Chaos and Serenity in Marrakech

When I told people I was going to Marrakech, I heard conflicting reactions. While some people who had been before said it was amazing, others extolled the hyper-business of the city, the intense heat in the Medina, the intimidating nature of the men there (“wear a wedding ring,” one friend told me, “then you won’t get harassed”). It was hard to shake these preconceptions on the flight there, and as I looked out as the plane flew across Portugal, the Atlantic, and finally the alien, sandy landscape of Morocco, I couldn’t help worrying about my choice of destination; would I enjoy the city? How different would it be to the European city-trip holidays I’m used to?

Arriving at the airport, I had my first taste of Marrakech-life in the form of a hyperactive taxi driver, who sped along the palm tree-lined roads into town, swerving around moped drivers, chatting in Arabic with someone on his phone. In the dark, unable to see the sky, landmarks, or the landscape, the city could have been any town in the Algarve, in Portugal, less than 400 miles away over the Atlantic Ocean—except, signs were in a mix of French and Arabic, and driving through the Medina, most of the people out were locals, not tourists or even expats.

The next morning, I woke to the foreign sound of the morning Islamic call to prayer. I hadn’t noticed in the dark of the Medina last night, in the rush of getting from our taxi to our hotel down some empty back streets, but the riad I was staying in (an open hotel, with rooms surrounding a courtyard) was only a few streets away from a mosque. Surrounded outside by nothing but the early morning sun—only a few centimetres of shutters separating me from the city—the muezzin’s call penetrated the room, gradually joined by other mosques in the vicinity until it became a din. When it stopped, cats, also woken by the call, replaced the muezzin, performing their own prayers in the riad. Later in the week, I would get used to the early wake-ups, my body learning to wake at six with the call and then drift off again for an hour or so with the foreign language still ringing in my ears.

The next morning, I prepared for my first trip into the centre of Marrakech. I’d been told the Medina was a maze—in fact, when myself and my partner arrived, the hotel receptionist had kindly given us a map with important places circled, and a lecture. “What do you do if you get lost?” he repeated to us. “You call me.” He’d told us it was a 20 minute walk to the main square, Jmaa el-Fnaa, and we had high hopes that, at our London-paces, we would manage this comfortably. Unfortunately, your first time in the Medina, your map-reading skills won’t be enough. A sign, adorned with ‘Jmaa el-Fnaa, 8 min’ pointed down a shadowy street, but 15 minutes later we were still wandering at random, completely at the mercy of the Medina. I’d been warned of merchants who pried on lost tourists, offering to show you the way to your destination and then asking for a hefty fee for the luxury—so I walked with feigned purpose, using my sunglasses to disguise my wandering eyes which searched for anything that I could use to locate myself.

Sitting at one of the restaurants surrounding Jmaa el-Fnaa square—after a 25 minute detour in which it seemed like we’d chosen every street but the one leading to our destination—I sipped a Cola and people watched. This square is where you can find most of the tourists in Marrakech, who quickly disperse among locals in the side streets of the Medina. Juice vendors shouted you over if they spotted you eyeing up their fruit; locals tried to flog you t-shirts with African prints on; taxi drivers pressed you to take their rides. All the shouting and persuasion used by the vendors is mostly in jest—they’ll joke about overcharging you for drinks, claiming that water is 10,000 dirhams rather than the average 10 at first, or claim that their juice is the best in the square. But there was also an ugly side to Jmaa el-Fnaa, this beating heart of Marrakech. Alongside the friendly refreshment stalls and souk merchants, there were also chained monkeys, performing tricks to the mingled delight and disgust of visitors, or snake charmers, who would press you to hold the snake for money. Of course, this was simply a different culture—none of this would ever be seen on the streets of London, in Leicester Square for example. Witnessing it was an experience, but for a vegetarian who can get upset when animals die on TV, it was something I’d rather forget.

At night, the square transforms again, its ugly side not rearing its head but instead a little more tame. This is when the street food markets start, once the sun has set and the final few calls to prayer of the day have sounded from Koutoubia Mosque (finished in 1199), which overlooks the square. While you’re still confronted by vendors at this time of the day, there’s so many people around you, tourists especially, that it’s easier to say ‘no’ and walk on. It’s also easier to avoid the ugly side, and with caged monkeys no longer visible, I focused on the smells and sights of the market stalls: meat sizzling on platters, smoke pouring from grills, locals and tourists mingling, eating together. Here, it’s easy to see the community in the city, something that makes Marrakech just like any other city.

Sat at the square on that first day, I also reflected on the contradictions apparent in Marrakech. Something I noticed more and more as I visited more cafes and restaurants in the city, is the relaxed attitude to serving (though, at Le Jardin, a more upmarket establishment, this wasn’t the case). Though waiters are friendly and talkative, it may also take them 15 minutes to get your order, or bring your drinks. Time seems to go at its own pace here, and it forces you to be more relaxed, and less uptight about things. At the same time, though, in the streets in the Medina the only way to move is quickly—striding with purpose to your destination, leaving time only to glance at the wares in the shops that open out onto the cobbled street. Wait too long in one place and you’re liable to be either knocked down by a speeding moped, or pulled into a shop by one of the merchants, who talk quickly and persuasively, begging with you to buy something. Being in Marrakech promotes a form of slow chaos I’ve never experienced before—always waiting, and at the same time, always on the move.

As we got used to the maze of streets over the four days we were there, we developed a method of accurately finding our way from our hotel to Jmaa el-Fnaa, the starting point for tourist day trips and the obvious place to re-navigate yourself. We kept memorable features in our minds, following a mental map as we walked the streets—left out of the hotel, right through the arches, around the empty house, past the mosque, into the souk, left at meat-street (where we were shocked on our first morning there by the sight of raw meat hung from hooks outside the shop openings), straight on then bear right under another arch, past the jewellery vendors, and where we watched an old man refill his cart with hundreds of fresh khobz, the traditional Moroccan bread, right at the barber shop, then emerging from the dark souk into a courtyard with more fresh bread, and, finally, the square itself. Even now, I can remember the onslaught of smells, noises, and colours the first day I stepped into the Medina. It’s certainly intense, as I’d been told, but after a few days in the city you start to get used to it—it’s easier to find your way, you’re more aware of the mopeds rushing up behind you, more used to the smell of petrol and dust that inhabits the streets at all times of the day.

There are places to escape this intensity, though. After lunch on the first day, we headed to Bahia Palace, not far from Jmaa el-Fnaa. This nineteenth-century palace is like no European castle or palace I’ve ever been to, instead a mix of Moroccan and Islamic architecture and art, filling an area of eight hectares. Crossing the busy street corner to enter the palace walls, the sound of cars is immediately replaced by the chirping of birds: everything is suddenly still. The palace itself is a sequence of small courtyards and now empty rooms, which visitors are left to explore of their own accord, unless they’ve hired a specific guide to take them round. Each room and courtyard is more photogenic than the last, which culminates in the massive outer courtyard, where masses of marble glint in the sun, and palm trees are just visible over the roof.

It’s a similar atmosphere at Le Jardin Majorelle, located not in the Medina but north of the old city, outside the 12th century city walls. The gardens were originally created by French artist and amateur botanist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, taken over now by more varied plants, and Instagram influencers. It’s far more busy than Bahia Palace was two days ago, but well worth it for an hour’s wander among the cacti, palm trees and fountains. In this garden, it’s easy to pretend that you’re not in Marrakech, that there’s no main city road just 500m away, and you’re perhaps in an oasis in the desert, far away from the city walls. Of course, the hoards of tourists break the spell, moving in and out of your camera path, but it’s also comforting being with so many other international visitors—in the centre of Marrakech, for the most part it’s Moroccans that you’ll meet on the streets, and there’s a sort of camaraderie between international visitors, who also don’t speak the language or are acquainted with the culture.

Back in the riad on the final day of the trip, I sat on the terrace in the late afternoon, listening to the sounds of children playing in the local school down the street, as well as the mid-afternoon call to prayer. Looking over the rooftops of Marrakech—the best place to have dinner if your chosen restaurant has a terrace area—it seems like lightyears to Jmaa el-Fnaa, that busy centre of the old city, almost as if it’s in another world. Lying on this rooftop looking out towards the Atlas Mountains that ring Marrakech, I begin to realise the magic of this city, something I haven’t found anywhere else—the fact that it’s a funny mix of an intensive city break, but a place that gives you space to breathe and relax in-between those immersive Medina walks. A harmony of chaos and serenity.

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