Stepping into Marrakech’s vibrant medina is an invitation to inspire the senses – with exotic sights, sounds and smells all jostling for attention amid an intoxicating arena of chaos.
Not five minutes off the bus and into the guts of Morocco’s third largest city, I’m lost. My riad lies somewhere in the knot of alleyways and archways, on a narrow side street leading off from the souk. Where exactly? Who knows. I’ve scribbled the address on a scrap of paper, but street names are rendered meaningless when lanes disappear into stalls stuffed with coloured kaftans and babouche slippers, or end abruptly at the entrance of a mosque.
I’m just about to turn around and declare defeat when a little boy emerges from nowhere, making gestures to imply that no matter where I am going, he knows the way. I show him the address and he disappears like a wisp of smoke between a carpet-laden donkey and a cart piled high with glistening dates. I pause – I can either head back to the main square, Djemaa el-Fnaa, and start again, or I can follow the boy and hope for the best.
I chase after him. At the next archway he grabs my hand and steers me down another lane. I know it’ll cost me (a gratefully-accepted 50p in the end), but I decide the best way to experience Marrakech’s intoxicating vibe is to just go for it.
And intoxicating it proves to be – over the next few days I am treated to a seduction of the senses to rival Wonka’s edible Chocolate Room. From tantalising fragrances to hypnotic sounds – here are some of the sensorial treats that Marrakech has imprinted on my mind…
The best views in Marrakech can be seen from the roof of your riad. Peer out across the rose-coloured rooftops sprouting satellite dishes and storks nests in equal measure, and you’ll glimpse the Atlas Mountains’ snow-streaked peaks. The view is just as spectacular from the other side – most riads can arrange day trips to the mountains, where you can meet Berber villagers, hike into the mountains, and soak up the scene.
Step into the famous Djemaa el-Fnaa and you’ll experience a symphony of sounds. From the hypnotic tune of the snake-charmer’s pungi to the shout of merchants jostling for your attention (‘my friend!’ ‘good price!’), quiet is a foreign notion. In the evenings, a succulent sizzle rises from the food stalls that are set up in the square. Grilled lamb, peppers, aubergines and snails are served up over the chatter of hungry diners.
Wander through the souk’s knotted streets and you’ll soon find yourself followed by an unusual fragrance. Stop for a minute and familiar notes – cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and coriander – begin to emerge. Spices fill the souk’s narrow alleys, piled high in barrels and pinched into colourful peaks. Step off the backstreets and you’ll notice the familiar scent of sawdust – as carpenters crouched in doorways craft wooden skewers, using their feet!
A respite from the chaos can be found in the courtyards of Marrakech’s Arabesque palaces and museums. Run your hand over the cool tiles of Ben Youssef Madrasa’s elaborate mosaics, and feel the shade from the palms in the gardens of Bahia Palace. Bursting to dive back into the mayhem? Marrakech is famous for its tanneries, and soft leather purses, belts and bags can be found in the souks.
A long day of exploring can only be ended with a feast. And in Marrakech, there’s nothing better to feast on than tagine. Sink your teeth into a lamb tagine with fig and walnut, or try chicken with apricot and almond – every option on the menu will have your mouth watering. Wash it down with a refreshing mint tea, then sit back and watch the city go by.
There’s no point resisting the pull of Marrakech – so don’t even try. The best way to experience this city is to let it take you by the hand, relax, and dive right in.
Tempted? Visit our website for cheap Marrakech flights or phone 0208 045 4186 for details.