Travel Icons… by the Back Door

Djemaa el-Fna – Marrakech, Morocco

Visitors per year: Around 1.5 million

Known as much for its atmosphere (and even recognized by UNESCO for it) as its design, Djemaa el-Fna square is the bustling heart of chaotic Marrakech. To reduce the crowds isn’t the point here – the crowds are part of the experience. But with so much fighting for your attention, it pays to know what is worth bothering with.

Front door: Evening (post 6pm) is the main reason to visit the square, when a melee of touts, poets, pickpockets, oud (lute) players, storytellers, snake charmers, acrobats, gnaoua dancers, henna tattooists, food stalls and juice salesmen collide in an explosion of noise, color, crowds and confusion.

Back door: The entertainment follows the hordes, and vice versa. Lose one and you lose the other, and during the day the square just doesn’t have the same vibe. Be sure to skip the henna tattooists for the

nearby Henna Art Café (hennacafemarrakech.com), which uses only safe products. The storytellers are great, if you speak Arabic. But the food is the real draw here, so long as you know what to order…

“There are lots of cafés overlooking the square. For a good view, choose Café Glacier on the corner edge, overlooking Kotoubia mosque. To the north-east, near the souks, you’ll also find Mechoui Alley. From noon, its stalls start slicing up its namesake dish of mechoui, lamb roasted whole in an underground clay oven. It’s sold by the half or quarter kilo – take away a bag for 30MAD (£2) with fresh bread and olives.

“The food stalls of Djemaa el-Fna set up from 4pm and open until well past midnight. Head there after 7pm and stick with grilled meats, such as merguez sausage and chicken skewers. Try baolo, which is cow offal stuffed into bread that has been dipped in dripping. It’s a local favorite and you’ll find it at any of the tangia (slow-roasted lamb) stalls. Snails are common too, and even if you can’t stomach them, try the broth they come in – it has a unique flavor.

“For fresh local spices, don’t buy them in the local ‘pharmacies’ or fancy shops – they just buy them themselves from the small hanuts (grocers) that litter the city. These also sell dried fruits and nuts, and if you walk towards the police station in the north of the square, you’ll see an alley that runs behind it filled with plenty of these shops to explore.”

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