Marrakesh, as we quickly discovered, is much busier and more chaotic than Rabat. I'm so, so glad we started with Rabat because even after five days in Morocco to get our feet wet, Marrakesh was still at times a little overwhelming. First of all, it's much bigger. Second of all, there are a lot more people, street peddlers, cart vendors, motorbikes, animals, and tourists. Like I said, overwhelming. That's not to say it wasn't also amazing--we loved Marrakesh.
When we arrived, the first thing we did after dumping our bags at our riad (and having the requisite mint tea) was head out on foot to Jemaa el Fna square in the old city. It is the center of the action, day and night, a kind of contained chaos. Juice stands, women trying to give you a henna tattoo, people trying to sell you any number of things, street performers, snake charmers, men walking around with trained birds of prey on their arms, men walking around with little monkeys and other primates dressed up in outfits and on leashes for pictures with tourists (I hated seeing that--it made me so sad), and lots and lots and LOTS of people.
Jemaa el Fna from aboveJemaa el Fna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been continuously operating as a market and gathering place since around the eleventh century. Talk about history.
Dried fruit, nuts, and juice vendors
These vendors (above) would stand on a little platform in the middle of their cart, where they could strategically reach any of their wares for their customers. Sometimes you'd seen an unoccupied cart, and then a head would suddenly pop out of the middle of it as the vendor stood back up after resting or eating in the space down below his cart.
Jemaa el Fna at night, with the food trucks set up in the backgroundAlthough we didn't think it possible, Jemaa el Fna got even crazier at night, when the juice stands would clear out and an entire pop-up city of food trucks would set up tents and huge long tables covered with butcher paper. They set up and took down these enormous tents and tables every single night--by daytime there was no inclination that they had ever been there. We were determined to eat adventurously and thus wandered back to Jemaa el Fna one evening for dinner at a street stall. They all seemed to be selling pretty much the same thing--some variation on skewer-cooked meat, meat pockets, or tagine, so we picked a table and sat down. They rolled out fresh butcher paper, gave us each a fork and knife and a menu, and we pointed at a few options, rolled up our sleeves, and dug in. And it was delicious.
After we'd eaten our fill we wandered around the square some more, where crowds of people had loosely organized themselves into rings centered around either a game or a storyteller. The popular game, which looked absolutely impossible but was fun to watch, consisted of a few dozen full 1-liter soda bottles set up in a clump and a chalk circle drawn on the ground behind which you had to stand. Then if you wanted to play the game you were given a kind of fishing pole with a long string hanging from it and then circle on the end, and the aim was to get the circle/washer to go over the neck of a soda bottle, which is how you "won." Several people came very close but we never saw anyone win the soda bottle, although it sure was fun cheer them on and groan at the near-misses. The storytellers, who tell their stories in either Arabic or Berber, were much more popular with the locals, who could understand them. That was one thing I appreciated about Jemaa el Fna square--it was not just a tourist trap. Lots of locals made their way there every night as well, to shop, eat, and socialize. Although it was crazy crowded, it never felt unsafe. There was no drinking (because the country is 95% Muslim and thus don't drink alcohol), but it was still a rowdy good time. I loved Jemaa el Fna.
A smaller side market during the daytime