Seven is a lucky, magical number in Morocco, but the number you
need to remember is five – because it’s the five senses that will be assaulted,
teased and indulged by this great and mysterious city. Marrakech will be a
culture shock unless you're an experienced Eastern traveler, but don't fight it
- relish the sensual onslaught.
Let's start with vision. Take a look around you at the zellij -
intricate mosaic tilework - that decorates the walls and floors of mosques,
palaces and other buildings. The rich colors, dominated by reds, blues and
greens are unlike anything in the West. Islamic art forbids the depiction of
living creatures but this restriction has produced decorative art of
The Koutoubia mosque with its 210 feet high minaret dominates the skyline and
at dusk, hearing the sound of the call to prayer echoing across the city can be
an incredibly evocative experience. Although the zellij and painted plaster
which adorned the outside of the Koutoubia have disappeared the decorative
panels remain and are a mind boggling illustration of the possibilities of
Islamic design. The Ali ben Youssef Mosque and Medersa are also worth a visit -
this is the oldest surviving mosque in Marrakech. The Medersa is a place of
peace and meditation with stucco decoration as well as zellij.
Listen, not just to the muezzins calling people to prayer in
sonorous Arabic, but to the rhythms of daily life. Moroccans will always be
tapping their feet, drumming out a rhythm with on the tabletop. Listen to the
different rhythms of Berber (the indigenous ethnic group) and Arab music.
The focal point of Marrakech is Djemaa el-Fna, a vast square in
the old town and backdrop for an amazing theatrical spectacle. The drama is
most intense at dusk when lanterns blaze on rows of open air food stalls
filling the area with mouthwatering aromas. Jugglers, storytellers, snake
charmers and even acrobats and clowns vie for the attention of the jostling
spectators who listen intently or fall about laughing depending on the act,
while Hustlers, merchants and vendors work the crowd.
Smell the spices and herbs in the suqs, the ancient Arabic
markets. See if you can identify the main notes: cumin, mint, parsley, pepper
and cinnamon - and salivate as the tempting aroma of the various roasting
meats, broadbean hummus pungent with garlic, olives and fresh breads wafts from
street stalls. The suqs of Marrakech have a special intensity, and their
labyrinth extends from the Djemaa el-Fna to the Ali ben Youssef mosque. You can
wend your way through stalls devoted to fruit and vegetables, spices,
apothecaries, herbalists, carpets, slippers, dyeing, carpentry and
blacksmithing. If you're going to purchase be prepared to bargain and remember
that it's a national sport in Morocco.
Visit a tannery and inhale the rank odor of pigeon guano, cow
urine, fish oil, animal fats, heavy metals and sulphuric acid that's used in
the process - you'll want a sprig of mint to offset this stink. There aren't
any viewing galleries so you'll be right in amongst the dye vats and smelly
fleeces watching the men treading, scraping and stretching the skins. The
leather is of high quality and makes a good souvenir, but the dyes often rub
off and some craftwork can be shoddy - so choose your bag, stool or babouches
(traditional leather slippers) carefully.
After that you'll welcome the respite of one of the beautiful
gardens. The Jardins Majorelles were designed by a French painter and in
amongst the cacti, bamboos and bougainvillaea is the magnificent blue villa
housing Museum of Islamic Art. The Jardin Menara near the Koutoubia mosque has
a pavilion and pool and used to be reserved for sultans and their hangers-on.
Taste one of the great cuisines of the world. Moroccan food can
be subtle and sophisticated and the unfamiliar flavors will delight you: tangy
preserved lemons, marinated olives, sweet mint tea, pastries crammed with
almonds and pistachios, dripping with honey. Tajjines - meat stews cooked in a
conical casserole with spices and vegetables - and couscous are typical.
Finally for a tactile extravaganza quite different from your
typical spa massage visit a hammam. Cover yourself in black soap, when you feel
the sweat trickling over your skin get a friend or masseur/masseuse to give you
a vigorous scrub down: dead skin will be peeled away, you'll be pummeled and
scraped and your ears unceremoniously rinsed. After this use handfuls of
ghassoul - clay - to soften and smooth your skin and wash your hair.
Once upon a time Marrakech was the meeting point for camel
caravans, nomadic traders from all over the country were drawn to the finest
city many had ever seen. Today, Marrakech still casts its spell over any
traveler who passes through.