Djemaa el Fna is the central point of the medina (old city) in Marrakesh, Morocco. You can’t miss it! It’s a large open square where I bet you can find anyone and anything, from freshly squeezed orange juice to steamed sheep’s heads, from cobras dancing to flute music to a guy with a chicken on his head (a live one! … uhm … both the guy and the chicken that is 😛 ). But there’s a catch, you have to be there at the right time of day for each of the attractions! It sure changes a lot over the course of a day!
Let’s start with the beginning…
Djemaa el Fna in the morning
… is strangely quiet! Even more so if you’ve first seen it later in the day as I have. It is almost empty, as only very few of the stalls are open. The first to open are the ones serving fresh fruit juice and the ones with dried fruits. The orange juice is yummy, but I’m still unsure about its price. There is a price written on the stall, but I’ve never paid that much … I’ve also never paid the same amount twice for the same amount of juice 😛 So be prepared to haggle a lot, in the square and everywhere else in Morocco!
There aren’t many people in the square early in the morning, and those that are are just passing through: people on their way to work, groups of kids happily chatting on their way to school and some tourists looking for some breakfast or boarding buses that take them on various day trips. There was also a donkey sitting alone by its cart probably waiting for his owner to return with the load. There’s probably a long day ahead of him!
I was among the ones looking for breakfast. After a quick tour and some pictures, I picked one of the cafe terraces on the side of the square. I picked the simplest looking one, where there were also locals having breakfast. From there I continued watching the square come to life. The breakfast they served was pretty good and came with awesome mint tea! They served this tea in almost all the places we stopped for food in Morocco. But the one I tasted in the Djemaa el Fna is by far the best I’ve tasted ever! It’s probably due to the fresh mint leaves that they squash in it 🙂 If you pay attention, you might notice people carrying huge piles of mint (they are carrying fresh green bushes!)… to the restaurants 🙂
Djamaa el Fna at late noon
It starts to come alive! That’s also how I first saw it, the pic above is my very first view of it, and also one of my first views in Morocco! 🙂 I just got there from the airport and was heading to the hotel to leave my bags so I could start exploring. The square seemed crowded, chaotic and full of … everything! People were walking in every direction, there were a lot of stalls, the ones with juice and fruits were all open and also some selling food start opening around noon. I tasted my first tajine and first mint tea (!) squeezed in at one of their crowded tables. I later realised that those tables were not crowded compared to the ones in the evening…
While eating lunch, I watched as they prepared the food stalls for the evening. They seemed to show up out of nowhere with stalls, benches and start setting everything up. Actually I think the frames for the stalls never moved from there, it was only the benches and utensils and food that they brought, but I’m not sure. It might also have been magic 😛
This is also the time when the cobras show up! But don’t worry, they are guarded by their snake charmers! You might also spot some monkeys, accompanied by people more than happy to take your photo with the monkey in exchange for a fee! There are also Moroccan women who make henna tattoos. If you’re not quick enough, they might actually start making it before you even agree… So be careful, walk away of you are not interested, or be prepared to pay a small fee if you want to interact with the animals or take a temporary henna memory with you back home.
Lots of vendors show up with various merchandise that they display on a mat placed on the pavement. There were also some sweets-stuffs vendors with carts they were pushing around. But I’ve not managed to make up their pattern as they were constantly changing their position. One day I passed by them in the alley where the hotel was, the next one I saw them walking around the square. And in the last day, when I actually wanted to buy some sweets from them, they were nowhere to be found! But most of the others seem to always set up their business in the same spot every day 🙂 The stalls and carts are also numbered but they are not set up in an obvious order…
Djemaa el Fna in the evening
The show is on! The place gets very crowded in the evening, with lots of people walking in every direction and lots of attractions. The cobras are gone though … instead there are many small shows, all of which gather some crowds! Some are gathering around storytellers, but unfortunately none of them were in English so I’ve no idea what they were about. Some are dancing and other hold dexterity contests for the ones in the audience. There was also one … performance, its central character a guy with a chicken on his head (as you can see in the photo below … although not a very good photo as the chicken turned its head when I took it), I wonder what that was about 😛
The other part of the square is now completely filled with food stalls, it’s basically a really crowded open air restaurant! There are different kinds of foods available, a few stalls for each of the categories: sea food and fish and salads, tajines, sheep heads and some weird-looking egg sandwiches. Plenty to take you pick from! As you go past them you will be invited (and a bit harassed) by the stall people trying to convince you to stop at theirs.
“Come and eat here. It’s very good!“
“But I’m not hungry!” (also tried “I already ate!” with the same result…)
“But you look so skinny!“
“Come eat at our stall! No diarrhea guaranteed for three years!“
I loved the food though! The steamed sheep heads are supposed to be the best at stall number 47, but I can’t vouch for that since in the evening I tried that, I couldn’t find the stall. Of course I didn’t since I expected it to be somewhere close to numbers 46 and 48… My mistake 😛
But the one I liked best was a local dish whose name I didn’t get as those kinds of stalls only had the menus in Arabic. I was lured by the display that had pyramids of eggs. I watched them prepare the food for a bit and lots of people were eating there and seemed to enjoy it, so I squeezed down on the benches between some locals and gave it a try. I got a big bread bun filled with boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, la vache qui rit spreadable cheese, onions, paprika and some sauce all mashed up in the middle of the bun. It was yummy!
On one side of the market are hotels and cafe terraces that offer a quieter place to spend the evening next to all the noise and confusion of the square. Some of them also have roof terraces, but of course the price also goes up as you do 😛 But the view over the square is great!
The square continues on one side with the Marrakesh souk, a traditional North African market where both tourists and locals stroll in search of souvenirs, gifts and everyday items. On other sides narrow streets lead you out of the square and into the old city.
I liked that most of the souks are grouped together, by the types of merchandise they have: leather, metal works, wood works, spices. Some are shops combined with workshops and you can see them at work as you pass by. Some, as the wood-carver in the picture, are amazing to watch while working! He had an interesting technique and was using both his feet and hands and the instrument in the picture to make small wood chess pieces. The metal works are easy to find if you follow the clinking sounds! For spices, use your smell!
I bet you can buy anything in there, from souvenirs to Moroccan carpets, from all kinds of spices to indigo stone! One day as I was returning to the Djemaa el Fna I noticed a weird smell, something like grandmas poultry pen… And that’s almost what it was! Apparently they also sell livestock in the souks! There were lots of chicken, turkeys, guinea fowls and others…
But even if you are not looking for anything in particular, the souks are a great place for a walk, I loved that you get to discover something new at each corner!
Because every guide I found said that getting lost in the Marrakesh souks is a must, I did just that. That was also due to the fact that the map I had was not very helpful in that area … But don’t worry, you can’t really get lost in there! You can always find your way back easily to Djemaa el Fna.
Hopefully I will see it again soon! Insha’Allah
Did you visit Djemaa el Fna? What impressed you the most?
- there are loads of hotels and hostels close to the Djemaa el Fna and I’d recommend staying close to it when visiting Marrakesh. This way you will be close to the action! I stayed at Hotel Atlas, cool place for budget travellers 🙂 The rooms are clean and the terrace is a nice place to hang out and listen to the Djemaa el Fna sounds 😛
- don’t forget to haggle … for everything.
- I’ve never felt unsafe there, but watch out as usual in crowded places 😉
- since Morocco is a muslim country, I’d wear decent clothes to be respectful of their customs and also avoid attracting unwanted attention
- a basic breakfast menu with omelette/pancakes and orange juice and tea starts at around 2-3 euros at the cafes in the square
- the prices for the rest of the food in the square depend on your haggling skills
- take care when asking for directions in the souks, better ask the shopkeepers. They were friendly and helpful. But we asked a younger passerby once and the guy came with us to the location we were looking for even though we didn’t ask for it and expected to be paid at the destination.
- there are a few exchange offices on the streets close to the square, the one with the best rates was right behind the post office (one of the big buildings on one side of the square)
- you can also find small shops on those streets from where you can buy water and other necessities
- but watch out for cars and scooters while on those streets, they tent to whoosh by very close to the pedestrians
- most of the hotels and cafes have wi-fi
trip date: October 2014