Let the moment be your guide

Characters and commerce greet the traveler to a tradepost centuries old

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 18, 2010

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MARRAKECH — As guidebook authors, it pains us to admit that we had the most fun in Marrakech when we ignored the travel guides we had brought along.

On our first morning in the city, we intended to tackle the famed souks, or markets, by following one book’s detailed itinerary. As we waited outside the Koutoubia mosque to cross the busy intersection to the medina, the old city, we were approached by a nicely dressed middle-aged man. “Crossing the street is really for the swift-limbed,’’ he observed as we all sought an opening in the chaotic, high-speed flow of cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, donkey carts, and horse-drawn carriages. He pointed to the faintly delineated crosswalk, calling it “more decorative than imperative,’’ and began to dance across. We followed his lead and unwittingly put ourselves in his hands.

Safely on the other side, Abdul introduced himself, offered the “big welcome!’’ that almost all Marrakshis use with English speakers, and warmed to his pitch. “Today is Tuesday when the Berbers come from the mountains to sell their goods at the government crafts store,’’ he said. “You can get the best goods at the best prices.’’ His expression turned ominous. “If you buy a cheap leather coat,’’ he warned, “it will smell when it rains.’’

All four guidebooks had warned against impromptu “guides,’’ but Abdul won us over. Before we could say “Ali Baba,’’ he was showing us courtyards with tiny rooms where he said Berber traders sleep when they come to the city, and delivering us to a rug dealer in a spacious old riad, a traditional house with central courtyard. Although we were not in the market for a carpet, the proprietor pulled out rug after rug (“for the pleasure of your eyes’’) and encouraged us to take photos.

When we left the shop carpetless and still en route to the government crafts shop, we realized that the presence of Abdul, whose motivation seemed unclear, offered a form of protection. He waited while we took photos of the busy streets. Other “guides’’ kept their distance.

When we arrived at the cavernous government shop, Abdul introduced us to a salesperson with handshakes all around (the Marrakshis are a touchy bunch), then vanished without a tip. His cut, we realized, would come later. The salesman followed us around and gathered a pile of everything we touched. We might be immune to carpets, but ethnic jewelry is another matter. We finally chose three Berber necklaces, bargained a price, then renegotiated a lower one. Transaction completed, we found another “guide,’’ Ali, waiting to whisk us off to a spice shop.

Every Marrakshi spice shop extols the virtues of “curry’’ (fenugreek, actually) for fish; explains how the ubiquitous “ras el hanout’’ is a mix of three dozen spices; insists that some unpronounceable forked root enhances virility (“natural Viagra’’); and swears that eucalyptus cures snoring. Ali was clearly disappointed by our meager purchase of two packets of spices, but rallied and insisted that we visit an antiquities shop.

We were not interested in antiquities. He was undeterred. It would be our chance to see an ornate 16th-century riad with a marble hammam, the traditional bath. Had we wanted to transform our tiny Cambridge apartment into a set designer’s idea of the “Arabian Nights,’’ it would have been a great place to shop. But we were tiring of Ali and vice versa. When he suggested another shop, we declined. Then we said “no’’ more firmly and he pointed us in the direction of the main square, Jemaa El Fna.

Marrakech was founded as an outpost at the end of the Saharan camel caravans, and, in just a few hours, we had discovered the traits that made the Marrakshis such successful traders. They are enterprising, friendly, and adept at using humor to win over visitors. Go with the flow and you will interact on a more personal level with the locals than you ever would in more reserved cities. And although the Marrakshis are persistent and tough bargainers, adopt the same playful but firm manner and they eventually take “no’’ for an answer.

From Abdul we also learned the practical technique of navigating the labyrinthine streets by using the minarets of neighborhood mosques as landmarks — a critical skill once we set out on our own to see some of the city’s main sights. (For the record, the guidebooks also helped.)

Since non-Muslims are excluded from the mosques, we had to settle for visiting the Ben Youssef Medersa, a former religious school. The state-owned museum’s decorative tiles and stucco carvings make it a prime example of the 16th-century golden age of Moroccan architecture. Marrakech is all about style, so it was no surprise to encounter a fashion shoot next to the pool.

Hoping to become more discerning shoppers when we returned to the souk, we studied the displays of historic embroidery, ceramics, leather tooling, and metal-working in the decorative arts museum in the Dar Si Said palace. European and American designers have never been shy about drawing inspiration from Morocco, but at least Yves Saint Laurent gave something back to the city by rescuing and restoring the lush Majorelle Garden that had been created by French painter Jacques Majorelle. The oasis of shady foliage, flowing water, and startlingly blue architecture spoke to the Algerian-born couturier, whose ashes are scattered on the premises. The site’s shop is full of clothing and decorative accessories that meld Moroccan tradition with European sophistication. They were too tasteful for our taste, and too expensive. Besides, the shop won’t bargain.

If Marrakech were a solar system, the museums and garden would be the cool outer planets, sailing along in distant orbits. The hot, swirling center would be Jemaa El Fna, the medina’s sprawling market plaza. Nothing in our travels had prepared us for the sheer energy, the masses of teeming humanity, and the utter exoticism of Jemaa El Fna.

Traders in desert garb spread out lumps of amber and bottles of argan oil on their blankets. Basket-weavers squatted in the plaza, surrounded by their wares. Beneath hastily pitched umbrellas, snake charmers blew their nasal-sounding flutes to awaken their cobras. Burdened with enormous tasseled headdresses and bandoliers of brass cups, water sellers sought out thirsty travelers. (They seem to have eyes in the backs of their heads and no doubt earn more by posing for photos than by selling water.) Berber boys danced as the tassels on their fezes twirled. And wherever a crowd had gathered, at the center was a musician or storyteller.

Food and drink literally brought us to our senses and confirmed the tactile, tangible reality of Jemaa El Fna. We sipped “tangy,’’ freshly squeezed juice from an orange vendor; bit into the unctuous flesh of Medjool dates; and perked up at the brisk scent of bruised mint bundled by the armload for tea. Our newfound ability to convey that “no’’ means “no’’ kept Barbary apes off our shoulders, trained cobras from snaking around our limbs, and henna tattoo artists from covering every inch of our exposed skin.

But sometimes it is better to say “yes.’’ One evening when we no doubt looked as overwhelmed as we felt, we succumbed to a guide’s offer of a “good restaurant with wine and beer.’’ (In theory, Moroccans do not drink alcoholic beverages, which are served only in places that cater to tourists.) He led us out of the plaza and down a dark alley to La Maison de Marrakech, where we dined in a courtyard next to a bubbling fountain filled with rose petals. It was hard to say which we enjoyed most: the peace and quiet, the chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon, or the bottle of chilled rosé from the nearby Atlas Mountains.

Most nights we simply grabbed a couple of seats at one of the outdoor grill restaurants that pop up on Jemaa El Fna shortly before nightfall. The smell of roasting meat was irresistible — as was the street theater of the greeters trying to outdo each other with clever come-ons. “I have an air-conditioned seat right here for you,’’ one would intone. “Good food — five-star Michelin,’’ another would joke. Sadik at stall 65 spoke more English. “I love Kevin Costner,’’ he enthused to each approaching tourist. “‘Waterworld’ is a great movie!’’ His fellow greeter identified himself as “Hasan Antonio Banderas. Come eat with me.’’

And eventually we did, as smoke and steam curled against the ruddy sky of sunset.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
Ben Youssef Medersa
Place Ben Youssef
Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., $5.65.
Dar Si Said
Rue Riad El Zaitoun El Jedid
Wed-Mon 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $2.25.
Majorelle Garden
Avenue Yacoub El Mansour
Daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m., May-September; 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m., October-April, $3.40.
Where to eat
La Maison de Marrakech
Off Jemaa El Fna
Serene restaurant in courtyard of restored old riad features classical Moroccan dishes and small but select wine list. Main courses $11-$17.
Café-Restaurant Argana
1-2 Jemaa El Fna
Balcony tables overlooking the plaza are the most popular at this casual restaurant with better than average tagines and couscous dishes. Main courses $3-$9.
Le Marocain (at La Mamounia)
Avenue Bab Jdid
Luxurious dining in La Mamounia gardens embraces both traditional Moroccan dishes as well as such contemporary interpretations as monkfish saffron tagine. Main courses $36-$47.
Where to stay
Jnane Mogador
116 Riad Zitoun Kedim, Derb Sidi Bouloukat
Rooms in this traditional riad just outside Jemaa El Fna are arrayed around the central courtyard. Property also features its own reasonably priced hammam (traditional bath) and rooftop restaurant and bar. Doubles $43-$54, air-conditioned suite with private terrace $85-$96. Set meals $10-$17.
Hivernage Hotel & Spa
Corner of Avenue Echouhada and Rue des Temples
Located outside the medina in one of the New City’s most desirable neighborhoods, this international-style hotel has an outdoor pool and full spa facilities. It is very popular with European travelers. Deluxe rooms feature small private hammams. Standard double room $247, deluxe room with hammam $292.
La Mamounia
Avenue Bab Jdid
One of the world’s legendary luxury hotels, La Mamounia reopened last September after three years of renovations to regain its status as the touchstone of Moroccan design and service. Spacious, beautifully appointed rooms. If not staying here, at least visit for a drink at one of the garden bars. Doubles in summer from $445, from $670 at other times.