Mornings, especially in the medina, always started with the call to prayer in Marrakech. The calls emanating from the surrounding minarets created a dissonant yet oddly beautiful song that seemed never ending. While others were on their way to prayer, I got myself ready for the day. I never needed an alarm clock.
Marrakech is a tale of two cities – walking the streets in the early morning (even up to 9 a.m.), the city is oddly quiet. Shops are closed and you have the streets to yourself. For when the city is fully awake, the place completely transforms and there is lots to explore.
Walking through the heart of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna, in the morning, all is quiet except for the juice vendors and the snake charmers already luring the cobras with their music. As dusk approaches, this is the place to be. Going to the terrace of one of the many restaurants that line Djemaa el-Fna is the ideal spot to view the sea of people. From above you get a true sense of the size of the square. To go on the terrace, you must purchase something and the cheapest offering is a bottle of water for 20 dirham ($2 US). But don’t stay too long above as the real fun is venturing into the mix of street performers, story tellers, food stalls, and vendors. The air is filled with banging of drums and the melodic sound of the snake charmers. Taking a bite in a restaurant on ground level does not make one immune to the goings on. Peddlers and beggars (even of the feline persuasion) shamelessly come in hopes of leaving with your money.
Standing tall by Djemaa el-Fna is the Koutiubia Mosque. Named for the booksellers that once stood outside, it is the largest mosque in Marrakech. As only Muslims can enter, I contented myself with walking around the building. The minaret is especially striking in the early morning as the sun rays turn it a vibrant orange. Behind it is a wonderful garden full of orange trees and is a welcome retreat from the bustle of the medina.
Djemaa el-Fna is also the main entry into the souks where vendors hawk their goods from leather goods to herbs, from lanterns to jewelry, from olives to spices. The souks have it all, in abundance. It can be a sensory overload from the noise, smells, and sights. One could spend an entire day in the souks: however, after a while, everything starts to look the same. While making your way through the maze that is the medina and souks, you need to make way for the motorbikes, bicycles, and donkey carts that zip past (ok, not so much the donkey cart but they do take up the whole street). Some streets seem like alleyways and each street starts to look like the last one.
Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa
Going through the souks, I navigated my way to Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa, which was a theological college, but now offers a rare chance for non-Muslims to take in Islamic architecture. The place is a marvel. The craftsmanship from the wood work to the plaster carvings is truly beautiful and intricate. Be sure to head upstairs to see the students’ quarters and the view of the courtyard from above. A short walk from the Madrasa is the Photography Museum showcasing amazing photos of Morocco from the 1940s and earlier. The small shop in the front offers prints from the original negatives making for a wonderful souvenir.
South of Djemaa el-Fna is a kasbah that is entered via the ornate Bab Agnaou. A not to miss place is the Saadian Tombs, with its entrance next to the Mosque Moulay El Yazid that dominates the area with its detailed minaret. The tombs, built in 1557, house the remains of the Saadi Dynasty. The tombs can only be viewed via a short and narrow passage that fits only two people. Thus, you are rushed when viewing to keep the line going (I got there when it opened and 5 minutes later a tour bus arrived); however, the tomb is just so incredible, busy, detailed, that a one minute view does not do it justice nor can you begin to take it all in. Thankfully, by the time I was finished looking at the rest of the complex, the tour was finished so I had time to take another gander.
Returning to the bustle of the streets, I walked the short distance to Bahia Palace, a grandiose home built in the 19th century. The palace is massive with several open courtyards, one for concubines alone! The level of craftsmanship in the tile work and painted ceilings is beyond stunning. But, I did find it hard to enjoy the palace as it was so crowded.
Badi Palace & Dar Si Said
It’s hard to find a quiet respite from the jostle that is Marrakech, but in this area, I found two places that were short on noise and crowds. First is the Badi Palace, which is the large ruins of a sultan’s palace. Upon entering, I immediately noticed how quiet and empty it was, especially when compared to the streets just outside. It was so quiet there, that the only sounds were cats meowing and pigeon’s cooing from inside the holes in the crumbling walls. It was a welcome relief. There is a terraced area on the second floor where you can take in the entire complex as well as amazing views of the rooftops of the medina.
Further up the street and down several narrow and quiet streets, is Dar Si Said, featuring Moroccan arts. Its displays are a little sparse but I loved their rug collection, and the immense tile work on the second floor is not to be missed.
No trip to Marrakech is complete without venturing into the Ville Nouvelle, the modern part of Marrakech. The star attraction is the Jardin Majorelle, a garden donated to the city by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. It is a (mostly) desert oasis of varying cacti interspersed with bamboo. In the middle of the complex is a vibrant blue house and a museum dedicated to the Berber culture of Morocco. It is a small museum, but the exhibits are the best you will see in Marrakech and well worth the price of admission (when I was there, it was 100 dirham for entrance to both the garden and museum). The gardens do get crowded but I still found it enjoyable and the vibrancy of the colors of the fountains and potted plants were a welcome contrast to the traditional muted colors of the city.
Marrakech requires fortitude to make it through the day. But as it is not a true representation of Morocco and Moroccans, it should not be the only city on your itinerary. It marches to its own pulsing beat with an energy I found only there. It is truly an unforgettable and singular experience.