Marrakech: City With a Rosy Hue

The souks

Goods on display on a narrow street in the middle of Marrakech’s souks.

Goods on display on a narrow street in the middle of Marrakech’s souks.

The souks, or open-air markets, are central to the tourist itinerary in Marrakech.

Many of the markets are identified with specific goods, such as jewelry, carpets or spices. However, our guide said that almost all themed souks have moved away from the single-minded focus on specific products. The dyers’ souk, for example, was very colorful with the signature dyed fabrics and yarn draped overhead, but it seemed

Colorfully dyed yarns hanging over the narrow streets of the Marrakech dyers’ souk, along with other goods available for sale.

Colorfully dyed yarns hanging over the narrow streets of the Marrakech dyers’ souk, along with other goods available for sale.

remarkably truncated.

None of this changes the essence of the souk experience — it is a maze of narrow walking streets and alleyways that never head anywhere in a straight line, hugged on both sides by tiny or middling-sized open-front shops where merchants sit with their goods, sometimes pitching their wares to passersby.

A cat claims its space by rubbing its head over some of the goods in a shop found in the Marrakech souks.

A cat claims its space by rubbing its head over some of the goods in a shop found in the Marrakech souks.

We viewed an amazing array of Moroccan goods, but carpets remained my favorite. The visuals were fascinating with lots of people walking about, some in traditional clothes, especially the women, some veiled. Also, some of Marrakech’s abundant cat population — apparently fed and more than tolerated by locals — made themselves comfortable in the shops.

My greatest fear was getting lost — or run over. There were no cars (no room) but guys on motor scooters roared about with seeming abandon.

Our guided tour included a drive outside the walled center to the so-called tanners’ souk, which is really an area where people work with leather. It’s a foul place where processing leather means soaking it in vats of urine. We did not linger.

Next day, I returned alone to the souks with a sightseeing goal in mind. I

Carpet display on the roof of a huge shop selling carpets and a wide range of other Moroccan products, in Marrakech.

Carpet display on the roof of a huge shop selling carpets and a wide range of other Moroccan products, in Marrakech.

was never sure I would make my goal; nothing in the souk area matched anything I saw on my map. In broken French, I asked many for directions; they (always men, usually merchants) were invariably helpful.

I blew off my last Moroccan coins on a piece of Tuareg jewelry. The Tuareg are a Berber-speaking, generally nomadic Saharan people. Tuareg men are called “blue men of the Sahara” because their hand-dyed blue veils stain the skin.

My merchant, a Tuareg himself, wrapped my head in his scarf, handed me a gun and — with my camera — took

The author, Nadine Godwin, imitating a Tuareg (up to a point) in a photo taken by a Tuareg merchant in the Marrakech souks.

The author, Nadine Godwin, imitating a Tuareg (up to a point) in a photo taken by a Tuareg merchant in the Marrakech souks.

photos of me in this nutty get-up.

My newfound friend, who was a bit citified and didn’t look especially blue, insisted I spend “two minutes only” with another Tuareg who sold spices and scents.

It wasn’t two minutes, but this merchant, who spoke incredibly fast in English, was quite entertaining when talking about his spices and scents. If I had had Moroccan currency left, I would have bought something in gratitude for the show, but I don’t remember a thing he said.

Traditional architecture

The refurbished Ben Youssef Madrasah, which illustrates components of traditional Moroccan architecture, including the carved wood, delicately sculpted plaster and hand-cut tiles.

The refurbished Ben Youssef Madrasah, which illustrates components of traditional Moroccan architecture, including the carved wood, delicately sculpted plaster and hand-cut tiles.

My main purpose in walking solo across the souks was to lay eyes on the Ben Youssef Madrasah, a former Islamic school that dates from the 16th century.

The main attraction at the madrasah is a courtyard, where visitors find the four components of traditional Moroccan architecture: carved wood, ornately sculpted plaster, hand-cut tiles and, finally, marble.

The most impressive of the four was the plaster, from which the artisans here carved numerous pine cone and palm motifs to produce a three-dimensional effect.

The beautiful work in the public space contrasts with the tiny dark student cells that surround the courtyard.

The same elements of Moroccan architecture are on display at the 16th century Saadian Tombs. The school and the tombs are reminiscent of Moorish architecture that travelers typically seek out in Seville and other points in Spain.

In the Bahia Palace, one of several carved ceilings covered with delicate hand-painted designs and Arabic script.

In the Bahia Palace, one of several carved ceilings covered with delicate hand-painted designs and Arabic script.

A 19th century iteration of the Moroccan style also appears on the tourist circuit. This is Bahia Palace, which has benefited from recent restoration. The wood ceilings, painted with geometric designs and Arabic script, were the palace’s most impressive feature.

All three attractions are now museums.

The front door of La Mamounia in 1980.

The front door of La Mamounia in 1980.

One more note:

La Mamounia, which sits in a 17-acre park where a palace once stood, has been an

The recently refurbished entrance to La Mamounia.

The recently refurbished entrance to La Mamounia.

attraction in its own right for 80 years.

In 1980, when I first saw it, the hotel reflected traditional Moroccan architecture. But, between 2006 and 2009, its owners spent about $156 million for a complete remake. Considerable care was given to recreating traditional design features — which were all handmade — and it shows.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

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