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Feb '10

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Marrakesh's Jemaa el-Fna: madly marvellous and mystical

click here to view a slideshow of images from Marrakesh

Our minivan driver Ahmed got us to Marrakech, Morocco, around 11pm after an eight-hour scenic ride from Fez that included stops in Sefrou and Bhalil, a small town in which some of the homes are built in caves. We stopped for tea in one such cave, home to an 80-something widow who not only served us tea but danced for us with a jug on her head. But I’ll save more tales of this day-long adventure for an upcoming issue.

Marrakesh, a city of more than one million with a strong Berber influence, sits almost in the middle of Morocco. Sipping tea in its famed square, Jemaa el-Fna, one literally feels in the middle of the country.

We were exhausted and hungry when we checked in at our hotel, the Ryad Mogador, which we had booked online on otel.com. At first they didn’t seem to have our booking, but in the end they found it. This is sometimes a problem with otel.com but usually the paperwork goes through smoothly – and the price is always better than when you book on the spot or through an agent. We paid the equivalent of about $60, which included a modern, comfortable and cozy room as well as breakfast.

The Ryad Mogador is in a fantastic location. It’s in the newer part of town, facing a huge bus station just outside the walls of the Old City. It’s right next door to a supermarket, so we were set, especially when I needed ice for my knee, which Irwin got in the fish department. The first day we slept in and at noon got a taxi for $1 (for a 15-minute ride) that took us straight to the entrance of the centre of Jemaa el-Fna.

In retrospect, we realized there was no other place to be in Marrakesh than this teeming square that spans a full kilometre. Our sojourns to the new city paled in comparison and we inevitably felt disappointed with the restaurants and atmosphere in that part of town.

Irwin remembered having been in Jemaa el-Fna in 1968 and said it ­hadn’t changed all that much. He pointed up to one of the rooftop cafés and told me he remembered sitting there for hours watching the people go by.

This is exactly what we did for the next couple of days – except we chose a street level café because my knees could never have made it up the narrow steps to the rooftops.

From Jemaa el-Fna one can take any lane into the maze of the medina and the melech (the old Jewish quarter) and discover smaller souks (markets). It’s hard to get lost. Just ask around and find your way back to Jemaa el-Fna.

Among the souks you can explore are Souk Addadine (metalwork), Souk Chouari (basketry and woodturning), Souk Smata (slippers and belts) and Souk Kissarias (clothing, fabric and leather goods.) I’m not sure if there’s a connection between “Smata” and “Shmata.”

The most colourful market is the berber souk, which sells just about everything.

We spent most of our time with our books and camera, soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating the array of workers, strollers, and shoppers. And then there were the snake charmers, musicians, women selling henna tattoos, and the unfortunate monkeys on leashes doing tricks for a few coins, which the tourists avoided.

It was a 10-ring circus, something like Barcelona’s Ramblas except all in one square. I’m not talking about one monkey or snake charmer, I’m talking dozens!

It was in Marrakesh that I first began to appreciate the beauty and versatility of women’s clothing in this liberal Muslim country. What I love about the Moroccan lifestyle is that virtually every code of dress is accepted. You often see women walking together arm in arm, one wearing traditional garb and the other in jeans with no head covering. The only thing you’ll never see on a Moroccan woman is shorts and skimpy tops. Most tourists are respectful and cover their arms and legs to some degree.

On our first visit to Jemaa el-Fna we decided to take one of the small paths into the densely crowded souk to scout out a place for lunch. We chose the first “eatery” we found, a rather primitive place with three pots cooking on an outdoor fire. We pointed to the pot of our choice and were served rich and flavourful stews (mine was vegetarian) with bread and soft drinks that came to about $3 each. The warm hospitality of the owner/waiter gave us strength to attempt some of the longer market trails, but I was so overwhelmed with the sheer colour and variety of … well, everything … that I eventually agreed with Irwin that stopping for a mint tea at a café facing the square would be a fitting end to the afternoon.

Two or three mint teas later I had taken the pictures you see here. As twilight approached and the food vendors came out into the square to offer their wares, cooked on open fires at their stalls – there seemed to be hundreds of them – we decided we had had enough and headed to the new town to eat – a big mistake.

It was May when we visited Marrakesh, a perfect time of year to travel in Morocco. When we returned to the country in July for three more weeks, we confined ourselves to the north.

But I still look forward to more of those souks and sipping tea at the Jemaa el-Fna.

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