Guesthouse owner Anna Mzwena finds delight in the everyday in her home city
Marrakech is, even more than most cities, changing all the time. One old man remembers when there was nothing but an empty stretch of road between the old Post Office in Guéliz and the Koutoubia mosque; now the road, Ave Mohammed V, is the main artery of the new town, lined with buildings and parks. Another woman speaks of how, when she arrived 23 years ago, the roads of the Medina were unpaved; there were no tourists, just a few straggling travellers.
Since the end of French colonial rule in 1956, but accelerating since the accession of King Mohammed VI in 1999, Marrakech has seen dramatic change. Gated communities are springing up in the outskirts of the city; golf courses are appearing in areas where there were once shanty towns; the shanty towns, in turn, have been pushed even further out. Moroccans who lived for generations in the Medina, the medieval walled city, have moved. With them, some older Moroccans say, has gone the life and soul of the city, making the new neighbourhoods busy and bustling, while the smartened-up Medina caters to tourists and European incomers buying up the bigger houses.
A so-called refinement of Moroccan life also seems to have taken place. Hammams, the traditional public bath houses, were once something of an institution in a city where private houses have little, if any, running hot water; now many are being converted to spas. Riads, townhouses built around a courtyard and inhabited by extended families, are becoming boutique hotels; travel outside the Medina is by air-conditioned SUV, though the narrow roads of the Medina itself are still crowded with bicycles, scooters and even donkeys.
Yet it is still possible to discover the everyday pleasures of living in this vibrant city. It may be taking your tanjia (a deep clay pot used for cooking lamb and chicken) to the basement shop where there are glowing embers; baking your first bread in the public ovens or farram; watching traditional tiles being made; buying cow’s milk fresh from the pail. Eating out in the over-priced restaurants is far less satisfying than getting to know the local stalls and vendors you like best, stopping and having the best panache (similar to a smoothie, but better) at Souk Khemis, or eating great food at some unobtrusive café without all the distracting frills. Driving around the city on a scooter is also strangely thrilling. Though the traffic at first appears wild and disorderly, you soon learn to work with its ebb and flow, filtering off from main roads, tearing through souks at high speed, taking shortcuts along pavements and across public squares… the anarchy is just part of the excitement.
Still, the most quintessential Marrakech experience is visiting the local hammam in winter. After a week at home without hot water, the sensation when it hits your cold body is a joy: the warm, humid air rising up to suffuse you; the vaulted rooms carrying the soft, dull echo of other bathers. It is a traditional ritual of calm and spiritual wellbeing, one of Marrakech’s genuine old-fashioned pleasures.
Getting there Emirates flies via Casablanca to Marrakech from Dhs4,375 return (including tax)
Where to stay Dar Malak, a charming riad in Marrakech (+33 1 42 08 18 33) Food stalls at Jemaa El Fna Early evening in the square sees the arrival of massed butane gas canisters, trestle tables and tilly lamps to form an array of food stalls that together create a huge outdoor restaurant that offers a great survey of Moroccan soul food. Several places serve harira (a thick soup of lamb, lentils and chickpeas). Similarly popular are grilled brochettes, kefta (minced, spiced lamb) and merguez (spicy sausage; stall 31 apparently sells the best in Morocco). Menus and prices hang above some stalls, but it’s easy enough to just point, and prices are so low they’re hardly worth worrying about. Discs of bread serve as cutlery. Few germs will survive the charcoal grilling, but the plates are a different matter – the same water is used to wash up all night, so it’s safest to ask to be served on paper.
Area 6.4sq km
Where is it? South-western Morocco, on a plain 40km from the Atlas mountains.
Climate Sunny all year round; summers are hot with little humidity, while winters are mild with cold nights.
Ethnic mix Arab and Berber, with a large European community consisting mainly of French, German, Italian, English, Spanish and Swiss nationalities.
Major sights Jemaa El Fna, Ben Youssef Merdersa, souks, Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, Badii Palace, traditional tanneries at Bab Debbagh.
Insiders’ tips For fresh produce, Sidi Youssef souk; grills in the kasbah, often serving until 3am; seafood at the Bab Doukkala restaurant behind the fish shop.
Where’s the buzz The souks, Jemaa El Fna, upmarket shops and fashionable cafés on the rue de la Liberté in Guéliz.
Also known as El Hamra (‘the red city’). The whole town is a rich salmon pink colour, the mud walls made of the ruddy local soil. Any new building must be coloured the same way.
Came under French rule 1912
Number of mosques More than 500. The local saying is, ‘At every step there is a mosque’.
First female Muslim guides Mourchidats were introduced in Morocco in 2006. They are permitted to conduct religious discussions, but cannot lead prayers.
Typical produce Leather goods, babouches (slippers), carpets, ceramics, lanterns.
Superstition Belief in evil spirits, or ‘jinn’, is widespread. Spirits are often blamed for a range of ills, including bad luck, sudden antisocial behaviour or illness.
Traditional dishes Tagine, couscous, briouettes (ouarka pastry filled with meat, rice or cheese and fried), pastilla (ouarka pastry filled with pigeon or chicken, dusted with cinnamon and sugar), rghaif (Moroccan thick pancakes), mint tea, and panache (a smoothie-type drink).