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Marrakesh – City of Oases in the Midst of Blissful Craziness 

At home, when the weather is miserable and you are fed up with staring at grey skies, there is one effective remedy: a change of scenery. A getaway that catapults you out of your daily grind into a new setting where exotic food, a warm climate, exciting new impressions and a dose of craziness await you. Marrakesh has all of that. With tales of 1001 Nights to tell, Morocco’s Ochre City is as thrilling as it is enchanting – and at times also wonderfully overwhelming. Here’s a first-hand report.

I arrive in Marrakesh after a three and half hour flight from Zurich and am welcomed by a lovely warm breeze. Now seated in a cab on my way to Marrakesh’s old town, I feel on top of the world. The cab driver utters a barrage of Arabic words which he emphasises with wild gestures. I have no idea what he is saying. But he is smiling, so I am not concerned. His world seems to be all right. And so is mine. Grey and wet Switzerland is already a distant memory. After numerous disputes with other drivers on our route, we finally arrive at a medium-sized square. A young boy takes my suitcase, I follow him as he rushes through the winding alleys leaving me engulfed in the Medina.

Photos: Martin Hoch

Lost in the maze, visiting the buskers

Before it gets dark, I steer my way through the maze that is the Medina. My best friend: Google Maps. Although the device misguides me on more than one occasion, it is still my indispensable "crutch".

Eventually, I reach the famous and much depicted Djemaa el-Fna market square. This is where fortune-tellers, buskers and storytellers are at home. And, as I see it, the square also houses the largest open-air juice store: dozens of vendors offer fresh orange and pomegranate juice. Delicious! And –to use yet another superlative– it also hosts Morocco’s "largest restaurant" in the form of a seemingly infinite number of closely-spaced cookshops that offer Moroccan delicacies. My insider tip: stool number 32 "Chez Hassan" on the southwest corner of the square.

Early morning calm

A lie-in? Not when on a city trip. Because whilst other tourists are still fast asleep, or expanding their waistline at the huge hotel breakfast buffet, the day is already in full swing. Life is never more uncontrived and authentic than in the early morning hours: children on their way to school, women chin-wagging on their doorsteps, craftsmen going to work and vendors preparing for the day. No one bothers me. No one attempts to sell me their goods or convince me that their clay jugs and sandals are the best, and that by purchasing them I will help save their grand-daughter’s limping moggy. An early start has yet another advantage: when the doors of the erstwhile Qur’anic school Ben Youssef Madrasa (which I consider to be the most beautiful building in Marrakesh) open at 8 am, one’s visit will not be tarnished by tourists exclaiming "Oh my god - it’s awesome" or fault-finding "This building could really do with a makeover" whiners. Free from crowds at this time of day, the experience is a real treat for the self.

I think I need a break

And then, as if a switch has been flipped, the calm dissipates and the city begins to pulsate. It feels good – and the vibrant energy is contagious. I meander through the souk (market) that stretches across most of the Medina. I begin to bargain, drink tea, discuss every imaginable topic, start bargaining again, end the bargaining, walk away until I am called back, drink even more tea, am actively encouraged to show compassion and, ultimately, close the deal. I feel happy – and exhausted. Yes, that is Marrakesh, too: the city is energy-sapping and tiring – in the best sense of the word. The tempest of stimuli presents an exciting challenge. Anyone who finds Saturday shopping at home strenuous is advised to take plenty of breaks when visiting the souk. The good news: cafés like the "Atay Cafe" have rooftop terraces to retreat to as a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle. As for me, I am sipping yet another cup of tea (I have drunk more tea in two days in Morocco than my annual consumption back home) whilst enjoying the fabulous view across the rooftops of Marrakesh. This will definitely not be my last visit to the upper storeys of the Medina.

Lively past

History comes alive in Marrakesh, especially in the city’s historical palaces. The Bahia Palace is still today in good condition. A tour through the palatial rooms gives a good hint at the feudal lifestyle the former blue-blooded residents enjoyed. By contrast, only remnants remain of the four centuries-old El-Badi Palace. El-Badi means "the incomparable", which is very fitting. Although no more than a ruin today, the complex still gives visitors a clear idea of the palace’s once vast and extravagant size.

In the early evening, still hungry for culture, I wend my way to the Photography Museum to see the exhibition of Moroccan photography between 1870 and 1950, and to watch the sun go down. I have been told that the museum terrace is a great place to see the sunset. Indeed, the mood on the terrace is subdued, romantic, almost philosophical – I feel quite sentimental. But as the museum closes at 7 pm, there is no time for sentimental inner chaos. And before I know it, I am back in the maze of the Medina alleyways.

My "unfaithful" choice

How does one spend an evening – alone in a city far away from home? By becoming "unfaithful"? No, as a rule. But today is the famous exception that confirms the rule: in spite of tasty Moroccan cuisine I opt for some Italian food. And the "I Limoni" restaurant makes me very happy. Seated on a quiet patio under trees, I am served delicious pasta with parmesan cheese and ruby-red wine. Although I landed in Marrakesh just thirty hours ago, I feel as if I have been on a week-long holiday. That is what sums up Marrakesh for me: a short flight, a wonderfully generous slice of exoticism and mental relaxation achieved in no time.

Three oases in lively Marrakesh:

1. Jardin Majorelle: A cosy garden –full of cacti and bougainvillea– located outside the Medina. French artist Jacques Majorelle created the garden almost a century ago. It was purchased by the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his life partner Pierre Bergé in 1980. (Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakesh/Morocco, www.jardinmajorelle.com)

2. Café Clock: A space for culture and art – that offers an alternative touch and comes with a beautiful rooftop terrace and truly delicious food. This oasis is situated on a quiet side street. (Derb Chtonka, Marrakesh/Morocco, marrakech.cafeclock.com)

3. Restaurant Amal: The food served in the "Amal Women's Training Center & Moroccan Restaurant" is fantastic and the project well worth supporting: disadvantaged women receive training here and are later supported in finding a job. Restaurant Amal is located in the Gueliz district. (Rue Allal Ben Ahmed, Marrakesh/Morocco, amalnonprofit.org)

Text: Martin Hoch