Two days in Marrakech: Souk and tajine in the Medina
January 1, 1970
by Giulia Maio
There are a lot of reasons to visit Marrakech. My personal reasons are – not in order: food, culture, art and a good climate. Talking about good climate the reason why is obviously: Marrakech is about 150 km from the Atlantic coast, but it’s also pretty near to the High Atlas Mountains, and near to the Ourika Valley too: basically it enjoys a mild climate all year round, but at nights temperatures go down (especially in winter).
Two days to visit the city are not enough because there are a lot of things to do, especially in the neighbourhood of Marrakech – you even take a local bus to go to Essaouira, a small blue pearl on the Atlantic Ocean (not to be confused with Chefchaouen, the “real” blue pearl on the Atlantic Ocean).
Before I got there, I read a brochure where there was written the best experiences to do in Marrakech, it was a kind of “to-do list”. There were: drink mint tea, enjoy the sun, get lost in the medina, eat couscous, walk with babouche, have a hammam, and cross Jemaa el-Fna. I did them all, almost. So let’s start to see what you absolutely have to do in the city!
What to do in Marrakech
Marrakech has two souls. One is the ancient Medina, the nerve-heart of the city enclosed within the walls, with narrow roads often unpaved and sometimes traveled by donkeys and horses, with the riads, typical two-storey structures of the Moroccan tradition that develop around a central patio, and with stalls placed on either side of the road or directly in the main squares selling all kinds of products. The other is the new town, recently built west of the Medina, which instead resembles the western metropolis, with large paved roads, high-rise buildings and shopping malls.
Having only two days at disposal I strongly recommend to spend it inside the Medina, to know flavours, places and traditions of this beautiful land!
The first stop is the main square of the city, Jemaa el-Fna square, where you can really find everything. From leashed monkeys to snake enchanters; from stalls selling junk to food stalls, especially selling dried fruits, olives and oranges; from women who want to make you a henna tattoo to those who want to style your hair; from donkeys and horses that tow wooden carts led by old men to the most modern taxis and cars that however go in every direction because there are no lanes, but simply everyone goes where and how most prefers. Simply, you have to avoid several “obstacles” to cross this square because Jemaa el-Fna is a mess, in the best way you could imagine!
Very close to the square there are the famous Souks, a concentrated market of countless stalls selling products of local handicraft, such as plates and pots in terracotta, babouches – typical Moroccan footwear, colourful rugs, lamps, and much more. Souks have a particular characteristic: they constitute a real labyrinth in which narrow alleys have no name – as well as the majority of the Medina streets. For this reason, take a breath and be quiet because you’ll get lost for sure! And you’ll get lost several times!
And while you’re trying to understand the direction to take, the stalls owners will push you to enter their shops or it might happen that someone wants you to undertake a certain way, but you have to be careful because it’s not the right one in most of the cases – they don’t want to take advantage of you, they just want to be paid to show you the right direction.
Very close to Jemaa el-Fna there is the Koutoubia mosque: there are dozens of mosques around the city, Koutoubia is the main one and has the highest minaret so it’s often used by tourists as a landmark to orientate because, as said before, streets in Marrakech (I’m talking about the old Marrakech, the Medina) have no name, and it’s too much easy to get lost in those streets. During the day, while you’re walking through those paths trying uselessly not to get lost, you’ll hear to call to prayer. Every man who is not busy goes to the closest mosque to pray. It happens many times during the day, the first call at dawn, the last at sunset (according to what I remember from my personal experience, I’m not Muslim nor an expert of the Muslim religion).
El Bahia Palace
El Bahia Palace was built between XIX and XX centuries: it takes its name from the favourite bride of Ahmad b. Musa, the visir of Morocco at the beginning of XIX century. The palace consists of several rooms, decorated in marble and wood, which develops around luxurious gardens, and it’s in perfect Islamic style: certainly, it’s not missing the inspiration from the previous Islamic architecture, especially in the colours of the mosaics.
El Badii Palace
Unfortunately today only ruins remain of El Badii palace: it was built in the middle of XVI century, based on the magnificent Alhambra, a kind of Medina protected by its own walls in the Spanish city of Granada. From the terrace of the palace, you can see very well the Koutoubia mosque, and it’s not rare to see storks nesting on the top of these ruins.
Majorelle gardens and Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Majorelle gardens are out of the Medina, in the new city. These gardens aren’t so big, but they have a special story. Jacques Majorelle was a French orientalist painter, who was invited in 1917 in Marrakech by the French Resident-General. He was completely seduced by Marrakech. Five years later he decided to move here, purchasing the vast palm grove that would become the Majorelle gardens we know today. He was helped by an architect to build his studio, painted in Majorelle blue, and to design the garden, which was composed of exotic plants and rare species collected during his worldwide travels. The gardens were opened in 1947, but after his death in 1962 fell into abandon. In 1980 Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent acquired the gardens: they were restored and re-opened to the public.
Yves Saint Laurent had a special relationship with Marrakech and Moroccan tradition and habits. The Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech is the tribute of the city to this amazing and eclectic artist. Yves Saint Laurent was born in Africa, his life and his genius are necessarily connected to Paris and France, but there was something about Marrakech that struck him so deeply that he decided to spend long periods in this city. Not only he had assimilated Moroccan culture, but he had instead transformed it according to his artistic feeling. Today there are only two museums in the world dedicated to this artist: they’re in Paris and in Marrakech, indeed.
Majorelle gardens and Yves Saint Laurent Museum combine the life stories of two great artists of the last century, Jacques Majorelle and Yves Saint Laurent, in this unique oasis called Majorelle gardens.
Marrakech: what to eat
One of the main element you have to discover in Marrakech is the culinary tradition! The typical cuisine mainly proposes the tajine as the main dish, and it has to be tasted in its different variations: basically, it’s a meat dish (chicken, lamb or beef, but also fish) stewed in a terracotta bowl and accompanied with a side dish of your choice. I highly recommend – personally tasted: beef tajine with prunes and peanuts, fish tajine with olives and tomatoes, lamb tajine with figs and walnuts, chicken tajine with olives, string beans and zucchini, and lamb tajine with prunes and caramelized carrots. Each dish was accompanied by the classic Moroccan couscous. All wonderfully exquisite!
A break at Le café des Epices
Not far from the Souks you can find Le café des Epices: it’s a café, obviously, in a little square where people sell especially shoes and sundries. Every tourist who comes to Marrakech goes to this café, it’s a must! On the rooftop, there is a terrace where people drink mint tea and spend time chilling and waiting for the sunset, which tints the buildings of the Medina in orange. The view from up here is like a warm hug.
What are you waiting for? GO TO MARRAKECH, IT’S DEFINITELY WORTH IT!