Marrakech - my favourite
"My friend, my friend, hola! Ca-va? The square is that way!" - it isn't. It's in completely the opposite direction. Cheeky sod.
What is it about Marrakech? Is it the constant smell of smoky meat mixed with a world of sweet, dry, perfumed spices? Is it the tiny cobbled streets that should instil a constant fear of being flattened by a two-wheeled pedalo or being sold an un-wanted fake-crocodile-skinned-whale; but instead charm you into a zen-like state of hover-walking? Or, is it the city's refusal to alter the ancient fabric of what makes it what it is; a city of converging cultures smashed into a labyrinth of buildings seemingly (not all is what it seems) on the verge of falling down, with a constant soundtrack of Berber beats, insistent hum-drum, and the five daily call to prayer of a thousand mosques?
As with the greatest of spiced tagines, I reckon it's the perfect blend of all these ingredients, plus a few which are kept a sacred family secret.
Among travellers Marrakech is an urban Marmite – people either find total joy and energy in its effervescence, or they’re repulsed by the chaos and claustrophobia. As with people’s opinions on Marmite, people find both points of view acceptable (although anyone who likes Marmite is clearly bonkers), but as with Marmite – there is definitely no sense of general apathy, or the proverbial uttering of “meh” associated with this great city. For me, that’s a major plus. It’s a city which thrives on strong emotions, calm during the storm, discernible reactions and constant intrigue among both frequent visitors and the yet-to-be initiated newly arrived. And, although the contents of the souks keep up with changing shopper demographics and desires (I just picked up a cracking pair of Nike Air Max for £25!), if the photos in the beautiful Maison de la Photographie are anything to go by – it’s been doing this for hundreds of years.
Below are a couple of the secret and not-so-secret gems of Marrakech, some ingredients in this amazing spice blend of humanity. To discover what else goes into the melting pot – you’ll have to go and taste for yourself…
The Maison del La Photographie, tucked away in the winding streets behind The Ben Youssef Madrassa in the northern reaches of the Souks provides a stunning portrait of Marrakech and greater Morocco through the last two centuries. Predominantly French photographers document the people and the place that have sculpted and lived the world we are now lucky enough to experience. The photos demonstrate difference, from then until now, but also the constant theme of Marrakech as a hub of human cultural exchange. The different floors guide you through different eras, and the beautiful little roof terrace enables you to finish the journey looking out over the Marrakech of now. It’s a beautiful visit, one everyone interested in the nature of where they find themselves should partake in.
Fancy a bit of posh nosh? Aspire to the jumper-round-the-shoulders type of globe-trotting? Well, as long as you’ve packed your chinos and brogues, you’re on. Nomad occupies a beautiful roof terrace overlooking the spice market, and everything about its aesthetics is super-cool. The staff are mega-attentive and the food is… well it’s ok, but the location and the sunsets from the terrace are well worth paying it a visit. The sounds of the market below waft around you, mingling with the chilled out mood music while you bask in the comfortable whiteness of the furnishings. It’s a definite treat if you’re on a budget – but a pretty magical one.
Now despite cynical expats and pseudo-expert travellers saying otherwise, it is possible to find incredible street cuisine in the dark meanderings of this treasure-trove city. If you visit Restaurant Naima you will be treated to Mustafa and his family's cous-cous. It’s served on pewter trays, sat at tiny tables in a hole in a dark street wall, and it blows all other cous-cous offerings, and nay-saying critiques of local cuisine right out of the Tagine. There’s no menu, no explanation, no pretension, just smiles and delicious home cooking made with love. It is simply awesome. I strongly recommend getting off the terraces and down onto the street for the most wholesome food experience in Marrakech.
Enough of the physical gems; As with every place, it is the people who call it home that shape your experience more than the things you do, or see. Marrakech is no different. From the cockney-esque cheeky chap who insists your desired location is down this street going in the opposite direction but luckily by-passing his brothers shop, to the fruit and veg sellers eager to let you try a “real” orange, or a “proper” date, with no obligation to buy, but just to enjoy – most interactions in Marrakech are warm, energetic and involve a bit of a game and some fun.
It’s a noisy city, but also one which celebrates pockets of peace – like the Yves Saint Laurent designed gardens, the thinking and praying parts of the mosques and madrassa, or the private innards of a beautiful Riyad you come home to.
It has everything, and is rarely the same thing twice – so when people ask “What is it about Marrakech?” I think it will always be what it always has been – a mix of a bit of everything, made wonderful by the peaceful, noisy, warm and welcoming people of the city. With a decent amount of spice to keep you interested. The only way to get involved in the recipe – is to go and taste for yourself.