Sunday, September 4, 2016


Fes or Marrakech?

That's a question that many a time-challenged traveler asks. Of all the tourist destinations in Morocco, these two cities have the most to offer in the way of culture and history, but they are 300 miles apart, and the journey between them is not easy. Many tourists try to weigh the attractions of each place so that they can tip the scale in favor of one or the other, but the two cities really cannot be compared. While they have some things in common--a wonderful old town with all its cultural and historical buildings, a new town with its modern conveniences, crazy traffic, interesting people, relaxing riads--there is also much that is different.

In a Huffington Post article published a couple of years ago entitled "The Great Moroccan Debate: Marrakech or Fes?" Nicole Leigh West wrote: ". . . if they were both cakes made with culture instead of flour, Marrakech's other main ingredients are fun, color and exuberance, while Fes is flavored with history, mystery and its own serious brand of medieval mayhem."

The comparison I came up with is that if Morocco were to be compared to Brazil (where, admittedly, I have never been), Fes would be Sao Paulo and and Marrakech would be Rio during Mardi Gras, and the heart of the party in Marrakech is Jemaa el Fna Square, which has been around since at least the 12th century. The square is to Marrakech what Central Park is to New York City. It is a huge open space in the midst of a crowded city that serves as a place for entertainment, relaxation, and gathering.

On one side of the square is the souk, and the other sides are edged by hotels and mosques and cafes:

As in so many places in Morocco, it's a crazy blend of Old World panache and 21st century swagger:

There are all kinds of fun things going on in Jemaa el Fna Square, and we quickly learned that those who stood to watch were drawn in to the action and charged a fee.

We watched this man with his basket of raptors for a bit:

. . . but it wasn't long until the tunes of the snake charmer drew us to him:

There were puff adders, cobras, and several non-poisonous snakes:

The handlers were very cavalier in the way they tossed around the snakes:

This guy noted Bob's interest . . .

. . . and with one swift motion, the snake in his hands was around Bob's neck and Bob's camera was in the snake handler's grip:

That snake, of course, was neither adder nor cobra . . .

. . . but we were still plenty close to the venomous versions:

Of course, I was expected to take my own turn:

After wrangling over a fair price for the HONOR of holding the snakes, we got our camera back . . .
 . . . and continued on our way.

We watched a circle of mostly local men and boys using fishing poles with rings on the end that they tried to loop over soda pop bottles. Women were observing, but not participating:

We enjoyed watching someone else holding this diapered monkey:

. . . and were glad we didn't get hit with the fee:

We got directions to a mailbox so I could mail a couple of postcards to my grandkids. I'm not sure I would have been able to identify this as a mailbox had we not been told to look for the big yellow box. Luckly, there weren't a lot of slotted yellow boxes around:

Wandering around Jemaa el-Fna Square can be exhausting, and when we saw a French cafe, we decided we'd take a break to do some people watching. The Moroccan dessert is typically fresh fruit, so I was ready for something a little richer and sweeter. We got a table with a good view and enjoyed a wonderful banana split and some pretty mediocre mousse:
It was hard to believe that we had eaten steamed sheep head just around the corner from this cafe.

The people-watching was especially entertaining, but it was a challenge to get photos without looking too obvious:

Bob had read that one of the best places to view the sun setting over Jemaa el Fna Square was from the upper terrace of the Glacier Cafe, so when the sun began its slow drop towards the western horizon, we climbed the stairs to the Grand Balcony, where we bought two bottles of water for our "obligatory consumption" before trying to find a seat on the jam-packed gallery.

The view was, indeed, spectacular. Long shadows created by the setting sun stretched lazily across the square, connecting the diverse activities like warp threads on a loom:

The macro-view we got from the balcony looked like pages taken out of a Where's Waldo? book:

Our bird's eye view allowed us to zoom in, revealing a wealth of activities, clothing, and relationships.  One of the things I loved in the square was the sight of women walking arm-in-arm:

I think there was a head behind this bundle, but I can't be sure:

While the majority of the people in the square appeared to be locals, there were tourists as well, including quite a few who had been lured into these horse-drawn carriages that made their way briskly through the square. Pedestrians knew to get out of their way.

Nice juxtaposition of a guy on a cell phone and a kid pushing a very old wagon. That's Morocco!

These men in white are Sufis, members of a mystical Islamic order. They were performing a traditional meditation dance that involves swinging the tassels on their hats in a circle above their heads like helicopter rotors:

We saw small family groups, 

. . . small groups of men sitting together:

. . . and women, lots of women, out for a stroll, and wearing all kinds of get ups, from the full burqa on the woman carrying the child in the photo below:

. . . to this snazzy pink striped number and the turquoise robes behind her:

These bubblegum-pink robes and hijabs were really pretty, and I quite like the man's red and black outfit as well:

What we did NOT see were packs of teens with boys and girls hanging out together. Anywhere.

Sponge Bob and Hello Kitty are alive and well in Marrakech:

How about the monkey's leopard-skin coat?

As the sun set, he square got more and more crowded, as did our balcony aerie:

Early in the evening, trucks and wagons began to bring in tables, chairs, and shade structures, and temporary restaurants were set up in front of the entrance to the souk. Soon the robust aroma of frying food was filling the air, and the Moroccan versions of food trucks were doing a brisk business:

SO much activity! it was hard to focus!

Our riad was about a 15 minutes walk from Jemaa el Fna Square through the alleyways and streets of Marrakech, and we didn't want to be out walking too late, so after a couple of hours of sipping from our water bottles and looking for Waldo, we gave up our spots on the balcony and headed back down to the square.

Resplendent, capricious, cacophonous, melodious, kaleidoscopic Marrakech. 

It was a pleasure to meet you.

Of Jemaa el Fna Peter Mayne writes, "They say it has existed as long as the Koutoubia which looks down on it from the end of a vista--and that means the twelfth century. But it has been asphalted since those days. They also say that it is never empty, and it could certainly never be more crowded than it was when I came upon it that evening before sunset. A huge wide crowded place, but something more than that too. It has a strange quality and when you look closer you find that the sky seems to sail above it as if the two were part of the same cosmic plan. It has something of the sea, an inland, tideless sea, waves of djellaba-hoods, a flecking of skullcaps, moving closely together, so close that identities merge into the general turbulence. Standing on the brink, you can follow  the course of the currents with your eyes; the slow, apparently aimless movement of them and then a whirlpool which seems to stand still at the rim with its spinning centre empty except for a dancer, or a man spinning a matchlock so fast that it has flattened out  into a metal saucer. And then, without warning, the whirlpool disintegrates and dies, leaving the mass to flow forward into the emptiness, filling the void. . . . There is something living here which I would like to share, a sort of animal force that we have forgotten about in the temperate zones."

British travel writer Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in 1949, and a few years later he published his best known work, A Year in Marrakesh. The early 1950s were a time of great change in Morocco; the country was working towards independence from France, which was finally achieved in 1956, but Mayne's narrative is not a political nor even a historical treatise. It is more like a journal--the day-to-day experiences of a foreigner trying to find an apartment, feed himself, make friends, and learn the language in a very foreign country.  

As Mayne makes his slow, relaxed way through Marrakech, the reader is treated to tidbits that highlight the culture and the isolation of a pre-tourism city.


  1. Jema El Fna is a place best visited by wading in a few times in different spots over multiple days. If you just jump in and immerse yourself too long you'll drown. The noise, the crowds, the alleys, corners, shops, carts, etc. are overwhelming. At times I felt like Waldo, as in, where am I? I felt like we just scratched the surface. Marrakech would be a nice base to visit other spots from and then come back to on a daily basis for a few hours, at different times of day, to explore different parts. Morocco really is an adventure and both Fes and Marrakech must be visited.

  2. I'm pretty sure I'd be paying people to NOT let me hold the snakes.
    What a fabulous place to people watch!

  3. I love what Bob wrote--you could drown in it all, so I like partaking of your bite on this post. It looks fascinating.