Marrakech: spirited city of spice and sensuality
Amid the noise and buzz of this bustling centre, there are tranquil spots that offer greenery and restoration, writes Madeleine Morrow
At sunset the clouds turned pink above the distant, snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The haunting call to prayer drifted on the air from mosques in all directions.
The sky darkened and the evening star hung above Koutoubia Mosque, illuminated at night as befits the 12th century landmark of Marrakech towering over the city.
We sat sipping date and avocado juice on the roof terrace of Nomad, a chic restaurant in the heart of the medina. Lanterns lit up the darkness and large blanket capes were handed out to ward off the night chill.
After a few days in Marrakech we had tagine fatigue; Nomad’s modern Moroccan menu was all the more enticing. We savoured delicate courgette and feta fritters, moving on to mains of calamari zinging with ginger and anchovy. Dessert was one of the finest puddings I have eaten: a saffron-scented date cake with salted caramel sauce, akin to a light, sticky toffee pudding with the distinctive flavour of saffron shining through.
After dinner, we meandered back to our riad through the souks where we haggled over a drawing of Nelson Mandela on a piece of tin, his name written in Arabic.
Emerging onto Jemaa el-Fna, the huge central square, we encountered an ecstatic scene. Snake charmers, tarot readers, henna artists and storytellers plied their trade while groups of drummers whipped dancers into a hypnotic trance. The sound created an electric buzz as if the energy of the entire city converged here.
During dinner, we had noticed a huge plume of smoke. Now we discovered the source – hundreds of braziers at food stalls set up each night to feed local families and intrepid tourists. Taking a closer look, we discovered sheep’s heads — a delicacy in Morocco — snail soup, brochettes, grilled fish and piles of seafood, tagines and juices. The touts buzzed around us, all with the same patter: "You look so thin; you must be hungry, maybe tomorrow night? Remember stall 114."
While the square — a Unesco world heritage site – is the rowdiest place in the Red City, we found that rooftop terraces were the most peaceful spots in the medina. Not only did they afford views of the city and the distant mountains, they also provided respite from the noise and bustle below.
One afternoon, after a walking tour of the old city, we flopped down gratefully on the vine-covered terrace of the Musée de la Photographie. The museum is at the end of a row of fondouks, the original lodgings for the desert caravans, where camels and livestock were housed in central courtyards. Nowadays they house craft workshops and restaurants.
The museum has a fine collection of black-and-white photographs (1870 to 1950) of Morocco and marvellous portraiture. Inspired by these artworks, we snapped our own images from the rooftop café where the Atlas Mountains spanned the entire horizon, their snowy covering providing a backdrop to the ochres and reds of Marrakech.
No repose is complete without sweet mint tea; our waiter lifted a large, silver pot high above our heads to aerate the water, which then created tiny bubbles on the surface of our dainty tea glasses and elicited a round of applause from the guests.
The Saadian Tombs, the burial place of the Saadian dynasty, were equally breathtaking with mausoleums decorated floor to ceiling with the zellige tiling typical of Islamic decorative art
Returning to the souk below in the early evening was a shock. At rush hour, the entire population appeared to be crammed into the tiny alleyways accompanied by the buzzing of an endless stream of mopeds weaving through the crowds.
Shops spilled over with babouche slippers, scarves, bags, ceramics, jewellery, leather goods, spices and even boiled eggs, which seemed to be a popular purchase.
One morning, we set off to explore the medina’s beautiful buildings. The Ben Youssef Madrasa dates from the 16th century and was once home to more than 900 scholars, who occupied tiny cell-like rooms while learning the Quran by rote. The huge courtyard was a magnificent example of Arab-Andalusian art, with intricately carved walls and beautifully mosaicked walls, zellige tiling and carved cedarwood ceilings.
The Saadian Tombs, the burial place of the Saadian dynasty, were equally breathtaking with mausoleums decorated floor to ceiling with the zellige tiling typical of Islamic decorative art. The tombs remained hidden for centuries until 1917, when they were discovered by a French aerial survey.
The magnificent Bahia Palace was the cherry on top. A huge complex that once housed a vizier, its numerous rooms had exquisite tiling and superb painted ceilings. An internal garden was bursting with fruit trees. Bahia means "brilliance" and we walked around quite stunned by the resplendence of the decoration.
We left the palace with heads spinning from visual overload. Marrakech has this effect on the senses. Fortunately, there are several gardens in which equilibrium can be restored.
We took a taxi to the Jardin Majorelle in the Ville Nouvelle, the "new" city outside the medina walls. Planted in the 1800s by French artist Jacques Majorelle, the garden fell into a derelict state and was rescued from demolition by Yves St Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who restored it. St Laurent lived there and a museum in his honour will open later in 2017.
The pavilion, painted in the cobalt blue known as Marjorelle blue, was once the artist’s studio and is now a Berber museum. The display of Berber jewellery and silver, amber beads, bracelets and amulets was particularly impressive.
The garden was a visual feast, planted with cacti and succulents along with huge bamboos and exotic trees and plants from five continents. Back in the medina, my husband and I headed for some pampering in a hammam.
Aimed at tourists, Les Bains de l’Alhambra offered his and hers sessions, which was how we found ourselves lying in adjacent green marble baths filled with warm water and strewn with rose petals.
Fortunately, it was lit only with candles as we realised too late we were not supposed to strip off for this part of the treatment. Head, face and neck massages were followed by mint tea, while we dried off in towelling robes before an hour-long, full-body massage. We emerged fragrant with oils and as relaxed as could be.
The peace was shattered hours later while we ate camel burgers at Café Clock, a funky cultural centre, where an ear-splitting concert of Gnaoua music — which has roots in the slave trade that passed through the area — was performed.
Marrakech is the most sensual of cities, from its vibrant art and architecture, the smell of spices, mint tea and sandalwood to the flavour of slow-cooked tagines or irresistible msemen, a flaky pancake eaten with honey for breakfast.
It is also a city of contrasts. those seeking their fortune on Jemaa el-Fna are but a few steps away from street beggars. Mostly, for visitors, it is a city that rejuvenates and invigorates through the sheer vitality found on every corner.