Marrakech attacks all senses as soon as you enter the bustling Moroccan city. The desert weather can be sweaty or chilly, most times it’s somehow both simultaneously. The air is filled with thousands of scents and smells, some vaguely familiar, some completely foreign and some the kind you wish had remained unsmelled.
Donkey carriages move slowly between dusty old cars speeding on the highways, arabic music streaming from car radios everywhere. The level of noise in the city can sometimes become overwhelming. Actually just the sheer amount of visuals is enough to tire a person out entirely. Yet there is something so fantastic and riveting in all this chaos.
Morocco can definitely be a cultural shock for most people. I’ve traveled extensively all my life and have always thought of myself as a citizen of the world, but Morocco is definitely in a world of its own. My first impressions of Morocco were chaotic, dirty, loud, intoxicating, overwhelming and deeply charming. When I was in Morocco, there were times that I just wanted to be back home. But as soon as I got home I was longing to be back in the middle of all that chaos.
Jemaa el Fna – Where anything is possible
In the heart of the old town you’ll find Jemaa el Fna, the city’s pulsating heart. During daylight this incredibly lively and noisy square is filled with merchants and con men, magicians and tourists. Trained vultures circle the air above while cute monkeys pickpocket unsuspecting people and snake charmers play delicate tunes on their flutes to a bunch of slithering cobras and pythons.
The square leads to countless narrow alleys, lined with souks, traditional outdoor booths selling spices, decorative items, handpainted dishes, ornate carpets, jewelry and food. Haggling is expected here, and you should expect to pay one third or less of the original price. Just be ready to walk away if the price feels too high. Take one step away and the price will have gone down to a more suitable level. If not, there are dozens and dozens of merchants peddling similar items nearby.
The square is lined by cafés with panoramic rooftop terraces, offering a temporary respite from all the chaos. Above all the noise and all the smell, sipping on a traditional mint tea – which locals like to drink with an absurd amount of sugar – a wonderful moment of calm takes over. The views over the city, especially during sunset, are breathtaking.
A touch of calm in the city’s traditional riads
Marrakech seems to be filled with absolutely anything and everything. However, there is one thing that the city doesn’t have an endless supply of: peace and quiet. A great place to search for that moment of calm are the traditional riads. Many of these beautiful houses – former homes of sultans and noblemen – hide splendid inner courtyards offering a serene and luxurious experience.
Several riads now function as hotels or restaurants. One of my absolute favorites is Riad al Moussika, truly an unhurried oasis in the middle of the city. This lovingly restored riad only has five guest rooms, each filled with incredible detail and authentic Moroccan atmosphere. The incredibly opulent Al Azrak Suite is a thrilling experience – the huge suite, decorated in shades of muted blue, has a bathroom decked in ornate Moroccan tiles and a bathtub big enough to be called a swimming pool. A true luxury, and a necessary one in this hectic city.
The riad also has a wonderful restaurant, Pepe Nero, functioning in the delightful inner courtyard, reminiscent of royal palaces and old Indiana Jones films. Birds ruffle calmly in citrus trees and fountains filled with rose petals ripple quietly. Try the pastilla au pigeon, a savory pigeon pie covered with powdered sugar and cinnamon, one of Morocco’s most unique and tasty dishes.
Jemaa el Fna after dark
The perpetually busy square really comes to life after the sun sets behind the Koutoubia Mosque. Just before sunset there is a moment when birds begin to fly around nervously, cars honk incessantly and people try to yell over all the noise. Music blaring from basement bars gets louder and louder. The calls to prayer from the mosque are the last touch to an intoxicating cacophony. And then comes darkness.
The darkness is soon joined by belly dancers and musicians. The square is filled with food stalls, smoke rising in the air. This is your chance to try grilled camel skewers, traditional tagines or some sweet treats. Evenings at Jemaa el Fna are a truly magical experience.
Sounds of the City
Elissa – Ayshalak
Marwan Abado – Marakeb
Nabyla Maan – D’nya