Marrakech – the ‘Pink City’, where the world rushes and laughs with an acrobatic nonchalance. The imperial stronghold calmly absorbs one more visitor without batting an eyelid.
It is a city which demands to be wooed. You must prove your devotion to unearth its secrets; brave the triple carriageway tarmac mess of Moroccan city streets to find the idyllic Majorelle Gardens, almost silent but for the choral notes of birdsong and the timorous echo of the fountains; hunt for the hidden doorways in dim shaded alleyways; trust implicitly as your guide leads you down dark dingy corridors that open up to a courtyard of mosaics and C16th tombs. He becomes the key to enable you to unlock this North African treasure chest.
More than just a city, Marrakech is an atmosphere. Stepping from the stifling midday heat of Djema el Fna into the cool, canvas web of the souks feels like stepping into, forgive the cliché, Aladdin’s cave. Bathed in shade, the souks built themselves almost organically, the way they have sprung from the ground en masse in an almost intuitive fashion. Yet there’s an alien quality to the energy here, as though each step you take deeper into the dark is electrically charged.
Little breezes creep into the souks and carry with them whispers of perfumes, oils, spices. The waft of someone’s lunch will appear and evaporate in the narrow spaces between the displays. The twisted lanes may resemble streets but they are deceptive; they are nothing more than gangways cleared beneath the canvas awnings.
Try to move with purpose through this maze and you’ll lose more than just your sense of direction – you’ll miss the fervent burrowing movements of the shelves being restacked, the soft slippered movements of women wearing babouche and long swishing clothes, the aimless drifting that allows you to absorb all around you. Just try not to look lost or bewildered.
Further back, towards the centre of this spider’s web, you’ll find tourist gifts begin to mingle with genuine Moroccan shoppers. Pretty but largely decorative trinkets give way to aromatic spices, pitifully clucking chickens and stacks of fresh, unrecognisable vegetables. The sound of bartering fills the air in snatches of French and Arabic; women stalk the stalls for the freshest zucchini and take no nonsense from sellers trying to cheat them with less than perfect produce.
It’s a reminder that the souks are merely not here for tourist’s amusement, or to swindle westerners out of their bought dirhams. Here the streetwise shoppers find their bargains, and shuffle back to their homes to prepare tonight’s dinner.
Marrakech is a difficult nut to crack. It makes you work for every moment; every little idiosyncrasy is a half-held secret. But it is worth every second spent discovering. Often, the city is compared to a maze; and true to this, the journey (even the wrong turns) is part of the joy at mastering it. There’s a joyous cry when the worthy traveller finds a perfect mosaic behind an imposing, petal-pink wall. Don’t worry – it shares its secrets eventually, with a wry smile, once you’ve been souk-ed in.
Gina Lawrence is a Marketing Executive at Exodus, who found the charms of Morocco’s souks irresistible when she travelled on our Marrakech, Mountains & Coast trip in the summer…