Marrakech in Morocco is the stuff that thriller Hollywood movies are made of. One can easily picture James Bond vrooming his way on a bike through the dusty streets of Marrakech that has snake charmers, acrobats and street vendors jostling for space.
The ancient city, steeped in mystery and charm, offers a multitude of delights for travellers. It is an alluring study in contrasts. It can turn as noisy as mardi gras or be as hip as Covent Gardens in London with luxury brands doing brisk business there. For nature lovers, there are the breathtaking Atlas Mountains that overlook the city from the desert plains outside. It was the draw of the mighty and magnificent Atlas that had my wife Leshmi and me deciding to visit Morocco. This is one place that has always been on our bucket list. We stayed near the shores of Lake Bin El Ouidane in Azilal region, which gave us an amazing view of the snow-capped mountains. This is about three hours from Marrakech and it was on our return trip that we stopped over there for a few days.
What we had repeatedly read about was the dust and heat of Marrakech. So we made the trip in January which is one of the coldest months, but even then temperature during daytime hover around 20 degrees centigrade and can drop drastically at night. The city can be split into two sections — the old and the new. The old world charm resonates in the bustling medina (town centre), which is over a 1,000 years old, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The medina is separated from the rest of Marrakech by ancient walls. Housed within its antiquated walls is a secret world where the old world still manages to cling on, in spite of the new world that has been emerging outside it. The streets are akin to a maze and I was treated to the sight of donkey and horse carts aside from mopeds, cabs and tuk-tuks. One cannot miss the desperate shopkeepers haggling their heads off to sell their wares. Leshmi was so good at bargaining at the souks and beating the traders on price that one of them asked me if she was from the Berber region (the local mountains), where there are great hagglers!
Marrakech is steeped in history and culture. People are generally friendly, but you have to be mindful of pickpockets in the main square, as you would in many market towns in the world. The markets have a life of their own —it is colourful, noisy and vibrant, but scary at times.
To give a list of places that we visited, there is the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square which is the central part of the medina which comes alive at night with performers, snake charmers and food stalls. Talking of snake charmers, an interesting episode comes to mind when I encountered one. I had casually taken his photo from a distance on my phone. He then came towards me, smiled and said, “$10”. I was surprised and said that was unfair and the next thing I know, I am running around the square being chased by a cobra and its crazy charmer! Nevertheless, an interesting experience!
Coming back to the square, there are souks that sell everything from carpets, lamps and spices to dates and mint tea. The Bahia Palace is an amazing example of Islamic and Moroccan architectural style. There is also the Saadian Tombs from the 15th century, the grand resting place of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. Another must-visit is the Koutoubia Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the city with high minarets. We got to experience a slice of the fabled Marrakech history when we explored a show at the restaurant called Chez Ali, which hosts a fantastic Moroccan dinner and cultural show every night. The experience was beyond mesmerising with music, traditional folk dance, belly dance, men on horses, fireworks, and even a flying carpet. Couscous, Tajine (chicken dish) and mint tea was our staple diet during the trip!
A visit to Marrakech would not be complete without experiencing a hammam or Turkish bath. An old timer, in a good mood, spills the beans about the traditional Berber lip stain called aker fassi in Arabic. The lip stain is contained in a miniature clay pot and is actually red clay terra-cotta that’s coated in a dye made of poppy leaves, pomegranate extract, and henna. A brush dipped in water, cream, or oil, and swirled in the pot does the trick of transferring the colour on to your lips or cheeks. In parting, I would highly recommend a visit to Morocco, if you like the hustle and bustle....