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Souks bubbling with colorful wares, in-your-face vendors hollering at potential shoppers and motorcyclists expertly navigating the zigzagging streets of Old Medina — this is what Marrakech, Morocco, is all about.
Your visit in Marrakech should begin and also end in the Central Souks (markets). It’s the best place to get lost in a city that usually takes a day to get used to. Smile at the vendors and politely say “non, merci” to invitations to explore their shops or to serve as your guide. Save the shopping and haggling until the end of your trip. Allow yourself to get acclimated to the culture, as well as the persistence of the locals, all while feasting on the colorful artisanal products and the scents of local spices.
Continue the assault on your senses in the city’s most famous square. Djemaa El-Fna is best experienced when twilight has befallen the city, when lamps sparkle against the dusky sky and enigmatic street performers have started their acts. Food stalls serving grilled meat, fresh juice and exotic dishes form makeshift streets in this dynamic square as musicians, circus performers, belly dancers, animal trainers and traditional storytellers pour in to provide the night’s entertainment. Remember to bring a few dirham coins with you for tips, but keep them secure as there might be a couple of pickpockets around.
Once you’ve had your fill of the local scene, head to one of the city’s quiet havens. You may not be able to walk into Koutoubia Mosque and see its interiors unless you’re Muslim, but exploring the surrounding grounds is enough to appreciate what is one of the most admired mosques in Moorish architecture. Stop and see its peach-colored minaret, towering over the courtyard and the entire city, and notice the intricate details of the mosque from afar. Later, stray into its gardens, which resemble palm and orange-tree lined oases.
An essential part of a classic Moroccan experience is enjoying a bathing ritual at a hammam (a Middle Eastern steam bath), which locals partake in on a regular basis. The ritual is a three-fold process involving a wash, a cleansing scrub and a relaxing massage. A traditional public hammams is separated by gender and appears little changed since their early days, though you will have to bring your own supplies. Hammams are terrific for interacting with the locals and immersing yourself in the Moroccan way of life, but if you prefer a more spa-like experience, private hammams such as Heritage Spa in the Bab Doukkala district or the touristy Medina Spa might be the way to go.
Be sure to see more of the city’s charming architecture. Now serving as a historical attraction open to visitors is the former theological college Medersa Ben Youssef. It is the largest in Morocco and boasts one of the most intricate and richly designed buildings in the city. This is Moorish architecture at its finest, brimming with splendid details that might just inspire you to do a home makeover. Wonder at the doors and arches covered in arabesques, mashrabiyya windows carved out of cedar wood and walls decorated with colorful tilework. Couple this visit with a quick stop at neighboring Marrakech Museum, whose palatial interiors and exhibits of traditional Moroccan artifacts are just as impressive.
Medina Spa www.medina-spa-marrakech.com
Medersa Ben Youssefwww.medersa-ben-youssef.com