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Lucky Marrakech

Marrakech, Morocco

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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.

Marrakech Skyline
Marrakech Skyline

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 extraordinary creativity.

Marrakech: Koutoubia Masque 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.

Marrakech Kasbah
Marrakech Kasbah

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.