Marrakesh – The Pearl of Morocco
April 1, 2015
If an excursion to Marrakesh is offered when your cruise ship docks in Casablanca the advice from the www.CRUISE.co.uk team is don’t hesitate – take the trip.
When you enter this ancient city through one of the twenty huge gates in its 12 km long wall it is well to remember the Boy Scout motto – Be prepared! If as far as North Africa is concerned you are still a travel virgin then Marrakesh is a great place to lose your cherry! Metaphorically speaking of course.
The Marrakesh experience
Visiting Marrakesh is as you would imagine time travel to be. In some parts of the city it feels as if you are being transported back 500 years and you will probably think not much has changed since. What is a new feature are the street vendors who can be irritating; however, bear in mind this is a city where for many the only source of income is tourism. Be altruistic if you can afford it even if you do come away with something you don’t want or need.
This romantic city is in the Maghreb, a large area of Northwest Africa that encompasses the Atlas Mountains, coastal plains and desert regions. The land has been fought over for hundreds of years; the French occupied much of it in the colonial days. Think Beau Geste, French Foreign Legionnaires in desert forts and the thundering hooves of the Berber horsemen; mysterious veiled and bejewelled women walking through the Marrakesh markets where camels and human slaves were traded, with all the attendant noise, intense heat and smells.
Thankfully the slave markets are no more but you will still see the mysterious women and plenty of camels; the noise and the odours are probably much the same as in those days apart from the exhaust smell of the mopeds that seem to be everywhere.
Be ready for an assault on all your senses in Marrakesh. When you take your first step into the streets of bustling industrious people, noise, aromas and colour it can make your head spin.
Where to visit in Marrakesh
There are two main tourist attractions in Marrakesh, the Medina quarter, with its maze like narrow streets and alleyways (derbs), and the Jemaa el-Fna, a public square like no other.
Marrakesh is a busy and industrious trading centre serving the Sahara and the farmers of the Atlas Mountains. The Medina, with its open-air markets called “souks” is where most of the business is transacted. It is also a magnet for tourists who have the opportunity to buy almost anything known to man. When browsing be prepared to dodge donkey carts and lorries in the narrow alleyways.
Some of the traders in the Medina wear the traditional kaftan (a long-sleeved coat buttoned at the front reaching to the ankles) because it helps to keep off some of the heat. The alleyways themselves provide some welcome shelter from the sun. Fresh food is on sale everywhere; a huge variety of olives piled high in dishes, cloves, ginger, saffron and the national staple, cous cous, plus other fruits and vegetables. If you have a sensitive stomach be cautious about eating food from street vendors, although the lamb and chicken dishes are very tasty and most consumers suffer no adverse effects. Check out the stall before you buy though; these guys won’t be displaying any food hygiene certificates! A practical travel tip coming up: carry and use antiseptic hand wipes before eating with your fingers.
For souvenir hunters there are stalls selling delicately patterned copper and brass items. The workmanship is superb and you’ll be very tempted to buy, however, don’t dive in without giving the matter some thought. Consider, could I buy this more cheaply at home? Never pay the asking price. Always haggle and if you can’t get the price down to what you think is fair just walk away. The leather market is also a popular destination, with a huge range of excellent quality items on sale. This part of the world is also famous for its patterned carpets and rugs of very high quality.
The city is safe for tourists but the usual warnings about street crime apply – remember that a lot of the people have little or nothing so don’t flaunt your wealth in any way. Watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas.
For drama and action make for Jemaa el-Fan. This place is like a large open-air theatre where the performances start in earnest around 10 a.m. This amazing public square in Marrakesh is designated a World Heritage Site. The name Jemaa el-Fna is thought to mean (among other interpretations) ‘assembly of the dead’, so named because this was once a site used for public executions of Christians and locals that had broken the law.
You will witness things there that you will definitely never have seen before. Controlled mayhem – if there is such a thing – is probably a good way to describe Jemaa el-Fna. Street theatre performances that are somehow hypnotic, although you won’t have a clue what is going on; snake charmers working their spell on deadly cobras by playing repetitive scales on an oboe and hanging other snakes around their necks – lovely! You’ll also see water sellers attracting custom by clanging metal cups together, acrobats and other street performers, and what are best described as potion peddlers claiming their concoctions can heal anything.
If on a daytrip you will have left the square by the time things really start to liven up as the sun goes down on Jemaa el-Fna. As the sun sets, dozens of portable grills are lit and smoke tinged with the scent of barbecuing meat rises into the air. Enter the dancers and other performers! This is when things become very exciting and the party really starts to go with a swing.
Medersa Ben Youssef
For some peace and quiet and a relief from the noise and bustle of the souks, visit the 14th century Medersa Ben Youssef. This was built as a high school and most students studied there for twelve years before becoming the professional classes of Marrakesh. There are tiles, mosaics and intricate carvings on almost all surfaces inside this building, which is believed to be the oldest structure in the city.
Necropolis Tombeaux Saadiens
This complex of tombs is just south of Jemaa el-Fna. It is a fine example of Moorish art and is one of the few vestiges of the Saadian Empire remaining. The site consists of a beautiful flower garden and mausoleums, one with impressive stuccowork and ceilings of cedar wood. The sultans of Marrakesh and their families are interred there in tombs of Carrara marble.
This is the symbol of the city. It has a minaret that looks out over Marrakesh from a height of 77 metres and the building is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the whole of North Africa. It has been used as a place of worship for 800 years. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosque.
This is outside the city but is worthy of a visit. The Moorish building is set beside a lake and has fertile gardens that are full of colour. With the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the background, this popular picnic spot with the locals is highly valued for its sense of calm and peace.
Things to do in Marrakesh
Apart from the sightseeing in Marrakesh you can learn some new dance moves, have a henna tattoo (no needles involved), visit a hamman (bathhouse) for a freshen up, or sip some tea in an ancient café. There are also modern shops and galleries to explore.
Marrakesh is approximately 243km south of Casablanca. Flight time from Casablanca is just over an hour. The best time to visit is in the spring when the evenings are cooler and the days are warm rather than scorching hot.
There is little doubt that even with all its beauty and wonder Marrakesh can be an assault on the senses but it is a pleasant assault. You will return to the comfort of your cruise ship with lasting memories and countless photographs, probably clutching a metal lantern you didn’t really want with no idea where to put it in your home. C’est la vie.
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