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Square One

P.T. Barnum may have had “The Greatest Show on Earth”, but that was over 100 years ago. And you had to pay for it. These days, the finest, funnest, freakiest show we know happens every day in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna square. And it’s free.

If Morocco is a target for the traveller craving the curious and exotic, then La Place (as Djemaa el Fna is known by locals) is the bull’s-eye. Unlike other famous public squares (i.e. Trafalgar, Red, St. Peter’s, Piazza del Campo), Djemaa el Fna is neither trimmed with grand architecture nor tied to grand history. It’s just an average looking place with a ho hum history. Some say it’s name comes from ‘Assembly of the Dead’ or ‘Place of the Vanished Mosque’, but the only thing we know for certain is that the square was once a bus station and parking lot.

Nevertheless, there’s something about Djemaa el Fna that is totally magical and completely captivating. It could just be that it’s a stage for the gently absurd and uncommon theatre of common life. In the morning, the scene is calm and quiet to the point of being boring. Taxis come and go, shoppers crisscross on their way to the souks (markets), tourists take pictures and wonder what all the fuss is about. As the day heats up, so too does the action. Stands selling nuts, almonds or freshly squeezed orange juice appear. Water sellers in their decorative red outfits start circulating. And the first of the snake charmers set up carpet in the middle of the square. By late afternoon, the storytellers have arrived and are starting to draw small crowds. Enter the dancing monkeys, acrobatic performers, pickpockets and Gnaoua musicians. Yes, it’s starting to get deliciously strange. Just before the sun drops into the dusty horizon, dozens of wheeled food carts roll into the square and start cooking all matter of food (grilled meats, spicy soups, heaps of couscous). Smoke and noise fill the air, people fill the square, and before you can say “where’s my wallet” Djemaa el Fna is alive and pulsing with energy.

To truly see this place you have to feel it. And to do that, you’ve got to roll up your sleeve’s and get right in the thick of things—push your way into the circle of people watching the juvenile boxing match, have a few bites of lamb jowel, and let the monkey jump on your back. The intensity of the Djemaa el Fna will be hard to explain to your friends back home, so find your way to one of the rooftop terraces on the edge of the square (Café Glacier above Hotel CTM has the best vantage point) and take a few photos. While you’re there, grab a café cassé (like a mini cappuccino without the foam) and cornes de gazelles (delicious almond-paste filled pastry), you’ll need the energy to keep up with the drama.

As the day heats up, so too does the action.

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