Sensory Overload at Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna

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