The One Thing You Need to Know About Marrakesh


All you absolutely have to know to guarantee that you get a whacking great portion of exotic in exchange for your investment in a trip to Marrakesh is Jemaa el-Fnaa.

This is the historic centre of this thousand year old city and it condenses so much North African Arabian culture into one spot and one afternoon that it almost seems delightfully cliché. In fact, during the day it’s relatively tame, with mostly fresh juice vendors and trained Barbary apes dancing for coins and snake charmers actually charming snakes with actual pungi (the wheezy and apparently wholly unnecessary flute employed, apparently, for theatrical effect) and of course the souk — the famous markets at which the locals get literally all their basics and tourists get taken for a friendly ride.

It’s in the evening that Jemaa el-Fnaa lights up and heats up dinner and a show. The food stalls have somehow acquired the reputation of being there for tourists and I’m assured that this is simply not true. Indeed, if it were, there’d probably be a lot fewer whole goat heads and pots of hot snail on display. In any case it’s all good and cheap and healthy but go with your instincts and eat only cooked food and don’t give in to pressure tactics (although it’s tremendous fun looking as though you would). Try a little goat’s head or some beef stew. Have the ubiquitous Harira soup (tomato and lentil soup, not unlike the sauce you get with couscous but much heartier) which, while spicy, is not spicy hot and really, either way, you have to have Harira.

The show never stops and indeed it overlaps in time and place. There are buskers of all sorts — acrobatic dancers, magicians, fire-eaters, soothsayers and story-tellers (in Arabic or Berber but it’s still a spectacle). It’s noisy and chaotic and it’s exactly what you signed on for when you decided to visit Marrakesh  It can seem a little intimidating and like anywhere else in the world you need to be careful but don’t let the atmosphere exaggerate the risk of pickpockets — you’re in a well-policed, well-behaved crowd of friendly people who want you to come back next year.


The next morning just go back to the square, this time to use it as a starting point from which to explore the city. Along the north-eastern edge are narrow time portals into the old, fortified city in which people live and do business and never-the-less contribute to the distinct sensation that this is what M Marrakesh looked like a thousand years ago.

From Jemaa el-Fnaa you should also easily find your way to Koutoubia Mosque, yet another iconic Moroccan contribution to the visual shorthand that to most of the world means North Africa. You can’t visit the mosque but in fact what you really want to do is take it in from the surrounding gardens, admire the building itself and absorb the comprehensive atmosphere during the call to prayers. Return again at night to get a completely different and equally stunning perspective under floodlights.

Everything above is true but it’s not the whole story. Jemaa el-Fnaa is very convenient and entertaining all on its own but it’s merely a very good starting point from which to visit Marrakesh’s exhausting, exotic and extraordinary legacy.


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