Sensory Overload at Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna

Categories Morocco, Where Have I Been?, WiR

One of the main attractions in Marrakesh for both locals and tourists alike is the Djemaa el-Fna. A focal point to all things in the old Medina, the square undergoes a series of changes from day to night, a rolling story of chaos that would make for a terrific timelapse. Flanked by the Koutoubia Mosque on one end and the maze of souks and alleyways of the Medina on the other, the sprawling cobblestone Fna is an overwhelming – but very worthwhile – sensory overload. My prior post about Morocco was about the details, but focusing on the details in a place like this might just implode your brain. Best to start with the wider picture, the bustle and buzz and movement carrying you aloft. Just don’t get run over by caleches, motorcycles or cars that appear to aim right for you as you wander through.

The Fnaa at dusk, in Marrakesh

The Fna at dusk, with the food vendors setting up for the night.

We first saw the square late in the afternoon, with the orange juice stands and sundry circus-like animal hawkers well established for the coming crowds, and the food vendors starting to set up for the night. During the day, the square is fairly empty – women hawk temporary henna tattoos, snake charmers litter the cobblestones, their music echoing against the walls of the surrounding buildings and men with monkeys on metal leashes parade around the groups of tourists, trying to lure one of them to pay for some time with their primates. While the orange juice is cheap and delicious, I could do without the snakes and the monkeys. It’s a very sad sight to see.

Entering the Fna from the Koutoubia Mosque, you can traverse the width of it (hopefully not getting hit by a moving something in the process) and then continue on into the souks. With thousands of stalls selling everything from leather babouches (slipper-like light shoes) to necklaces and spices to purses, traditional djalabas and much more, you’ll be extolled to stop at every vendor as you pass through. It’s an exhausting, often aggressive experience but certainly a similar one to many other souks or markets worldwide. I’ve found saying “oh, my group and guide are up ahead” is the best way to get out of being thoroughly ensnared; there are enough tourists groups in town that it seems to appease the hawkers.

Traditional Moroccan lanterns in the Marrakesh souk

Traditional Moroccan lanterns in the lantern 'district' of the Marrakesh souk.

At dusk, the orange juice stalls and snake charmers stay put but are joined by a whole panoply of other hawkers, from fortune telling to makeshift spice-selling to small children throwing neon balls high up into the air, under the watchful gaze of the moonlit crowd. The food stalls set up to the left of the orange stands around 5pm, steam and smoke billowing into the night and the smell of food digging into your clothes. From 5 dirham (65 cent) harira soups and grilled merguez sausage to intricate piles of seafood and vegetables to tiny omelette stalls and mulled, spiced teas, I went a little crazy trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. In addition, they’ve got wonderful braised sheep’s head on offer, tables and tables of them available packed tight with locals eating the soft meat for their evening meal.

Thanks to a tip from Matt at Landlopers, my inaugural meal was at Stall 32. Honestly, Matt knew what he was talking about as the other stalls were fairly empty throughout the late afternoon, but the locals were all at Stall 32, its miniature smokestack on high.

Stall 32 in the Fna, Marrakesh

Stall 32!

Yesterday marked the end of my G Adventures trip as part of my Wanderers in Residence participation, and a few of the others in the group remained in town for an extra night (I’ll be staying 2 extra weeks in the country). We decided to meet in the Fna for an early dinner and partake in the harira and orange juice mini-feast like everyone else. The harira, a thick tomato-based soup with chickpeas, lentils and rice, was served with a light tomato salsa, evoking a pico de gallo without the fire. We stuffed ourselves around the rickety table at Stall 32 and ate our faces off.

Harira outside in the Fna, Marrakesh

Harira outside in the Fna, at stall 32.

Grilled, greasy merguez sausage in the Fna

Grilled, greasy and delicious merguez sausage in the Fna

Of course, we didn’t need much prodding to finish up the bowl. If you’re looking to make your own harira at home, I’ve posted a recipe over on The Hipmunk, courtesy of a tiny street stand in Marrakesh. This means that while quantities of ingredients have been approximated by yours truly, the sentiment behind the recipe was absolutely genuine. I love those small interactions and exchanges of information; it makes travel that much more worthwhile.

Harira o'clock in Marrakesh

Harira o'clock in Marrakesh: om nom nom

It was a great way to end the two weeks and begin my independent discovery of the country. As is always the case with travel, it was also sad to say goodbye to newfound friends.

Me and Danielle in Marrakesh

Me and my awesome roommate for the last two weeks, Danielle, in Marrakesh

And the whole lot of us after our harira (taken by the very funny man working at stall 32): France, Alex, Danielle, me, Alexandra and Ashley

Part of the G Adventures group in the Fnaa

Happy and full of soup.

After sunset, we went to one of the rooftop terraces to watch the unruliness below. It’s always fun to watch newer tourists or travelers after having already adjusted to a new place yourself; one guy was bemoaning the crazed motorcycle drivers and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d better prepare himself for the crazy driving on the mountain roads, with their hairpin turns. The group of us sat drinking mint tea, laughing over some of the funnier memories from the past two weeks. And then we each hugged each other goodbye, walking off in separate directions and dissolving into the craziness of the Fna.

Djemaa el-Fnaa at night in Marrakesh

Overlooking the Djemaa el-Fna at night in Marrakesh

Djemaa el-Fnaa at night in Marrakesh from Cafe de France

Djemaa el-Fna at night in Marrakesh from Cafe de France

Much more to come from Morocco, including tagine feasts, Essouira’s colourful Medina and time in the desert. I’ve also gone to one of the herbolists in the Medina who sells spices for medicine and for food, and he’s agreed to have me come back for an interview later in the week, which ought to be very interesting.

-Jodi

26 comments to Sensory Overload at Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna

  1. Nice! Didnt know harira. Googling recipes NOW!

  2. HA!

    I’ve been to Marrakesch two weeks ago.
    Was so great!
    Lovely people. Superb food. 35°C

    All the local food is really good. And very cheap. But if some day you want a more western-like bar. Check our the Kosybar in southern-medina. Quite nice to have a drink.

    I had an awesome stay. Hope you’ll too.

    • Thanks for the advice Earin! Glad you enjoyed your time here too. Like you, I’m enjoying a lot of the local food, very affordable. Just ate a great beef, prune and almond tagine for lunch. I don’t think I’ll get tired of all the tagines any time soon. Safe travels to you.

      • mmmh yeah the beef/prune tagine are great.
        Aswell as the chicken/citron one.

        An other tip. Check out the roof terrace on the maison de la photographie. The terrace is very simple but has got the best view above Marrakesh I know. And of course great tagines for lunch xD

        Happy traveling!

  3. Yup, that soup sounds delicious. Can’t wait to see your recipe. Yum.

  4. Beautiful pictures and such colorful stories! Morocco seems like such a dreamy (or perhaps trippy), surreal place. Keep the stories and images coming.

  5. lovely!!! (must remember, stall 32…)

  6. Sounds intriguing and the pictures are awesome

  7. Lovely photos Jodi! Looking forward to checking out the recipe post on Hipmunk, too.

    A film rec if you haven’t already seen it: ‘Hideous Kinky’ is a little low-budget piece Kate Winslet did in Morocco after the craziness of Titanic.

    It’s based on a beautiful novel/autibio (blurred!) of the same name by Esther Freud and it’s about a woman (Winslet) who, with her two little girls in tow, goes off to find herself Morocco in the 1970s. Lots of the movie was set in Djemaa el Fna – it’s one of my favourites.

  8. Love your pictures of the market and your food descriptions made my mouth water. Never heard of harira before and now I am craving a bowl. Can’t wait to hear what the next two weeks in Morocco brings!

  9. Gosh, this post makes me long even more to return to Morocco! Beautiful pics as always!!!

  10. Beautiful photos, Jodi! Morocco is one of the places I want to visit over all others. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Wow! It definitely looks like sensory overload. Good thing you had fun!

  12. Nice one, Jodi! Scouting around those smokey, delicious-smelling, stalls was one of my favourite activities in Morocco. You captured it perfectly.
    Were you able to ask any of the shopkeepers or restaurant workers about the effects of the attack in April? I am guessing there was a downturn in tourism directly after but hoping it bounced back quickly? Such a great place and kind people. Glad you enjoyed :)

    • Hi Anna, I had a feeling you’d have enjoyed the same great food stalls! I did ask one shopkeeper I sat with for awhile about the attacks and he said business was quite slow last year in April/May/June as a result but slowly things have been picking up again. There are certainly a lot of tourists here in Marrakesh and many of them at the Fna, but the predominant group at night is locals (or Moroccans visiting Marrakesh) and not tourists.

      • I wish I wasn’t so predictable! Good to hear they bounced back relatively quickly. I did always found it funny that there were mostly Moroccan people at the night food stalls, but I was there a while ago, before cheap flights became available from Europe. Surprising that it is still the case.
        Enjoy the rest of your time there! I’m not sure of your plans but if you can make it to Chefchaouen it is quite a fun place, nice food market and plenty of walking in the surrounding hills.

  13. Ahhhhhhh, how much I miss harira and Couscous Fridays from when I studied in Morocco! I wanna go back nowwwww.

  14. Can’t wait to try your Harira recipe. I’ve tried many as it is one of my favorites soups and the taste and smell always flood my mind with memories of my time in Morocco. Marrakech has always been one of my favorite cities and we made sure to pass by it every time during my three road trips in Morocco. There is a certain magic to that city and the proximity to the mountains is a huge plus. You can escape the bustling city any time the wilderness and enjoy the nature in it’s full glory.

  15. Wow, beautiful photos! I especially like the one of the Harira! I would love to be able to make that!

  16. Last year, I was awarded a grant that took me to the SE corner of Morocco, to teach English and act as a cultural ambassador from the US. During my time there, I was able to travel all over the country, meet lots of wonderful people, and eat countless bowls of harira.

    Thanks for writing such a beautiful entry that I think really captures the beauty of the square. Jmaa el Fna is one of my favorite places in Morocco and I cannot wait to go back, inch’Allah.

    How long will you stay in Morocco? If you have plans to travel across the Atlas and out into the desert, I’d be happy to give you contact information for the people who became my extended family there.

    I think about Morocco daily, but I am based in Poland now. I read somewhere on your blog that you are of Polish descent. Do you have any plans to travel through this part of the world?

    I plan on making couscous this Friday, and will try your harira recipe out too. Thanks for posting it!

    • Hi Tracy, thanks for sharing your story as well. I’m actually in Turkey now – I tend to post a bit later as posts are longer and I want to go through my photos to choose themes for each post. I did rent a car and travel across the Atlas to M’hamid (great drive!) and if I return I will certainly reach out for your contacts. I suspect I will be thinking about Morocco for quite some time as well, and truly enjoyed my month there. At present I don’t have plans come January but I would like to make it to Poland and back to the Czech Republic and to Slovenia. Will reach out if I head that way. Enjoy your couscous Friday!

Pingbacks

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