Travel News

Marrakech: the ochre city

In imperial Marrakech, Pat Nourse finds a city truly exotic and unspoilt.

By Pat Nourse
As a traveller in the developing world, it's easy to let yourself think it's all for you. These snake-charmers, blowing horns and risking a vicious gumming from their cobras? For you. The Barbary macaques in dresses with their even creepier handlers? For you. The picturesque water-sellers, the Instagram-ready street dentists, the ancient women hawking kohl and love potions, musk and toothpicks? All for your benefit: Facebook fodder for the shiny-eyed travellers visiting from lands of plenty. Except it's not for you. Or not entirely, at least.
Here in Marrakech's great and famous Jemaa el Fna, one of the busiest squares in Africa, the show goes on whether you're from Casablanca, Canberra or Qatar, just as it has for a thousand years. It was originally a place for executions, but visit today and you'll only be harangued to death, especially if you've committed the unforgivable sin of taking someone's picture without extending what they consider apt recompense. It's an overwhelming scene now; what a sight it must have been for eyes fresh from the desert or the snow-locked Atlas Mountains.
The city is alive. In the narrow, claustrophobic streets of the souk, the same stalls that turn out tat for the fast-sale tourist market also produce net-fine shades of hand-perforated steel. The locals buy from the same cobblers and metalworkers, olive vendors and woodcarvers as you: they just get a better price. The dyers' quarter is as real as the stains that adorn its workers from fingertip to shoulder, and the colours they fashion - mint-green, cobalt and poppy-red - end up woven into the rugs and djellabas of the rich and the poor, the Moroccan and the traveller alike.
Some locals will tell you they'd never touch the food in the square, sold nightly by a mind-bending flash-mob of vendors in proto-food trucks, but more still say they love the hot snails, the fat, sizzling merguez sausages and the bowls of opaque, ochre harira. The vendors are a tourist draw, sure, but that's not why they're here. Peer through the smoke that rolls off the square in waves at night, and there, over the road and above it all, sits the 12th-century Koutoubia mosque, the tallest building in the city. Entry is permitted only to the faithful.
One of the things that makes Marrakech so interesting is the way its extremes co-exist. The sacred and the profane. The traditional storefronts within the walls of the medina (the old city) neighbour the boutiques and chain stores of European-style Guéliz (the new city). The wealth and poverty contrast as starkly as the lush parks and blasted land that surround them. When the wind blows a certain way it carries with it to even the most shaded of walled gardens the scents of the desert and the cries and smells of the city's innumerable roosters and donkeys. It'd be nice to believe that in the brutal tanneries, somewhere amid the ancient stench, can be found the fragrance of orange-blossom.
Morocco, its residents will tell you, fosters a degree of diversity and tolerance rarely equalled elsewhere in the Arab world. African, Amazigh, Saharan, Muslim, Arab and Andalusian cultures are just some of the elements that colour Marrakech's architecture, food and language. It's a city in a Muslim nation that has a Jewish community with deep roots and a proud local history. The Palmeraie, a moneyed neighbourhood set in a long-established grove of palm trees, is home to a branch of Nikki Beach, a club more typically associated with its St-Tropez, Miami and Marbella locations. It's all the more curious for the fact that while sand isn't in short supply, the nearest beach is three hours' drive away.
What has Marrakech got that you can't find in the other imperial Moroccan capitals? Fes is the oldest and is said to have the richer food culture. And the hats, of course. Rabat is the actual capital, and sits on the coast. Calm Meknes has the best local wines. Marrakech, though, is positioned as the gateway to the nation - a large, old city as rich in gilded mod-cons as it is in living history - and it remains the tourism hub. You can day-trip to the mountains or use the city as a launching pad to the desert or the cool relief of the coast. "You can learn more about Morocco and Moroccans in Marrakech than anywhere else," one local tells me. "Fes is an interesting city, but 60 per cent of our history is in Marrakech."
That local is Abdellah Amghar. He was introduced to me by Carol Prior, an Australian-born old Morocco hand with more than 25 years of experience helping travellers get the most out of their time in the kingdom. All the staff she employs at her company, Morocco by Prior Arrangement, are bend-over-backwards good, but Amghar is one of the most accomplished guides I've had the good fortune to encounter anywhere. He looks a bit like a Moroccan Laurence Fishburne, and is an eloquent spokesman for his city and for its way of life. "Some people have watches," he's fond of saying, "other people have time."
Amghar's never short of the right information or the just-so line. As we walk through the Jemaa el Fna, weaving past storytellers, street dentists, monkey handlers, snake-charmers, henna tattooists, gnawa musicians and dancers, he tells me the square is the embodiment of Morocco's tradition, "They call it a square, but it's much more than that. It's a lecture hall, a theatre, a zoo."
At the Saadian Tombs, the solemn mausoleum of a long-dead dynasty is surrounded by life: kittens and tortoises roam the gardens and bees boil from a crack high in one wall close to the hefty nests of wintering storks. We talk about the relative lack of ornament in Islamic funeral rites. "In our religion, when the body is dead, it's dead," he says. "The shroud has no pockets."
Around the corner we stop for kebabs in the shade. The sticks of turkey, beef kofta and beef liver interspersed with lumps of fat are straight off the charcoal. You pull the meat from the skewer with your flatbread and dab it in the mash of raw tomato and chopped onion on the plate. "And then you wash it down with the traditional accompaniment," says Amghar, taking a long pull on his Coke.
Mechoui is the other street-meat must-eat. It's lamb or mutton roasted whole in a long, low cylindrical oven not unlike a tandoor. Eating it in Mechoui Alley, just a little way from the square, involves minimal ceremony - a rough chop of cuts on a piece of butcher's paper, a shake of spiced salt, a round of bread and your fingers. Having enjoyed meals at several of Marrakech's best-regarded restaurants, with their sweet, flaky, pigeon-filled pastillas and mountains of steamed couscous, I can vouch that the most satisfying city eats are on the street. The locals might offer the more complicated delicacies to guests, but it's the likes of bissara (the simple soup of broad beans, water and garlic ladled from a vast earthenware jar and splashed with oil) or a breakfast of eggs with khlii (cured beef preserved in butter) that provide their daily pleasures.
Couturier Yves Saint Laurent was one of Marrakech's most famous residents, and the 12-acre Jardin Majorelle that he bought in 1980 and restored is now one of its preferred attractions. Its carefully planted flowering cacti, banana trees, bamboo and bougainvillea contrast memorably with the flashes of cobalt blue from the walls of its outbuildings, but for me, the small, beautifully curated museum at the garden's heart is the real draw. Here Saint Laurent's collection of Berber costumes, jewellery and other artefacts is laid out in splendour: gigantic bracelets, finely etched daggers and muskets inlaid with silver, and djellabas heavily ornamented with embroidery, beads and sequins.
Across the street, at 33 rue Majorelle, is finery of a different stripe. At this boutique it's all about chic totes fashioned from old grain sacks, hand-blown tea glasses in a prettier green than you'd find at the markets, and versions of the ubiquitous perforated-tin lamp shades made from sweet-hued soft-drink cans. It's all the work of local artists and craftspeople, picked with an excellent eye for colour and quality.
I'm here with Patrizia Bell-Banner. (Amghar is By Prior Arrangement's man for navigating the heart of the medina, Youssef is their crack driver, and Soufiane is Carol Prior's desert specialist, but if shopping is more your style, Carol Prior tells me Bell-Banner's your woman.) The wares in souks can start to seem a bit samey at times, and getting outside the old city to the more modern-day Guéliz and the edges of town can yield dividends. Bell-Banner speaks style fluently and is no stranger to hosting decorators and professional buyers. With them she heads straight to stores such as Akkal for rooms full of colourful ceramics, or to Atelier Nihal, where local artisans combine Moroccan weaving traditions with unusual materials and designs to create striking, modern cushions, curtains, throws and lamp shades. If you want to track down a Berber wedding blanket or an antique sugar hammer, Bell-Banner will make it happen.
Her eye for style is further evident at Dar Surya, the eye-wateringly well-appointed house she built on the outskirts of town with her French-Moroccan husband, Frédéric. Dar Surya is sometimes let to groups of visitors via By Prior Arrangement, and also works as an intimate cooking school. Zara Alaoui, their cook, is a little shy, but she prepares orange and black-olive salad and a tagine of beef and small eggplant with a sure hand.
Making the visit to the nearby morning market on the road to Fes is another experience not to be missed. There are farmers' markets, and then there are farmers' markets: the stock feed for sale and the slaughter of animals on-site mean this one certainly qualifies as the latter. Mustapha Belahouaoui, the young man who manages Dar Surya, has been coming to this market for years. He knows it blindfolded, and his pick of the mechoui vendors produces lamb that's powerfully fresh, served in a setting that in no way wants for authenticity.
The North African people's reputation for hospitality precedes them, but even so, the spread that Belahouaoui's father, Mohammed, lays on for us on the way back from the market seems impossibly generous. At his home in the village of Oulad Jallal Yasir, platters of pastries and sweetmeats compete for space on the low table with roti-like fried flatbreads. There are piles of the yeasted, crumpetty semolina pancakes known as beghrir, served with perfumed honey, butter and amlou, the argan oil and almond condiment that's akin to peanut butter made ambrosial. No Moroccan will allow a guest to leave their house hungry. No fear.
A word on luxury of the more gilded kind. It isn't some latter-day overlay here, bestowed by visiting multinationals. Morocco is a fertile country, and it grows rather more food than it needs. Centuries ago, Moroccan sugar went out and Italian marble, French onyx, ivory, gems, gold and slaves from Timbuktu and pigments from all over the world flowed back in. Islam forbids the representation of human form in its religious art (lest it be considered idolatry), hence the energy poured into geometric patterns and arabesques of arresting beauty. "We spend a lot of money on our floors and ceilings, not so much on the walls," says Amghar, pointing out the eye-crossingly intricate carvings and mosaics in the courtyard of the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the 14th-century Islamic university in the heart of the old city.
The full flowering of Moroccan opulence in a secular setting might be the famed Mamounia hotel. Winston Churchill, a man who knew a thing or two about earthly comforts, called it the most lovely spot in the whole world. This one-of-a-kind property was built in 1923, and its Andalusian-Arab and Berber décor were given new lustre in a three-year renovation completed in 2009. The offer of a glass of almond milk and a silver tray of dates as you check in is just one of a thousand appealing small touches. Padding barefoot around one of its big suites, from cool marble to timber to rug to tile, presents plenty to like. The real luxury, though, has to be its garden.
Step away from the jazz wafting out of the bar by the swimming pool and you'll hear birdsong in the geranium-planted gravel avenues of olive trees where, oddly, there's WiFi. Fountains burble in the public spaces and Seville orange trees dot the gardens, which eventually - we're talking 17 acres - give way to the substantial potager, which supplies La Mamounia's three restaurants. Even here, though, among roquettes both cultivé and sauvage, handsome iceberg, tomatoes and Provençal courgettes, the desert sun is still relentless. And in the pre-dawn dark, before light falls on the grand pools, the call to prayer from the mosque comes loud and clear over the walls, as if the muezzin is in the next room.
As grand as La Mamounia is, it has no shortage of competition. New luxury hotels open here with alarming regularity. The brand new Taj Palace Marrakech and Delano Marrakech are both now taking guests, and next year, US boutique chain Mondrian arrives in town. Among the more ambitious contenders is the Palais Namaskar, which opened in April and is the sister hotel of Paris's equally luxurious Le Bristol. It can't compete with La Mamounia in terms of history, but it's certainly right up there in terms of scope: I've stayed in hotel rooms bigger than my house before, but this might be the first time I've had a room as big as a small hotel. Like La Mamounia, Namaskar has serious spa credentials, and a stay here will have your chakras aligned more quickly than you can say "inshallah", but the big draw is the space. At its most luxe, Namaskar offers the privacy- and space-loving (not to mention well-heeled) traveller a choice of grand free-standing pool villas and "palaces" spread over a vast, vaguely Balinese-Indian-inspired landscape of koi ponds and marble-clad colonnaded walks. I chat with the owner, Philippe Soulier, and his girlfriend, Jade (a winner of French TV's version of Survivor), over drinks as the sun goes down and a DJ works the modest crowd at the rooftop bar. "We wanted it to be generous," he says. It's certainly a far cry from the crush of the old city's labyrinthine alleyways and the muezzins' calls.
Of course, getting away from it all is a relative proposition. That's where La Pause comes in. The name is fitting: the camp is built 30 kilometres outside the city, and offers the kind of luxury in which electricity plays no part. You're invited to make the final kilometre of the approach on camel-back to reinforce the idea that you're really somewhere else. It's quite, quite beautiful, and never more so than at sundown, when the staff walk around lighting its fires, candles and flares before cooking dinner.
If you're looking for something more immersive, a riad is the way to go. In Arabic, "riad" simply means garden, although in Morocco it's also taken to mean a house built around a garden. There are many hundreds of riads with rooms for rent in Marrakech, and their imposing walls and stout wooden doors reveal little of the grandeur that sometimes lies within. At Riad Farnatchi, one of the most celebrated accommodations in Marrakech's old city, the doors open to cool rooms of generous proportions. Despite being deep in the medina, the courtyards the nine suites face are wells of deep silence broken only by the drone of fat bees.
James Wix tells me his hotelier dad, Jonathan, bought the original property 10 years ago, then bought and gutted five more homes to make the riad. Every stick of furniture was made for the riad, and a proverb inscribed in Arabic on the dining room ceiling reads, "I will love my guests more than my sons and daughters."
That phrase springs to mind the next day when I find myself at the end of a pleasant two-hour drive in the High Atlas Mountains, visiting a Berber family in the village of Mazik. It's spring, but there's still snow on the peaks. Down in the valley, water rushes over the tumbled granite of the riverbed. Walking up a dirt track we pass men side-saddle on their mules. There are terraces of cherry and apple trees and plots alive with irises, potatoes and beans. The air is thick with the bloom of horse chestnut. The owner of the house, Lahcen Bourrida, introduces Yusif and Hafid, his sons, Lila, his daughter, and Latif, the son of the local imam, while Lahcen Bouaaloune, his father-in-law, pours mint tea.
There's a sheer drop of a hundred metres from the edge of the open room where we sit, but no one seems concerned about the kids toddling off. Next door there are sheep quartered on the roof. With our bread we have walnuts and blackberry jam fresh from the valley, and oil and aged butter. One of the boys takes out his louha, the board he's using to memorise his prayers. We drink tea. We talk. We drink some more tea. The idea of needing to be somewhere else, anywhere else at all, seems very distant. Some people have watches, some people have time.
  • undefined: Pat Nourse