Marrakesh is a beautiful and fascinating city, brimming with history and culture, but it also felt far more touristy than Fez. Both are former Moroccan imperial capitals, but they’re very different cities. Fez, built on undulating hills, has a densely packed medina that verges on claustrophobic. Marrakesh is flater, less densely packed, the buildings are lower and more light seems to reach street level. I’d like to go back to Marrakesh because I left feeling a little underwhelmed.
We had flown to Fez and would depart from Marrakesh, linking the two was what was supposed to be a thrilling train journey to celebrate a birthday. What really took place was that we spent almost an entire day on a slow, stopping train – there didn’t seem to be any other sort – and despite leaving at the crack of dawn, by the time we reached Marrakesh it was almost night. All I would say is, if you have to find a riad in the medina of Marrakesh, try not to do it at night.
The next morning we went through the medina – past the insistent calls of stall holders – to the epicentre of life in the old town, Jama el Fna. This large open market square became infamous in 2011 when a bomb exploded in the Argana restaurant, a popular tourist hangout overlooking the square, killing 17 people and injuring many more. When we were there it was hard to imagine such a devastating event in this bustling place.
Jama el Fna’s bustle comes with a downside. Amongst the food stalls selling everything from dried fruit to boiled sheep heads, you can find a mixture of conmen, pickpockets, snake charmers and musicians looking to separate you from your money. The whole place is an assault on the senses. It’s most atmospheric at night, but it’s entertaining at any time. Apart, that is, from food stall owners doing impressions of Jamie Oliver to get our attention. His “Lovely jubbly” catchphrase got old quickly. Very quickly.
For a complete change of pace, close by is one of Marrakesh’s architectural wonders. The Koutoubia Minaret is a prominent feature of the 12th century mosque of the same name. Non-muslims aren’t allowed inside, but the building is beautiful and the gardens are very pleasant. From here you could follow the city’s main avenue to the French colonial-era, Ville Nouvelle, which has an array of upmarket restaurants and boutiques. The medina, with all its history, street life and cultural attractions, was calling though.
Housed within a former palace (and it shows), the Musée de Marrakech is a great place to get an insight into the life of the city and its former grandees. Close to the museum, and run by the same foundation, is the Medersa Ben Youssef, a gorgeous 16th century religious school which at one time was home to 900 students. The interior decoration and architecture is beautiful. You could happily spend half a day between these two, not a bad option to escape the heat outside.
Exploring the sights, sounds and smells of the medina is the real pull though. We spent most of our time in Marrakesh interspersing our medina walks with stops for mint tea and delicious food. The upside of tourism is that Marrakesh has an abundance of good restaurants. We ate well but, unlike Fez ‘s traditional dish of bastilla, or pigeon pie, the sheep heads served at the food stalls in Jama el fna went unsampled.
After a couple of days in Marrakesh, we decided to head to the coast and the gorgeous town of Essaouira. Marrakesh felt a little too crowded with tourists and the touts who prey upon them. Still, we planned to have one more day there on our way home to do a bit more exploring – it rained all day. Which pretty much summed up our Marrakesh experience. It may be an instagram hotspot, but we never really got to grips with it. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance?