The Marrakesh Magic
An aesthetic celebration of architecture, food and cultural diversity – the Courtyard Market of Marrakesh will leave indelible memories, fulfilling even the most unsatiated traveller’s soul
When you travel to Morocco, for the lure of Casablanca, Sahara or Atlas Mountains, do not forget to reserve some time for Marrakesh – the 'Dream of Escape' destination in Maghreb region. A visit to Morocco has no meaning if you haven't seen Marrakesh. No amount of visits to the beaches and mosques of Casablanca or the presidential palace in Rabat can make up for the character and charm of Marrakesh. Essentially a business city with markets, the city is draped in red colour, built from red sandstone and a shade darker than our Pink City, Jaipur.
At the heart of Marrakesh is the UNESCO 'Masterpiece of World Heritage' site, 'Djema el-Fana', 'The Courtyard Market' to the world. Glistening in red sandstone, this huge courtyard is crammed with shops selling spice, oil, leather goods, scarves, Berber carpets etc., ideal for a tourist to trot and shop through a lazy afternoon. But, at sunset, the centre of the courtyard transforms into an arena that will transport you straight to the Arabian Nights.
Although a few food shops crop up by mid-day, it is only after sundown that smoke billows from a hundred charcoal ovens, filling the space above with flavourful scent of freshly-made kebabs. Djema el-Fana comes alive with delectable eats and street performances; the air is filled with the aroma of bar-be-que as traditional Berber music overwhelms your senses. Let yourself loose and absorb the spectacle of hundreds of jugglers, musicians and performers in colourful dresses; swing your hips or clap in unison.
Take a horse-drawn carriage from the entrance of the market and klik-klok your way into the courtyard. It is hard to imagine that this courtyard was a centre for execution in AD 1050, therefore the name. On either side of the pathway lay small sit-outs made of stone, allowing travellers to rest a while in between activities. On the western corner of the courtyard rests a beautiful mosque, with devotees in traditional clothing streaming in and out of its magnificent door. Belief and intrinsic faith in Almighty are written large on their faces as they trudge solemnly, bypassing spice and 'Tajine' shops and snake charmers or fired up grills, on their way diligently to prayer.
At the courtyard market, meet the French-speaking Berber tribesmen, with sparse beard on their chin and a tiny turban of head gear. They mingle effortlessly with tourists as well as other locals dressed in western clothes. Marrakesh is where tradition meets the modern and then coexists happily. It is normal to see a frisky haired young women side-by-side traditionally dressed Berber men, chatting or sipping tea in the market. Present in the courtyard are also caged birds and monkeys, an assault to western sensibility, but very natural for locals. Pet shop owners often place a bird or an animal on your shoulder, volunteer to take a photo and then ask for a few Dirhams.
Walk North of Djema-al-Fanaa, into the winding narrow lanes of Medina, the Central Souks. The aroma of spices, food and leather intermingle and assail you. Shopkeepers are welcoming, yet, not as aggressive as in the Courtyard Market. Interestingly, the hawkers in Marrakesh speak many foreign languages and Medina may well be the best example. You don't need a map or GPS in Medina; you will not have the time to look at them. Dive in and just let your senses be massaged. By the way, there are a few good massage parlours offering head and foot massages or even a full body coddle with Argan oil. Hammams are a novelty for tourists, as this Turkish sauna pampers you for more than an hour with oil and steam massages. Along the meandering lanes are numerous shops selling pottery, garments and jewellery.
Morocco's medicinal herbs and spices are renowned the world over and also a cash crop for agriculturalists. Nigella or black cumin seed, originally brought from India, is now cultivated in Morocco in abundance. Locals crush these seeds, add honey and eat it to relieve cold and ache. Some even wrap it in a cloth and inhale to ease a blocked sinus. Argan oil, a pain relieving agent and skin toner, is sold in bottles and sprays. Government outlets in Marrakesh offer demonstrations and trials for most herbs and spices. You are sure to buy some of it to cure your chronic ailments, most likely the ever so popular Argan oil.
Other prominent scenic tourist attractions are Majorelle Garden, built by French artist Jacque Majorelle. Complete with exotic plants from the desert, the two-acre garden has a villa and a museum of Berber culture.
Then there is Bahia Palace or the brilliant palace, surrounded by a garden and a fountain in the centre. Also visible from a distance is the tall tower of Koutoubia Mosque on the south-west side of Medina. The name Koutoubia comes from the Arabic word 'kitaab', meaning books, it is a bookseller's mosque.
Whether it is a museum, a mosque or the market, Marrakesh weaves a magic of Arab-Europe architecture that is distinctly different from any city you will have witnessed. The finger-licking lamb meat cooked in Tajine, the cacophony of jugglers and musicians in Courtyard Market, the sights and sounds of Medina and the smiling faces of Berber hawkers – memories of Marrakesh will linger long after you have returned home and ticked off Morocco from your list of 'places to visit before you die'.