Adventures in the Maghreb… Marrakech…Souqs, snails and sheep heads

I must be the only Brit who had never been to Marrakech…. at least that what it seemed, so packed was the BA flight with folks who were returning to a city that felt to them like a second home. For me, it was my first experience travelling to North Africa and even then, it was by invitation, from a friend I met in Qatar, which I was more than willing and grateful to accept. I love adventure, and travelling with a native is very often more interesting, getting to see and do things somewhat off the usual tourist trail.

It was January and it was warm as I stepped out of the airport into the sun, to be greeted by Nour and his mother. Driving through the crazy streets as we headed into the city, reminded me of my time in Delhi. Roads full of scooters and cyclists all weaving around, weighed down by crates of produce, or one too many family members clinging on with little to protect them from harm.

The air fell thick and heavy with the taste of diesel and 2-stroke, as the entire world appeared to be heading into Marrakech city centre. I’d arrived during rush hour so finding somewhere to park when we eventually arrived proved interesting, but with Nour in the driving seat, no problem…. a quick chat with a parking attendant and we had a spot for the night close to all the action.

We would stay in a traditional riad for a couple of nights, close to Jemaa El-Fnaa (the main square and souq). It was a beautiful house tucked in the corner of a tiny lane in the heart of the old city, decoratively painted in traditional Moroccan style.

We had our own rooms and left our cases there to explore the Souq at night and find somewhere for dinner. I had received mixed reports of Marrakech Souq from different people; from those who loved it’s vibrant atmosphere to those who described it as a stinking, squalid tourist trap. With the sun gone and darkness descended, it was cold. Very cold. Surely single figures. I was glad of my coat.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main square, surrounded by the lanes and tunnels of the various souqs. Its name translates as ‘The Mosque of ruins’ and its one of Marrakesh’s biggest tourist attractions. I found it to be a rather strange place, peculiar in that there was no light, except that from ad-hoc stalls set up, it seemed, quite randomly. There were informal groups sitting around playing music, performing tricks and showing off their snakes and monkeys, ready to insist on money from you as soon as you did as much as look in their direction.

In my naivety, I made the classic mistake of taking a quick photo of some guys playing music together, when one of them immediately demanded a donation. Moving on, we walked into the tiny lanes of the souq, where I found much the same fayre as sold in Souq Waqif in Doha; trinkets made in China and India, alongside more genuine, locally made, baskets and leather goods such as handbags and Moroccan slippers.

The biggest difference with the souq in Qatar, was that scooters and motorcycles ride through the tiny Marrakesh lanes, weaving through the pedestrians at high speed, pumping out clouds of lead-heavy smoke.

I really wanted to buy a few things such as a Moroccan tea pot and a tajine, but knew I’d be coming back to Marrakech before returning home, so I stuck to browsing for now and tried to remember the prices. After wandering for a while, we came back to the square and Nour headed to a stall and took a seat and beckoned me over.

I sat beside him and within seconds was presented with a bowl full of L’escargot…. boiled snails with butter and herbs. There were half a dozen stalls lined up together and the air was heavy with the buttery fumes from the vats of steaming gastropods, around which sat eagre customers chowing down on the rubbery little fellas. I was a L’escargot virgin and always keen to experience something new, so I dived in with my toothpick and soon had a pile of discarded shells to show for my efforts.

I have to admit to feeling a little sad, looking at their tiny horns as I spiked their belly with my wooden spear and dragged them out of the home they’d been carrying around on their backs. They were quite rich in flavour, and indeed a little rubbery, but much tastier than I’d expected, the herbs and butter no doubt helping somewhat and the soupy broth in the bottom of the bowl was delicious.

The other food stalls were now in full swing, from freshly made juices, to sheep heads and everything in between.

The stall holders were enthusiastically approaching tourists as they passed by to encourage them to stop and eat at their place. They were quickly erected street cafes with wooden benches under tarpaulins with fresh produce cooked on coals to order.

We sat at a table, feeling the need to warm up. Kebabs and Tajines were the favourite dishes and being in Morocco, we had to have Tajine. Lamb Tajine with prunes came with bread to eat it with. The bread is both food and utensil, used to pick up the meat and soak up the gorgeous sticky gravy. It was heavenly and just what I needed after a long day with the temperatures plunging as we sat.

After dinner, we headed back to the Riad, passing again the musicians and street artists, this time with my phone/camera packed away. Walking into the Riad was like stepping into a deep freeze. These traditional old buildings have no heating and all of the hard surfaces, including the tiled floor, enhance the cold.

I was shocked and disappointed, having looked forward to getting indoors after being cold outside, only to find it was colder still.

I wore every item of thermal underwear I had and added my body warmer on top of that, wrapped one of my arabic scarves around my head and tried to sleep. Of course, hard surfaces aren’t great for noise insulation either and every sound echoed around the interior stairwell and courtyard , especially when guests arrived back late. Feeling exhausted, sleep eventually overcame me and I slept surprisingly well!!

In the morning, we headed to a nearby street cafe for some hot porridge and msemen. To call msemen a traditional North African square flatbread would be technically correct but that really doesn’t do it justice. It is layered, buttery, flaky heaven and can be served either plain or stuffed with cheese, chicken, prawn or meat.

These were plain, served with some honey on the side, with very strong mint tea. We sat in the sun and I could feel every cell in my body thawing from my night in the deep freeze. The warmth and the breakfast gave me a new energy to walk to take in some sights.

Our first stop was the Saadien Tombs, a once hidden mausoleum where the well-to-do, royalty and nobility of 16th century morocco lie buried in style, surrounded by beautifully decorated marble, colorful tiles and gardens full of orange and lemon trees. The Saadien dynasty ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659.

The once abandoned building and its contents lay undiscovered until 1917 and has since been renovated and it was clear that the renovation continues to this day. It was a truly stunning and peaceful place and we were fortunate to arrive fairly early before the crowds to get a really good look.

Not yet ‘palaced out’, we wandered across town to the Bahia Palace. Now this is on the list of top things to do in Marrakech and with good reason. A wonderfully extravagant 19th Century marble marvel, showcasing the skills of Fez’s artisan community, living up to its name which means “brilliance”. It was built by and for Si Moussa, the Grand Vizier of the Sultan at the time.

It covers 2 acres and has 150 rooms, including 4 of equal size for each of his wives and a harem area with smaller rooms for his many concubines to share. There are breathtaking gardens, fountains, and each room illustrates the beauty of Moroccan art and architecture with exquisite colour and geometric patterns.

A different gem emerged around every corner; an ornate fireplace, a stunning stained glass window or an immaculately carved cedarwood door. I got neck pain from looking up at impressive vaulted ceilings and none of my many photos could do them justice.

There were large open courtyards with covered walkways around the edge to protect the residents from the North African heat. I could only imagine the stories the walls could tell, with 4 wives and a harem of concubines, not to mention the arrival of the French in the early 1900s, who proceeded to kick out the local occupants for the Resident General to make the Palace his home.

2 Palaces down and we weren’t done yet… a lost madrasa, a magical garden and another night in the souq to come in the next instalment !

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