Never in my life have I seen or experienced anything quite like Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square at night.
The energy of the hustle, bustle, and hubbub is intoxicating: the smell of smoking and sizzling meats and brewing stews from the street-food stands; the upbeat and lively sounds of drums, guitars and sonorous voice accompaniment; the throngs of locals and tourists alike that flock to and crowd the plaza to witness the spectacle, taste the food, and cheer on the various performances; an infectious and overwhelming ambience accentuated by the eerie and almost mystical melodies of the pungi, the unique wind instruments of snake charmers. Where else in the world does a plaza and marketplace come alive like this?
Scattered sporadically throughout the square, there are middle-aged, female henna artists pestering tourists to come have a tattoo done; there are stands of fresh-squeezed fruit juices, candies, chocolates, and snails; there are rows of vendors with their wares, from spices to lanterns and purses, strewn across white blankets; and, of course, the various men walking around with leashed monkeys, trying to scam tourists into paying for a picture with one, and those groups of 2-5 men with their pungi and snakes…some all coiled up and resting, others, like the several cobras I saw, upright, puffed-out, and hypnotized by the pungi strains of their masters.
Succinctly put, an evening in the Jemaa el-Fnaa square of Marrekech, smack-dab in the centre of the city and just outside the walls of its massive medina, is an experience.
After a full day of exploring, buying souvenirs, and occasionally getting lost in the medina, we hit up the street-food stands for dinner once the sun had gone down, and the vibrancy of Jemaa el-Fnaa was heightened. The young men manning the stands, all numbered and organized in ordered rows, greeted us, waved menus in our faces, and utilized their best salesmanship skills to charm us into eating at their joints.
My mother was told she had a pretty smile, and that she was too skinny and needed to come eat a big meal at such-an-such joint; I was offered a Ferrari if I came and ate at another. Another young bloke took one look at me and said “beautiful. How many chickens you want?” as if beauty warrants a choice pick of any number of chickens, free of charge.
We ate at the stand numbered “1” and signed as recommended by Trip Advisor. The mixed grilled kebabs of lamb, liver, chicken, beef, and sausage were certainly outstanding. Rich, flavorful, and grilled perfectly; and the various waiters, young and old, were efficient, friendly, and attentive.
After strolling around through the scattered crowds of people around musicians, snake charmers, and other street performers, we sought out the same dessert stand we had stumbled upon the evening before. An older, stout and grumpy looking man, and a younger fellow, perhaps his son, manned a hopping food stand with a giant vat of steaming, spicy, delectable ginger beer and plates of this cake- and paste-like concoction of ginger, molasses, and nuts. While I am still unsure of the names and origins of these dishes, all I can say is they are unbelievably delicious.
The ginger beer burns as you swallow, the spices literally causing your taste buds to tingle, but one scoop of the cake and the spice and burn abates a little. One cup of the stuff and one plate of the cake is more than enough for three people after a filling dinner of street-food, and for the price of 5-6 dirham (or approximately 75 cents USD), it is more than worth it.
From the dazzling old buildings and palaces, to the rooftop-terraced cafés, to the immense and impressive medina, Marrakech is indubitably a must-see city in Morocco. But the spectacle of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square at night makes it unforgettable, easily one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever been to. A shock to the system, a sensory overload, an extraordinary environment abound with unbridled energy and vivacity so infectious you can’t help but be captivated; however you describe it, Jemaa el-Fnaa must be experienced.