Part 1: Intro
You arrive in Marrakesh to an unremarkable airport. A place not exactly swarming and obnoxious with dubious touts, but also not exactly well provisioned with things like wifi and information counters, in short somewhere between the madness of the Cairo airport and the bland but convenient airport in the main Moroccan hub at Casablanca.
You know full well that no wifi and no advance booking usually means you're in for trouble, ie at the mercy of the cabdrivers idea of a 'cheap hotel' and hoping he doesn't have prior agreements for commissions at some resort place way the fuck outside of the city center or something. At least this time you know the name of neighborhood.. that' s usually immensely helpful in at least making people think twice about whether or not you may have been here before, whether or not you might be an easy target. You take a deep breath and step outside into the Moroccan summer sun, find a driver, and explain in broken Egyptian Arabic that you want to be delivered to the medina with all good speed.
On the drive, you reflect on what you've read up to this point. A medina is walled section of the old city, a very common feature of many cities in the middle east, northern Africa, and some places in southern Europe, often leftover from the medieval period. Originally the city centers were fortified to protect citizens from marauding crusaders, bedouins, hostile tribes, what have you. Whenever a region is prosperous enough (and building codes allow it!) the walled region's interior grows more and more dense as it thrives off of trade and tourism.
So picture the medina: one part citadel, one part hive for humans. Nearly two hundred thousand people crammed into an adobe and mud brick labyrinth. Some people say "medina" is simply Arabic for "maze", not really, but at least you definitely get that impression after you wander around for a while. Alley after alley, mostly unlabeled, even the labelled ones unlikely to exist any map. There are few cars because the way is usually narrow, and most traffic is on foot or cloven hoof. The throngs of pedestrians part in waves for impatient motorcycles and bicycles; no one wants to get clipped by handlebars or side-mirrors.
You exit the cab near the wall's gate, and haggle over prices for a while but your heart's not really in it. You can hear the noise and feel the activity, and you want to dive into the press and start to explore. You allow yourself to be ripped off, smile, and curse the driver in a friendly way (something you'd never think of trying in a place less used to European tourism). He blinks in surprise, roars with laughter and shakes your hand and calls you friend and says something incomprehensible about your mother.
You turn to leave and strike off at random, immediately surrounded by hustlers and would-be guides ranging from 10-15. They try their business propositions in French first, you ignore them and don't break stride. Unperturbed they follow and keep trying in different languages. You ignore the English too, wanting to see how many different ways they can say "sir, excuse me, please. what you looking for?". They stop speaking to you after trying English, Spanish, French, German, and what might have been Portuguese and are now perhaps discussing amongst themselves whether you might be a deaf-mute. At any rate they are still following. Meanwhile you notice others eyeing you and surmise they are only keeping their distance because you already have an entourage. Of course.. having your gear on you is going to be a problem and marks you as fresh-meat, just got here, probably lost, likely-target. It's light enough to carry all day but inconvenient in the crowd anyway. You decide to go ahead and speak up and let these kids usher you to some place to stay. You know you'll get ripped off again, but hey, it supports the local economy and this will be faster than fending off propositions for the rest of the day.
You follow the kids down winding passageways and they bring you to a hotel run by a grandmotherly Berber woman who speaks no English but is very happy to see you. You verify they have wifi without bothering to check the room; the location is good, the weather is hot and dry, so dampness is unlikely and hot showers are certainly not a priority. The hotel itself is actually a Moroccan riad, which are quite something to see. Riads dot the medina, and you enter them from a narrow, dusty, cobblestone street via a small door set in a huge door (presumably an architectural vestige back when you wanted one door for people one for livestock). Usually the person-door is small enough that you'll have to duck your head and descend some steps to leave the claustrophobic street, which only enhances a feeling of closeness. But inside when you straighten and look around and the riad.. it is quiet and cool and spacious, two to four stories tall, with an open space in the middle that has growing things, a fountain, it's shaded but open to the sky and the light is filtered so it's brightly lit but not the hot August sunlight you'd expect. Riads are essentially erstwhile mansions or multi-family houses that have been converted to guest-houses. Guests usually eat together and lounge in the common spaces, smoking narghile and sipping the Moroccan mint tea which is always on tap. You recall reading that these common-areas with their fountain and open sky are an age-old architectural technique that still works very well; it moistens the dry air, generates a breeze. Together with the high ceilings in the individual rooms, this is all very effective at cooling the entire space. Basically the riads are a clean oasis of shade, space, and moisture. Contrasted with the streets outside, it's already very soothing but when combined with genuine hospitality the overall effect is simply amazing.
But this is no time yet for all these creature comforts you haven't even earned yet.. what about the world outside? You've already tipped your guides, settled the price with the grandmotherly proprietress and got a card with the address if you lose your way. You already stashed the big bag and whipped out your daypack. It's time to go get lost.
Readysetgo, out into the street, into the harsh light and noise, and somehow it all makes more of an impression now that you're guide-less and unencumbered. You leave again in a slightly-less-than-random direction because you think you remember where the wall is, and you want to move towards the center of activity. This is not even the market proper yet (aka the "souk" or bazaar) but everything is still for sale, lots of it aimed at tourists (backpacks and luggage, hundreds of travel companies and tour offerings, restaurants with multilingual menus). You can buy belly-dancing gear for your harem here and turkish-style bath houses (hammam.. not to be confused with 'imam'!!) often double as massage parlors. (You reflect that, of all the arab cities in the world, this is probably one of the oldest and most crowded AND most liberal. The tourist offerings are obviously a commerce-oriented concession to modernity, and the laid back pseudo-sexuality of things like massage parlors show the gradual westernization that has turned out to be very profitable for Moroccan tourism.)
Onward through the press, past the touts. The square, where is that square at? Djemaa el-Fna is the beating heart of the old city, and for sure the tourists go there in huge herds but so do the locals. It is a UNESCO "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", and it is without a doubt the place to be. You could ask anyone how to get there (and in fact people keep trying to tell you how to get there even though you don't ask). But that's no fun. So you slip into a coffee shop with a balcony, and observe the traffic patterns below, trying to work it all out. A place like this square is a traffic source and sink, and since the medina road-layout is hardly logical or rectilinear anyway, roads are likely to eventually insinuate themselves in the generally correct direction. As long as you don't mind experiencing some dead ends, and just think of the things you'll see on the way...
Out of the coffeeshop back into the street. You walk the narrow way, struggling to pass slowpokes, dodging motorcycles, maniacs on bikes, and running children. When faced with a choice, take the path of least resistance, trusting the flow to steer you. This actually does take a little bit of effort, because secondary clues can be important. When a street forks in two with equal traffic, which street is the "main" street? It's broad daylight but you look for lights.. if one way has lights and another does not, the one that can be illuminated wins. After a while themes in the shops begin to appear. Leather dealerships, spice stores, brightly colored fabrics and lamps with "real silver" which may or may not contain a genie, abatoirs selling whole salted goats on hooks, carpet hawkers, and everywhere the orange juice, avocado, and nut stalls--
But suddenly the path widens even as the traffic becomes more choked. This has got to be Djemaa el-Fna.. the square at last.
To be continued..