There was only one way out of the warren of alleys so we had to follow the same route again back through the anarchic streets and to the hectic roundabout where the traffic situation had not improved and even the policeman had given up and left his post but his didn’t seem to matter at all because he wasn’t being very effective anyway. We were a bit confused and the free tourist map wasn’t a big help but we were confident that we were making steady progress towards our first intended destination of the famous big square in the heart of the city, the Djemma el Fna.
A pedestrianised boulevard gave us relief from the incessant traffic and this led us directly into the square which claims to be the biggest in Africa and is an all day spontaneous entertainment centre. The first people we came across were the city’s iconic water sellers in their red tunics with gold braid, colourful sombrero hats and brass cups hanging from leather belts strapped around their bodies.
In the old days these people provided a real and valuable service and dispensed questionable water from a leather canteen to local traders and thirsty travellers but they are practically redundant now in their substantive role because sensible people prefer safe bottled water to the uncertain quality of the water in their satchels. Their job now is to have their picture taken with the tourists and charge 10 dirham a time (about £1) and they probably make a lot more money doing this than they ever did selling dirty luke warm water.
Djemma el Fna was busy but because it was so big didn’t feel crowded. I took a picture of some musicians who demanded money and became rather agitated when I refused and then we walked past the snake charmers and the men with Barbary Apes all trying to sell photographs, fortune tellers and soothsayers and my favourite the tooth puller who would have provided dental surgery at a fraction of the cost of the National Health Service if we had been brave enough to allow him.
There were rows and rows of market stalls selling fresh and dried fruits and others competing to sell a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and all around the square were cafés and restaurants with high level balconies where people were sitting and just enjoying the random entertainment.
This was quite unlike anything we had ever seen or visited before and it was everything I had expected but more with a riot of colour and frenetic activity that was exciting and vibrant. My head was spinning and overflowing with new sights, sounds and sensations as we walked through the square in a northerly direction and eventually arrived at what most people concede is the biggest Souk in Africa and we slipped into the labyrinthine maze of covered but sun-dappled market streets.
Here was a whole new experience with street after street of shops all overflowing with things for sale that we didn’t need but each with an owner who didn’t understand this and was determined to part us from the cash in our wallets. The place was murderously busy with a stream of people oozing past the shops like a flow of molten human lava and progress was so slow we could only shuffle awkwardly as though our shoe laces were tied together and it was quite impossible to walk with any kind of normal rhythm.
Some of the shops were no bigger than an average English garden shed or a Moroccan broom cupboard and many of them sold exactly the same things and as we walked through we were under constant pressure from the owners all trying to entice us with a ‘special price’. What didn’t help in establishing whether this was a special price or not was that nothing was priced in the first place which meant this form of shopping was very difficult process for people like us who are not used to haggling. A lot of the stuff in here was rubbish of course and my favourite was the honest trader who told us that he only sold genuine fakes!
Drawn further in to the maze we were carried away to the rich essence of medieval Marrakech – a kaleidoscope of clashing colours, of competing exotic scents that hung on burning air, the glitter of silver and the glow of gold, the clash and clamour on the streets and a labyrinth of possibilities, a sense almost of timelessness to enjoy and capture the quirks that collectively create a unique place.
The textures – corrugated iron, steel shutters, dusty concrete, marble meat slabs, bamboo shades and peeling plaster façades complemented each other, forming varying surfaces in a constantly shape-shifting environment, so vibrant, jumping from tiles to carpets to walls to merge in a dizzying blur and everywhere the general disrepair accentuated the mood; the streets graciously hosting these derelict scenes prooving that there is still a place for this gritty edge even in the centre of a modern city.
We walked past vivid carpet shops, elaborate lampshade shops, slipper shops, silver and pottery shops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the constant chatter and noise of the traders. Occasionally a donkey and cart would send people scattering as new supplies were delivered and the shop owners were probably glad of this because the only place to go to get out of the way was inside the shop doorways where someone was waiting to pounce with an offer and a ‘special price‘.
Threading our way through the heaving twisting lanes we nodded politely as we rejected invitations from all sides, trying all the time not to make eye contact and declining inducement to go inside and look until at one point Kim and Margaret were caught off of their guard and were persuaded to take a look inside a herbalists shop where they were talked into a €2 ten minute shoulder massage each. Mike and I had to wait outside and try not to draw attention to ourselves or show any unnecessary interest in the products for sale in the adjacent shop.
Back in the ’70s, I read a book about Marrakech. Sounded fasinating then as it does here in your post.
The Souks are fascinating – I have a leather bag in our garage that I bought in Marrakech. It wasn’t until I got it home that I discovered it smells disgusting! Live and learn eh…
My strongest memory of the souk in Marrakech is a pair of slippers I bought there. A particularly pushy shopkeeper wouldn’t let up, and to get him off my back, I bought a pair of cheap leather slippers. When I returned to the hotel I found that the slippers were two very different sizes. We had a good laugh about that one. ~James
Yes, this is the East! 🙂
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Hope the shoulder massage was good for the ladies? I say, sounds very exciting there, that is: it doesn’t look as if the domestic people are bored with cable TV saying “nothing on” even with 200 channels 😀
Fabulous place, so good that I am going back to Morocco in 2016.
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It’s a place I’d love to see… but not any time soon 😦 😦 But I couldn’t stop smiling, Andrew, because when I opened this up for a moment I thought that was you in the sombrero on the left! I know… an eye test when this is all over 🙂
I read that Morocco is in lock down. What is the situation in Portugal?
State of Emergency declared last night. I haven’t read all the details yet. Precautionary as the health system can’t cope if the virus takes off here. Borders with Spain closed. Becoming a little uncomfortable because this is such a social life style but we are staying as low key as possible. Stay safe 🤗💕
It looks bad everywhere. Look after yourselves.
I wonder what the labyrinth of shops looks like now with the pandemic ongoing. I instantly starting hearing the Crosby Stills & Nash song in my head when I read the first instance of Marrakech in the post!
That would be interesting to see. Voluntary social distancing doesn’t seem to having a big impact in UK.
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I can see passing on the lukewarm water, but the genuine fakes? A bargain at any price.
Worth buying one just to say you have one!
Great post and lovely to dip into your archive of travels
A vivid description of a scenario which would have me disappearing fast.
Reading this was a great memory jerker, Andrew. That square and the soukhs form one of the most exhilarating and colourful places we’ve visited. Evenings in that square, with its mass of pop-up eateries, smoke everywhere, is another world. We loved the place, and Morocco in general, and would return in a heartbeat!
When did you go? A year later we went to Fes. It was the year of the Arab Spring and it was less cordial.
Marrakech, and Skoura on the edge of the desert, was 2015. Then in 2016 we did a road trip of Guelmim, Tafraout, Tifnit…which was actually our first ever blog post
Excellent descriptions, Andrew. I felt that I was right there walking along with you. –Curt
Thanks for joining me Curt!