There aren’t many cities in Africa that you could describe as “magical” (in fact, I’m struggling to think of another one), and there probably aren’t many cities in northern Africa that are even safe these days, but Marrakech fits the bill perfectly on both counts. It may be a “love or hate” kind of place, and that’s perfectly understandable, as it will offer visitors a whopping culture shock and a pace of life that may be alien to most people. But for those who seek adventure, Marrakech must surely be one of the most rewarding destinations in the world.
Marrakech is known as the most important of the old four imperial cities of Morocco (along with Rabat, Tangier, and Fes) and is the largest city in the country nowadays. I always looked at Marrakech as being a place where I could only really visit by air, as land travel through northern or western Africa is not really possible, and border crossings all around Morocco are not safe by any stretch of the imagination (you couldn’t pay me to drive to Marrakech!). So there is already an air of mystique to Marrakech before you even arrive. And upon arrival, you are immediately hit with a feast to the senses and quickly realise that you are in a place like no other.
Getting around Marrakech need not be difficult, but for a first-timer the country (like me) it can be somewhat daunting to get into taxis and public buses when you’ve heard so many horror stories beforehand. Fortunately, my time in the city went by without any major dramas, and I learned that, on the whole, Moroccan people are a very friendly bunch! Naturally curious, you may get a little bit of attention as a tourist, but it is usually in good nature. Taxis are very cheap and will take you anywhere in the city, even if the city itself is somewhat lacking in good tourist attractions. If taxis aren’t your thing, then obviously there are plenty of camels here, just waiting for you…
The drama of the Jemaa el Fna market can be best described as a “magical circus”, where fortune tellers, henna artists, fire-eaters, snake charmers, costumed monkeys, musicians, and acrobats call home. There are merchants hawking amulets and talismans preventing rheumatism, the evil eye, or bad spirits. Jemaa el Fna is much more than just a marketplace, though. It is actually the centre of Marrakech (or at least the centre of the medina) and it serves as a meeting place for the people of the city to congregate and socialise. Yet where there are tourists, there will also be pushy locals who are trying to aggressively sell souvenirs and the like – so be on your guard! There are also plenty of other things to see and so when in Marrakech.
I didn’t know much about Moroccan food before my trip (well apart from couscous) but now I have a much better understanding of the cuisine. As far as drink is concerned, they consume a lot of mint tea over there! Whereas people further east like their gahwa (or Turkish tea!), you cannot go 5 minutes without walking past a small group of Moroccan men enjoying some mint tea. It is something that tourists also like to try, and I must say the taste was delicious – I haven’t had anything like that anywhere else in the world (even if the recipe is kinda simple, I guess).
Regarding the food itself, I tried some fried potato fritters called Briwat, which I found in one of the markets here, and I think these were like samosas from Indian cuisine. The aforementioned couscous is also prevalent here in Morocco, and it comes in all manners of flavours and varieties as you will notice for yourself when you’re traipsing through the backstreets of Marrakech! Couscous is nice to have as a side dish with a more fulsome meal, such as merguez sausages (or even a sheep’s head). I learned that Morocco is also the world’s largest exporter of sardines, thanks to its long Atlantic coastline, and you will find plenty of these fish in your meals during you time in the country.
Even if you get bored of Marrakech (impossible), you will still find the Atlas Mountains on the horizon, which make for an interesting day trip. There are many indigenous Berber villages in the mountains, and it is perfectly acceptable to go and have a look around, either independently or with a guide. All things considered, however, you will probably want to get straight back down to the magic of Marrakech!