Madness in the Marrakech Medina

Madness in the Marrakech Medina

The first time I was in Morocco, I had a drastically different experience than my second visit last week. For one, I was traveling with one of my best friends, Megan. We were backpacking, we didn’t make a lot of plans, we were terrified at times to be in such a “grabby” place as two females alone and—oh yeah—it was also Ramadan. This meant that on top of all the other travel frustrations Morocco presents, we had to face them with an empty stomach. And not only were our stomachs empty, but the stomachs of all Moroccans were empty, too, and that understandably creates a sort of somber—not to mention, grumpy—atmosphere.

But this time, SVV and I arrived at the perfect moment. Ramadan had just ended four days before, and all of Marrakech was still rejoicing in the welcome return to their regular routine. It was pretty near impossible to get motivated to leave our five-star riad, but I knew I wanted to have one dinner out in the medina at Djemaa el Fna, the city’s central square, remembering how delicious the food was the last time.

Only, last time I was in this very spot, there were vendors, sure, but there was also a whole lot of empty space for wandering about. This time, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into a band of buskers, or tripping over a monkey or having a snake hiss over your shoulder (true story: beware the snake charmers…and the primates).

It was the most magnificent sight.

Although we knew quite well that all cafes in the medina were going to cater to tourists and charge ridiculous prices, we didn’t care. We wanted a terrace view of the scene unfolding below us, and so we found the most appealing one and climbed up to the roof level.

Of course there was mint tea—and lots of it.

After the sun had sank behind the Koutoubia Mosque, we rejoined the party downstairs and went in search of food. I have been craving real tajine and cous cous since 2005 and couldn’t wait to stuff my face with these staple Moroccan dishes. Besides, the smoke from the hundreds of vendors was cloaking the city in a blanket of smoldering charcoal and burning meat.

I had it on good authority from two very informed men—Willem and Rajik at Riad el Fenn—that stall #1 was the best food in town. What I didn’t know is that there are well over 100 stalls in the square, and they weren’t arranged in anything resembling chronological order.

After 20 minutes of searching—and being approached by approximately 27 other vendors—we finally found it, sandwiched somewhere between 14 and 7.

We scarfed down our dishes when a little gypsy girl no more than eight approached our table trying to sell us Kleenex. We declined, and she took a seat beside me, before busting out her saddest “no mommy” with a pitiful frown, as she motioned to herself. (I’m 99% sure Mommy was lurking elsewhere in the medina, trying to sell glow sticks.) SVV didn’t buy it either, but he nodded toward our half-empty plates, and the little girl grabbed them before finishing off the rest and neglecting to share with her friend, who joined us a few minutes later.

Then, she lifted a finger towards SVV’s Fanta, at which point he put his foot down. Then he took a swig, melted his heart and nonchalantly pushed it aside; she took her cue, snatched the bottle and guzzled the rest down. I really wanted to take a picture of the two little girls, as they were absolutely beautiful, but sadly in Morocco, photos translate to money demanded, and while we were happy to share our dinner with them, I can’t condone the panhandling behavior so prevalent in this part of the world.

Our bellies full, we wandered across the street to the mosque as the last Call to Prayer rang throughout the city for the day. It’s funny how the mosque is a bit like going to the movie theater these days—I mean, there were even popcorn vendors!

And then we crossed the main drag, playing Frogger to a bevy of cars, buses, mopeds and pedestrians, before retiring to El Fenn, once again. (But only after ordering another four pots of mint tea, once again.)

They say you’re either a Marrakech person or a Fes person—I am decidedly not a fan of Fes—but either way, you can’t deny this nightly madness is captivating.

COMMENTS
  • September 14, 2011

    Good food (and, after a while, ANY food) is crucial to having a good trip. I’m glad you got your tajine, and managed to share the rest with a sweet, business-savvy young one.

    Oh, and I love that photo of the last call to prayer. It makes the mosque look twinkly–movie magical, as you suggest.

  • September 14, 2011

    Holy hell. That looks amazing. The energy looks like it’s exploding. (Sorry, I’m not very good at using my words today.)

    Also, I want to be anywhere that you can trip over a monkey.

  • September 14, 2011

    i can’t wait to be reunited with some authentic tagine. do you remember the name of the cafe in the first few pictures? it looks like a great spot.

    • September 14, 2011
      Kristin

      I want to say it was something like La Terazza but I can’t be sure. There were four or five terrace bars overlooking the medina–I’m sure they all offer the same food, prices and views!

  • September 14, 2011

    Great fun. The square was a little overwhelming, but since it was Ramadan it wash’t nearly that nuts until well after sundown. Looks like a great trip, tho.

  • September 14, 2011

    I’m definitely a Marrakech person! (and I spell it with a “ch” not “sh” at the end, just like you do)! I miss Marrakech terribly…I think we were in the same terrace bar that overlooks the plaza! Are they rebuilding Cafe Alhambra when you guys were there? (It was bombed sometime in the spring, no?)

    • September 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Oooh I don’t even know anything about that! Also, I’ve never really known if it should be with a “c” or with an “s” and I’ve never been able to get confirmation either way, but I figure as long as I stay consistent with my own spelling, then it doesn’t matter much, right? =)

  • September 14, 2011

    Sorry…I meant to say “there was an explosion at the Cafe Alhambra” (not bombed…). Sorry…I’m such a space cadet today!!!

    • October 24, 2013
      Mahamed

      The explosion took place in cafe Argana not Alhambra .
      Greetings

  • September 14, 2011

    I would love to visit Morocco some day! Casablnaca, fes, Marrakech… All of it 🙂 When I saw the picture of the smoke I thought there was a fire! I can’t believe it is just from the vendors! Great pictures, like always

    • September 14, 2011
      Kristin

      I would say skip Casablanca, skip Rabat, skip Tangier. Prioritize Marrakech, Essaouira, the Sahara Desert for sure, some of the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains, the blue medina of Chefchaouen and Fes if you have time leftover! =)

      • September 15, 2011

        I need to write this down! the sahara would be great! Plus I need my camel picture!! thanks for the advise 🙂

  • September 14, 2011

    Kind of reminds me of the crowded Mexican markets, different food and dress. No mint tea. Does look like an interesting place to visit. Oh boy, yet another place to add to my list.

  • September 14, 2011

    Felt like I was right there with you. Cute story about the girls. We always have a similar struggle, because we have a good idea of what is going on behind the scenes.

    • September 23, 2011
      Kristin

      You feel like such rude, stingy foreigners, but at the same time, you can’t encourage such behavior as it will only exacerbate the situation! Just one of a million ethical travel debates.

  • September 14, 2011

    I am such a sucker for gypsy kids… My mom always says she expects me to come home with a few in checked baggage one of these days.

    Loving Morocco!

    • September 23, 2011
      Kristin

      I can just see you coming back from RTW Part II, opening your suitcase and a whole soccer team of little gypsy children popping out! “Look, Mom, I brought souvenirs!”

  • September 15, 2011

    When Kali and I were in Marseilles a few years ago we happened to have the most incredibly delicious Moroccan food… and have been searching for something even approaching that ever since. We’ve talked about visiting Morocco soon and the food is really the biggest selling point!

    • September 23, 2011
      Kristin

      The food there is out of this world! The only problem is there are only a handful of dishes–primarily tajine, cous cous, pastilla (which I’m not wild about)–so once you tire of those, it can get boring. But for just a few days…deliciosa!

  • September 15, 2011

    Gorgeous.

    xox

  • September 17, 2011

    What an AWESOME time to be in Morocco! Incredible!!

  • September 17, 2011

    I can only imagine how good the food must have been, and the overall experience looks great.

  • September 20, 2011
    Sid

    Oh man, Muslim countries much be such an experience after Ramadaan.

    Also, I live in SA. There’s a beggar/vendor/blind man, on every corner. You never get used to it.

  • September 27, 2013

    Fantastic blog, great pics and easy to relate to information 🙂 ill be reading
    kirsty marrs recently posted..Portuguese Custard TartsMy Profile

  • December 20, 2015

    I absolutely HATED both Marrakesh and Fez… and every other place in Morocco I went. But your second experience almost makes me want to consider going back one day (but ONLY with a male). Love the photos though!

    • December 21, 2015

      I definitely felt that way about Fes. Not my favorite city, by far. Ditto to Tangier and Casablanca. But Rabat was OK, and I do really like Marrakech! Having someone with you definitely helps (the first time I was with a girlfriend, the second time with Scott).

  • June 28, 2016

    The explosion took place in cafe Argana not Alhambra .
    Greetings

  • October 21, 2016

    Great article and fun reading it. Azaming photography loved it very much. Thank you for sharing it.

  • October 27, 2016
    Hardy

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  • November 23, 2016

    Thank you for sharing it.

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