We had arrived in Morocco, settled in our riad (recap here), and were getting ready for our night walking tour through the Marrakech Medina to acclimate us to the town.
The Medina is the old (very old – the UNESCO site was founded in 1072), walled town of Marrakech and is typical in many North African countries. Inside the Medina are super narrow streets (it is car free, but not motorbike free and a LOT of time is spent dodging these bikes), and a maze of buildings that all look the same.
It was the knowledge that it was easy to get lost in the Medina, more specifically the souks within the Medina, that led to my decision to book the tour. The souks are Arab markets that are divided based on the goods being sold, and are a labyrinth of streets leading in every direction. The Marrakech souk is the largest in Morocco and it didn’t seem like a fun idea to get turned around without a little idea of where we were.
I had booked the The Magic of Marrakech by Night private tour through withlocals.com, and chose Jafar as our guide. We met at the Koutoubia Mosque, which meant another walk through the Jemaa el Fnaa square. It is crazy to watch how the square transforms from day to night. During the day, the market is full of food stalls and souvenir stands, along with the sad monkeys and snake charmers. But at night, the square is cleared and out rolls a ton of food stands (complete with seating areas) and lots of bands and entertainers. We headed to our tour as the transformation was taking place. It was impressive really, how much it changes.
We met our guide at the Mosque and got a quick history lesson. The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest in Marrakech, and is actually the second mosque on the grounds. Next to it is almost a graveyard memorializing the first mosque on the grounds that was destroyed during one of the battles for the city. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside, so we enjoyed it from the outside. This was the first Muslim country I had ever been too, and as we walked, the call to prayers began. The first one begins at dawn and then takes place four more times during the day. I’ll admit it was different to hear – there is an actual man who sings the prayers and they are heard throughout the city thanks to the speakers on the rooftops.
From the Mosque, we walked through the “electronics” area of the Medina – where you could buy any and all of the cell phones you could ever want. We wandered through the side streets – and it was crazy because as loud as the squares and main streets could be between the music and motor bikes, the side streets were so quiet! I was not expecting that at all. There were hidden courtyards and cute streets and ornate doors. It was really fun to see.
From the side streets, we found ourselves in Bab Ftouh square, and visited one of the famed herbalist shops of Marrakech, filled with spices and natural ingredients for health products and ALL of the Moroccan oil you could ever want. We spent a long time there – trying the oils and natural products – and walked off with pure Arnica oil, Moroccan oil and some Vics-smelling items that are 10x stronger than what you buy in the stores and will clear your sinuses with one sniff.
The tour winds through the clothing souks, the olive souks, the peanuts and sweets souks – it really is amazing the amount of goods for sale in this packed area. We made our way to a restaurant that on any other day – John and I would NEVER have walked into (yes, we’re snobs but it did not look clean!) And this is why you never, ever judge a book by its cover – because it was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had. And it was so good, we made a mental note of where it was and returned not once, but twice.
Our guide ordered Chicken Tanjia and Mint Tea for us to enjoy. Tanjia is both the name of the food and the dish is it cooked in. It is a meat-heavy dish cooked in a clay urn and is actually taken to the same furnace that heats the water for the Hammams (the Moroccan spas). It is only found in Marrakech – and mostly in little side restaurants. I’m quite certain that we were the only tourists in the restaurant all of the times we went. The food is poured from the pot onto the plate (literally only meat), served with bread, and properly eaten with your fingers. It was so, so good.
We walked off the food a little bit by heading back to Jemaa el Fnaa, which was now in full swing with food stalls and entertainers. It was smoky and loud and crazy and I was so happy when our guide took us to a lookout point to enjoy the view from above. We sat there and had a drink (a Pepsi – you’ll have a hard time finding alcohol in Morocco, although I’ve read it is possible).
We sat for awhile before we took one last walk through the square before saying goodbye to our guide. And this is where I learned the hard way that it is absolutely true that if an entertainer even sees your camera out and thinks you are taking a picture, they will come and ask for money. I was taking a video of the square as a whole when one member of a band nearby came up with his hand out. Thankfully, the guide paid him in coins and he went away, but it could have been super awkward.
We parted ways and made our way back to the riad – feeling much more comfortable with our surroundings and Marrakech as a whole. I definitely recommend starting your visit to Morocco this way, especially if you have never been to a country like this.
Next up: Our first full day in Marrakech and the worst tour guide we have ever had.