You may be one of the few who may fall into the trap of thinking that the Medina of Marrakech is a bit hyped. After all it’s a very crowded market place with a lot of noise, people selling all sorts of things under the sun. Think before you commit to this assumption by asking yourself that how many of such chaos you would have seen in the world which come with a character? Having travelled extensively all over India and being raised in a overtly populated country, I am no stranger to crowd and chaos. What is unique and appealing about the Medina of Marrakech was the fact that it is chaos with a character where even the cacophony had a certain charm, not found or experienced by me anywhere else in the world.
Protected by the old city walls, the Medina of Marrakech was declared a UNESCO heritage site. When we drove near the Medina to look for a parking space, the frantic commotions of the parking attendants and volunteers set the tone very well of what to expect later. Haggling was the first hint, starting with the cost of parking per hour. We made our way walking slowly along with the stream of people who were happily taking part in the joyful buzz of the surroundings. We were warmed up by curious onlookers, beggars, bemused tourists and locals when we arrived at the famous Jemaa al Fena, the coveted main square of the Medina where it all happens.
You will see a handful of orange juice stalls and it is certainly a good idea to fill your tank with some fresh Moroccan orange juice before you set off to negotiate with the teeming crowd everywhere. The first rule of exploring the Medina is to make sure you have the main square in your mind map. The second rule is that you need to be comfortable with the fact that you will get lost and it is perfectly fine. So have plenty of time in your hand. The final rule is that you have to return to main square before sunset and place yourself at one of the many restaurants with a view to enjoy the sunset while you sip some mint tea. That is it; mind these three rules and you will be mad about the Medina.
While we wandered around the serpentine narrow alleys of the Medina (Souks as they call it) we saw items and artefacts of Moroccan tradition ranging from shoes, clothes, lights, spices, olives to stuffed and even live animals for sale. Here is a good activity you can engage yourself into if you really want to keep yourself busy. Start taking count of the unique items and objects you will encounter during your stroll through the Medina from one Souk to another. For magic spells, there are live chameleons (it is said if a chameleon thrown onto a fire explodes, your husband is having an affair), turtles, lizards, leopard and zebra skins, roots, barks, herbs, leaves, seeds, horns, tusks – cures for everything, from arthritis to a broken heart. When you are back at your riad or hotel, count the numbers. This is exactly what will give you an idea of what is available in Morocco and what is traded. What is traded is what gets consumed and what gets consumed makes the customers – the Moroccans who live in this enthralling country making the very fabric of the society and tradition they keep alive.
It is taken for granted that you will end up in the Jaama al Fena square at some point of your discovery of the souks. We can recommend securing a good seat on the second floor of the Cafe France restaurant just before sunset. Order yourself some mint tea and settle yourself while the sun will set behind the proud minarets of the Koutoubia Mosque, splashing a ravishing tone of orange in the western sky. While you enjoy the beautiful silhouette of the minaret against the sleeping sun, you will get to hear the increasing bustle from the Medina beneath you. Makeshift restaurants will install themselves cooking Moroccan delicacies on the spot, the aroma of which will be too hard to deny even for the staunch hardliners who avoid street food due to hygiene. You will want to mingle with the amazing characters who bring to life and loudness the whole place every day, year after year. Snake charmers, monkey players, henna artists, musicians, magicians: to name a few all in one place. Is this an amusement park? Is this a circus? You may ask yourself. This is the Medina madness with the chaos with a character is what you will realise only when you will retreat to the tranquillity of your Riad, when the gentle sound of flowing water from the fountain will pacify your mind, once the anti-climax of the loud chaos will be offset with the calm of the night, you will enlighten yourself only at that moment why is it so vibrant and full of sound, color and smell in the Medina. The reason is that the Medina of Marrakech is the lifeline of this city which narrates the story of the city every day to tourists and locals alike. It is the story teller with a character. Other places in the world may only have chaos, but no story to tell, thus no character. Only Marrakech, only Medina.