Follow the hypnotic sounds to the main square and market place of Marrakech – be entertained and eat well in amongst the hustle and bustle.
Morocco is a destination I am incredibly enthusiastic about – with a flight time of around 4 hours and flights from as little as £59 return (yes, £59 return), you get a unique cultural experience without the time and costs of a long-haul trip.
Owing to increased accessibility in recent years (Easyjet fly daily), Marrakech is certainly the most well-trodden of the Moroccan cities, offering a manageable introduction to life in a busy Islamic city in North Africa.
The subject of my blog post today is the Jemaa el Fna, the large main square and market place of Marrakech, located in the medina quarter (old city). Surrounded by a labyrinth of ancient sprawling souks (in which you will get lost), you know you are walking towards the square by following your ears – banging drums, sounding horns, the Islamic call to prayer – and there is no mistaking your location in North Africa.
The Jemaa el Fna by day
By day, the Jemaa el Fna is comparatively empty, with vendors selling freshly squeezed orange juice and snacks such as dates and nuts; some trinket stalls also spill out from the souks.
There are snake charmers, water sellers, magic healers, fortune tellers, and monkey handlers, all ready to pose for photographs for a small fee.
If you fancy getting a henna tattoo then this is your place; but if you don’t, then beware – upon finishing a tattoo on my foot (which I had asked for), the lady then grabbed my friend’s foot and, despite protests, gave her an identical tattoo (these ladies do not take no for an answer)! To top it off, in true British style, my friend then paid for it!
If you happen to suffer from a toothache while you are in Marrakech, you will find many tooth pullers are on hand in the Jemaa el Fna to help you. You can find them sitting behind a large tray of pulled teeth…
It is at night that the Jemaa el Fna comes to life
As the sun sets, crowds gather, the banging of drums gets louder and tens of food stalls suddenly appear, as if out of nowhere.
The food stalls
The stalls are numbered, so you can easily remember where you have eaten each night. All vendors have much the same menu, but we were recommended stall number 1 by the owner of our riad, and we loved it so much that we didn’t feel the need to venture to any other on subsequent nights.
Food is prepared fresh on the spot, and include fish, meat and vegetable dishes. You can pay as little as 40 dirham (around £3) for an array of different delicious foods.
So, what is on the menu?
When you sit down, you are brought bread and spicy tomato dip to nibble on while you peruse the menu. In addition to the following dishes, side orders of couscous, grilled aubergine and peppers, potato fritters, and tomato salads are on offer.
A slow-cooked stew named after the pot in which it is cooked, the sight of a tagine (the pot) is ubiquitous in Morocco – you can’t even walk up a mountainside without seeing the cone-shaped lids lined up with big juicy tomato resting on the top. Usually made with either chicken or lamb/mutton and vegetables, tagines also comprise a medley of other ingredients such as olives, dates, apricots and a complex mix of spices. The tagine is placed over coals, and the cone-shaped lid traps the steam and returns the condensed liquid to the pot.
Look out for future blog posts on tagines – I brought a large terracotta tagine home with me and have been perfecting my favourite tagine recipe to share with you. I cooked it for Christmas dinner last year!
A tanjia is simply another meat stew. Again named after the pot, the tanjia is often referred to as “bachelor’s stew” owing to it’s popularity with single men. Before work, the bachelor takes his tanjia (the pot, that is) to the souks, buys whatever meat and veg he wants for dinner and places in the pot with some spices and garlic. He then takes it to a public oven (often adjacent to a hammam as they use the same hot ashes that heat the baths) and the meal is slow cooked. Said Bachelor picks it up on his way home from work – et violà, dinner for one.
Now, I am not suggesting that your tanjia at the Jemaa el Fna would be prepared quite in this way, but it is a nice story…
A rather unusual combination of flavours in this sweet poultry pie, a speciality from the city of Fes.
Meat, offal or vegetable kebabs (brochette is a French term for skewer).
Tomato and lentil soup, often used to break the fast at sunset during Ramadan.
A Moroccan speciality – snails cooked in an anise and hot pepper broth.
I have to admit I did not try this as the thought made me feel rather queazy – but not as much as the next item…
Broiled in lamb stock. I didn’t try this. No comment.
One thing that stood out for me is that, despite the unavoidable tourist presence, the evening entertainment is not all for show.
With magicians, musicians and storytellers speaking in Berber Arabic, you really do get the impression that this is a night out for the locals – families with young children, couples, and groups of friends alike.
We joined the crowds to watch a play – we couldn’t understand it, but the audience were laughing raucously and we wanted to know what was so funny. A local man told me that the “woman” dancing was in fact a man (I had guessed, but nevertheless it was useful to have it clarified; he explained that it is inappropriate for a woman to be providing the entertainment in this way). He was kind enough to explain what was happening so I could follow the story.
Jemaa el Fna mini bites
- Don’t be afraid to go into the Jemaa el Fna without a guide. I read an article stating that it is not safe to go on your own, but this is ridiculous and you would be missing out for no reason if you follow this overcautious advice.
- Be careful when posing for photographs with snake charmers, water sellers etc – they will always want to be paid, and you might be surprised by how much they are asking for after the photos have been taken. They also have a tendency to get aggressive if you refuse to pay the amount they ask for (I know this first hand, twice) – so I would advice negotiating this in advance, even though it does seem a bit silly.
- Don’t be too concerned about hygiene in the Jemaa food stalls – they are well-established tourists hotspots and are inspected regularly as if they are restaurants.
- Take a trip up to the firsts floor of a café adjacent to the square – you will get a nice view and be able to people watch and enjoy the square in relative tranquility.
- Be very, very careful of pickpockets.
Marrakech mini bites
- As mentioned previously, cheap flights to Marrakech can be purchased from Easyjet; however, my ridiculously cheap flight was with Royal Air Maroc, so be sure to check their website as well for good deals.
- December is a good time to travel to Morocco – the weather is warm and it is a great opportunity to shop for Christmas presents in the souks.
- You are not confined to Marrakech – most riads and hotels offer day trips to the Atlas Mountains where you can hike and drop in for tea at a Berber village.
- For a traditional, yet still luxurious, experience, I recommend staying in a riad rather than a hotel. A hotel could be anywhere; a riad is unique.