MOROCCO: Chaos, spices, wares, chatter of shopkeepers, donkeys jostling for space with people… — the best way to discover Marrakesh is by getting lost in its largest souk
Abandon your alphabetically ordered itinerary. Throw away that map you spent all day hunting for. A country like Morocco can be discovered only if you allow it to consume you whole.
After six months of planning (read mostly talking about!) our trip to Morocco, my girlfriends and I decided to take the plunge one night, when we found cheap (50 pounds) return tickets from London to Morocco. Our first port of call was Marrakesh. Located in the mid-South West of the country, Marrakesh offered us the opportunity to work our way up the country.
Having taken an early morning flight to get into Marrakesh, we decided to take it easy on day one of our trip. Anyone who lives in Marrakesh will tell you all roads lead to Djemaa el Fna, one of the busiest squares in North Africa. Located in the heart of the medina or the old city, you are at all times jostling for space with tourists, locals, and street vendors even while dodging a donkey or two. By day, the Djemaa el Fna is bustling with street vendors. There are those who have spread their wares out on the ground, luring you to buy anything from Moroccan herbs to cure a fever to souvenirs such as tea pots and cute candle holders. There are vendors in street carts, behind a mountain of oranges, calling you out to buy a glass of fresh orange juice. There are women in veils, trying to reach for your hand to apply henna on your palms. But as the sun goes down, the square rapidly transforms into a set of make-shift outdoor stalls, selling different kinds of food. Remember to pick a stall that is teaming with locals. It's bound to sell the best meat. Feast on a chicken and lemon tagine (an earthen clay pot, where the meat is slowly cooked) or a plate of vegetable couscous. If you're a little more adventurous, try a bowl of escargot for starters — a testimony to the prevailing French influence. If you really are in the mood to go all out with the experimenting, why not sample a grilled goat's head or sheep's brain, which are considered aphrodisiacs.
Off the madding crowd
After wandering in the square, we decided to head to the Majorelle Garden. Designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1930s, the garden offers the wandering tourist refuge from the madding crowd. The cobalt blue walls of the garden together with the green cacti and palm trees have been a source of inspiration to French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, who went on to buy the gardens. After his death, Saint-Laurent's ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Gardens.
Day two of our Moroccan holiday was spent getting to know Marrakesh. And what better way to discover Marrakesh than getting yourself lost in the city's biggest souk. As you stroll under the thatched roof of the souk, you'll find tiny stores crowded with beautiful wrought-iron lamps, others hanging leather bags of every shape and size from every nook and cranny. Women, keep an eye out for silver jewellery — the earrings and bracelets are worth travelling for. But remember to haggle! As the lone Indian travelling with two Europeans and an American, my bargaining skills were put to the test. Moroccan shopkeepers can rival anyone back in India. Arriving at the ‘best price' may take a while, but is definitely worth the wait and effort.
If all that haggling has worn you down, step into one of the rooftop cafes at the Djemaa el Fna. Order a pot of what locals call Moroccan whisky, which is nothing but their signature mint tea. While sipping on a cup of sugary sweet yet refreshingly hot mint tea, watch the theatrics unfold down in the square below you. We decided to head to the tanneries, while the sun was still up. Although the strong stench of tanned leather will make you gag, the process of tanning is educational provided you have a guide or a local giving you a tour.
Other places worth a visit are the palaces of Bahia and El Badi. Built in the 19th Century with painted cedar wood doors, geometrical mosaic tiles and stained glass windows, the Bahia palace is a must-visit for those who appreciate Moroccan architecture. The El Badi palace, on the other hand, built in the 16th Century lies mostly in ruin. The 10-dirham entrance fee will show you the ceremonial part of the palace meant to receive visiting dignitaries. Not far from the El Badi palace is the spice souk. Although you and I may be no stranger to different spices, the colours and smells at this souk will overpower you as you walk past small heaps of red, orange and yellow powder. \
Food for thought
Sitting among Moroccans on a thin strip of wood that serves as a bench, there's a sense of communal anticipation as we wait for our dinner of assorted olives and grilled kebabs. As smoke billows out from the white tents in the Djemaa el Fna, it's not difficult to see why countless travellers have fallen for Marrakesh's charms. The city is an open book. The cries of the shopkeeper in the souk, the chaos that reigns in the Djemaa el Fna, the donkeys that plough through the city's narrow streets and the satellite dishes that poke out from every rooftop aren't staged. It's what makes Morocco and Marrakesh real for a traveller.