Are you ready to go on a little journey to . . .
The Red City.
Actually, it’s more of a rich terra cotta hue, which shifts from subtle shades of buttery pink to burnt brick in the luminous Moroccan sun. And like its color, its name is tinted with a mysterious magic. Marrakech. A melting pot of rich history and contrasting cultures, where over the centuries Berbers, Moors, Turks, Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans have created a unique spot where a whirling dervish of ancient traditions and modern flare dance together in sinuous harmony.
I love visiting historic places. There’s an energy and inspiration to them that seems to resonate in the buildings, the people, and, indeed, in the very air. Last month, I was lucky enough to spend four days in Marrakech, a city that has long captured my imagination. Beautiful, exotic, with an edge of raffish danger—how could a writer of historical romance not feel attracted to such a place! And from the very first glimpse of the old medina walls, it did not disappoint.
You approach Marrakech through groves of silvery-gray olive trees, some of which are over 800 years old. The hot, dry wind rustles softly through the leaves, while in contrast, the snow capped Atlas mountains rise in the distance, framed by a cool blue sky. An ancient palmeraie, or oasis of palms, fringes the city. Once inside the gates, or babs, (there are 10 main ones set in over six miles of winding walls—which, by the by, are made of a mixture of mud, straw and lime known as pisé, which becomes as hard as brick when it dries) you notice the lush green plantings with fountains and pools. Marrakech is famous for its gardens—after World War II, Winston Churchill came often to stay at the storied La Mamounia Hotel and paint the local flora. He called it “the most lovely spot in the whole world.”
The city was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids, and through the centuries it’s changed hands many times—Almohads, Merenids, Saadians, Turks, and French are among the people who have ruled. The people of this region are Berbers, not Arabs, and though they are Muslim, they have always had a great tolerance for other religions. As a crossroads of the legendary trading caravans, Marrakech became a center of commerce and a confluence of cultures. This mix of East and West, north and south has created a fascinating blend of traditions.
One of the city’s landmarks is the Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century. (The muezzin still calls the faithful to prayer five times each day from its beautifully decorated tower, albeit by a taped recording broadcast via loudspeaker.) Another architectural gem is the Bahia palace, a 160-room walled enclave built in 1880. The craftsmanship is breathtakingly beautiful. Mosaics, intricately carved stone, painted cedarwood and graceful calligraphy—all cornerstones of Islamic art—grace room after room. The effect is mesmerizing.
From the outside, however, you would never guess that the drab, unadorned walls surround such a treasure, and it was fascinating to hear our guide, Abdel, explain why. He told us that one of the tenets of Islam is modesty, in order not to embarrass a less wealthy neighbor, it is traditional to build an exterior that gives no hint of what lies inside. A gate can hide a tiny dwelling, a riad (a house with an interior garden) or a sumptuous palace. The same principle applies to clothing. A burka or voluminous cloak often hides richly decorated caftans or other dress—and the outer layer is removed when one is in private, among friends.
But Marrakech is much more than museums and shrines. It’s alive with vibrant energy. The sounds of music, the cries of the snake charmers, the sizzle of exotic spices and the swirl of bright patterns fill the famous Jemaa el Fna, which is said to be the busiest square in all of Africa.
From morning to very late at night, it’s bustling with people who shop, who stroll, who stop to eat a quick meal at one of the many food stalls (roasted sheep’s head is their version of McDonald’s. I was not brave enough to try it, but my friends Jason and Lyman said it was very tasty! Er, they passed on a side order of brains.)
Acrobats and jugglers weave in and out of fortunetellers who gain a modicum of privacy for their readings by hunkering down under a large umbrella. And the snake charmers are quick to drape their wares around unwary tourists. (I ran as fast as my feet would carry me, but again, the intrepid Jason showed no fear.)
So where did my flight take me? Why, to the souks, of course! In keeping with its rich trading heritage, Marrakech features rambling covered markets that are some of the largest in Africa. Talk about a shopper’s paradise! The choice of merchandise is staggering (quite literally if you are in the market for fine carpets!) It ranges from the usual junky souvenirs to fine antiques, and everything in between. Scarves and djellabas swirl above tall cones of colorful spices and dates. Fanciful leather slippers rub up against polished inlaid wood. Pierced metal lanterns cast a winking light over tribal silver and terra cotta tangine pots. The list is endless, and as I wove through the narrow twists and turns it was hard to know where to look next!
Merchants were aggressive—but in a very nice way. They ended up smiling when I said no, and more often than not they would offer a cup of the ubiquitous sugared mint tea and want to practice their English anyway. “No” was a word I used a lot, yet I still came away with bags of wonderful swag.
Argan oil, which is unique to Morocco is a special treat to take home. It made from the pit of the argan tree fruit, and is used for cooking, cosmetics and as a traditional medicine. Nutty in flavor, it’s very rich in Vitamin E and is said to have potent anti-aging properties. The oil has become something of a cult ingredient in Europe, and I’m sure it will soon be turning up on shelves here.
Reflecting its French influence, Marrakech is also a hotspot for fine dining, and after a long day spent poking through the dazzling wares, one can choose from among regional dishes like tangines, couscous and vegetable salads or opt for a wide range of international cuisines.
It was way too short a trip and I really look forward to going back and having more time to explore and get out into the countryside—another thing high on my wish list is to see the Sahara desert. Already I have story ideas percolating inside my head. I’m not quite sure when or how, but I plan on working this historic region into some part of a future book.
I’m not quite sure why I always wanted to visit Marrakech. Maybe it was that haunting Crosby, Stills and Nash melody that made it seem so alluring and exotic. (I almost bought a striped djellaba.) Or maybe it was reading in history books about the spice caravans, the Barbary pirates. Whatever it was, it made me fantasize about visiting the city one day. And now I have—and it was even better than I imagined!
Which brings me to my question—do you have that one Special Place you are yearning to visit? A dream location that tickles at your fancy? And conversely, have you ever wanted to go somewhere and then been disappointed because it didn’t live up expectations. Summer is, after all, the time for travel, so please share where your mind has been wandering!