Henna in marrakesh moroccoIf you’ve read even a little bit about Marrakesh prior to your tours to Morocco, you probably know that this cultural hub is bursting with activity, especially in Place Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s main square. For a first-time visitor, approaching the clamor of the square at sunset can feel disorienting. To survey the bustle before joining it, consider starting the evening with a terrace dinner.

Terrace restaurants surround the square, and most specialize in the traditional multi-course spread of salad, tajine or couscous and whole fruit dessert. You’ll pay a bit more to dine here than you would at ground level, but the balcony seating is absolutely worth the extra dirhams.

West of the square, the modestly lit minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque seems to mark a main entrance where a continuous current of silhouettes migrate toward the festivities. Motorbike headlights sprinkle the crowd, weaving through the shadows like dancing fireflies.

Following the migratory path leads your eye to long rows of dinner vendors under a cloud of steam. Though fuzzy from a distance, wandering toward the wafting scents of cumin later in the evening takes you down countless aisles lined with vendors on one side and tent-covered seating on the other.

Men in white chef coats smile warmly as they invite you to dine with snail soup, sheep’s head and other traditional fare. Telling them you’ve already eaten only inspires comments about your thin physique (regardless of whether it’s true) and appeals to eat more. If you still decline, they’ll tell you their assigned vendor number—also printed on a white card, prominently displayed on the stand—and urge you to join them the following night.

Much of the northern part of the square glows from the lighted alleyways of the medina and its outermost vendors. The alleys supply another steady stream of patrons flooding the square, who eventually disperse to the various circles of spectators surrounding storytellers and musicians.

Scattered among the circles are the female vendors of the square. Some sit on stools next to a blanket on the ground that displays incense, candles and similar wares for sale. Others approach you with small photo albums, flashing pictures of hands and ankles decorated in henna, offering to adorn your hand with your name and a personalized message in Arabic. A word of caution: If she catches your hand, she may start writing regardless of whether you’ve agreed to it.

From your terrace perch, you may spot dimly lit blurs deep in the square that seem to attract crowds, but are difficult to decipher from a distance. After meandering past melodies of oboes, drums, finger cymbals, chants and henna calligraphers after dinner, those blurs reveal themselves as carnival games. Pay a few dirham to try to knock down bowling pins with a soccer ball. Or, spend your dirham attempting to win a bottle of soda by lowering a rubber ring attached to a fishing line onto the bottleneck. And by the way, you’re holding a fishing pole and standing five to ten feet away from the prize.

Written by Shelley A. Gable, instructional designer and freelance writer.

Photo by Roubicek.