Marrakech

Pink buildings the colour of Kashmiri chai, dust covered palm trees and women in colourful Jalabas riding their Mopeds- these were the first sights of Marrakech that I beheld, as my taxi took me from the airport to my hotel near the medina. My first time in Morocco and I only had the wise words of Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet users to guide me through. Needless to say, I was nervous.

Morocco first made it to my list of countries to visit back in 2002, when I took an Arabic literature in translation class at university. I remember feverishly reading about the mysterious snake charmers, the exotic musicians, the enigmatic storytellers, the zealous spice sellers, the statuesque beggars, the persistent henna artists, the ardent lovers, the boisterous children, and the performing monkeys- all gathered in a magical square that hustled and bustled with an energy and life that is beyond imagination.

According to legend, it is the storytellers of Morocco that, to this day, maintain the charming tradition of embedded story telling, first started by Princess Scheherazade and forever captured in the Tales of A Thousand and One Nights.

I was determined to discover this dreamy Morocco.

Jemma El Fna

It was almost sunset, by the time I started walking towards the famous Jemma El Fna Square- a UN World Heritage site. It was a chilly evening and I was comfortably wrapped in a woollen shawl. From at least half a mile away, I could hear the beating of drums, the shimmer of blue objects launched into the sky, the radiance of hundreds of tube lights, the pungent smell of spices and meat, the high-pitched laughter of people mixed with the neighing of horses- the sounds of utter chaos. I didn’t have to ask for directions. I just had to follow the sounds and the smells.

Nothing prepares you for the violent assault on your senses when you first step into the square and the market. You are pulled in all directions – quite literally at times- to sample the bountiful food and the endless merchandise. You smell an odour, which can only be explained as barbecued meat cooking in heavily scented tagine spices mixed with the smell of horses that crowd the outer road. It is unfamiliar yet not extremely offensive.
Over the next few days, I spent my evenings at the square chowing down shawarmas and the not-to-be-missed Moroccan bread and tomato chutney.

Marrakech, being a foodie haven, boasts food carts, juice stalls, snail bars, and proper sit down eateries to choose from. Every restaurant hustler thinks that his joint would put Gordon Ramsey to shame and that his grub is worthy of a Michelin star. As a testament to their skills, a wide range of red meat, poultry, assorted seafood and seasonal vegetables are on display for one’s culinary pleasures.

Medina

The Medina in Marrakech is expansive and busy and has a galactic selection of ceramics, leather merchandise, spices, jewellery and clothing for awe-struck tourists. The wild colours on display, coquettishly flaunting their hues, demand some attention and a moment of reflection.

Unfortunately, a moment of reflection is one thing you will not get anywhere in Marrakech.

The instant you pause or even slow down, you’ll have people clambering over each other to try and get your attention. Street peddlers urging you to buy things; beggars coaxing you for alms; and young boys soliciting their salons to you for the ultimate hammam experience. It just doesn’t stop.

Architecture

It takes about a day or two to get acclimatised to the volcano of chaos that is Marrakech. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the Medina, exploring the shops and the architecture. I visited the beautiful Bahia Palace, the Kutubia mosque and the Saadian tombs.

To say that I was mesmerised by the architecture in Marrakech, or Morocco as a whole, would be an understatement. The intricacy of the geometric designs, in keeping with Islamic tradition, was exquisite. From the wooden panelling with emerald green and cobalt blue details that form the interior of most constructions to the curvature of the meticulous calligraphy that embellishes the exterior of most buildings- the elements of design had hypnotised me.

Another spectacular display of opulence and extravagance is the legendary La Mamounia hotel. It has housed famous names through history such as Winston Churchill and continues to be the premier choice of hotels among Hollywood A listers. A coffee or a drink in the garden is a must for those who cannot afford to stay there. A giant platter of fat, juicy dates is laid out at the reception for all visitors to enjoy.

The magic is not contained just within the buildings, but spills on to the streets of Marrakech as well, where voluptuous orange trees shade the roads to keep passers by from wilting. A horse carriage ride through this scenery is a perfect way to end an evening in Marrakech.

Hammams

To break away from the hustle and bustle, one can dip into any of the million hammams that Marrakech is so well known for. Relaxing black-soap scrubs and deep-tissue, argon oil massages are perfect cures for the brittle nerves that this city leaves its travellers with. It should be added that the experience takes you way out of your comfort zone. This was the first time since my childhood that someone else, besides my mother, bathed me.

Entertainment

Night life in Marrakech can be Parisian chic or Arab modest. Le Comptoir Darna is one of the finest if you want an uber stylish French experience. Dark grey walls with patterned wallpaper; ornate gold edged mirrors; and gleaming chandeliers. The patrons sport the newest fashions and smoke cigars, cigarettes and sheesha inside. The gorgeous belly dancers put on a stunning show twice in the evening and the rest of the time is filled by a live dj who plays a mix of all time hit music that you can sing along to.
For a more casual night, there are plenty of local clubs and sheesha bars that don’t require a dress code and aren’t heavy on the wallet.

You may wonder, whether, I found it to be the magical experience it was promised to be in all my books? That’s a tough one. It is not a fairytale experience and it is not for the faint hearted. However, if you have an adventurous spirit and are up for surprises- good and bad- then Marrakech can give you all of that. And that is the magic of Marrakech.