No Hollywood movie set could duplicate the sights and sounds or the tempo of this old North African city. It is too intense, too hustle-bustle, with a ruthless crush of small cars, big trucks and thousands of mopeds and bicycles bearing down on pedestrians.
Donkeys bray under their loads of grain and under turbaned, burnoosed riders. Driven by dark-eyed boys, the camels endure it all -- the hectic pace, the strung-out city with its miles of adobe walls, battlements topped by minarets.
The jumble of Marrakesh impressions multiplies on the Djemaa El Fna Square. Less than 100 years ago, tribal chiefs still displayed the heads of their enemies here; now it is the daily (and nightly) site of a huge market, circus and carnival rolled into one.
The musicians pound their drums and collection plates are jangled under your nose by the sidekicks of jugglers; the dust flies as native acrobats turn somersaults. Fire eaters, sword swallowers, eloquent reciters from the Koran all clamor for attention.
Water sellers bang brass cups; flute-playing snake charmers make their cobras perform eerie dances. (Are the snakes defanged? As one story has it, a Swiss tourist was skeptical enough to touch one, and was bitten.)
Certainly, the famous square entertains and enervates at the same time: self-appointed guides, age 14, tug at your sleeves; older beggars hold out their hands in the universal gesture. Urchins accost you with post cards of local mosques rich in mosaics, post cards showing the story tellers, public scribes, barbers, medicine men, incense vendors and veiled ladies sitting on the ground. You can have your shoes resoled, and open-air food stalls feed the hungry with kebobs and tajine stews.
Souvenirs? If you haggle a little bit, you'll find leather bargains galore. Fine leather billfolds for $8 to $10, strong sandals for $9, belts at $3, and the hooded, ankle-length garments know as djellabas sell at $15 to $20.
It takes a stout heart to wander from the dusty open air scene into the narrow, winding streets of the old town, or Medina, and then penetrate the inner sanctums of the Berber market. The passageways teem with people, all seemingly pressing toward the carpet stalls. (Rugs fetch fairly high prices.)
Don't expect many vendors to speak English; Arabic and French are the languages here. Be wary of hustlers, con men, pickpockets.
Marrakesh's other sights are best seen by tour bus. You'll be taken to the Koutoubia Mosque, to the historic Bab Rob Gate, to the Saadian tombs to view graves not only of the Sultan but also of his 27 wives and his 23 concubines. The mausoleum's stone lattice work, the arabesque-adorned interiors and the surrounding rosemary gardens are memorable.
Guides will point out the various mosques' towers; from here, five times a day, the muezzin still calls faithful Muslims to prayer. His voice, now amplified by a microphone, sounds a little shriller than it used to. Life speeds up everywhere.
The visitor will find peace within the many gardens -- especially the Menara or the outlying Agedal. Likewise, you can escape Marrakesh's high tension atmosphere in the spectacular 17-acre park-like grounds of La Mamounia, no doubt Morocco's most famous, and most expensive, hotel.
What an oasis! You wander under a canopy of date palms, 300-year-old olive trees, stately cypresses, fig trees; orange and lemon orchards flank the clay tennis courts.
The hotel employs 60 gardeners, not to mention a staff of 600 catering to about 300 guests. Winston Churchill loved La Mamounia at Christmas; he'd rent his suites high up so that he could see and paint the magnificent, snow-sheathed Atlas mountains, where one can ski in winter, fish in summer.
The mild winters made the hotel a favorite of Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock, Kirk Douglas and John Huston. Lee Radziwill spent a few nights here with an aristocratic Spaniard.
And not long ago, Henry Kissinger had a three-hour lunch at the hotel's Olympic-size pool. (Despite the balmy weather, he never swam in it. "Henry ate and ate," a waiter recalls.)
La Mamounia's management insists on formality at dinner (jackets and ties for men, tuxedos at Christmas or New Year's); the hotel refuses to book conventions except, perhaps, a dozen directors of a major international corporation.
("They fly in via their private jets; we pick them up from the Marrakesh airport in our Mercedes vehicles," says the hotel manager.)
The chef gladly tackles difficult assignments, like whipping up a 3 a.m. meal of braised pigeons and smoked muttonheads for a visiting Saudi Arabian prince and His Majesty's retinue.
La Mamounia's interiors look like something out of the "1001 Nights," all palatial salons with sumptuous leathers, fine chandeliers, Moorish fountains. The clientele doesn't ask what it costs to stay at this celebrated hotel; indeed, guests consider the $250 to $1,200 nightly tab on the low side.
These rates are not at all typical for Marrakesh, where you find any number of clean hotels at $50 double occupancy. The U.S. (or Canadian) dollar still buys a lot in Morocco.
A budgeter can lunch for pennies, for instance. Example? Buy a can of sardines (50 cents) at a local market, plus a loaf of tasty bread (20 cents), a big melon (35 cents) or a kilogram of grapes (30 cents).
An excellent dinner at a local French restaurant -- hors d'oeuvres, a fish course, then couscous with lamb, plus dessert -- comes to only $10 with wine. (By contrast, Arab restaurants cannot serve liquor, but their tariff is even lower.)
The reasonable prices extend to transportation as well. Nowadays, even Royal Air Maroc offers excursion fares and other discounted rates from New York or Montreal to Casablanca. (It is wise not to fly at peak holiday or vacation periods; the Casablanca airport is sheer bedlam then.)
Before heading to Marrakesh, you might want to spend a day or two visiting Casablanca. It is the commercial hub of North Africa, with Morocco's largest cruise ship port, scores of airline and government offices, international banking center and 5 million inhabitants.
It also has lots of good shopping (look for leather, carpets, pottery, copper and brass samovars, wood carvings, silver), and a pedestrian Medina with narrow passageways and native vendors.
How do you get from "Casa" to more colorful Marrakesh? You can fly via R.A.M.; it takes all of 45 minutes. The train is another possibility.
A fearless type may want to go by taxi, which charges only about $20 for the three-hour ride. (On the other hand, your driver will probably hit speeds of 80 mph, scaring the daylights out of North American passengers.)
Car rental? Judging from the many old wrecks along the roadside, you take your life into your hands.
The pace accelerates as you approach Marrakesh. Gone are the placid children who sells cactus pears or grapes. The cars race each other on the Avenue Mohammed V. Noisy Mopeds buzz out of side streets like hornets. A soda pop truck cuts off a motorcycle. Private Learjets bring a party of six directors to La Mamounia.
And a cast of thousands mills around the Djemaa El Fna Square.