heard. In low season, a double room costs £40 to £68, including breakfast.
Despite the title, this is one of the pioneering riads of Marrakech. In low season (June to August), a double room costs £25 to £45, including breakfast.
Le Relais de Marrakech
An upmarket campsite with restaurant, swimming pool and nomad tents to rent for only £30.
Eating and drinking
Cool terrace; ideal place to see the sunset. (184, rue Mouassine - Médina / www.cafearabe.com)
Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes for The Man Who Knew Too Much in the K’dim Lounge of this restaurant.(170, Riad Zitoun Kedim/ www.daressalam.com)