Of course, after reading so much about it, I wanted to visit Djemaa El-Fna as soon as possible. And it didn’t disappoint. The square is lined on one side by the souks, traditional markets that serve both the daily needs of the locals and tourism. These vibrant markets are a whirlwind of color and noise, with crowds moving between crowded stalls displaying pyramids of brightly colored spices, richly woven carpets, and a thousand other exotic goods. On the other side are hotels and gardens, as well as café terraces, and narrow streets lead into the alleys of the Medina district.
Marrakech has the largest traditional market in Morocco. Around 18 souks sell goods ranging from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics. Artisans employ a significant percentage of the population who mainly sell their products to tourists. The vendors in this medina were the most aggressive we had come across. They didn’t seem to understand English, but I think that was all part of the cover. I managed to communicate with them in French – they could hardly deny their understanding! Even so, it was a real struggle to tell them we weren’t interested in buying something we’d just marveled at.
Also near the square is the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city. The 77 meter high minaret is made of red brick and contains a tower and spheres. It was completed in the late 12th century and has inspired other buildings such as the Hassan Tower in Rabat. It can be seen throughout the city, making it a useful landmark for orientation.
Djemaa El-Fna is crowded at night. Source: Liz Sier
As soon as the sun went down, locals appeared in their hundreds and overcrowded Djemaa El-Fna, along with tourists, storytellers, musicians, performers and snake charmers, while stalls set up to serve food ran a lavish trade. There were all kinds of grilled meats and local delicacies and it was hard to choose. The air was thick with steam and smoke from the braziers and the sights and smells were just intoxicating.
Long tables were set with benches on which locals and tourists sat side by side, enjoyed kebabs, salads, tagines, snails and offal and drank mint tea.
We later discovered a cafe on one side of the square selling ice cream. An upstairs balcony offers great views of the activities below.
The next day was a day off for us as our driver had returned home and our new guide had yet to make contact. My husband was finally able to book a round of golf at the Royal Marrakech Golf Club, a short cab ride to the southeast while I wandered the souks to my heart’s content.
The Royal Marrakech Club was founded in 1927 with four holes by the then Pasha of Marrakech, T’hami El Glaoui. It was supplemented with extensive plantings of various tree species such as eucalyptus, cypress, palm and olive trees over the next five years, making it a lush and elegant course. The old Menara Square has been expanded to include floodlights that allow playing after the heat of the day. This 9th hole is known as the Brigitte Bardot Hole (for the shape of the hills!)
Brigitte Bardot Hole in one! Source: Liz Sier
It was very hot again on Hubby’s chosen day so few golfers were crazy enough to play. He was compared to a caddy and the two set off for a relaxing few hours. Lo and behold, he managed to score a hole in one on the par 3, 9th hole, but when he returned to the clubhouse there was no one to party with except the caddy. He couldn’t even “shout” the bar with a beer as the club had strictly enforced the no-alcohol rule. (My husband drank more Diet Coke on this trip than in his previous life!)
My foray through the alleys of the souks had led me to an outdoor area that was not normally frequented by tourists. When a young man saw my aimless drifting, he made friends with an excuse to practice his English and led me back to the square. On the way, he invited me to visit his uncle’s traditional pharmacy and his real intent became clear. Although I found it very interesting, I was quick to point out that I had no room for further purchases in my luggage and that Australian Customs would likely confiscate some of the items if I tried. Still, I was grateful that he had steered me back into familiar territory and could now buy a drink to quench my thirst in such heat.
During the day there are many cars in the square selling freshly squeezed orange juice, which tempted me. I regretted it later that day as my body’s reaction to the local bacteria was not pleasant.
The Italian rooftop restaurant. Source: Liz Sier
In the evening, now that I had recovered a little, we set out to celebrate my husband’s golf success. We had tried tagine and couscous a few times on this trip. When we found a rooftop Italian restaurant that actually served wine, we were sold!
Our new guide picked us up the next morning for a trip to Ouarzazate and the spectacular mountain desert region to the east. (More on this in the next blog.)
So we went back to the souks to find some small souvenirs. On the way we met a man who said he was also in our riad. He went with us and explained that today was our lucky day (yes I know) because there was a special exhibition of Berber carpets in the medina. Do we want him to lead us there? I am always ready for an adventure. Despite my husband’s protests, we were escorted to a carpet stand where carpet after carpet was thrown on the floor in front of us to persuade us to buy.
Bingo! There was one of the right colors and proportions that stole my heart, and we spent the next half hour haggling over price and delivery. (Vin feared we would never see the money or carpet again, but it was brought to Melbourne about a week later.)
The Berber Carpet Exhibition. Source: Liz Sier
Of all the cities in Morocco that we have visited, Marrakech should have been the most lively and exciting for me. It has a more cosmopolitan flavor and English is widely spoken. Undoubtedly, these are the same reasons international jet setters should own so many homes here.