We are on the road to Marrakech. You can almost hear everyone humming the Crosby, Still & Nash song to themselves …
After passing through an unremarkable landscape, our first glimpse of Marrakech is of a medina in the distance, with a mass of rooftop satellite dishes offering a stark contrast to both the sand colored walls and the brilliant blue sky.
Downtown Marrakech felt a little like Casablanca, with its rounded front buildings and general noise and grime. We are once again booked into a riad in the old city. Driving in any Moroccan medina is a true art form, but again Mohamed demonstrates his skill, and in spite of another GPS failure, traverses the narrow passageways to get us close to our destination. I am happy to be traveling sans luggage as the rest of my party carts mounds of luggage through a small souk and to the door of the Riad Adriana.
We are met in the courtyard with tea and a tray of sweets, and seated on cushions around a center fountain filled with rose petals. I take note of the vases of roses and huge bowls of oranges in the corners of the courtyard. I start nibbling on a second cookie when we are ushered to our rooms.
Unbelievable! Having just checked out of the Palais des Roses, we find ourselves in a true palace of roses … there are rose petals scattered everywhere in our rooms! There’s another tray of sweets and fruit on the small wooden table, along with a welcome bottle of water. Once again, I am struck by the stark differences in hospitality between the large hotels – which didn’t even have water or menus in the rooms – and the riads which see to every potential need, even those that you didn’t realize you had …
After a brief rest, we walk back through the souk to meet up with Mohamad and the van. I’m not paying enough attention to where I’m walking, and suddenly collide with a scooter after which we both take a spill. The driver is visibly angry and I find a safe place to stand behind Mohamed and Doug, who quickly deescalate the scooter driver. I look down and find that remarkably I don’t have treadmarks across my foot, and my ankle seems OK, and so we continue on. I would stick close to the sides of the souk every time we walk through here for the duration of our stay.
We only have the briefest time to enjoy this opulance before visiting the Majorelle Gardens. This thematic garden surrounds a villa that was built in the 1920’s for Jacques Majorelle (a French Orientalist painter). The property was purchased in 1980 by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, who turned the villa into a museum, and also restored the gardens. (Click here for some history.) I did not find the gardens ‘breathtaking’ as the guidebooks will tell you, but it did contain some interesting cacti in sterile and oddly colored plantings. I found the color scheme to be somewhat garish, in its green, blue, yellow and oranges, with even the fish in the pond seemingly matching the scheme.
I leave a kiss on the Yves Saint Laurent memorial, and then entered the Musee Berbere which he and Pierre founded in order to help preserve Berber culture here.
Of all the places to not allow photographs !!! It’s a compact space, set under a dark ceiling pierced with lights to simulate stars, and exhibiting ethnic clothing, jewelry and household implements. There was a dazzling array of jewelry and headdresses which I noted bore similarities to Mongolian jewelry. In both nomadic cultures, women wore their wealth in the form of finely crafted silver, studded with coral. Where Mongolian women also used turquoise, the Berber women used amber and amazonite. I recognized some of the pieces as being talismans, including fibula (shown in the first photo below) whose design I would find on doors throughout the country, and which I would work into a hat design when I returned home.
I walked through twice before one of the curators helpfully pointed me towards the exit, where I spent another half hour buying books about Berber culture, but failed to find a catalog of the exhibit I had just perused… (photo credits: http://www.museeyslmarrakech.com)
Our next stop is the Jemaa el Fna, Morocco’s Central Square, where we would meet a local guide who would take us through the historic highlights of the Square.
Marrakech is considered one of Morocco’s four Imperial cities, founded in 1062 by the Almoravids, a dynastic Berber group. They build a kasbah and a mosque here, eventually uniting Morocco as well as much of Spain and Algeria. Under Youssef Ben Tashfine, Marrakech became a center of culture and learning, with Andalusian style mosques and palaces.
The Koutoubia Mosque is built on the site of the original Almoravid mosque which was destroyed by their successors the Almohads in 1147. It’s minaret was the model for the Hassan Tower in Rabat, and stands 230 feet high. As is the case with all mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-Muslims. It is the largest mosque in Marrakech and would serve as our landmark during our visits to the Central Square.
We visit the Medersa Ben Youssef, the largest school for Koranic study in Morocco when it was built in the 14th century. It’s most outstanding features are its carved cedar and plaster ceilings and glass dome.
We walk to the back of one of the souks, where the oldest caravansary stands, or at least the remains of it, since it now appears to be a dumping ground for junk and trash. Here is a bakery, with the oven so deep inside the building that the baker uses 6-8 foot paddles to move the loaves around in the wood fired oven.
We circle through the old souk, past a woodworker operating a bow lathe, past dyers and leather workers, where I spy some very ornate shoes I want to buy but the guide says we don’t have time to stop. He takes us to a women’s dress shop, decorated with a hot pink carpet and chandelier, with windows filled with jeweled caftans of the style you would wear to a black tie ball. We decline to enter the shop, which turns out to belong to some relation to our guide (a tourist guide tactic which is fairly common here). We speed past a few other shops before we say goodbye to our guide and pick one of the restaurants for dinner.
We end our day with dinner at the Restaurant Riad Omar, overlooking the square and affording a wonderful sunset view of the Koutoubia Mosque from their outdoor terrace.
The Jemaa el Fna is the 1000 year old heart of Marrakech, filled with snake charmers, storytellers, monkeys on chains plying for coins; merchant stalls of every description and just about as many food choices. Marrakech is described as a true contradiction – African and Arab, Eastern and Western, religious and secular, chic and rough-and-tumble. When I return to this spot tomorrow, I would encounter a riot of color and sound and a kaleidoscope of cultures in an atmosphere that would remind me of Venetian Carnivale after dark.
But that would be tomorrow night, after a day in the High Atlas Mountains.