The majority of Morocco’s fourth-largest city is constructed from red sandstone, gaining it the sobriquet The Ochre City. It is naturally beautiful from afar, but up close, the dirt and disorganization, coupled with dangerous, traffic-heavy roads and street-hawkers as persistent as the flies that accompany your every meal, make it a hard place to drop your guard.
It is a city that can test your patience: hot, humid, dusty and with a constant din; a city where, when it comes to buying things — be it Berber rugs, Aladdin-style lamps or tanned leather backpacks — the word ‘no’ means ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe’ is all the indication vendors need to start bagging up whatever it is you dared sneak a glimpse at.
It is certainly not a destination for everyone, but those visitors willing to leave their first-world problems at the airport, spare some coins for the snot-nosed street urchins asking for help to buy a football, and embrace the mysticism that Marrakesh is most famed for, will be richly rewarded.
The nine-meter tall ochre wall that surrounds the labyrinthine medina consists of some of the city’s most impressive relics, including towering battlements and magnificent fortress-style doors. Inside, lush green gardens and a bustling Kasbah complement a collection of some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world, including the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa and the iconic Koutoubiya Mosque, which dates back to the 12th Century.
It is in the shadow of the mosque’s 77-meter minaret where the heartbeat of Marrakesh can be found: The sprawling Jamaa el-Fna.
To explore Morocco’s most famous open-air market is like stepping back in time — only the chained-up monkeys wear diapers these days and the tooth-pullers try to charge €10 for the privilege of taking a photo. The droves of tourists are diluted by the sheer mass of locals, creating an authentic scene largely unchanged since the plaza swapped public executions for more palatable forms of entertainment a few centuries ago.
By daytime, a sensory explosion reveals Moroccans huddled around Berber storytellers while serpents rise ominously from the dark depths of woven baskets to the tune of a charmer’s flute; soothsayers and slapstick shows noisily vie for your attention as henna artists reach for your arms and tassel-hatted water sellers clang their bells.
An evening stroll allows you to try your hand at a game involving a fishing rod, a doughnut and a crop circle of Coca-Cola bottles, but a tougher challenge lies amid the numerous pop-up restaurants. If you can pass through without succumbing to offers of steaming hot tagine or plentiful grilled meats you are either seriously strong-willed or have no sense of smell. Feeling especially brave? Try the street food on the northern edge of the square: boiled sheep’s head or spice-infused snail soup, perhaps?
On the opposite edge of the plaza sits the Souk El Bahja. Spread over three floors — the name translates literally as “The Up and Down Market” — here you will find everything from slippers to fossils, spices to argan oil. Haggle hard, but be aware that regardless of the price you settle on you can get your purchase for a quarter of the price outside the walled city.
While secluded riads (large houses built around central courtyards) provide a potential evening retreat and a steamy hammam can help you de-stress, the best way to escape from the mayhem of Marrakesh is to head for the Atlas Mountains.
A couple of hours outside of the city, the Berber commune of Setti-Fatma has stunning panoramic views and seven picturesque waterfalls. A shallow river runs through the middle of the town, prompting a series of Indiana Jones-style wooden bridges, while a few restaurants have set up tables in the middle of the water. Whether it is for novelty value or to keep the street cats away from your khobz, with a piping hot cup of mint tea in your hand and cold water running through your toes, it is here where you will likely, finally, be able to relax — at least until you remember you need to return your car to Marrakesh.