MARRAKECH — You’ll never truly experience this place known as the Red City until you get lost in its labyrinth of narrow streets. There’s no “right turn” in Marrakech. The best way to feel its pulse is by leaving your map behind and following your feet.
It may seem like you’re wandering aimlessly at times but every road unveils new enchanting surprises — rainbows of handcrafted treasures, squares full of belly dancers, snake charmers, henna artists, storytellers and secret pathways. They all bring my senses to life during a three-day visit.
“You go left out the doors, right, right again, straight down and you must start here: the famous Souk District in the Medina Quarter (Old Town),” the host at our riad (quaint garden hotel) advises us as we sip on our morning Moroccan mint tea.
Her instructions sound like a piece of cake but following them is not easy in these unfamiliar surroundings. And when we finally do manage to get there, which way to go?
Left: A street entertainer in the Old Town offers a sly smile. Right: A shoemaker works at his craft.
My best friend and I stick out like sore thumbs in a crowd of mostly locals, and every time we speak English another “guide” approaches and offers to “show us the way.” Hey, everybody has to make a living.
After a while, though, we throw away our instructions and guidebooks and learn that getting lost is the only way to truly appreciate this enchanting city with the mysterious winding alleys.
So we follow the dark passages to a place where the air is perfumed by ancient spice shops that sell famous Morrocan blends like Ras El Hanout, made up of 30-plus spices. If you’re not a good cook, add this blend to any dish and you’ll quickly gain chef status with your dinner guests.
The local spice connoisseurs educate us on the different varieties and uses of the pungent ingredients — one tells me raw anise is used locally as toothpicks, red clay is used as lipstick and says if I smell black cumin I’ll never need Vicks to cure a stuffy nose again.
We marvel as local artisans make souvenirs right in front of our eyes — shoes, argan oil, carpets, pottery. Their craftsmanship is remarkable.
From the Old Town we travel to what’s known as New Town for some contrast and to experience Le Comptoir, one of Marrakech’s most famous restaurants.
We’re treated to delicious lamb tagine (a slow-cooked stew made from a blend of aromatic spices such as turmeric, cumin, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon) while belly dancers entertain us with their provocative art. The restaurant’s bohemian yet chic decor — colourful pillows, golden accents and hand-painted doors — and ambiance is what we’ve seen all day while exploring the back streets of Marrakech.
As night slowly decends on this mysterious beauty, we wonder what other surprises she will reveal to us tomorrow.
Left: The narrow streets are filled with lots of bargains. Right: When the sun drops, the night market comes to life.
We start the day with the most relaxing treatment at the Hammam de La Rose spa. Hammam is traditionally used as a cleansing ritual before praying but now serves a greater purpose in exfoliating the skin with a kessa glove, which benefits the body overall. Oh, and it feels so good!
Now that we’ve been totally rejuvenated, we head out to absorb more of what this wonderful city offers and stumble upon the “haggle-free zone,” where we encounter the “king’s shoemaker.” Who can resist purchasing a hand-made pair of shoes from such a nice man — and at such a small cost!
Our objective on Day 2 is to absord ourselves in Marrakech’s historic areas, but of course we get lost again. So we surrender to a guided tour and are taken to the city’s ancient tanneries, where the city’s commerce really started.
Now, visiting the Tanneries with the temperature pushing a sweltering 40C may not have been our wisest decision. The stench of processed goat and cow skin is not pleasant. But Moroccan’s know how to make the experience more enjoyable by offering us some mint leaves which they instruct us to put up our noses. Voila! It works.
“Let me now show you how we treat the hide with pigeon poop and cow urine,” a guide tells us.
Time to head out of town for cooler climes — the palm tree oasis known as Palmeraie. Here we take a sunset ride on a camel that mistakes my hair for hay and tries to eat it. The incredible experience is well worth sacrificing a few locks of hair.
We end Day 2 under the lights of the city’s famed night market, Jemaa El Fnaa, where we experience a whole new world of bizarre beauty. Here, crowds gather around old storytellers, artists, snake charmers and dancers while locals search for the best spots to eat. It’s a fascinating sight.
While we expect the usual Moroccan fare — kebabs, tagine, harira, and grilled sardines — we’re also offered some unusual local dishes like snails cooked in spicy broth that help fight a cold, sheep’s head, sweet cheek meat and lamb’s liver with caul fat.
Marrakech is indeed a feast for our eyes and our stomachs.
Left: Colourful decorations and windows adorn the city's homes. Right: The city's food is vibrant and very tasty.
With time running out, we take a day off from getting lost and hop in a taxi to maximize what little time we have left to explore the remaining wonders of Marrakech.
First stop: Madrasa Ben Youseef, the second largest Islamic college in the country. What’s most spectacular about this building is the attention to detail — the sculpted ceilings, sultan-like palace doors, multi-coloured tiles and mosaics. All the decor is so carefully thought out.
Next: Le Jardin Marjorelle, Yves Saint Laurent’s garden. Breathtaking.
The electric blue, yellow and white villa in the centre of the garden and its beauty leaves a lasting impression on visitors. It is quiet and serene here in the garden, a great contrast to the chaotic souks in the centre of town. The garden is full of magical trees and over 300 species of exotic plants and enchanting lanes — picture perfect moments wrapped in a Moorish influence.
In our three days here, we’ve felt madness and we’ve felt bliss, but most importantly we’ve gotten lost with purpose. Marrakech is among the few places where losing your way is inevitable, but rewarding for most travellers.
So remember to get lost and stay open minded so you can really experience the true Marrakech and its wonders. Let your senses go wild because the Red City is a feast for everyone to enjoy.