Marrakech: The Devil I Don't Know

Sunday, January 11, 2009 | Marrakesh, Morocco

I didn't stop long to snap this picture, as this snake charmer's assistant was probably sneaking up behind me with a slithery surprise.
When Jacqueline and I were planning the itinerary for my mom and sister's recent visit to Morocco, I was nervous to include Marrakech.

Sure, the city gets constant raves as an exotic-but-luxurious tourist destination (The New York Times just named Marrakech #13 on its list of "The 44 Places To Go in 2009"). But many days I already feel like we live in a tourist trap (see Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes). So why travel to an even bigger one? Better stick to the devil I know, I reasoned.

But what would their trip to Morocco be without a visit to Marrakech? Crowds or not, we couldn't justify skipping it, and in the end, I was glad we didn't.

Safety in Numbers

The hordes of tourists I anticipated in Marrakech were, indeed, present in full force. A few times
each day, as we explored the medina's streets, we stepped aside to allow a tour group some fifty or sixty people strong to herd past, snapping pictures and clucking away in Spanish or Italian.

To my surprise, though, the crush of tourists actually worked to our advantage. Unlike in Fes, foreign visitors are no longer a novelty in Marrakech. With so many Europeans all around, Marrakchis out to make a buck have plenty of opportunities, and don't always feel the need to fervently hound every single tourist that passes. We bobbed slowly along the current of shoppers flowing through the city's largest covered market, Souq Semmarine. Shopping here, among hundreds of other tourists, felt very different from running Fes's gauntlet of overzealous carpet sellers—almost enjoyable, in fact.

Metropolis of Mud

The desert terrain immediately distinguishes Marrakech from the drab cement hues of Fes. The rusted, earthy tones and mud-brick streetscapes exude warmth, reflecting the milder weather that makes the city such a welcome destination in winter.

Marrakech is also perfectly flat. From the rooftops—which are built to an almost uniform height—it is difficult to see across the city, but it makes walking an easy way to get around. The lack of hills also makes it easy to motorbike, unfortunately, and the bikers that plow through the medina's streets are a constant hazard and constant source of choking gas fumes.

Marrakech's ancient fondouqs—open-air hotels for merchants passing through the city to sell their wares—are frequent sights, and the city's souqs seem to stretch endlessly, stall after stall. The scale of the markets, and commercial activity here in general, is overwhelming. More money probably changes hands here every day than in a whole month in the markets of Fes.

Seeing the Sights

Marrakech has enough historical landmarks to fill a week of sightseeing—we only scratched the surface by visiting several pre-colonial palaces, all sprawling, shoddily restored but still beautiful.

The medina's (and Morocco's) greatest religious school, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, is a grand marvel of Islamic design, and the clear cousin to some of Fes's smaller Merenid madrasas.

Even the ville nouvelle that surrounds the medina has its share of wonders, including the striking Jardin Majorelle. There, to dazzling effect, the garden's French designer surrounded exotic cacti and flowering plants with shockingly vivid colors (as if in Marrakech, uninhibited by European notions of modesty, he were finally able to decorate a home in the all the colors at the bright end of the paint swatch).

"لا" Means "لا"

The most memorable of all Marrakech's attractions, of course, is Jemaa el Fna, the medina's great square. Here, each day unfolds a scene which nearly eludes description. Even more so than most tourist destinations in Morocco, it is filled with overbearing, in-your-face, exceedingly annoying Moroccan salesmen trying everything they can possibly imagine to extract money from tourists.

This is all well and good in the case of sellers of orange juice, or of nuts and dried fruit, or of pottery and handmade trinkets. But the wisdom of allowing other members of this dubious bunch of salesmen to have unbounded access to animals must surely be questioned, for the plaza's many snake charmers, monkey handlers, and witch doctors rich in reptiles pursue tourists with the same zeal as their carpet-selling colleagues.

The effects, of course, are rarely as benign, and occasionally take the form of some European man or woman in shorts and a tank top skittering quickly away from a Moroccan aggressively attempting to drape a serpent over their shoulders in exchange for money. (Jacqueline, my family, and I all declined the snake treatment, thank you very much.) The Moroccans who visit the square do so with the same cagey nervousness as the Europeans, afraid a wild animal may be thrust upon them at any moment.

The excitement of the place has no parallel—and that's just during the daytime.


Anonymous said...


Beware of your health when visiting Marrakech from the filth and fumes from traffic, it is so bad that you can see the fumes in the atmosphere.

The main thing to be concerned about is crossing the roads, there are mopeds, bikes, cars, horse carriages and mules all competing. Apart from that there is the continual sounding of the horns. Each time you cross the road it is like taking your complete life in your hands. Although there are traffic police on very nearly all major road junctions on the main road they do not assist and simply stand and watch. Certainly none of the drivers will give you any right of way even when crossing on their so called 'crossing'.

With regard to mopeds who drive in the medina and souks choking you with the overpowering fumes. It is necessary to cover your mouth to avoid choking but they appear to be tolerated. They are driven slalom-like at speed along narrow lanes with millimetres to spare. The 'rule' is to walk on the right hand side of the narrow streets and let them avoid you rather than you trying to get out of their way. If crossing a busy road follow a Moroccan and let them lead. Keep an ear open for the beep of the moped approaching behind you and keep to the right side to let it pass. Bicycles are a bit of a pest too but the same rules apply.

When wandering in and around the souks you will find animals caged and abused by their keepers. (not the place for animal lovers especially) The sight and smell of meat hanging in stalls for sale is overpowering.

The smell and filth of the streets is overpowering and refuse left on every corner even in the supposedly upmarket area of Gueliz.

If you are unfortunate to want to use a toilet when out and about, not only will you have great difficulty in finding one but if you do the state is very much a lot to be desired and you will certainly need to carry antibacterial wipes with you.

The area of Marrakech was a complete cultural shock to my family and I certainly would not recommend visiting especially with young children. You only have to listen to the locals with their very chesty coughs and breathing difficulties to know that your health could suffer.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Well, "Anonymous", I recommend you stick to North America, Western Europe, and cruise ships for your future travels. Looks like the real world might be too much for you!

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