Marrakech is more than just a city. It’s a whole new experience – a rollercoaster ride through overwhelming smells, dazzling colours and exciting flavours. The thing is, you’ll either find it thrilling or absolutely frightening – OR possibly both.
1. The first thing you’ll learn in Marrakech is that you won’t need an alarm clock – the early morning call to prayer from the Koutoubia Mosque reverberates over the city.
2. The second thing you’ll learn is that crossing the road in Marrakech is a bit of a risky – if not deadly – challenge. Make sure you say your prayers in the morning.
3. If you’re spending a few nights in Marrakech, you’ll probably be staying in a riad – a traditional Moroccan guesthouse with rooms built around a courtyard. When it comes to booking accommodation in Marrakech you’re spoilt for choice, but you should choose a riad which is just a short walk from Djemaa el Fna (the main square). You’ll be thankful for it in the evening.
Recommendation: Riad Omar
is a gorgeous riad located in a pedestrian zone just off the main square. It has a large roof terrace where you can have lunch while enjoying nice views of Marrakech.
4. So let us assume that you make it to Djemaa el Fna without getting hit by a speeding car and then trampled by a horse and carriage – your next challenge is to navigate the souks without getting lost. Djemaa el Fna is already a hive of activity in the morning, and it gets busier as the day progresses. Before venturing into the medina, treat yourself to a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the stalls in the square. Oh, and buy some nuts and dried fruit for the journey – you never know how long it will take you to find your way out of the medina.
5. Water sellers are the celebrities of Djemaa el Fna. Yes, as you might have guessed, they sell water, but you won’t be able to take it with you into the medina. Water is served the traditional way, from a goatskin bladder into brightly-polished brass cups.
6. The medina of Marrakech is a bustling maze of market stalls, artisan workshops and old palaces. Built in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Berber dynasty of Morocco, the medina became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 for its wealth of historic buildings and impressive Islamic architecture.
7. Marrakech is home to the largest Berber market in Morocco. The medina is divided into different souks, the largest of which is Souk Semmarine, where you can find almost everything; traditional jewellery, antiques, kaftans, colourful slippers, pottery and many other beautiful things that will have you returning to your riad with empty pockets. This, however, is the most ‘touristy’ part of Marrakech, so you might want to continue walking further into the medina and away from the overpriced shops.
8. Shopping in Marrakech can be two things; stressful or entertaining. By the end of the day, you would have mastered the art of haggling and wished you hadn’t bought a second carpet. The shopkeepers might come across as a bit aggressive, but remember to remain calm and polite. Stopping for a chat with a stall owner will enrich your shopping experience, and you’ll probably walk out of the shop a very happy (and broke) customer.
9. If you want to give your legs a rest before you carry on shopping, find the nearest apothecary and sit through a 30-minute demonstration on traditional medicine, where you’ll be made to smell every type of soap, spice and herb in the shop. You can find brightly-coloured potpourris in every herbalist shop, so have your camera ready when you walk out of there with a year’s worth of medical supplies.
10. You might end up buying a pair of babouche slippers when you’re in Marrakech. You’ll have to haggle hard for these beauties.
11. At some point you’ll wish you had brought an extra suitcase with you, especially when you get to see the beautiful Moroccan rugs in the carpet souk.
12. In the small square outside the carpet market, veiled women sit among heaps of henna powder. If you decide to get a henna tattoo, make sure you are firm with the artists. Some of them tend to stretch the design beyond the agreed size, and then, of course, demand more money for it. Be wary of unwanted tattoos creeping up your arms while you’re busy looking at other things, although this scam is more common in Djemaa el Fna.
13. There’s a less alluring side to Marrakech, which you’ll probably come across at some point while wandering through the medina. Many Moroccans believe that chameleons have magical powers. According to local superstition, if you think you are jinxed, throwing a chameleon in fire would avert the curse – but only if the poor creature explodes.
14. If you hire a guide for a few hours, you’ll get to see the quiet parts of the medina, where local women shop for food and blacksmiths and carpenters toil away in their workshops. This is also the area where you’ll find genuine handmade products, which you can buy directly from the artisans.
15. If you’re lucky, you’ll be out of the medina and back in Djemaa el Fna before nightfall. As the day comes to an end, the square becomes a lively hub of Moroccan traditions, with storytellers, Gnawa musicians and fire eaters performing against the imposing backdrop of the Koutoubia mosque. Some shops in Marrakech remain open until late, especially the ones around the square, but keep away from the back streets of the medina at night.
16. The most popular performers in the square are the snake charmers, who make money from tourists stopping to take photos with the serpents. What many tourists probably don’t know is that typically the mouth of the cobra is stitched closed with twine, leaving only a small gap for the tongue to flick through. As a result, the snakes develop tongue infections and are unable to eat. Most of them die shortly afterwards, but they are quickly replaced by new ones.
17. You can’t go to Marrakech without having dinner at the food market in Djemaa el Fna. There are many stalls to choose from, but most of them serve the same food at roughly the same price. Your best bet is to ignore the tourist menus and sit among the locals. Alternatively, you can dine at one of the restaurants overlooking the square. The atmosphere is more pleasant, and you’ll get a stunning view of Djemaa el Fna from above.
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