A Wander in the Medina


If you asked me to summarise overarching impression of Marrakech in one word, it would be ‘colour’. Nowhere is that more evident than in the souks of the old medina, where every nook and cranny seems to be alive with all the colours of the rainbow, illuminated in the shafts of sunlight slanting into the narrow streets between the shops and riads.

On our third day, having spent the morning by the pool, we called Mr Driss and headed to the medina. Having arrived later, Amah had missed our first wander around the meandering lanes that make up the souks, and she was dying to explore. The clouds that had hung over the city the previous day were long gone, and by the time we’d crossed Jemâa el-Fnaa we were grateful to duck into the shady entrance to Souk El Kessabine and escape the blazing sun.

Jemâa el-Fnaa, Marrakech

Jemâa el-Fnaa, Marrakech

Entrance to Souk El Kessabine, Jemâa el-Fnaa, Marrakech

The instant you’re over the threshold into the souk, you find yourself gazing open-mouthed at everything that surrounds you. They say you can find anything you could ever want in the souk, and it’s not hard to believe. Within minutes Amah was negotiating with the traders for argan oil lip balm like a pro, while I was looking at all the sequinned babouche slippers and thinking about a little person back at home who would like them very much …

Spices for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Black soap and cosmetics for sale in the souk, Marrakech

A shop filled with colourful babouche slippers in the souk, Marrakech

Colourful babouche slippers in the souk, Marrakech

Argan oil lip balm successfully haggled down to pennies, we continued our wandering through the labyrinthine streets, casting our eyes over tables laden with silver, turquoise and amber jewellery and cheerful embroidered straw bags and hats.

Silver and gemstone jewellery for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Embroidered slogans on straw clutch bags in the souk, Marrakech

Before long we emerged into an open square, blinking in the sudden sunlight as we picked our way between more stalls piled high with every manner of Moroccan handicrafts and tacky souvenirs. Spying pretty tea garden terraces perched atop the buildings surrounding the square, we realised we were really rather thirsty, and went in search of refreshment.

Open square in the medina, Marrakech

Handmade goods for sale in the square, Marrakech

Handmade goods for sale in the square, Marrakech

Cafe with rooftop terrace in the medina, Marrakech

By some lucky accident, we stumbled upon a place that had been recommended in the guide book thoughtfully left beside the beds at our hotel. Nomad is one of the top-rated restaurants in the medina, and although we weren’t there for the food, the smells coming from the kitchen as we passed by on our way to the roof terrace definitely made me wish we were. The interior is a decor junkie’s dream, too – serious home inspo in those bamboo chairs and multicoloured textiles.

Interior of Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

Colourful tapestry chairs at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

The view from the rooftop is pretty good too. I really loved seeing the city from different perspectives. You’d never have noticed that pink and yellow graffiti on the right from the ground.

View over the medina from the rooftop terrace at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

Catherine and Amah in embroidered straw hats at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

pinkschmink and Antoine on the rooftop terrace at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

pinkschmink taking in the view of the medina from the rooftop terrace at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

Outfit details: although I’m annoyed with Boohoo because of the naked dress debacle, I can’t fault this airy blouse or these palazzo pants. Sunglasses (on repeat throughout the trip because I only took one pair) are these ones from M&S. And now back to Nomad …

The plan had been mint tea until Antoine spotted what looked like a mojito a couple of tables over – although there was no mention of cocktails on the menu we were handed. But sure enough and much to our delight, when we asked the waiter he grinned and told us that of course he could make us a mojito. Apparently there aren’t all that many places in the medina that serve alcohol, but I can’t say that matched up to our experience …

Catherine, Amah, Antoine and pinkschmink on the rooftop terrace at Nomad restaurant, Marrakech

Catherine and Amah rather sensibly opted for tea, but Antoine and I had a secret agenda to find a little place we’d passed when lost on our first visit to the medina, so we weren’t too worried about getting dehydrated. Drinks quaffed and thirst quenched (for now), we trotted back down the many stairs and back into the souk, and straight back into Amah’s search for a solid perfume at a rock-bottom price.

Before long, she’d made some new friends …

Amah making friends in an apothecary in the souk, Marrakech

Antoine, Catherine and Amah making friends in an apothecary in the souk, Marrakech

… although when they told her that all she could get for 30 dirhams was a smile, we managed to get a couple of smiles out of them for free before scarpering.

I have no idea what 99% of the stuff is in the jars, but it looked pretty cool.

Jars containing colourful herbs, spices and minerals in an apothecary in the souk, Marrakech

Our wanderings took us past more metalware, rugs and ceramics, and I suddenly found myself wishing I’d paid the extra to bring a big suitcase – there was no way I’d get one of those lamps in my carry-on, even though the vendor insisted it would fold flat … I wasn’t convinced.

Shopkeeper with his wares in the souk, Marrakech

Colourful rugs and blankets for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Art and postcards displayed outside a traditional carved stone shop in the souk, Marrakech

Bright and colourful pottery and dishes for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Rounding another corner, we came across the fanciest apothecary we’d yet seen – and Amah and Catherine were immediately swept inside by the shopkeeper who wanted to show them his perfumes. Antoine and I lingered outside, smelling the dried flowers and spices in huge colourful sacks and admiring the rows upon rows of jars filled with mysterious (and occasionally kind of gross) potions and powders.

Solid perfumes and rose petals for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Smelling the dried rose petals in the souk, Marrakech

Dried herbs and plants for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Colourful jars on display in an apothecary, Marrakech

Colourful jars on display in an apothecary, Marrakech

Colourful jars on display in an apothecary, Marrakech

Colourful jars on display in an apothecary, Marrakech

Dried herbs and plants for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Dried flowers in neon rainbow colours for sale in the souk, Marrakech

The shopkeeper soon realised that Amah drove too hard a bargain, and we stepped back out into the sun and strolled past a few more shops. I went to have a look at the jewellery before I overheard the shopkeeper offering Antoine 20,000 camels for me and I thought I’d better hotfoot it out of there …

Moroccan decorative homewares for sale in the souk, Marrakech

Jewellery and homewares for sale in the souk, Marrakech

And then somehow, almost without realising, we’d found our way to the place we’d been looking for. Cafe Arabe is one of the restaurants that always comes up in any guide to Marrakech, and as we ascended to the roof terrace, it was easy to see why.

Looking down into the courtyard of Cafe Arabe in the medina, Marrakech

Arabic style lounge at Cafe Arabe in the medina, Marrakech

I absolutely loved this room – the colours and the voiles and the cushions and the brass tables and the screens and the everything … so I made myself at home.

pinkschmink in the Arabic style lounge at Cafe Arabe in the medina, Marrakech

pinkschmink in the Arabic style lounge at Cafe Arabe in the medina, Marrakech

But we were thirsty, so I stopped clowning around and we wearily scaled the final flight of stairs to find ourselves in a heavenly spot.

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I just loved the aesthetics of this place. The matching ceramic table tops and vases, the undulating banquette seating, the drapes fluttering gently in the breeze … It was just the sanctuary we needed after a hot afternoon of hard bargaining. And any place that throws in chilli-marinated olives and crispy breadsticks while your drinks are being prepared is alright by me.

Iced lemon tea and iced mint tea at Cafe Arabe, Marrakech

Iced lemon tea (and iced mint tea for Catherine) was so very welcome.

And so were the cocktails (yes, that was me and Antoine having another cocktail party for two) … I can’t remember what this was but I know it contained strawberry purée and was utterly delicious.

Iced lemon tea, iced mint tea and cocktails at Cafe Arabe, Marrakech

Keen to stretch out the tea break cocktail party as long as possible, I went to look at the view from another angle between alternate sips of tea and icy strawberry deliciousness. I thought the gorgeously tiled terrace opposite was utterly charming, its cobalt railings draped in rugs of every colour, and just waiting for someone to sit awhile and luxuriate in its rainbow splendour.

pinkschmink on the roof terrace at Cafe Arabe, Marrakech

View of the medina looking down from Cafe Arabe, Marrakech

It was almost 7 o’clock as we contentedly headed back down to the street to find our way back to Jemâa el-Fnaa. My camera battery had given up the ghost, and I was ready for a cab and a glass of wine by the pool back at the hotel.

As we wound our way through the back streets, we realised there weren’t that many other tourists around and begun to worry that we’d taken a wrong turn. The medina really is a maze, and it’s very easy to get lost. But almost everyone who sees you looking disoriented will call out, “Jemâa el-Fnaa? Square? This way!” and point you in the right direction.

But getting lost has its perks. Such as chancing upon the most beautiful riad that we’d never have discovered if we’d kept on the right path – luckily my phone still had some juice!

Courtyard at Riad Elisa, Marrakech

This is Riad Elisa, a luxury boutique riad with its own spa in the heart of the medina. Spanish designer Tomás Alia is  the man responsible for the fusion of sleek, modern European lines with authentic Moroccan influences. We only poked around the courtyard and restaurant areas a little, but if you take a look at the website you’ll see that it is the most breathtakingly beautiful place. Rooms start at a not-unreasonable €200 per night, so I think I know where I’ll be staying when I inevitably return.

Courtyard at Riad Elisa, Marrakech

Riad Elisa, Marrakech

Riad Elisa, Marrakech

We finally emerged into Jemâa el-Fnaa as the golden hour was bathing the square in bewitching rays, lengthening the shadows of locals who were seemingly emerging from nowhere and the whole place was coming alive with sound and scent and colour. It was all terribly romantic.

Yes, this city really had got me good. By the time we’d got back to the hotel, chilled for a while and recharged our batteries (literally and metaphorically), I was itching to be back in amongst it again. So with a bit of badgering, I convinced the others to get in a cab back to Jemâa el-Fnaa to experience something I’d wanted to see since weeks before we’d arrived, when I had scoured all my favourite travel blogs (yep, Rosie Londoner, I’m looking at you) and pinned a thousand pictures …

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that Marrakech is definitely a city for night owls. Nothing really gets going properly until after the sun goes down, and nowhere is that truer than Jemâa el-Fnaa. In the early evening, the square begins to fill with food stalls selling everything from fresh juice to piles of nuts and dates to tagine and probably a whole let else besides. Circling the food trucks are snake charmers, henna painters and dancers plying their trade, and everyone will call out to you as you pass.

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We didn’t get right into the thick of it, preferring to find a spot where we could watch the action from a distance. Luckily, the square is ringed with restaurants and cafés built with exactly that purpose in mind.

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It’s quite a spectacular sight, wouldn’t you agree? Just look at those clouds of steam and smoke billowing from under the canopies. Wouldn’t you love to know what’s cooking?

Jemâa el-Fnaa by night, Marrakech

We ate an overpriced and distinctly average tagine and steeled ourselves for one last foray into the now buzzing souk, which was thronged with tourists and locals alike jostling to haggle for the best deals. Amah was still on a mission to hunt down her perfect fragrance …

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Sadly we had no luck and so we skirted our way back around the noisy melée in the centre of the square and went to find Mr. Driss.

But I couldn’t resist one last look back at the happy hullabaloo …

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Ok, and one at the Koutoubia Mosque, lit up like a splendid beacon at the end of the avenue where the horse and carriage drivers wait to snare overeager tourists (I wouldn’t recommend it by the way – the horses don’t all look terribly well cared for, and the smell was quite enough to put us off).

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And then it was time to go and lay down our heads and rest our bodies ready for the last day of our trip. Because on the last day of any holiday, you have to go all out, don’t you? Just you wait and see what we’ve got planned …