A visit to the vibrant and ancient city of Marrakech
The driver came to a stop on a fairly narrow road inside the old medina. He could go no further. The road appeared to end, at this point, due to some controlled area just ahead. It was chaotic. With no apparent traffic rules and no sidewalks, people, motorbikes and cars all fought for space in this congested area. People tried to stay to one side, cars drove down the middle, the motorbikes, and some bicyclists, weaved in and out like it was a motocross race. Cars, primarily taxis, took a number of attempts to get turned around in order to escape the hectic area. Welcome to the old medina of Marrakech! I had no idea where we were. The driver was getting out of the car. I saw no lodging around. Oh well, let’s play along.
As soon as I got out of the car, a young Moroccan man approached me and introduced himself as Hafid. He would guide me to the Dar Sholmes, my Riad, or home, for the next five days. He grabbed my backpack and we headed down a narrow alley lined with buildings about three stories high. They were built right next to each other. I noticed an occasional door that must lead into its home. There were no windows. None. We passed a number of children, out playing, as we navigated the maze of alleys. I was wondering how I was ever going to find my way out of there. After several turns, we came upon a man standing in the alley. He extended his hand and introduced himself. “Welcome, I am Hassan, the manager of the Dar Sholmes. It is our pleasure to host you for the next five days. Please come in.” Stepping through an open doorway with a curved arch, I entered into another world. It was quiet and peaceful. An inner courtyard was open to the roof letting in plenty of light. Off to one side was an open area with three long couches bordering a large rectangular table. On the wall above was a big screen TV, which would get much use over the next several days as we watched World Cup games. There was another open area of several tables and chairs – for the times people did not eat on the roof deck. The three-story Riad had six rooms all surrounding the inner courtyard – two were on the ground floor and four were one level up on the 1st floor. Above that was a roof deck, with a Jacuzzi, lounge chairs and some tables and chairs for eating the included breakfast in the morning. There were views of the old medina with the Koutoubia Mosque as its centerpiece. A stone staircase led to the upper floors. I felt at home at the Dar Sholmes due in large part to Hassan and Hafid’s hospitality, which made me feel like family.
I liked staying in the old medina. It’s what coming to Morocco is all about I think. It allowed me to engage with the people, the culture, the chaotic atmosphere that abounds here. It provided many opportunities to try the local food – one of the reasons that I love to travel. There are also international options, such as Italian, if you want something different. Staying in the old medina gave me the feel that I was anticipating. I felt like I was a part of the neighborhood as I navigated the narrow alleyways walking among the kids who were playing their own World Cup games on the tiled walkways. Even when relaxing in the Riad, many times the front door would be open to create some airflow through the lower level, and I would hear the children out playing or chatting outside the front door. I found out, as I used Google Maps on my iPhone to find my way around, that many of these maze-like alleys are not even included. I have come to depend on Google Maps and GPS to find my way around. In many parts of the old medina, I was literally lost at times – not sure which direction to turn. It was ok. I felt safe and I knew I would find my way out. And I did. By the time I would leave, I felt like Hassan and Hafid had been long time friends. It wasn’t just their level of service. It was the genuine concern they had to make sure I had the best stay possible.
Inside the medina, you have a choice of hundreds of Riads to stay at. They are very similar in design and hospitality service to each other. Research all the reviews on TripAdvisor and make your selection. I doubt that you will go wrong. If you want the feel of being in old Morocco, choose to stay in a riad in a small, back-alley neighborhood as opposed to a large, modern hotel in the newer area outside of the old medina.
To me, the centerpiece of Marrakech is the old medina – Jemaa el Fna (with its two personalities – one by day and the other by night), the souks and the Koutoubia Mosque at its core, and just the chaotic personality the medina exhibited on a daily basis. Horse carriages (or caleche as they are known locally) compete for road space with the multitude of cars and motorbikes. The caleche go at their own pace seemingly oblivious to the hectic world around them. Trying to cross the street can be a challenge; however, in the evening when the roads are full of cars and motorbikes swerving in and out at a quick pace, it’s almost impossible – and I thought Saigon was a challenging place to cross the street.
Jemaa el Fna, a square and market place, is the most exciting piece of the old medina. During the day, it’s somewhat calm with juice, nut, date and fig carts dotting the area and snake charmers who will pose you for a picture (at a price of course). During the evening it changes into one of the world’s largest outdoor food courts – a street food lover’s paradise. Each evening the food booths, tables and chairs are set-up by a number of local restaurants. Each booth vies for the passerby’s business. At the end of the evening everything is taken down until the next evening. You can find good local Moroccan food throughout – all at a fairly reasonable price. Wandering among the food stalls, I was approached by someone at each food booth wanting me to eat at their little outdoor cafe. The area was packed. Smoke from the grills permeated the air. The place was alive as tourists and locals alike packed each booth. Sometimes, there was not a place to sit. After selecting a location, I tried a sample of local Moroccan food – chicken cous cous, B’stilla (a pastry filled with vegetables and then cooked) and tagine vegetables (potatoes, carrots, green beans, tomatoes and a few other ingredients). It was delicious – all for 100 dirham (about 12 USD).
The souks, many of which begin at the square, seem to go on forever. These narrow, covered passageways are chaotic themselves, as shoppers have to compete with faster moving motorbikes and bicyclists as they meander at a slow pace down the aisle. Step into one of the small shops to browse further and get out of the way. If you like to bargain, this is the place to do it. Handbags, leathered goods, garments, rugs, and many souvenir type products can be yours for the right bargained price. Be careful of locals who will try to steer you to another location within the area. After telling the person no a number of times, you are happy when they leave only to be approached by another person who, unbeknownst to you is working, as a team, with the first person. In this area, you just need to stand your own ground. Don’t hesitate to say no and move on.
Outside of the old medina is an area referred to as Gueliz – the heart of modern Marrakech. It’s also known as the “new medina”. Avenue Mohammed V runs directly from the Koutoubia Mosque through the heart of Gueliz. On this avenue, you will find many of the upscale shops, restaurants and street cafes. The large, modern hotels are located here. A new mall recently opened on Mohammed V. Nearby, you can find the Jardin Majorelle – a small quiet garden in the heart of this hectic city. For 50 dirham (about 6 USD), you can walk among the various trees and even sit on one of the many benches and relax or even read a book. It’s a great place to go during the heat of the day. The shade of the trees provides a good respite.
The Koutoubia Mosque, the largest in Marrakech, towers over the old medina. Like ancient seafarers who used the stars to guide them, tourists use the mosque to guide them when they become disoriented when traversing through the narrow alleys of the ancient medina. Built in the 12th century, it has a plaza with gardens next to it.
If you enjoy being pampered, make sure to find time to visit one of the many Hammams in the city to get an exfoliation and mask treatment which takes about 45 minutes. Follow it up with a body massage to fully relax yourself. Combined they can be found not exceeding 50 euros.
Moroccan food is delicious. It's not very spicy for those who don't like too much heat. My favorites were the beef tagine (beef, potatoes, various vegetables cooked in a tagine pot), chicken couscous (chicken with a traditional Berber dish of semolina which is granules of durum wheat cooked by steaming), harira soup (meat such as lamb, beef or chicken, cilantro which is also known as coriander, parsely, celery, onion, chick peas, tomatoes and various spices) and the pastilla (aka b'stilla which is a meat pie made of squab, chicken or possibly fish cooked with oil, onions, water, parsely and various spices, and then enclosed in a pastry shell and cooked).
If you’re traveling to Marrakech, figure three nights at a minimum, or four would be better, to enjoy this vibrant, ancient city. This time does not allow time for excursions to the local areas – the Atlas Mountains or the desert, which are a must do to further experience Morocco.