Nestled within the heart of Marrakech’s old town amid Arabic-inscribed walls, lies an ancient realm - a world away from the city’s new modernised metropolis. It is here tourists flock to in search of authentic North Africa, envisioning tales of Arabian Nights or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Marrakech, simply referred to as ‘Red City’, is the fourth largest cultural hub in Morocco and is situated north of the Atlas Mountain range. A city that never sleeps, it is famously home to Africa’s largest and busiest square – Djemaa el-Fina. By day, the beating sun ensures the square remains clear of touts and tourists. But once the late afternoon sun casts a final red glow over the city’s sandstone backdrop, the square is awash with an array of mysterious characters prowling the streets well into the night. Musicians, storytellers, monkey-trainers, henna-artists and magicians compete for the attention of passers-by - the square acting as a stage as they perform for their audience.
Turning away from Djemaa el-Fina and strolling down a narrow alleyway will lead to Morocco’s enchanting souks. The emporium is a mystical maze of trinkets and treasures, and it is a joy to wander around and simply get lost. At every corner lies another labyrinth of boutiques to admire handcrafted knick-knacks such as carpets, ceramics, lanterns, intricately detailed Arabic shoes and extravagant silver mirrored teapots; reflecting brilliantly into the eye of the lucky beholder. Charming stall-owners occupy their small Aladdin’s caves of delight with pride, and are more than willing to indulge in harmless haggling with tourists.
The bazaar’s food stalls are intoxicating, with a plethora of aromas and flavours to appease the senses - from lemons to chillies, olives and mint. Mountains of ground paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron are piled up high like the desert’s dunes. It’s easy to fall victim to wanting and needing absolutely everything within reach.
If Marrakech were a colour it would be ochre – the shade of the impressive Arabic buildings and the spice market; a taste: a glass of sweet mint tea– a delicacy ceremoniously used to greet guests; a sound: the pungi - a folk wind instrument used to hypnotise snakes by their charmers; and a smell: aromatic tagine dishes freshly prepared in ceramic pots within the local food market.
Although there is plenty to do and see in the city centre, it is worth the scenic 20-hour round trip to the Sahara Desert to learn of traditional Berber life. A three-day tour will take you to Aït-Ben-Haddou – the setting for many Hollywood films such as The Mummy and Prince of Persia, situated 100km southeast of Marrakech. Its ancient façade set upon hills within the desert wilderness is simply breath taking.
After a few scenic stopovers to visit traditional Berber villages and meet local farmers, the tour guide will take you to Merzouga on the edge of the Algerian desert, 568 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. A two-hour adventure across the blazing orange dunes on camel back gives travellers the chance to contemplate the sunset over this captivating land. Like a mirage in the sweltering heat, it truly is a pinch-yourself moment when glimpsing ‘home’ for the night ahead. Sleep will be in a bivouac – a traditional Bedouin camp nestled among the dunes with no sign of civilisation as far as the eye can see. It’s refreshing to be without first-world commodities such as electricity or phone reception.
At dusk, the shimmering sky comes alight with a thousand specks of glittering stars, brighter and more sparkling than ever imaginable. After devouring a customary tagine the group settle around the campfire, beguiled in the Berber men’s chants to the beat of an African drum, a burnt orange glow illuminating delighted faces. After a long day of exploring it’s time to retire to bed, exhausted but enormously inspired, with newfound zest and dreams of incurable wanderlust.
Sleep in a traditional Moroccan house called a riad - a lavish home built around an inner garden or courtyard, often including furnishings such as fountains, lush greenery, large terracotta vases, sun beds and Arabic tiling.
Eat cheaply with the locals at Djemaa el-Fina’s night market. Here you will find traditional dishes of fluffy cous-cous, boiled vegetables with fresh fish or goat.
Enjoy panoramic views over Marrakech’s skyline at La Salama – one of few bars in the city to serve alcoholic beverages. Watch a belly dancing show in the fine-dining restaurant or head upstairs to the shisha lounge for 2-for-1 cocktails.
Cleanse yourself at one of Marrakech’s traditional spas called a ‘hammam,’ much similar to a Turkish bath. Detoxify your body in the steam room or indulge in a full-body massage or various other beauty treatments.