“Un monde nouveau vous appelle” says the Maroc Telecom billboard that decorates the side of a high storey hotel in Gueliz, the face of new Marrakech. Across the road, tour buses disgorge day visitors at the entrance to Place Jemaa El Fna and they stream into the Medina, the women’s too short shorts and naked shoulders attracting sideways glances from the djellaba-wearing locals.
In Marrakech, the contrast of the Medina and Gueliz is like a metaphor for Morocco itself; an Islamic traditional society keen to embrace new technologies and the riches that tourism promise without compromising its identity and religion. It’s a place where cultures collide.
Not for the faint hearted, Marrakech is a constant assault on all senses. From the intense heat of late summer in the Medina, the noise, smell, bustle and chaos of the souks and the haunting, deafening blare of the adhan call to prayer five times a day, to the snake charmers, henna tattooists and orange juice sellers of Jemaa El Fna, nothing can adequately prepare you for the shock of Marrakech. There is only one thing to do – loosen your shoulders and plunge headlong into the inevitability of getting lost, hopelessly and completely, with monotonous regularity.
Amidst the obvious poverty and the surreal obsession with commerce there is a smiling and genuinely warm culture ready to embrace you and to show you the beauty of its birth right. Turn a corner in a narrow, cat-infested alley in the souk and you’ll find Medersa Ben Youssef whose beauty of craftsmanship and design is incomparable. Dodge the donkey carts and bicycles and try not to end up wrapped across the handle bars of the mopeds and motorcycles that careen the too narrow streets of the Medina already heaving with people and your eye will constantly be caught by beauty.
Ceramic inlaid teaspoons, silver tea pots on trays with exquisitely patterned mint tea glasses, leather holdalls of the softest skin and swathes of cloth in the deepest hues of the spectrum hanging from shop front roofs like luminescent prayer flags; Marrakech cries out to be noticed, haggled over and carried home through excess baggage charges only to look entirely out of place once separated from the mother ship.
Drag yourself away from the lure of the souks and you’ll find palaces, museums and ancient tombs to keep your camera clicking ceaselessly; spice stalls filled with aromatic promise and food stalls with rows of savoury tajines, fresh khubz loaves, crêpes and almond pastries all waiting to be tried and tested. And when the heat of the day threatens to extract every last drop of energy, head to one of the gardens that remind you Marrakech is built on an oasis, once carried the title of The Garden City and is now working hard to reclaim its horticultural treasures from their urban thieves.
Buzz Trips Opinion
Choose to stay in the universally homogeneous environment of a modern hotel in the new city, dipping a toe in and out of Jemaa Al Fna and the souks in bite-sized expeditions, and in our opinion you’ll be entirely missing the point of Marrakech. Choose instead to base yourself in a riad in the heart of the Medina and immerse yourself in the contrasts of the city, leaving the sanctuary and beauty of your own private oasis to step into the madness every time you cross the threshold.
Marrakech is a demanding mistress, she’ll sap your energy and spit you out, disoriented and exhausted. Pace yourself if you want to survive without the need for a holiday at the end of your holiday. There are too many incredible sights to take in, gardens to wander and alleys to explore in anything less than three days but that’s about the limit our legs and sanity could tolerate at one helping. Escape to the Atlas Mountains, the coast or the desert of Morocco and then return, refreshed and re-energised to meet Marrakech head on once again.