First task in Marrakesh: Get Lost!

Getting lost in Marrakesh is pretty simple. Head into the Medina and take about 3 steps. Congratulations; you’re now almost certainly lost.

Okay, so maybe it takes a few more than three steps, but not many. The Medina is a warren of narrow alleyways, filled with shops and some somewhat aggressive shop-keepers. Yes, there are some signs that label the alleys but that is only useful if you’ve got a map with corresponding names, and I’ve yet to find anything that comes close to that. Add on top of that a rather bustling community of kids who make it their goal to convince you that you’re lost so that they can take you on a bit of a hike in exchange for some baksheesh and the whole system is a mess.

Sunset over the Jemma El Fna in Marrakesh

It took us about 5 minutes from when we stepped out of our riad until we were on the wrong track. The map the riad owners gave us was great and we were doing fine until we listened to shouts of “No, that way is closed” and quickly found ourselves without bearings and without hope.

Cool view along the alleyways of the Medina. Sadly things look VERY different 15 minutes or 4 hours later, making navigation quite difficult.

Fortunately the “guide” kids eventually do point you in the correct direction so for the low, low price of a few Dirham we were on our way to where we wanted to be: Jemma El Fna. The heart of the Medina, Jemma El Fna is truly a sight to behold. A combination of market, restaurant, dance hall, boxing ring and circus sideshow, the not so orthogonal nor quadrilateral town square is the center of life in town.

The food scene is somewhat otherworldly. A cloud of smoke rises from the center of the square where scores of fires burn, each feeding the oven of a stand with a singular focus. Want lamb sausage? There’s a whole row of vendors vying for your business. Ditto if it is fish, citrus, dried fruits or desserts that you’re after. Each stall is numbered, making it slightly easier to find (or avoid) a particular proprietor on a return visit.

Having been told of a great lamb sausage at stall #31 during a random chance encounter with a knife-wielding Brit at a bar in New York City shortly before the trip we knew where our first meal was to be. And he was right, the sausage was delicious. The other options, just okay.

IMGP7945Particularly interesting about dining at #31 was that they didn’t seem to advertise. Unlike the other stalls which had folks chasing after customers, begging them for a look at the menu or shouting random phrases to entice you to return (some of our favorites included: “My mother is Jaime Oliver,” “47 sends you to heaven,” and the ever popular “Finger-licking good!”), there were a few like #31 where folks stood 2-3 deep behind the seated customers, anxiously awaiting a seat at the table.

After a bit of wandering about the square, working (mostly unsuccessfully) to establish bearings, we decided to stop for a quick dessert at another stall. At #71 there was a tasty ginger tea and dessert of some sort being served. I have no idea what I ate but it was pretty good. A bit of cardamom in there, I believe.

IMG00564-20101226-1909After dessert it was time to navigate our way home. Plenty of “students” along the route to tell us that open roads were closed, promise us that they just wanted to talk and not take money or otherwise try to screw with us. Indeed, it seemed that there was a network of them, passing us off from one to the next as we crossed streets or turned corners. Each kid had his territory and he was determined to try to milk the visitors therein, even if it meant cursing us out as we walked away without needing his services.

I guess he really did just want to practice his English for free after all.

Read more of my Marrakesh adventures here!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.