Any arab medina (old city) is a schizophrenic range of emotions and feeling living side by side. A quiet side can be a 5 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the souks. Marrakech is different. Not because it´s not the same, but because this coexistence of chaos with serenity is even more visible than in any other medina I’ve visited.
There is another major difference: Just to add spice to confusion, they’ve added donkey drawn carts and mopeds, motorcycles and other two wheeled purveyors of tourist wrath. I lost count on the amount of times we had jump, squeeze and move out of the way of two wheeled transportation. Despite the apparent ‘dangers’ in walking the streets of the medina, it was one of our favourite pastimes, that and getting lost in the medina.
One of the main reason we enjoyed it, was that it was not simply a touristy market place where salesmen were trying to flog you anything they could, it was home to many and that was clearly visible. In between lost tourists you would find children playing, women going on strolls, men heading to Mosques; these are just samples of normal life you would find while wandering the narrow streets.
The medina is organised in such a way that the souks and mosques are clustered north of the central Jemaa el Fna square, while budget hotels, riads and palaces are to the south.
South of Jemaa el Fna are two of the major sights in the medina, El Bahia palace and El Badi palace. El Badi palace was the royal of Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour in the 16thcentury. The original building was quite an ornate affair however it was complete ransacked by Sultan Moulay Ismail who used the materials to decorate his own palace elsewhere. Nowadays the palace is a collection of ruins which barely eludes to its prolific past.
What el Badi lacks in beauty, El Bahia makes up for it in tenfold. La Bahia (literally means ‘The Beatiful was started by grand vizier Si Moussa in the 19th century and embellished Abu bou Ahmed. Bahia’s story is an interesting one as a warlord Pasha claimed the palace to entertain French who were so impressed that 3 years they kicked out the Pashaand turned the palace into the home of the the protectorate’s résident-généraux. The courts are filled with painted, gilded, inlaid woodwork ceilings and sunburst zellijes. The harem where Ahmeds wives and concubines were houses are opulently ornamented with original wovensilk panels, stained-glass windows, intricate marquetry and ceilings painted with rose bouquets.
We spent a whole morning in the two palace going from the barren and hot (under the morning sun) Badi palace to the fresh and shades Bahia where we relaxed and took in our beautiful surroundings.
A great aspect about the medina is that the people who live and work there are so used to seeing lost tourist that they immediately tell you that they think you are headed in the wrong direction. Then there are the people who think you are headed towards the tannery (even though I didn’t realise there was one in Marrakesh). They gladly take you to a tannery where you are introduced to a ‘manager’ he gives you a tour of the tanneries and you can even pick the language of the tour. You are then taken to a carpet/leather shop and offered tea while they show you their work.
At this point I managed to avoid buying a carpet (unlike my friend Sam and her three carpet experience). We simply told the seller we weren’t interested and he simply said “Thank you for coming” and let us leave. Good ending? Well the ‘manager’ of the tannery asked me for a 200 dirham ‘tip’ for his tour, which I unwittingly gave only to realise later I gave him €20… This was our ONLY ‘tip’(negative) experience in Morocco!
Personally one of the highlights of the medina is the Ali ben Yousef Medersa. This Quranic learning centre founded in the 14thcentury was once the largest and most splendid in North Africa. Th courtyard of the medersa is filled with carved Atlas cedar cupolas and mashrabiyya (wooden-lattice screen) balconies. The medersa’s courtyard is a mindboggling profusion of Hispano-Moresque ornament: five-colour zellij (mosaic) walls; stucco archways, with Iraqi-style Kufic letters ending in leaves; cedar windows with weather-worn carved vines; and a curved mihrab (eastern-facing niche) of prized, milky-white Italian Carrara marble. The place absolutely stunning and so peaceful that you easily stay there for a while taking in the gorgeous architecture.
Not far from the Medersa, is the Marrakesh Musuem, which is housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace. The palace was restored and converted into the museum it is today. The museum exhibits of both modern and traditional Moroccan art together with fine examples of historical books, coins and pottery of Moroccan Jewish, Berber and Arab cultures. However the palace itself is a marvel to be in filled with fountains in the central courtyard, traditional seating areas, a hammam and intricate tile work and carvings.
The chaotic medina, filled with countless sights can tire out a person quite quickly especially on a hot day. On one particular day after spending most of the morning shopping and were perched so we decided to visit a place I’d seen online and the lonely planet recommended, the Terasse des Epices. The place is nice blend of modern and traditional. The food is nice and they even give you a sun hat if you are sitting in the sun.
Having visited a few medina’s on my travels already, this is one is by far my favourite! Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the souks, I simply decided to write a separate post about the Marrakesh souk experience.