Djamaa El Fna - Square, Marrakesh
Sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakesh lead to the Djamaa el Fna. The name (sometimes spelled “Djemaa el Fna” or “Jamaa el Fna”) means “Assembly of the Dead” in Arabic but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy. To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening. It is surrounded by restaurants and cafés, each with a roof terrace to offer a ringside seat from where to observe all the action, but better by far to get immersed in it all yourself.
Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. Here is a man with a monkey wanting payment to pose with him perched on your shoulder. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.
Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians, men push carts and donkeys pull them, horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.
Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city, and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub. But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.
Come here with an open mind, and with your wits about you. If you are unused to travelling “out of your comfort zone” you may find it unnerving at first, but take your time, watch from the sidelines for a while, and you will soon get a sense of how best to experience this place. You will probably be hassled for money, and almost certainly to buy (juice, water, henna decoration …) but say no firmly and if necessary move away – there are many other tourists and the would-be seller will soon pass on to the next one. Of course you must watch your possessions, but that is true in any crowded city square, anywhere in the world. And remember that a small sum to you can mean much more here, so if you really want that photo of a snake charmer or water-seller by all means pay a fair fee – it will bring back great memories long after your visit so will be worth the outlay.
At night the square is even more vibrant – but that is a subject for another, Nightlife, tip …
You'll see a gazillion women walking around with trays containing rows of circular cookies... BUY SOME! They are deliciously soft and chock full of coconut. They taste wonderful and they'll cost you next to nothing, a girl staying at our riad bought tray after tray to pack and take home to France for her mom, dad, grandmother, sister, etc. They make a nice little dessert after dinner at one of the food stalls.
The giant square, Djemaa el-Fna, really is the heart of Marrakech. It is a crazy place, filled day and night with so much activity you don't know where to look. Make sure you take the time to visit the square and experience day to day life in Marrakech. These days, Djemaa el-Fna is a UNESCO world heritage site, but back in the old days it used to be the place of public executions, earning the name 'Dead Men's Square'.
During the day you can enjoy a glass of tangy, freshly squeezed orange juice while you watch the snake charmers making their cobras dance. Or perhaps you would prefer to buy some fresh dates or nuts to snack on whilst you have your hands decorated by the henna artists.
You may stand for a while and watch the colourfully dressed water-sellers at work, or ponder over why there is a monkey on a chain dressed in children's clothes. Just watch out for the cars and motorbikes that cut across the square towards the southern end.
Make sure you have a mint tea at one of the cafes surrounding the square that has an upstairs terrace - this gives you a great place to take some photos of the square from above.
At night the square changes into a giant food market, with the smoke rising up from the food stalls creating a mysterious haze across the square. You should have dinner at one of the food stalls at least once during your stay. Or if you are not game, perhaps just a glass of spicy ginseng tea from one of the carts.
After dinner, walk around the square for a while, dodge the beggars, and check out some of the small bands, who are surrounded by locals enjoying the music. Or perhaps listen in to one of the story-tellers, trying to get a gist for his tale spoken in Arabic or Berber. You may also see magicians or even medicine men - so if something ails you, you may well have come to the right place!
The world famous Djemaa El Fna square is undoubtedly Marrakech's main tourist attraction.
This bustling square is listed by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of World Heritage" and fully deserves this title.
It's hard to know where to start describing Djemaa El Fna, so the structure of this tip will reflect that of the square - a little bit disorganised and chaotic!
The square is a hive of activity by day and by night. During the day, the square is dominated by carts selling freshly squeezed orange juice, dried fruits, spices and nuts.
Crowds gather around snake charmers, acrobats, dancers, musicians and storytellers. Old ladies sit beneath umbrellas with syringes full of black henna, ready to tattoo any flesh in sight! Next to them, an elderly gentleman will offer to shine your shoes for just a few Dirhams, or tell your fortune if you prefer.
You steady yourself to take a photo, but just as you get your shot in focus, a young child somersaults in front of your camera and asks for "just one Dirham please mister", while somebody is tugging on your sleeve in an attempt to sell you a wooden toy snake.
Watch where you're pointing that camera! If the snake charmer (or the man with a monkey chained to his shoulder) thinks you're trying to photograph them, a demand for money will promptly follow. Men in traditional, colourful Moroccan dress will actively try to invade your photographs!
As you step to one side to avoid a man selling leather belts, a moped dashes past, narrowly avoiding a collision with the oncoming donkey that is pulling a cartload of tourists through the square.
By night, the aroma of grilled meats and spices fills the air. Crowds flock to the hundreds of food stalls for kebabs, seafood, snails or maybe a sheep's head. Beating drums and singing provide the background noise, while the smoke pluming from the food carts provides the atmosphere.
Stop by one of the carts selling hot ginseng and cinnamon tea, stand shoulder to shoulder with the locals watching the activity unfold around you!
All the touristy books and guide books will tell you to do this - Ive done this a number of times and include it as a thing to do when taking or sending friends to Marrakech - a roof top cafe such as Cafe France, Cafe Glacier, Cafe-Restaurant Argana - where you can enjoy coffee or mint tea as the unfolding spectacle of the busy Djmaa elFna unfolds below you and the beautiful Marrakechi sun sets.
UNFORTUNATELY CAFE ARGANA WAS DESTROYED EARLIER THIS YEAR 2011 BY A BOMB THAT EXPLODED UP ON THIS FLOOR IN MY PHOTO KILLING A NUMBER OF TOURISTS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES AND MOROCCANS - THE POLICE ARE STILL ACTIVELY ON THE HUNT FOR THOSE THEY HAVE BELIEVE ARE INVOLVED AS THIS IS A TREMENDOUS CONCERN TO THE GOVERNMENT TO MAINTAIN BOTH PEACE AND STABILITY AND CONTINUE WITH THEIR PUSH FOR INCREASED TOURISM
I wasn't sure whether to put this under things to do or tourist traps! Obviously if you go to Marrakech you have to go to Jemaa el Fna. The Jemaa el Fna is the geographical, social and cultural center of the Medina full of the odd and unusual – but seemingly all geared to the tourist.
There are musicians, snake charmers, monkey handlers, etc. all trying to persuade you to give them money for taking a picture. Most of the activity is at night when food stalls set up and open, but there are still plenty of people around in the day and the souks are open during the day as well.
We walked through the square and before we knew it, a man approached Sandy, wrapped a couple of snakes around his neck, stuck a fez on his head, and waited for me to take a picture. Once we realized the game, we were able to avoid the scams. It’s really a shame because you can easily imagine what the square was like hundred of years ago. People gathered, there was food, and storytellers, and it was a true experience. Now it seems like a staged circus.
The maze of souks is still very interesting. All sorts of things for sale - loved the shoes and tangine crockery, the huge cones of spices, the buckets of delicious olives, etc. If you plan to shop do walk around and compare prices - the can really vary from stall to stall. At some the price was several times more than at another. However, if you see something you really, really want, buy it then because it may not be so easy to find the same souk again.
Try some of the olives or sweets, juices, snail soup, etc. One of the nicer experiences is going to the second floor of one of the open air cafes surrounding the JEF. Order a cappuccino and enjoy people watching!
Each day as we made our way to Djemma el Fna I snuck a peek through a little archway on our way to admire a beautiful mosaic fountain, I could tell there were other mosaic pieces "back there" and I longed to go in and look around. One day I finally did.
The people within were very kind and did not mind if I watched them chisel away at glazed tiles, cutting out tiny stars and such to create beautiful mosaic fountains, tables etc. One of the mosaic makers within seconds chiseled out a tiny red heart for me to keep.
They also had fragments of old tiles that appeared to be chipped away from walls and structures, perhaps places that no longer existed. I asked if I could purchase a couple and they said sure.
They had a cute little King Charles Spaniel named Linda that I spent a few moments petting. It was one of those strange little moments in your travels that gave me a taste of what everyday life is like in Marrakesh away from the masses, crafting small pieces of Morocco's beauty.
Djamaa el Fna is the central square of the old part of Marrakesh and a place that is out of this world.
The square really comes to live in the evening where the place is packed with musicians and story tellers who turns the square in to a surreal theater.
There are also dozens of food stands in the evening ob the square that are extremely colorful and serves good morrocoan food.
The square is also full of hustlers, but it's a part of the game there and as soon as you get used to having 50 guys shouting at you at the same time you will have a great time there.
The heart and life of Marrakech, Djemaa el Fna is where everything happens! This enormous square occupies a central position in la Médina, the old city of Marrakech, and is the converging point of many of its streets and souks. It is an amazingly animated square, which is part theatre, part open-air restaurant, and part souk. It comes most alive in the evening when all the food sellers set up stalls for dinner. They cook harira soup, kebabs, tagines and other dishes in front of their clients for immediate consumption along tables and benches. Not too distant in the square, snakes and their charmers, monkeys, story tellers, orange juice vendors, drummers, and musicians all congregate and offer their services to the masses. Tourists are prime targets for them, but locals come here too. Beware, even taking pictures could cost you dirhams! The energy and sounds of Djemaa el Fna are just impossible to describe in words... but the video "Sounds of Marrakech" gives a glimpse of what it's like.
Food stalls, snake charmers, storytellers, henna artists, monkeys, acrobats, medicine men, jugglers, musicians, pickpockets... the huge square of Djemaa el Fna has it all. Nights here are what cities must have been like back in mediaeval times, before television when people made their own entertainment.
By day the square is relatively quiet and empty; as evening approaches the crowds gather and the food stalls are set up. As night falls, thousands of people take to the streets - feasting on the delicious food of the world's largest open air restaurant, listening to stories, or just hanging out with friends and a pot of mint tea.
Love it or loathe it, Djemaa el-Fna has to be experienced at least once. And I say 'experienced' rather than 'seen' because Djemaa el Fna needs all the senses - tasting the food, smelling the spices and aromas, and hearing the endless noise of the horns.
After you've wandered around the stalls, gorged on all the mouthwatering food and watched everything on the square it's time to retreat to one of the many cafes and watch the goings-on from a distance. In terms of views, though not of food, the best are the rooftop cafes. From here you can see the entire square: the smoky and brightly lit food stalls are the centre, but circles of locals form all around the square watching storytellers and actors, and around the edges are the juice stalls selling fresh orange juice. On the northern side are the souks - full of anything you could possibly want to buy, and lots of things you definitely don't!
There are tourists aplenty in Djemaa el-Fna and it's tempting to dismiss it all as a commercial show, but the stories are all in Arabic and Berber and plenty of locals come here regularly as well. The monkeys, snake charmers and fortune tellers seem purely for the benefit of tourists though and you might find one evening here is enough - although most vistors come back night after night.
After walking around the souqs (and eventually finding your way back out), why not take a stroll through Place Djemma El Fnaa and enjoy a freshly squeezed orange juice from the plethora of vendors here. You will find plenty of carts stacked high with oranges (alongside others stacked with dates) - take your pick they all offer more or less the same.
A fresh orange juice (cool and refreshing) will cost you around 3Dhs (June 2007 prices) and see you on your way to your next destination.
We visited the main square around lunch time during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Our guide informed us that Djemma el-Fna square normally would be a hive of activity, however due to religious fasting most food stalls and activities will not appear to sunset when the fast is broken.
We found the snake charmer with his 3 or 4 snakes in the middle of the square, the Cobras moving around under the "spell" of the music. Quite a sight and one that you have to pay for if you wish to take a photo. A few Dhiram will charm him and you can take a few photos. Beware if you do not give him some cash and attempt to take a photo.
This beautiful gate is the traditional entrance to the Kasbah, named after the black slaves brought from sub-Saharan Africa.
The gate was built in 1185 and is one of the very few stone structures. It is in distinctive contrast to the mud brick city walls.
During the day, Djemaa al Fnaa square is really nothing spectacular, just some stands selling freshly-pressed orange-juice. In the evening the square becomes a loud and colourful spectacle, with even more food stands, snake charmers, musicians, water sellers, henna artists, Berber fortune tellers, gambling and the like.
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants with a rooftoop terrace, a great way to see the spectacle unfold while enyoing a drink or a meal. A cost-sensible choice would be the Cafe Glacier (though the service was lousy).
Be aware though that
- "artists" usually expect to be paid for a photograph, agree on a price beforehand (5-10 Dirham)
- it seems that lots of pickpockets hang around at Djemaa al Fnaa. Take care of your wallet.