We headed to the garden city of Marrakech, a bustling burgh of pink walls in the shadow of the High Atlas Mountains. Our final four nights would be at another riad in the medina, the Riad Kniza, which had a more European feel and less emphasis on carved wood ceilings, mosaic floors and sculpted plaster walls. This beautiful riad was just off a cramped and busy street where one can find almost anything for sale — produce, meats, auto parts, building supplies, plastic toys, fabric, you name it. Other than a handful of guests staying at the few riads located in this small neighborhood, this street was primarily a local hangout.
We dropped off our bags and then set out with Mohamed to the Jemaa el Fna, a large central plaza in the medina near the Koutoubia Mosque, for a true spectacle. Starting at around 4 p.m., this place comes alive like a circus. Thousands of people fill the square to see snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats, fakirs, costumed water sellers, Gnaou drummers and dancers from the Berber regions and other colorful entertainers who expect money the moment you raise your camera. But it’s worth paying a few dirhams to capture the essence of this colorful scene.
Vendors are also here to feed the hungry crowds, many with big carts of oranges that they squeeze into fresh juice, tables selling steamed snails, and dozens of barbecue grills filling the air with fragrant smoke.
Charmed, I’m Sure
The dizzying visuals are matched by the noise of drumming, snake-charmers’ flutes, clanging bells, meat sizzling, vendors shouting their sales pitches in Arabic, and tinny horns tooting as guys on scooters weave through the throngs of people on the plaza. Words simply can’t describe the scene accurately, though; you have to witness it yourself to really appreciate it. My advice? Save your money and book a ticket to Marrakech if this kind of sensory feast intrigues you as much as it did me because there’s just nothing like it.
Of course, one of Marrakech’s big highlights is the souk just off the Jemaa el Fna. This labyrinthine market is a feast for the eyes and is cleaner and a tad more spacious than that in Fez. Here too, though, you have to be on the alert for locals zipping through on scooters or donkeys pulling carts loaded with produce and other merchandise. In lane after lane of shops you can find exquisitely inlaid woodwork, every style and hue of handbag imaginable, vividly-colored textiles, hand-crafted ceramics and metalwork, and something truly Moroccan: funky, twisty lanterns and sconces made from goatskin stretched onto wrought-iron frames and then painted with henna. Salespeople here have great merchandising skills — every display is tidy and eye-catching — and compete vigorously for your business.
Now, I’m not a shoe goddess but my favorite section of the souk I dubbed “Slipper Alley” for the mind-boggling selection of babouches and sandals on display. Much to Dennis’ agony, I spent a good hour or more trying on shoes at various tiny shops in Slipper Alley, torturing the poor salespeople with comments of, “No, this doesn’t fit quite right,” or “These will kill my feet if I have to walk even a block,” or “Do you have these in brown?” or “The workmanship on these is no good. See this flaw here?” Finally, though, I found the perfect pair: brick-red, embroidered and bejeweled, Aladdin-style sandals with turned up pointy toes that fit perfectly and were comfortable to boot. Hooray!