The Kingdom of Marrakech was founded in 1062 making it four years older than Kingdom of England. Thanks to low cost air travel, they are now just three hours apart. Desert dwelling tribes known as the Berbers established the city as a trading post, and it quickly become one of the great citadels of the Muslim world. It was a beacon for caravans coming up from the Sahara to trade with the Spaniards that came by sea. The Africans brought gold and ivory to trade for leather, metal works and ceramics. The imposing red walls are more than 900 years old, but were never much good at keeping out invaders. The city has been sacked more times than Tracy Lord. The Moors controlled Morocco and Southern Spain under one empire up until the fifteenth century. Their architectural achievements still grace the Spanish cities of Granada and Seville. I have visited these two cities many times, so I couldn’t wait to get to know their ancient red sister to the south.
The first surprise about Marrakech is how green it is. In my head it was supposed to be all mud and sand, but as soon as we were out of the airport, the streets were lined with jasmine bushes and orange trees. The heavy scent of blossom fills the warm air. The new city is a modern metropolis complete with five star hotels, Starbucks and chain stores, but thankfully a city ordinance requires all buildings to be no more than five stories tall, and they all have to be red. The new town is pleasant enough, but our destination was The Medina, the old part of town that is surrounded by the ancient, bulky walls. Our taxi squeezed through one of the onion shaped gates and suddenly we were transported back in time. Cars were replaced by donkey carts led by men in Jawa robes. Local people cram the narrow alleyways on bicycles, mopeds and on foot. They are out chatting, doing business, building things and making deals. There is a strong sense of purpose here.
We got to a square where the taxi could go no further, so the rest of the way would have to be on foot. Would we ever find our way in this rabbit warren? Local boys will happily show you the way for a tip, but they will want to make a detour to bring you to a relatives shop for “the best deals in town”. Down an ancient looking side street, guarded by a pair of shabby orange cats, we found Dar Najat Riad. There are no hotels in the Medina, so staying in a Riad is the only option if you want to be within the old city walls. A Riad is a two or three storey square building built around a courtyard open to the sky in the middle. They were once the homes of wealthy families, and now rent rooms out in B&B fashion. Ours had a beautiful roof terrace overflowing with potted plants and a large tiled fountain that doubled as a Jacuzzi. It was a little rough around the edges (like most of Marrakech) but we were welcomed like old friends, and the meals they served us were excellent. All this charm for $90 a night.
The first stop has to be the vast, open plaza called Jemaa el- Fnaa which roughly translates to “Assembly of Trespassers”. This is the busiest square on the African continent. Once a place of public executions, it is a now an place of oral legends bridging the past and present. For a thousand years the great hodgepodge of humanity has come to this place to tell tales and spread gossip, to entertain, to eat, to show off, tell tales, swap and barter. For locals and tourists alike, this is the centre of life in Marrakech. By day it is rammed with snake charmers, monkey handlers, fortune tellers, henna artists and orange juice sellers. Timid tourists will sit on the side-lines watching the scene from the safety of the roof terrace cafés that dot the square. At dusk musicians will gather in drum circles and the food stalls come alive. Throbbing beats and wailing horns permeate the smoke of the make shift grills. Each tent offers its own specialty like snail soup and sheep brains along with more mundane offerings like fried fish and kebabs. Dinner at one of these stalls will cost you about $3, and it is likely to be a meal you will never forget. There was a group of local transvestites dancing for coins in full Muslim-woman-drag. Their painted eyes behind veils could pass, but their flat chests and big hands were a giveaway. The local Muslims take this all in stride despite homosexuality being officially illegal in Morocco. We certainly felt completely safe in the huge, crazy circus. They are all trying to get you to part with your money, but stealing is absolutely taboo.
To contrast our time spent in Jemaa el-Fnaa, we ventured over to the New Town to check out the fabled Mamounia Hotel. This five star palace is the grandest hotel in Africa. It opened in 1923 to wrap up the rich and famous in a silk blanket of tranquillity. It is set in 17 acres of European style gardens and a guest book to rival any hotel in the world. Sean Connery, Bill Clinton, Kate Winslet and Will Smith to name a few. While Freddie and I sipped cold beers in the heavenly garden, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page came in and sat down next to us. The 71 year old rocker has been coming here for 40 years, and from the look of bliss on his face and the hot young redhead on his arm, he will keep coming. The Mamounia was also Winston Churchill’s “favourite place in all the world”. He indulged his passion for painting in these gardens and two of his paintings still hang in the hotel. When Alfred Hitchcock stayed in the Mamounia in 1960 he was inspired to make his film The Birds after being dive bombed by the local finches. I crushed some of the almonds on our table and tossed them to the feathered locals and had a Tippi Hedren moment of my own. Hollywood has embraced Morocco as an exotic, versatile and cheap spot for filming, with plenty of five star hotels for the talent. Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Babel and Prince of Persia were all shot here. While filming Oliver Stone’s film Alexander, Colin Farrell famously ran up a bar tab of $64,000 at Le Meridian.
With star gazing checked off the list, it was back into the Medina to visit the most important site. The Koutoubia Mosque. The imposing minaret is 253 feet tall and covered in pink marble and blue tiles. It is the symbol of the city. It was built in 1184 and it remains the tallest structure, thanks to centuries old laws that forbid any other building to ellipse it. It is a near double of La Giralda in Seville, which was built just a few years afterwards. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside, but walking around the perimeter was a fantastic experience. Nearby are the Saadian Tombs. This elaborately inlaid complex houses the graves of various sultans and royals from the 16th century. Decorated soldiers and household servants are buried in the gardens. It was rediscovered by French archaeologists in 1917. Restoration works are on-going, but the stunning calligraphy and tiles are on display. For another intense green experience, we headed over to the Majorelle Gardens. This oasis was created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle with distinct cobalt blue features. He was a friend of Winston Churchill’s and would spend his days at the Mamounia with the portly politician. Churchill convinced him to paint a ceiling in the Mamounia hotel, which remains one of its highlights. His own gardens fell into disarray when he died, but the French designer Yves Saint Laurent bought the place in 1980 and restored it to its former glory. When Yves met his maker in 2008, he was buried within these blue walls. This is a very popular attraction with older French tourists, all doddering about exclaiming “C’est jolie!”
Marrakech has the largest Berber market in Morocco, and the Souks here have been haggling away for millennia. The Souks are honeycomb of interconnecting passageways crammed with stalls that range from tiny broom cupboards to lavish Aladdin’s caves. I can’t imagine it looked much different hundreds of years ago. The dizzying number of stalls spread out endlessly, and you are guaranteed to get lost. There are some seriously beautiful and pricy treasures here along with the expected tourist crap. None of it is priced, so it is all about haggling with the jovial vendors, who want you to come in and sip a mint tea while they deliver their spiel. We walked for hours in retail-overload, passing thousands of rugs, bejewelled slippers, leather bags, silver bangles, knit hats, alligator skins, copper plates, painted bowls and tagines. There were bizarre stands selling live turtles and iguanas, although I can’t imagine how you get those in your hand luggage. The pungent aromas of the spice souks draw you in like bees, while the stench of the leather tanning stalls will send you running. After an afternoon in the Souks, I can see why Moroccans are so desperate for garden spaces to escape the insanity.
The locals do not have a Vons in the Medina, so they buy their food the same way they have for hundreds of years. In the Kasbah. This is a crumbling red hedge maze spilling over with piles of herbs, squash, runner beans, onions, aubergines, dates, nuts and pyramids of oranges. We were the only white faces to venture into this part of town, and the vendors paid us absolutely no attention. Women are the ones doing the shouting here, all trying to secure the best price for tonight’s dinner. Donkeys doze in front of rickety carts waiting to be packed up at the end of the day after the furious trading. The beggars do a good trade here too, as the local religious beliefs insist on charity. It was all fabulously photogenic to our Western eyes.
We ate very well in the four days we were in Marrakech. We did our research and found the best places to eat. Café’s with roof terraces are the way to avoid the touts on the street. We loved the tagines full of couscous, lamb, prunes and almonds. Delectable skewers of chicken and vegetables, filo pastries stuffed with cheese and fruit. As in all Muslim countries, pork is illegal, and alcohol is only available in a few select places. Therefore four days is about right for a trip to Marrakech. After that, we were ready to fly back to London and tuck into pint of beer and a bacon sandwich.