From exploring royal palaces, making tagine from scratch, hiking in the Atlas mountains, being scrubbed to death in a Hammam, the tranquility of Ben Yousseff Madrasa and the chaos of Jemma el-Fnaa Square, here are 10 activities in Marrakesh.
1. Sensory overload: Jemma el-Fnaa Square
A city that truly is a feast for every one of your senses, my starting point in Marrakesh was at Jemma el-Fnaa Square. My favourite description is from Alice Morrison’s book:
“It’s the smell that hits you first; a heady mixture of horse pee, charcoal smoke and perfumes from a thousand warm bodies. Then it is the noise, the rhythm of drums, shouts of “orange juice, orange juice, orange juice”, the bells from the horse-drawn carriages and the shrieks of excited children as they watch street boys launch neon stingers high into the air.”Adventures in Morocco, Alice Morrison
This open square is the nerve centre of Marrakesh, going back to the 11th century. You could easily be fooled into thinking it’s a movie set. In addition to everything Alice describes, there are snake charmers, performing monkeys, street theatre, Berber musicians, wandering Senegalese men selling brightly coloured shirts, fortune tellers, and services of all varieties. In summer, it truly starts buzzing after the sun goes down. At the food stalls, you’ll find all sorts of Moroccan specialities. From tagine, couscous and harira (tomato, chickpea and lentil soup) to snails and flash-fried fish, you’re spoilt for choice. A word of caution, be prepared to face some extremely enthusiastic (read: pushy) chaps waving menus who will manage to find you wherever you turn and convince you by whatever means possible (even singing in your own language if they can) to eat at their stall.
While I was very happy roaming around in the centre of it with my 5 dirham ($0.5) fresh orange juice from Stall #2, there’s also the regal Cafe de France with their immaculately dressed waiters for a calmer location while still absorbing the bustle of the square. Alternatively, you have numerous restaurants with rooftops for a view from above.
One thing I didn’t get to try: khoudenjal. This warm ginger tea with cinnamon and cardamom in copper urns, is served with a dense, sticky and spicy piece of cake.
2. The Medina
In Marrakesh’s Medina (the walled town), there are souqs for every item imaginable, all equally a labyrinthine maze which means you inevitably get lost. Be warned though, shopping here in summer is an activity that ideally requires you to be well-rested, well-fed, well-watered and mentally prepared to politely and calmly fend off the innumerable “come in, come in, just to take a look only, no need to buy.” If you are indeed thinking of a purchase, there is a ritual of exchanging good wishes. Even if you don’t know the shopkeeper, this can be quite extended – involving inquiries as to where you are from, how you are doing, your health and that of your family. A completely different universe to the self-service checkout tills in London.
Historically, souqs were divided based on the type of goods sold. But to my simple mind, all the souqs seemed to interconnect. I passed by a whole range of items – rugs, clothes, leather, linen, silverware, lamps, lanterns, olives, spices, and shoes.
Souq Semmarine – north of the city’s main square – with everything from rugs, to leather and silverware to lamps.
Cafe Restaurant Dar L’hssira – hidden gem for decent inexpensive food and friendly service. I went twice for their harira soup (chickpea, tomato, lentil) and mint tea – which costed 25 dirhams in total (~$2.5)
3. Breathe in. And out: Ben Yousseff Madrasa
Not too far away is the Ben Yousseff Madrasa. Formerly an Islamic college, it was the largest in Morocco. Today after a period of restoration, it has reopened. You can feel a wave of tranquility washing over you as you enter. It’s perhaps best encapsulated by the inscription, “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” You’ll find it hard not to feel the solitude, with zellige tiles forming geometric mosaics, intricate 14th century decor with cedar wood, and a central courtyard with a reflective pool.
4. Scrub a dub-dub. Hammam time.
I thought a hammam might be a perfect end to a day of hiking, so I ventured into Hammam Mouassine. A traditional, old-world hammam without many tourists, it’s been around since the 1500s and is reasonably priced. It cost 165 dirhams ($16) for the men’s hammam (with tip).
You’ll leave refreshed but be warned:
- You’ll be scrubbed more vigorously than any saucepan at home
- The pummelling happens with such force that you might feel like your bones will break at some point
5. The Mellah
Under the King’s orders, this lesser explored Jewish quarter of Marrakesh has undergone extensive renovation and features the Al Azama Synagogue and the Miara cemetery (which is divided into three parts for women, men and children; in some way it resembles a lunar landscape). One way to enter this small quarter is through Place des Ferblantiers – the centre of Mellah by day where Jewish craftsmen work. Though today less than 500 Jews live here (most of the residents are Muslim), between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was home to one of the largest Jewish communities (possibly 30,000 people) in the country. Most of them had fled from various parts of Europe (like Spain) and settled in the city, following the Saadian Sultan’s invitation. A large majority of this community emigrated voluntarily once the state of Israel was created.
Back in the day, Mellahs (Moroccan term used to describe areas of residents of Jewish origin) were surrounded by tall walls to separate them from other members of the community, with the doors locked at night. Despite the economic activity within the Mellah, it was often a district subject to poverty and disease.
At the edge of the Mellah is the spice souq. Be prepared for surprisingly few tourists, exceptional Moroccan saffron, Ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend of more than 30 ingredients), medicinal herbs, perfumes and aromatic soaps.
6. View over the Medina? Why not.
Maison de la Photographie (0930-1800, 50 dirham entry): This gallery (formerly a riad) has a vintage Moroccan photography collection documenting the country’s landscape and lifestyle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Photos and documentaries take you on a journey of how things have changed in Morocco, and showcase the traditions that have remained to this day. The rooftop cafe is supposedly one of the highest points in the Medina.
7. Postcard from Marrakesh
The Koutoubia mosque’s minaret is possibly the city’s most famous icon. It’s stood guard over Marrakesh since it was built by the Almohads in the 12th century, and served as the prototype for the Giralda in Seville. Unlike many mosques in the Middle East (with domed minarets), the square design of Koutoubia is an Amazigh trademark. There aren’t any stairs inside the minaret – just a ramp on which the muezzin in the day would have ridden on horseback to give the call to prayer.
Legend has it that the brass balls that top the minaret spire were once made from gold that came from the jewellery of the wife of Almohad Sultan Yacoub Al Mansour, as a punishment for eating during fasting hours in Ramadan. Today the balls are filled with a special mineral salt from the Atlas mountains containing nitrate and magnesium which prevents the spire from oxidising. Each year during Ramadan, the salt is changed to maintain the golden glint.
8. Bahia Palace
Originally built for the Grand Vizier of the Sultan, Si Moussa (a former slave who climbed up the ranks), the Palace set over two acres was occupied by his son Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed soon after. Its name in Arabic means “brilliance”, and whether that’s the intricate carvings or the painted ceilings or the internal decor in the 150 rooms, the craftsmen from Fez have certainly left behind a legacy.
The Bahia Palace was thought to be the first building in North Africa to use decorative stained glass. Bou Ahmed expanded the Palace – he bought the houses and gardens around it at a cost of approximately 1.5 million gold francs (1894-1900) to provide space for a small Riad, courtyard, marble square and various other annexes. After Morocco gained independence from France, it was used as the royal residence for King Hassan II until it was transferred to the Ministry of Culture.
9. Tagine? Sure, let’s cook it from scratch.
Finding Brahim and his family online was a stroke of pure luck. Given the soaring midday temperatures in July (43-45C), finding something to do indoors was tempting. Given my terrible track record in the kitchen, what better way to improve that than a day of Moroccan cooking?
Brahim and his wife, Sana, were incredibly welcoming. After a large breakfast and one too many cups of mint tea, we started discussing what we might make. Tempted by a ‘sweet tagine’ (lamb, prunes, apricots, almonds), a more classic savoury tagine (chicken, olives, lemon and vegetables) and a pastilla (filo pastry with both a savoury chicken & egg filling and a sweet almond, sugar and cinnamon filling), Brahim made the decision. We would make them all!
Given we had the whole day, nothing felt too hectic. Brahim took us to his local market a few minutes away. “In Marrakesh, people generally buy the ingredients they need for that day’s cooking on that day. We don’t really stock up for the week,” he told me while smiling when I mentioned I buy all my groceries once a week. As soon as we got back to his house, Sana set us to work. Under her kind and watchful eye, making what might have otherwise been a difficult challenge, was light work (and fun!). It was also a joy to be with her in the kitchen; even though she can make tagines in her sleep, her love for cooking was still very much present.
Side note: Eid Al Adha
Being in their home for most of the day, we also got to see all the comings and goings of their neighbours. The most exciting development was when the next door neighbour brought a loud bleating sheep into their house (for sacrifice on the festival of Eid Al Adha that was coming up). Two hours later: a feast for a king was on the table!
10. A day trip to Imlil in the Atlas Mountains
Living in the village of Imlil and coming from a Berber family, Mustapha was our guide for a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. It was interesting to learn how, as we went further up into the Atlas Mountains, the language on the streets started changing from Arabic to Berber. I learnt three things that day:
- Relationships between the Arab and Berber communities in Morocco haven’t always been simple or straightforward
- Argan oil is popular here. We stopped at a women’s argan cooperative – the oil is used for culinary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes
- Mustapha’s mum cooks an absolute feast. And hiking just 30 minutes from his house leads to beautiful views across the surrounding area and a waterfall!
Things I learnt while in Morocco
Zellige tile – a variety of glazed natural clay tile, originally handcrafted in Morocco. It is kiln-fired over olive branches after being hand shaped – so each has a unique colour, glaze and texture. Each zellige tile is unique. First made in Fez.
Moors – general term used by Europeans to describe Muslims in North Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, generally of mixed Arab, Spanish and Berber origins.