The Medina is an explosive collision of humanity contained by its walls and amplified by its age and history. Venturing out into its maze of narrow alleys and streets, one is quickly lost and overwhelmed by the sights, smells, sounds and utter masses of people, animals and vehicles of every imaginable shape, size and configuration. To let one’s guard down is to invite a deadly serpent to be placed on your shoulder or be swept away by the massive flow of residents going about their daily routine. The senses seem to heighten even as the smells of the tannery spike an offense like no other. Nothing seems to slow beyond a frenetic pace in this tireless and ageless city of just under a million people. Walking casually by a shop is not possible as even the slightest eye contact is met with a pleasant and almost insistent welcoming into their shop. There is a profound sense that life here has not changed in centuries with the only clue to the modern world being the multitude of cell phones that are constantly tended to. It was by far the most exhilarating and exhausting trip of my life and one I would not trade for anything in the world.
I traveled to Cairo back in 1989 and thought at the time that this was the most intense city I had ever visited. Marrakech’s Medina beat it hands down. And just like my experience in Cairo, I found the people of Marrakech to be warm and friendly. Mitch and I rented an entire Riad in the center of the Medina. It had 5 bedrooms with a pool, rooftop terrace and hammam. We wanted to make sure we could retreat to a peaceful oasis at the end of each day. My only real concern was not getting sick from the food or water, so I was prepared to limit what I ate to things well cooked and to drink only bottled water. Unfortunately, Mitch’s doctor did not think that this was going to be a good place for him due to his delicate system and strongly recommended that he not go. Mitch insisted that I go anyway and we agreed that I should invite my cousin Chris who is here in Paris going to the Sorbonne for the year.
The flight was pleasant and we were greeted at the airport by a driver from the Riad. He was amazingly kind and took our bags and placed them in the car. Within seconds we were traveling at warp speed, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging pedestrians and bikes, donkeys and carts. We even ventured into oncoming traffic when things got too crowded. Both Chris and I were desperately trying not to loose the contents of our stomaches in the back seat. We crossed through a massive gate in the ancient walls of the Medina only to find the streets getting narrower and more populated. With darkness quickly falling we grew more and more desperate for the end of this wild ride. The driver never seemed to flinch all the while playing Rihanna’s ‘Shut up and Drive’ on his radio. He finally stopped the car and said ‘this is as far as I can take you.’ Searching deep into the recesses of my soul, I put on a confident face and got out of the car. The driver took our bags out of the boot of the car and began to place them into a large hand cart. ‘He will take you the rest of the way’, our driver said indicating an elderly man who gladly began to wheel his cart with our things into the throng of people in front of us. We walked and walked and walked and then made a sharp right turn down an extremely narrow alley with high walls. We continued for a while passing an occasional door and then turned left. Shortly thereafter, we came upon a motorcycle parked in the alley which blocked the cart. He tried to move the motorcycle over but still could not get the cart by. So he grabbed our bags and continued to walk carrying them by hand. About 50 meters later, he rang a bell on a large door set into a wall that seemed to go on and on forever. The door creaked open and we were greeted by the Riad house man, who took our bags and welcomed us in. When I turned around the man with the cart was gone. The door closed and we were transported into another world. The ground floor entrance gave way to a large courtyard with a small swimming pool in the center. Surrounding the pool was a living room, dining room, kitchen and one bedroom. The roof was open and we could see the star light night high above. Ayoub asked about our trip and if we wanted to eat or select our rooms. We opted to check out the rooms. All had ensuite bathrooms which was great. We each picked a room upstairs and then had dinner. Deciding to stay in that night we relaxed and made our plans for the next day.
I have struggled to keep this post as short as possible but as you can see I have failed miserably. There is just no way to adequately convey the magnificence of this city in a few short paragraphs. Rather than make specific plans for each day, we opted to allow the city to take us where it will. Below are some of the highlights and then more photos from our trip.
Djemaa el-Fna is the heart of the Medina. You can almost feel its constant and rhythmic beating. All things lead to and away from this massive square. During the day it is filled with snake charmers, monkey handlers, henna artists and vendors selling a myriad of merchandise. There are also at least a dozen orange juice carts sitting next to each other vying for your business. I was amazed at how delicious it was and we went back several times to quench our thirst. One time we were offered an Orange/Grapefruit/Pomegranate Juice combo which was incredible. If you order it in a glass it is 4dh, in a plastic cup it is 5dh. The currency conversion at the time was 10dh to a Euro so that is cheap. Being terrified of snakes, Chris and I avoided the snake charmers at all costs. We had most of our lunches on the upper balcony of the Cafe du France which overlooks the Djemaa el-Fna giving us a magnificent view of the square. We were also thrilled to hear the call to prayer at the mosque on the square. By night, the vendors and snake charmers in Djemaa el-Fna give way to dozens and dozens of food carts who set up and offer a delectable variety of traditional Moroccan dishes. Each has a number so once you find one you like you can easily find it again. There are also story tellers who attract large crowds as they tell ancient stories that have been passed down for centuries. Belly dancers also entertain the crowds but as Chris was shocked to find out, they are not women, but men. Day or night, Djemaa el-Fna is that place to be.
The Souks or marketplaces, are just above Djemaa el-Fna and are contained in hundreds of tiny alleys that run maze like for miles. Each turn can bring a new and exotic experience. Tourists are easy to spot and are constantly told ‘nothing down there, go that way’ by locals trying to coax them into their own shop or one owned by a friend. We mostly ignored them and allowed ourselves to literally get lost. We knew it could only get so bad since at some point we would hit the wall of the Medina and know we would need to turn around. The Tannery was foul in smell and it was all we could do to get away from it as quickly as possible. Every so often you will come upon a small open square where vendors of a specific type are located. One we enjoyed was the Rahba Kedima or Herbs and Magic market where maladies of any sort are said to be cured. Caged birds, chameleons and turtles were packed amongst the pelts, herbs and other items available to cure your every ache and pain. We spent an entire day exploring the Souks and could have stayed even longer.
Venturing outside the walls of the Medina, we visited the Jardin Majorelle. Built by French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) over the course of forty years, it was saved from destruction by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé who bought it in 1980. When Yves Saint Laurent passed away in 2008, his ashes were spread in the Rose Garden and a memorial was erected in his honor. Today this lush garden is an oasis of plants from regions all over the world and includes a wonderful museum dedicated to the Berber culture which spans over 9000 years. While a bit crowded, it is worth a visit.
I could go on and on about this incredible city and its amazing people. But alas I cannot. I hope you enjoyed by attempt to create for you our experience of this beautiful city.