One of the most cosmopolitan cities in North Africa has almost a million inhabitants, large numbers of whom are condemned to poverty, but the former imperial city is a convincing modern city at the foot of the Atlas mountains
Due to Mohammed VI’s open regime, Morocco has really taken off. Nowhere is this more true than in the country’s key cities; Rabat, Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech. Marrakech smells of a hundred spices. Aromas from musk to harissa (the key ingredient to any good cous-cous) condense in the skies of the city. No corner can escape from the mix of odours, there’s no neutral space. Within just a few metres, the smell of the street changes from air impregnated with the terrible stench of freshly cut hides to a cloak of delightfully rich, natural fragrances. In any given street you are sure to find one of many herbalists with natural products to cure any ailment. Berber medicine is a Morrocan cultural icon, and shopkeepers (predominantly male) delight in telling tourists how each one is made and all about the benefits, at times miracles, their star products can give.
Slow it down, mate
For Morrocans, passing the hours on the streets by keeping up social relationships is at the epicentre of their culture. To a western visitor, however, it may be a bit shocking to see the total lack of hurry among the inhabitants of Marrakech. The locals are no slaves to their watches and spend their time carrying out their daily activities without a cloud of stress to impinge on their health. With a personality halfway between modernity and the traditional, Marrakech opens its arms to all types of tourists as long as they are prepared to spend their money. Services and communications, security and installations, convenience and comfort fit together especially for tourists. In fact, if tourism here was to disappear overnight the upkeep of Marrakech would be almost unsustainable. Everything is designed to sweet talk the visitor that they’d be crazy to leave a way of life where they are the star.
Commercial activity carries on via small bazaars installed in any free space to be found on the narrow lanes. Just a few metres is all that’s needed to set up shop and offer tourists and locals alike a wide array of products. Most of these products are artisan and have been made on the slopes of the Atlas mountains. The market? becomes a human fair from the afternoon until around midnight. Here you can encounter everyone from storytellers, to bookies, henna artists and even snake and monkey charmers. Everyone is invited to take part in the activities, especially when there’s money to be had. Tourists are by far the most sought after participants. The sellers enthral them and invite them to take part in the spectacular. No one can escape from the charms of Jemâa El Fna square, the heart of Marrakech.
Marrakech is more than just a shop window for low cost artisan products. The outskirts entice you to get in touch with nature. The range of sporting activities on offer on the edges of the city of Marrakech is immense. It is known as the red city due to the colour of the stone that illuminates that houses and intensifies the connection with the earth. Tourists with several days to spend here can take make trips up to the mountains where it is possible to catch a glimpse of what life is like in the berber towns. They can enjoy all the charms of the city at a very reasonable price. Marrakech is called the pearl of the south and the name fits like a glove.
How do I get there?
Low cost airlines running between Europe and Marrakech include Easyjet, Vueling and Ryanair (if you book far enough in advance with the latter you can grab a return flight for as little as 12 euros inc. taxes). To get around within the city itself it’s advisable to make use of the cheap and quick 'petit taxis'. Prices are negotiable but expect to pay around 3 euros a trip.
Where should I sleep?
There’s a bed to suit all purses in Marrakech. You can find a double room in a 4* hotel for around 25 euro a night inc. breakfast.
What is there to do?
There are travel agencies about that organise tourist excursions, but local taxi drivers offer the same packages for a lower price. Contracting the services of a “petit taxi”, tourists can take a trip out to Ourika valley among the slopes of the Atlas mountains for 30 euro (based on 4 people sharing). The taxi drivers will pick you up from your hotel at 9am and return you home around 6pm.
What’s a must see?
The cultural activities on offer in Marrakech are endless. No visit to the city would be complete without a visit to the Koutabia mosque, El Badi palace, the Saadian tombs, Jemâa el Fna square, El Bahia palace, the Menara gardens, Majorelle garden, the museum of Islamic art and the Palmeral.
Images: ©Shahram Sharif / Flickr and Clara Belda
Translated from Marrakech: la Perla del Sur africana