Morocco’s best for street life: Marrakesh
Moroccan Gnaoua dancers in Marrakesh's Djemaa el-Fna. (Doug McKinlay/LPI)
Pity the sunset in Marrakesh. Tonight it attempts its best tricks, turning the Koutoubia minaret to solid gold and kissing the city’s pink mud-brick ramparts until they blush crimson. But just like every other night for 1,000 years, the setting sun is upstaged by the spectacle already in progress in the Djemaa el-Fna.
In the lopsided square, 100 chefs fire up makeshift grills and stir vats of steaming snails. Belly-dancers wink behind gossamer veils that hide manly stubble. Someone's grandmother leaps into the melee to flag down a horse-drawn taxi. Mid-song, a Gnawa musician lands a backflip within inches of a speeding red scooter. In the midst of it all, a donkey bearing bundles of mint staunchly refuses to budge.
Welcome to the main stage of Moroccan halqa (street theatre), where the show has continued since Marrakesh was a medieval trading post, and public executions earned the Djemaa el-Fna the title Assembly of the Dead. By 10am each day the Djemaa sets the scene, with canopied orange-juice carts and apothecaries who prescribe ostrich eggs for strength and walnut root for social anxiety. Around noon, henna artists find a moment of calm to plonk down stools and draw intricate temporary tattoos freehand.
Yet the show does not peak until shadows fall and Gnawa musicians start playing their metal qarqaba (castanets), duff (hand drums) and twanging three-stringed ginbri (bass). Once the beat kicks in, the place begins to jump, often literally: transported by the music, men leap through the air.
"Everything changes here, yet nothing ever changes," says Gnawa musician Ibrahim el-Ghatouani. "For 13 years, I performed at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. No-one could jump as high as me; the pay was good. But I missed my family, and when I came back, my place was waiting for me in the Djemaa el-Fna."
He has got a point: other cities have their moments, but only Marrakesh puts on a show that makes tap-dancing mice in a castle seem like an opening act. The reviews are hard to beat. On the strength of its halqa performances, Unesco has named Djemaa el-Fna a World Heritage site for culture.
Where to stay
Midrange: A short stroll from Djemaa el-Fna, Riad Chi-Chi is an oasis of calm in the heart of the Marrakesh souqs. Five lofty, cream-coloured rooms overlook a sunwashed courtyard, and there are sunbeds on the terrace, too (from £55, including breakfast).
Top end: If the medina gets too much, Les Deux Tours in the Palmeraie area of Marrakesh is the perfect retreat. Rooms with private balconies are set in secret gardens and its hammam spa is legendary (from £150, including breakfast).
Cover the High Atlas and Skoura Oasis by car - try Hertz (from £45). Supratours runs buses from Marrakesh to Essaouira (from £8; book at their office next to Marrakesh train station), and Fez can be reached by train (7 hours) or plane (from £45; 3 hours).