The call to prayer from surrounding mosques permeate through the air, waking me briefly at 5AM, serving as a reminder that I’m now in a deeply Islamic nation. As the session comes to a close in a few short minutes, I drift off to sleep again, and wake excited to explore an exotic destination on my first day in Morocco, Marrakech.
As I emerge from the door of my riad in the Old Medina and onto the streets, I am suddenly swarmed by motorbikes whizzing past, stray cats roaming in search of food, and gleeful children playing in the alleys. The narrow paths lead me to Jemaa el Fna, the heart of Marrakech. An open air market by day, the city’s nucleus is an assembly of stands of fresh squeezed orange juice, henna tattoo artists and herbalists, all overlooked by the towering Koutoubia minaret, one of North Africa’s finest example of Islamic architecture. Radiating from the vibrant center of Jemaa el Fna are its narrow alleyways, the arteries that sprawl across the grounds of the ancient souk, each one leading me past infinite stalls of exotic spices, fine handicrafts and colourful woven rugs.
The cries of hawkers tempt me to look in every direction. When the sweltering Moroccan heat becomes too much, I seek respite in a rooftop cafe, and over a pot of scalding mint tea and accompanying assortment of pastries, find myself mesmerised as I watch the daily lives of the locals unfold below me- a vendor shares laughs with a regular, and shoppers expertly dodge oncoming motorbikes. As the heat subsides over the course of the afternoon, I lose myself in the labyrinth of alleyways in the Old Medina, and wander past the intricate tilework of the Bahia Palace and vibrant geometric patterned facades of the Islamic school, Ali Ben Youssef Medersa. Once North Africa’s largest Quranic learning center, I instinctively decide to enter for a wander through the college grounds that date back to the 16th century. Past its entryway that greets me with the inscription, “you who enter my door, may your highest hopes be succeeded,” I discover a series of small dormitory cells and a central courtyard that’s sumptuously adorned in multihued mosaics and embellished with stucco archways and marble and cedar motifs. I devote the next hour of my afternoon to exploring one of the city’s most historically significant sites.
A mere 20 minute walk or short cab ride from Jemaa el Fna in the Nouvelle Ville, or New City, sits Jardin Majorelle, a botanical collection of over 300 species of cacti, coconut palms and flowers. Designed by artist Jacques Majorelle and later maintained by Yves Saint Laurent, the mirage of bamboo groves and water lilies of this elegant retreat are accented by cobalt blue fountains and buildings, the intense hue dubbed Majorelle blue after the garden’s founder. Between the cooling shades provided by the swaying palms and natural soundtrack of lyrical birds, I am reluctant to leave.
After I bargain for a cab, by far the easiest way to move around in the city, I find myself on the terrace of a restaurant back at the main square, overlooking the bustling Jemaa el Fna against the pinks and oranges of the setting sun while soaking in the flavours of a chicken tagine. When the dark evening sky descends upon the city, I venture out again to the heart of Marrakech’s entertainment center, and Jemaa el Fna is now transformed into a carnival of storytellers, snake charmers and musical troupes. As I traipse past a crowd of locals listening with ant-like intensity, I am suddenly taken by the hand of an animated storyteller, and swiftly pulled into the center of the circle as the subject of his Arabic tale. The crowd breaks out in laughter, and then I am released again to experience the remainder of Jemaa el Fna by night. Stalls of twinkling lamps vie for my attention, but it is the cloud of rising smoke and mouth watering aromas that pave the path to the cluster of food stalls, where vendors cry slogans of “best prices!” and “you look starvin’, Marvin!” Past the stalls of sheep heads on display and the assortment of local specialities, I join a longstanding queue for stall #32, and sample a plate of their renowned sausages.
With a full belly, I retreat to my riad for the night, and rest my head amid the marbled splendor of this traditional Moroccan home. A day navigating the rich sights and sounds of the ancient souk exhausted my senses, but the Aladdin-esque experience proved enchanting in equal measure.
By Vivian Chung
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