Finding your way Around Marrakech
Marrakech’s medina is one of the largest in Morocco and, as with all medinas, its irregular shape and baffling street layout is more organic than logical. Originally the medina would have been the entire town; it’s only modern developments that have expanded the city beyond its walls. The heart of the medina is the massive Djemaa el Fna square. Immediately to the north of the Djemaa el Fna; at the approximate center of the medina; lies a maze of souks selling anything from live animals to antique furniture. This busy core is surrounded by many smaller residential and commercial areas, each with their own district character, from the cool, relaxed palaces in the south to the foul-smelling courtyards of the tannery district in the east. The city’s main attractions are mostly located within a few minutes walk of the Djemaa el fna, making it an excellent place, from which to start your exploration of the city. One feature of Marrakech, that; you will soon come to appreciate; especially after a few days walking or cycling; is that the city is almost perfectly flat. You will therefore not have to contend with the stepped, near-vertical streets that you find in northern cities like Tangier and Tétouan.
Things not to be missed in Marrakech
- Absorbing the atmosphere at Djemaa el Fna, one of the world’s largest and busiest square.
- Haggling for traditional crafts in the souks of Marrakech.
- Admiring the architecture of ibn Youssef Medersa.
- Seeing the Koutoubia Mosque which has dominated, the city’s skyline, for more than 900 years.
- Touring the ruins of El Badi Palace, the former home of Sultan Ahmed el Mansour.
- Visiting the Saadian tombs, a fascinating reminder of one of the country’s ruling dynasties.
- The tranquility of the Royal Menara and Agdal Gardens.
- Views of Jebel Toubkal, Morocco’s highest mountain.
- The thrill of white-water rafting on the Ourika valley’s rivers.
Street Theater on Djemaa El Fna
As dawn breaks, Marrakech’s main square is a largely deserted expanse of tarmac. It doesn’t stay this way for long, however. Within hours it transforms into a cross between a giant marketplace and an open-air circus filled with various types of entertainers and craftspeople. The square offers perhaps the densest concentration of Moroccan cultural expression of any place in the country. UNESCO describes it as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” In the heat of the midday sun, the square’s entertainments can be relatively subdued, with the occasional monkey handler running his animal between groups of musicians and snake charmers to pose for the cameras of passing tour groups, but when the cooler evening air sweeps in, it transforms into a fantastic, dazzling spectacle. The thronging crowds are kept entertained by a constant and eclectic mix of street performers, including musicians, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, and snake charmers. As soon as the sun goes down, the square becomes a giant alfresco food hall, with stall holders performing their own street theater as they cook. At the end of the evening, the food stalls close, leaving the square to the musicians who entertain those crowds that remain until the early hours.
- While in Marrakech, don’t miss out on the food stands in the Djemaa el Fna square. The roasted nuts and fresh-squeezed orange juice are a great snack.
- The real struggle when browsing in the souks is to limit yourself to only what you can fit in your luggage.
- In the souks, it helps to carry a compass, as even with a detailed map it can be hard to orient yourself in a city where half the streets have no names, and the other half have two!
The densely packed, colourful, and noisy souks north of the Djemaa el Fna, where shopkeepers and customers are locked in a perpetual battle over ever shifting prices, are icons of Marrakech culture. Despite the appearance of supermarkets and boutiques on the city’s outskirts, the clamor of the souks is still the place to go for both locals doing their everyday shopping and tourists scouting for souvenirs.
EXPERIENCE: Haggling in the souks
Haggling for a bargain may be an alarming prospect for some visitors, but it is all part of the pantomime of the souk. It is expected by the seller, and is usually conducted in good humor. You will be invited in to look at your desired purchase over a glass of mint tea, during which you may ask about the good’s history and how it is made until the conversation, inevitably, turns to the price. Gentle bargaining is called for. Decide on the price you wish to pay and make your offer, or offers, with grace. Don’t be surprised if the price you are offered is significantly higher than what the locals would have to pay. The merchant will not be offended if, after haggling, you decide not to make a purchase if you cannot agree upon a price. If, however, you offer a price and the merchant agrees to it, then make the purchase (this is the merchant’s livelihood remember, not a game), which should be done in cash. You can then meander along the tiny streets of the souk with your new leather item, ceramic pot, or piece of jewelry.
Thanks to its tourism – based economy and large expatriate population, the city of Marrakech has a rather more diverse range of nightlife than most Moroccan cities. The bars can be broadly divided into two different types. The first are those frequented by local people: smoke – filled bars with an exclusively male clientele and usually no music. The second are the modern bars beloved of expatriates, tourists, and wealthy locals – these bars typically play Western music and have a mixed clientele, and are usually also very expensive. The difference between the bars and their prices – drinks in some of the modern bars cost more than most Moroccan households’ weekly food bill – highlight the still large economic disparities in present – day Morocco
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