Marrakech1 is a city of about 800,000 people in the south of Morocco. The country around it was largely closed to non-Muslims until the French began colonising it in the 19th Century, eventually formalising the relationship with the Moroccan Protectorate. Now it is one of the busiest trading centres in northern Africa, one of the top global religious pilgrimage sites and a fabulous place to visit cheaply.
The city is of two kinds. The Medina, the old city, is completely within its original 19km, 12th-Century red, mud walls. It is dense, noisy, smelly, crowded, covered in donkey spore and difficult to navigate. The new city and suburbs are laid out with French colonial elan, broad roads and palm trees, but it is so widely dispersed that there are large gaps of desert sand between its various parts. It can sometimes be difficult to conceive of Marrakech as a single unity.
The tourist with a taste for golf, swimming pools and restaurants in the desert oasis will want to stay in the various parts of new Marrakech, particularly the Palmeraie area. For travellers with less money, a great sense of adventure and a moderately high threshold for coping with chaos, only staying in the Medina will do.
Yes, there is a Club Med in the Medina, but the Medina it is a big place. Generally it is cheaper and more delightful to stay in any of the hundreds of Riads that abound. These converted merchants' mansions are traditionally styled around one or more courtyards each with their own arcades and maybe a plunge pool. The only break in their stark exteriors is a single door, often approached from very small dead-end lane-way (or Derb). Rooms can be large and open directly onto the court-yard. Different Riads are quite individual: they are a converted private house and not purpose-built guest accommodation.
The lifeblood of the Medina is the payment of small change for acts of service. Although there are any number of ATMs around the main squares, these offer 100 and 200 Dihram (Dh) notes. However a bottle of water costs about 3Dh or less. Asking for directions costs 10 to 20Dh, being led from place to place is maybe 40. A taxi within the Medina can be negotiated for about 40-50Dh or from an inner suburb to one of the main Medina gates for a tad less. Each service and cost is negotiated individually but do not expect change (sometimes you will get some and sometimes you won't). If you wave a 100Dh note for a meal that totalled 75Dh on the menu, the price will magically come out to 100Dh. If you want to argue you can and pay a mutually agreed price.
For the non-Moroccan visitor, the problem reduces to the fact that it is very, very hard to get enough small change. Ask the place where you are staying to keep changing 200Dh notes - they will understand. You can freely use Euros - the street conversion is 10Dh = 1€ although the official exchange rate is closer to 11 to 1. You may end up with as many Euros in your pocket when you leave as when you arrived because the locals can't use them officially and will offer them to you whenever they can.
Getting around the Medina must be done on foot most of the time. Locals walk, ride donkeys or small motorbikes as the vast majority of it is not reachable by taxi. Beeping horns is continuous, polite and useful to keep the vast amount of traffic moving on thoroughfares that are often less than a metre or so wide. Walking is done on the right and everybody moves to one side to let people and traffic through with minimal waiting and with no collisions. There is a rhythm to the streets which comes quickly to you, that matches walking in the City of London on a weekday where everybody moves fast, nobody bumps and crowds grow, shift and disperse quickly.
Like the ancient City of London, modern Venice or the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona there are few straight streets. Unlike these cities there are very, very few street signs and it is this which makes navigating by map nearly impossible. The tourist maps provided for free are truly useless. Google doesn't show how paths extend under houses and shops and so it presents the Medina as a maze of dead ends rather than warren of shops and streets that are through ways for people. After some time places become recognisable (one became labelled the 'corner of doom'* after being passed six times one night while trying to get back to our night shelter) and routes become obvious, but this requires concentration, time and a desire to come to terms with this great world city.
The easiest way to navigate is to pay any of the seemingly infinite number of teenage boys 20-40Dh to take you where you want to go. The 'corner of doom' has half a dozen there at any time. There is no such thing as a no-charge guide (stallholders may just point you in the right direction and not expect payment). If someone offers to take you to a good restaurant they may not ask for payment when you arrive, but expect to see them waiting for you when you depart.
It is a place where there are no hidden costs, so expect to pay for all services. In even nice restaurants in the new city, tipping is needed. In a shop when you buy an item, if some boys have done some running around for you, you pay them too (in supermarkets, a small boy will push your trolley around and expect a couple of Dihram at the end). If you would like to send some letters, don't even attempt a post office (really), ask a trusted lad at the place you are staying to do it for you and pay your Dihram for the job. You can enjoy this service economy or loath it but if you walk through the Medina, opportunities for you to pay for jobs will be shouted, offered or pointed out to you every couple of minutes.
Once you get your sense of direction you can start to respond to your never-ending queue of would-be helpers with a cheerful Non, merci. However, one wrong turn and you may be completely lost again.
Actually Living the Life
The life of Marrakech is centred in the Big Square, aka Main Platz, aka Jamaa el Fna. In it are snake charmers with their pipes and swirling cobras, dancers, henna artists, orange juice stalls, storytellers and, in the evening, food stalls. At all times, there are beggars, locals, tourists and taxis. At the southern edge is the ancient 12th Century Koutoubia Mosque with its towering minaret.
As far as the boys who provide street directions are concerned you are always walking away from the big square, and they will offer to correct you and walk you there. Because there are so many ways to walk through the city, it can be difficult to prove who is right. To the north of the square are the souks and so the square is approached by most people through these very narrow, crowded mazes of tiny shops. There are red street signs randomly located throughout the city showing the way to the square. Beware, these are for cars and other traffic - they will not show you the direct way to walk and in 48°C the extra 30 minutes on foot in Ramadan (no public drinking) can test one's urbane demeanour.
The city is dominated by mosques and it is valuable to know the name of the closest one to where you live and to have memorised the path to and from it. The famous Riads are well known to the boys who give directions, but at night the Medina feels quite different, even if also quite safe (theft might be an issue, but stabbings are unlikely). Getting directions to your local mosque may be your only bet on getting home unless you really don't care how long it will take (or you want to see the 'corner of doom' from yet another direction and face the boys again.)
Ramadan in the Medina is tricky as no food, drink or tobacco is consumed during daylight hours (publicly) for the whole month by the entire population of the city. If you are happy to skip lunch then life will be reasonably straightforward. Many of the restaurants around Jamaa el Fna or in the new town remain open for bemused tourists. It is bad form to drink or eat in the streets during Ramadan but no-one will become aggressive if you do. Small children are exempted and even locals give their children drinks in public during hot weather. Shortly after sunset and the traditional evening home cooked iftar meal, at the central Koutoubia Mosque the roads are all blocked off before three or four thousand people gather in the grounds to pray. When the prayers are finished, the streets are flooded for hours with worshippers walking home with an air of gossipy public festivity.
This is a very religious town. The city has the shrines of the Seven Saints, a major (if controversial*) west African site of pilgrimage. The Koutoubia Mosque is a potent statement of faith and civic identity. Everywhere in the old and new city, the calls to prayer punctuate the day and can be heard in every corner. They work as well as public clocks and are used that way.
Many men wear the long robe over their clothes and nearly all women will wear the full length dress and a head scarf. The style of these clothes will depend on the ethnicity of the person. For instance, Berber women tend to have hoods on their robes. Most tourist women wear typical holiday clothes, which in hot weather can be nearly nothing. Good practice for visiting men and women would be to wear trousers and a loose long sleeve shirt, if only to be sun smart. If you are going to a club after dark, then what would look right in Paris will look right in Marrakech. Visitors who wear obviously 'respectful' clothing do look a bit odd but in the Medina there are those who are Moroccan and everybody else: nobody will be confused whatever you wear.
This is the city that beguiled Yves Saint Laurent, Winston Churchill and Mick Jagger. It is absolutely not a European city despite the fact that French is the widely spoken language, the suburbs are vaguely French and there are Grande Cafés located in various odd places. It isn't pure Berber, Arab or Mediterranean either but it is where all of these cultures meet. It sits on the nexus between the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara and the big industrial ports of Tangier and Casablanca. The airport is small, busy and chaotic. The industrial centre of Sidi Ghanem, where so many Moroccan items are manufactured for export, is just out of town and those of its warehouses which are open to the public are inspiring. Best of all, it is a cheap place to live in and to visit.