Marrakech, as I found to my surprise, is a city of two halves. Alongside all the traditional images of Morocco, the unassuming surface of the city hides a very modern, worldly element that I wasn’t expecting. True, I found the crowded souks, the open air food stalls, the tall minaret that overpowers the skyline and an overwhelming presence of mint tea, in short, everything that I’d read about in my Lonely Planet Guide. However, weaving among the traditionally dressed Muslim women with their five or six children in tow, zip trendy Moroccan girls on scooters. Busy women in smart suits with briefcases stride past the carpet shops. Neon signs advertising Fanta and Mars bars are squashed between small poky shops selling pots and slippers.
Nonetheless, it does remain a city of great beauty. Strangely similar to York, the walled medieval town is built of a warm coloured stone that glows red in the evening light; the time of day when Marrakech looks its best. The buildings are low, only two or three storeys high, allowing the tall minaret to remain an unparalleled landmark in the city’s skyline, while green palm trees provide relief from the scorching sun. Inside, the buildings are cool and dark, the traditional pots of plants and tiles somewhat off set by the whirring fans that are found in nearly every public building of the city.
The main square, or Medina is the focal point of the city centre. Both day and night it is alive with food stalls, street entertainers and children, who victimise the absent minded tourist until they’re rewarded with a few coins. Magicians, henna tattoo artists, monkey troops and fire eaters all mingle with the food sellers who set up enormous open air barbecues, surrounded by tables where you can enjoy couscous, tagine and other dishes for a fraction of the restaurant price. The Medina is also the opening of the souk, a labyrinthine indoor market where you can easily wander, usually lost, for the best part of a day.
The thousands of stalls and shops sell everything from leather goods to pottery, to jewellery, to carpets, all of which are bought through the age-old, yet time consuming, process of haggling. Once the sale is finally complete, if you’re really lucky, you may be invited into the back of the shop for mint tea. There you’ll find yourself sitting on a pile of rolled up rugs, drinking a mixture of tea leaves and mint, strained through sugar until it resembles green golden syrup. Then, before you know it you’ve agreed to buy two more pairs of shoes, not to mention a rug, and the shopkeeper waves you away, eagerly urging you to come again tomorrow; the dark peace and quiet of the inside forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the outdoor crowd.