Marrakech, Morocco, October 7 - 9, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Marrakech is one of those places whose name conjures up images of an exotic 1,001 Arabian Knights atmosphere, loaded camel caravans carrying nomad's wares across the desert, and exotic trading souks, a place right up there with Timbuktu, Isfahan, and Luxor on the list of almost mythical must-see cities of the Middle East of lore.  Marrakech was the last of the four imperial cities we visited and probably the star.  Not all of Marrakech is necessarily pretty but its unified architectural appearance of pink stucco-covered adobe buildings throughout the Medina (old walled city) give it a unique and exotic look, one that also carries over largely to the more modern Ville Nouvelle outside the Medina walls. 
Marrakech was a major stop on the so-called "hippie trail" in 1960s and 1970s and is now seemingly overrun with tourists, short-term visitors on cheap Easy Jet flights from Britain and mobs on package tours as well as the usual array of backpacker types.  Our hotel was centrally located just off Marrakech's most famous sight, the Djemaa El Fna.  Yes, you read right, a hotel, the first one we've seen on this trip and also the last until we get to Dakar.  So although the Hotel Ali was rather basic by most standards, to sleep in an actual bed for the first time in weeks and an en suite bathroom with a shower that actually worked seemed to me like serious luxury.  Dave and Ben were fine enough as roommates but the small mosque right next door was another story with its loud prayer calls hours before dawn.  The land immediately next to a mosque must be some of the cheapest urban real estate in Muslim countries since inevitably the cheap hotels I've stayed in have been smack dab next to a noisy mosque.  "Allah, Allah Akbar!  Hamdullah!" (God, God is Great! Thanks be to Allah!  Three cheers for Allah!)  And if that wasn't bad enough, I think it was the trainee imam who was on call since he kept stopping throughout the prayer call to clear his throat and then starting again from the beginning instead of where he left off. 
Perhaps, though, it would be more appropriate to call Djemaa El Fna, Marrakech's central square and where it all happens, an experience rather than a sight.  Although by day a large open space with a smattering of merchant stalls selling basic tourist tack, at night Djemaa El Fna really comes alive, the haunt of street performers, jugglers, story tellers, fire eaters, snake charmers, medicine men, henna tattoo artists, traditional musical ensembles, transvestite dance troupes, and water sellers in funny costumes.  By day the square caters to the needs of tourists venturing into and out of the maze of nearby souks and in the early evening fills with tables and outdoor restaurants.  Later at  night, though, the square becomes the preserve of hordes of local Moroccans out for a night of cheap entertainment. 
I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed with the food selections on the square.  A recent episode I saw of "Bizarre Food With Andrew Zimmern" featured Morocco and showcased some of the weird eats served at the stalls on Djemaa El Fna, but save for the bubbly pots of snails and the boiled rams heads from which cheek meat sandwiches were served, there was little available beyond the ordinary Moroccan sandards of brochettes, kofta, couscous, and tagines.  Where are the calf brain stews, the grilled cow's heart, the deep-friend lamb pancreas, the liver and kidney brochettes, the revolting preserved potted meat that Andrew Zimmern was so disgusted by on the show?  It's not that I'd want to eat big plates of these exotic innards, just little tastes to be able to say I've sampled them, but no - they were nowhere to be found. 
Marrakech is at its best a place to take in the exotic Oriental atmosphere of winding streets and souks selling an astonishing array of beautiful handicrafts ranging from carpets to marquetry boxes, from brassware to jewelry, from ceramics to spices, and from leather to ironware.  Behind the lines of shops selling similar classes of goods in each part of the souk are workshops filled with the busy artisans, almost always men, who make them.  
After a couple reconnaissance swoops through the souks I spied a unique item I was starting to think I might not be able to live without - a nearly table-sized round brass plate inlaid with white camel bone and blue, red, and green composite stones in a very Islamic pattern.  Yet after much of the usual haggling on my several visits to the shop over three days the merchant and I were still unable to an agreement on price that was within my budget for souvenirs, so I'll just have to call it the treasure that got away. 
Marrakech's is more than just atmosphere and experience, though, and has some real sights, including the Koutoubia Mosque, the historic central mosque with the tallest minaret in the Maghreb countries, the Saadien Tombs (a special cemetery for the descendents of the prophet Mohamed and the Saadien princes), and an Almoravid era shrine named Koubba Ba'adyin.  My favorite, though, was the Ale Ben Youssef Medersa, a restored 16th century Koranic school that was the largest in North Africa, site of probably the most beautiful Islamic architecture in Marrakech.  After seeing the sells the students lived in I won't complain about the size of the room I live in when I stay at my parents' house. 

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