A city described as both beautiful and eccentric, Hannah Detheridge gives us the low down on Marrakech
Walk along any road in Marrakech and you take your life in your hands. It’s a good place to start if you want to express the diversity of the city; cars, vans, motorbikes all veer wildly, fighting for space with horse drawn carriages and overloaded carts dragged by donkeys or mules. Footpaths are hardly for the people, however the general idea seems to be that anywhere a person can walk, a motorbike can ride. Trying to avoid being run over is quite a feat; they squeeze themselves through the tightest of passageways, regardless of how many people may be shopping there. Everywhere is colourful and busy and exciting; it truly is a city where anything can happen. The great square of Djemaa el-Fna is filled with snake charmers, women huddled together offering henna tattoos, men carrying monkeys to show eager tourists and as night gathers great crowds accumulate, drawn to the marquees where the waiters fight for your custom and you can eat hot kebabs cooked in front of you. Bonfires are lit and people are drawn to the traditional music that is played live every night. Chefs fan smoke across the square to cook their food as quickly as possible and everywhere there are hagglers, beggars, dancers, hecklers and travellers, lending the city a carnival air not unlike being at a festival. From the square you head into the labyrinthine depths of the souk, where you can find dentists comfortably setting up shop next to open air butchers, and walking through the maze of the medina you are confronted by the seething virile life of the city, the reek of expensive leather, the rows upon rows of dusty silver jewellery, rainbows of silk scarves and carefully piled up fruit and vegetables. And all the while fighting to keep your toes intact by avoiding the scooters cutting through the crowds whether there’s space for them or not. Some stalls resemble jumble sales from film sets and some must not look very different to how they did a thousand years ago. There’s undeniably something magic about the city, and there is a perceptible collision between ancient African culture and the rapidly modernising Arabic world. Everything in Marrakech is fast, from the people to the shopping to the streets, all move at a frantic pace, and its well worth considering a few days out of the city to appreciate it even more on your return.
For those of you who like outdoor activities the only place to go is the exciting peaks of the Atlas Mountains. For the thrill seekers among you, the best place to go is Imlil, easily reachable by taxi and where most of the treks start. Beware of being ripped off, you can get there for four hundred dirhams if you’re firm with the taxi drivers, which is roughly forty euros. The tiny village of Imlil clings to the sheer mountain face, and I cannot recommend the Dar Adra lodge enough. With homely rooms, some of which have their own miniature log fire and a welcoming atmosphere, it is run by the wonderful Mohammed who organises treks up to the summit of Mount Toubkal for those who are so inclined. Being possibly the most unathletic person you could ever meet, I was perfectly happy curled up in the lodge for a few days eating enormous amounts of home cooked food, which had to be the best I’ve ever eaten. Moroccan food is cooked in Tagines; special clay pots that cook food slowly to release the flavours. The food in Morocco isn’t overly spiced, just remarkably well flavoured. Next door to the lodge a colony of goats had set up residence, and throughout the day and night whether in the city or the mountains the call to prayer can be heard echoing across the valleys.
To wind down from the frantic city life, a visit to the beautiful Jardin Majorelle is absolutely necessary. For a mere twenty five dirham you can wander the sculpted gardens and marvel at the electric blue buildings and impeccable water features, square ponds covered with lily pads, and teeming with a healthy population of terrapins. Masses of flowers hang low over the well kept paths and the noise of the city is wondrously blocked out, even though it is just a wall that separates you from the bustling city outside. The great Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes are scattered there, who when alive dedicated much time and money to the gardens and co owned them from 1980 with Pierre Berge. You can visit his memorial tucked away in a quiet corner of the garden, a discreet pillar mounted above a marble memorial slab inscribed with the words In Memorium Yves Saint Laurent, Couturier Française and his birth and death dates. It is a quiet, peaceful resting place, and there is a tiny gallery where hang the ‘Love’ postcards he sent to his loved ones every New Year for decades.
Someone said Marrakech is the closest you’ll get to Kathmandu this side of Dubai, which is true in a sense ; though perhaps it is a little cleaner. The country is steeped in ancient culture; the food, shopping and sights are all completely unique, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. As a word of warning to my fellow female travellers, don’t make my mistake and pack half your girly dresses into the suitcase; in the city centre in particular it will make your life a lot easier if you show as little skin as possible. Haggling is the normality for most shopkeepers but they’ll try and charge you astronomical charges if you let them, so pick the price you want to pay and stick to it at all costs, they generally back down if you show signs of losing interest. Keep an eye on your possessions as pick pocketing is rife. Try a tagine; ride in a horse drawn carriage around the city; visit the ornate palace gates – just don’t try to take any photographs. Above the gates to the city eagles nest precariously on the tops of the pillars, well worth trying to catch a sight of if you can. Drink the freshly squeezed orange juice from the stalls but beware of the water. Visit the old town and catch glimpses of camels lounging in car parks. Morocco is undoubtedly a diverse, thriving place and there is something for everyone here, no matter who you are.