Marrakech just shouldn’t be as accessible as it is. How can it be possible for such a spectacularly exotic and strange Berber city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains to exist in the same time zone as Aberdeen? Getting there should involve a hot air balloon, five days on a train with a personal valet or at least some robes and camels surely? But Marrakech just makes it all so easy. If we were in the business of creating clichéd straplines for (seemingly) far-flung destinations we’d definitely be serving up a, ‘Marrakech – closer than you imagine’ option.
Unfortunately, accessible exoticism tends to get you noticed. For longer than most of us have been alive, Marrakech has been a playground of the rich and famous (particularly the French rich and famous: Yves St. Laurent had a museum quality house here and Jean Paul Gaultier has a home in the city). Nowadays it’s ideal for short-breaks. Families holiday here because Marrakech is child friendly without being dull to death (think ‘snake charmers and monkey wranglers’ not ‘homogenous theme parks and surly teens pretending to be cartoon characters’). And, because it’s possibly one of the most effortlessly romantic cities on earth, Marrakech is also a complete natural for couples.
In short, Marrakech is always busy – some would even say hectic – especially during the summer months when the weather is hot and sunny and flights plentiful. But it’s also a Muslim city so it observes Ramadan during July and August and surprisingly this is one of the best times to visit in summer: the daily business of Marrakech slows down and there’s considerably less commercial activity so everything’s a little calmer than usual but still very visitor friendly.
Ramadan is wholly spiritual and observed throughout the Muslim world as a time of fasting, reflection, devotion, generosity and sacrifice. This is the most special of all Muslim observances and bears no resemblance to the more commercialised celebrations of holidays like Easter or Christmas. It appears ‘business as usual’ in the souks and squares with their weird, wonderful and sometimes just plain disconcerting trades. The city’s restaurants are as hospitable as ever. And museums, palaces, mosques and gardens continue to welcome visitors. But you are a guest at a profoundly holy time in the Muslim year and there are rules you should be aware of so as not to offend your hosts.
Fasting is central to Ramadan starting at dawn and going on until sunset. Although non-Muslim visitors are not expected to fast, you should not eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public during the hours of the fast. Marrakech is a moderate city without legal penalties for breaking Ramadan observances but complete strangers will think nothing of giving you a strict ‘telling off’ if you do.
In Marrakech, many restaurants will serve food during the hours of fasting and some supermarkets will be open. But if you have special dietary-requirements or you’re travelling with young children, stocking up on essentials is a good idea, just in case.
Enjoying a drink isn’t usually an issue in Marrakech but for the month of Ramadan many shops selling alcohol close and some restaurants observe stricter rules than others.
‘Iftar’ is the time, following sunset, when friends and family traditionally get together to observe the end of the day’s fast with a meal. Ramadan is a time for Muslims to reflect on strengthening bonds within their own community and the wider world so you may be lucky enough (particularly if you’re renting local accommodation) to be invited to share ‘Iftar. If you’re unsure of any customs or rules ask your host.
Even if you don’t join in ‘Iftar’ as a local, take to the streets of Marrakech after 9pm for the festive atmosphere created by people who’ve finally eaten after fasting all day. Different parts of the city have different traditions and children are very much part of the celebrations.
Certain guides to Marrakech shamelessly advise you to ‘wear ear plugs if you don’t want to be disturbed by the early morning call to prayer’. We’re more of the opinion you should embrace the unearthly beauty of the ‘Adhan’. And if you’re at all likely to ‘be disturbed’ by any peaceful, ancient and fundamental aspect of another culture you should err on the side of caution, ditch the ear plugs and just stay home. The ‘Adhan’ is called five times a day but spiritual reflection is intrinsic to Ramadan and Muslims offer prayer more often during this time. Polite, respectful and aware are the only customs visitors need observe.
Marrakech has some of the largest, liveliest souks in North Africa and probably the only difference during Ramadan is a slightly more polite approach to haggling. And in vast city squares like D’Jemaa el-fnaa the (often slightly sinister) soothsayers are a little kinder than usual. But if you want to enter into the true spirit of reflection and quiet contemplation at the heart of Ramadan, Marrakesh is also famous for its breathtaking mosques, beautiful gardens and, of course, the Atlas Mountains.
The snow-capped Atlas Mountains are as symbolic of Marrakech as the vast minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque and the Majorelle Gardens’ intense cobalt blue buildings. The city’s just 20 miles from the foothills of the mountains and although they’re obviously adored by tough climbing types, if serene and peaceful wandering is more your thing, the Atlas Mountains are pretty perfect for that too.
This year Ramadan begins on July 9th and ends on August 7th. The traditional Festival of Eid acknowledges the end of Ramadan with three days of music, dancing, feasting and celebration. In Marrakech, most banks, shops, restaurants and the like will close for Eid and it’s not a great time for travel or sightseeing. So take our advice and just join in Eid itself, it is an unforgettably exciting experience.
One last little word of caution (and this isn’t exclusive to Marrakech): in the first week of Ramadan, before people get used to daytime fasting and abstinence from their beloved tea, they can be a bit irritable – breathe deep and remember tolerance is the mark of a good guest in any country.
May Allah accept our fasting, forgive our sins and guide us all to the straight path.
Featured image by shrapnel1.