Living only a half-hour grand taxi ride (2 people in the front seat of the Mercedes, 4 people in the back seats, Hit FM with international and Moroccan tunes blasting) from Marrakesh during my Peace Corps service, I have been lucky to get to know it in all kinds of ways. I have gone in to do errands like shopping for cheese other than Laughing cow, spend time with Moroccan and Peace Corps volunteer friends, and visit the major tourist sites. The hustle and bustle of Marrakesh is definitely a nice break from the more relaxed village life. In the city I can be anonymous which is nice since in my village I’m the only foreigner and a celebrity as such. In Marrakesh I pass a tourist, which of course has its advantages and disadvantages. I am proud to call myself Marrakeshia now though! Before attempting to recount the essential and my favorite parts of the Red City in this post (because I know it has been done so many times before but I want to try too), I will give a brief introduction and history of Marrakesh.
Marrakesh is the 4rd largest city in Morocco after Fez, Casablanca and Tangier; it has 1.5 million inhabitants. The medina (old city) of Marrakesh was founded in 1070 by the Almoravids, the Berber imperial ruling dynasty at the time, and served as a political, economic and cultural center ever since. It has 17 magnificent babs (doors) which people reference to get around nowadays. For example, Bab Doukala is where the bus station is located and Bab Aljamis “Thursday door” is where a major souk (market) of used furniture takes place on Thursdays.
Marrakesh is called the “Red City” because of the red walls of the medina and other buildings made of red sandstone, which mirror the red earth. In 2009, the medina was named an UNESCO World Heritage site.
Besides the medina, Gueliz, a neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle (new city) built during French colonization, is popular. People go there to walk around and shop at international chain stores like Zara and Mango and eat at McDonalds and other cafes and restaurants. It is a bourgeoisie area, where you can find most people speaking a mix of French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic) there. I confess I sometimes go there to window shop or treat myself. The rest of Marrakesh is mostly residential neighborhoods, also divided by class. It is interesting to visit the different neighborhood to observe the similarities and differences between village and city life in Morocco.
The most popular place in Marrakesh is Jemaa el-Fna, the main square, in the medina. It means “Dead Men’s Square,” because it was originally a place of public executions. Jemaa al-Fna comes alive at night with snake charmers, henna artists, storytellers, Gnawa musicians, and food stalls selling chickpeas and fava beans, snails, harira (Moroccan soup), and barbeque. I like to buy some chickpeas and fava beans and walk around, looking at all the activity, though not for long as I do not enjoy overcrowded places. Moroccans of all social classes love to go to Jemaa el-Fna though to listen to storytellers. Foreigners can listen to traditional storytellers in English at Café Clock, a cool cultural café in the Kasbah. Watch this documentary following its main storyteller. There are also many cultural events every night and rotating exhibits at Café Clock.
Moroccans cite Koutoubia Mosque as Marrakesh’s second major attraction. Koutoubia means “Booksellers” because there use to be a souk (market) selling manuscripts around it. Its minaret has inspired other buildings like the Hassan Tower of Rabat and Giralda of Seville. It lights up beautifully at night. Behind the Koutoubia there is a nice manicured garden with benches. During Ramadan, Muslims pray at the mosque and then break the fast with food from home in the garden or in the food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna. Like Jemaa el-Fna, I like to walk around Koutoubia, though not for long as it’s packed with Moroccan and foreign tourists. I prefer to take a rest from the medina on a bench in the garden and munch on a snack of kawkaw (peanuts) or kawkaw ma asil (peanuts covered in honey and sesame seeds).
Pastisserie des Princes
On Rue Bab Aganaou, off of Jemaa el-Fna, is a famous bakery called Pastisserie des Princes. In the winter, I love getting a treat there- usually a fancy looking cake with chocolate- though I normally take it to a less expensive café to have it with Moroccan tea. During the hot summer months, I choose ice cream at the Pastisserie des Princes or a milkshake on another side street off Jemaa el-Fna. There are lots of great milkshake places. The classic avocado milkshake or panache (a mix of all the juices) are my favorites! Other famous cafes in Jemaa el-Fna are Café de le France and Café Argana. From the terraces, you can enjoy stunning views of the square and people watch while you sip on tea or coffee.
What I love most of all in Marrakesh is to get lost in the souks. The Marrakesh medina, where the souks are located, is larger than any of the medinas in Casablanca, Rabat, and Fez. There are many different sections: food, sweets, natural beauty products, carpets, bilgas (Moroccan slippers), leather, lanterns, and musical instruments… I like to look at all the beautiful Moroccan handicrafts with a kaleidoscope of colors and designs! I want to take them all home! When exploring the souks, it is common to get called into shops by sellers, especially when you look like you don’t know where you’re going. There is lots of competition between sellers, which unfortunately comes off as aggressive to foreigners, but there is an overall need to put food on the table. I ignore comments or politely decline in Darija, which when I feel like it, develops into an interesting conversation about living and working in Morocco, Moroccan and American culture, and complements on my Darija.
Mederesa Ben Youssef
Whenever friends from abroad visit, I show them Mederesa Ben Youssef, an old Koranic school named after the Almoravid Sultan Abi Ibn Yusuf. It is a masterpiece of Arab-Andalusian architecture with extraordinary cedar, marble, and stucco carvings. The carvings contain no representations of humans or animals as required by Islam; they are inscriptions and geometric patterns in zellige (mosaic) work. I think zellige is spectacular! I dream about having a Moroccan-inspired house with them! Around a peaceful courtyard are 130 student dormitory cells. Medersa Ben Youssef was once one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and housed as many as 900 students. As I explore the Mederesa, I like to imagine what life must have been for them.
Marrakesh’s most famous dish is tangia, typically lamb but also chicken, cooked in a clay urn until deliciously tender. It is eaten with hubz (Moroccan bread) and served with loubia, pinto beans with tomato sauce. Looking for a place to eat with visitors one day, we stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall place off the Riad Larouss square. I have been back a couple of times, and it is always packed with men on their lunch breaks, but the owner, an older man called Simohamed, gives me a warm welcome and finds us a spot to sit and eat. His tangia is still the best I have ever eaten!
Art galleries and Marrakesh Biennale
I also have enjoyed the arts scene in Marrakesh! I realized how important arts are in my life during Peace Corps service. I grew up going regularly to cultural events- exhibits, theatre, music, dance- and I feel like something is missing without it. I especially enjoy visual art. I have been to couple of art openings and events with international artists in Gueliz, at Galerie 127 and David Bloch gallery, and in the medina at MMP+, the Marrakesh Museum of Photography and Visual Arts, and Le 18, Derb el Ferane. The gallery public is mostly the Moroccan bourgeoisie, French immigrants or expats.
At the Marrakesh Biennale, curators bridged the divide between “high” and “low” art, and integrated traditional Moroccan arts, especially through street installations. There is some cool street art still up, and I love finding it unexpectedly. I also enjoyed going to the Marrakech Biennale’s main exhibitions at El Bahia Palace. I think El Bahia and El Badi Palaces are also worth a visit. The Synagogue in the nearby Mellah (Jewish quarter) has a beautiful bright blue tiled courtyard, an intricate mix of architecture and art.
Menara Park and Agdal gardens
Lastly, but not least, it is impossible to encapsulate (or describe) Marrakesh without mentioning Menara Park and Agdal Gardens, the city’s major green spaces. Menara Park has 250 acres of olive trees though only the lake and pavilion are open to visitors. Agdal, behind the Royal Palace (which is not open to visitors by the way), is about the same. Moroccan families go to Menara and Agdal on Sundays, their day off, to walk around and have a picnic. And, I’ve even observed secret meetings between Moroccan habibis (lovers) there.