Marrakech – what a joyous, interesting, dynamic and exciting place to visit. It is a vibrant city, full of colour, activity, beautiful architecture, palaces and wonderful gardens. Its history is fascinating.
The Medina quarter in Marrakech is a UNESCO World Heritage site. What better place to stay than in a Riad in the Medina. The Riad Le Clos des Arts was my choice of accommodation. I arrived in Marrakech very late at night, and as motor vehicles (other than motorcycles) cannot enter the Medina, I was very grateful to find that the Riad management had arranged to have someone waiting at the car park to escort me through the narrow winding lanes to the Riad.
The Riad Le Clos des Arts was a perfect choice. My room was on the ground floor, and felt exotic. Meals were served on the rooftop, near the pool. Sitting there on my first morning listening to the call to prayer from several nearby mosques, contemplating a breakfast of fruit and home made yoghurt, home made bread, savoury and sweet pastries, raw honey, butter and olive oil, cheese and eggs, I was in a very happy place. Where did we ever get the idea that cornflakes or even worse, porridge, was a suitable breakfast.
The Riad, on one of the narrow laneways in the Medina led, via other little laneways, to the Rue Riad Zitoun el Khedim, which in turn led into the Place Djemaa el Fna which is a large square and marketplace in the Medina quarter. After breakfast on my first day in Marrakech, I ventured forth to the Square, which was once a destination along the Sahara Caravan route. The camel trains carried cargoes of spice, ivory and slaves from Timbuktu.
The Square was proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Juan Goytisolo in a speech defending threatened cultures, delivered on 15 May 2001 said:
“The spectacle of Djemma el Fna is repeated daily and each day is different. Everything changes – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes and touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster – that which we call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.”
A spectacle it was. Entering the square was an almost surrealist experience. The noise, the kaleidoscope of colour, the activities and the sheer number of people, locals and tourists, required a couple of minutes of contemplation before exploring further. There were numerous market stalls, musicians, henna artists, acrobats, young men with chained performing barbary macaques, snake charmers, fortune tellers and storytellers. The macaques and snakes are protected species in Morocco, but clearly not very well protected.
Although snake charming is a tradition which dates back hundred of years, it is not a tradition that I embrace. Snakes feature in the worst of my nightmares. I am terrified of them and I did not wish to go anywhere near the snake charmers – particularly after an experience in India when I inadvertently stood beside a basket containing a cobra. Seeing that cobra raising itself out of the basket a few inches from my leg was among the most terrifying experiences of my life, and I didn’t want a repeat performance.
The snake charmers were everywhere and impossible to avoid. Even worse, the snakes were not in baskets. I gave them all a wide berth, did not watch and certainly did not take photographs. Unfortunately that did not stop one of the snake charmers from approaching me to demand money for watching their show. I was fortunate that he did not have a snake with him. I was horrified to see snake charmers chasing after people and throwing a hapless snake around their shoulders – apparently because they had been watching a show close up, and had moved on without making a donation.
By night, tables, chairs and food stalls transform Djemma el Fna into a huge outdoor eating area. The smell of the food cooking was very enticing, the aroma of spice filled the air and the noise was greater than it had been during the day.
Marrakech has the largest traditional market (Souk) in Morroco. I had a guide accompany me when I visited the souk, for which I was grateful. I saw a great deal more of areas that I may never have found on my own – or if I had, would never have found my way out.
Whilst in the Souk, I noticed a sign to Le Jardin Secret – the Secret Garden. I had to see this garden, so memorised where it was and returned later to visit it. The garden dates back to the Saadian Dynasty, more than 400 years ago. It had fallen into disrepair by the 1930’s, and abandoned. It was restored, and opened in 2016. Stepping into this garden from the teeming masses in the Souk was like ascending into paradise – calm and peace in the middle of chaos. There are two parts to this garden. A Paradise garden which is a classic Islamic garden, and an exotic garden, the latter representing the Christian garden of Eden.
My first day in Marrakech had been filled with activity, and as evening fell, I was very tempted to stop at one of the stalls which had appeared in the Place Djemaa to try some of the food on offer. There was obviously no wine being served, and since I felt that wine with dinner was called for, to celebrate a most exhilarating day I decided to dine at the Riad. I had just assumed that the Riad would serve wine. It didn’t, but I was served the best Tagine I have ever tasted. Perfectly cooked lamb with a glorious mix of spices. Eating on the rooftop terrace, with the lights of the Medina spread out below and the sounds of the night filtering up was heady enough. Wine was not required. I knew that wine was available at the big hotels, but had seen nowhere during that day where alcohol could be obtained. Research was required for the next evening. In the event, no research was required. At the end of the meal, a waiter approached to tell me that there was a bar, not far from the Riad, where I could get a glass of wine. He marked my map with the location of the bar. My pre-dinner destination for the rest of my stay.
In a laneway, branching off a laneway, which in turn branched off the laneway in which the Riad was situated, I came across the Musee Tiskiwan. This museum contains a collection of North African objects and artefacts of everyday life of the Berber, Sahara and North African people. I only came across this museum because I had got lost on my way to visit the El Badi Palace. I had the museum to myself, and apart from a nagging worry that I may never find my way out of the laneways, I was very happy to have found it. The exhibits were excellent.
Fortunately I found my way out of the laneways and found the El Badi Palace.
Construction of the Palace by Sultan Ahmed al Mansour began in 1578. By the time it was completed it contained over 300 beautifully decorated rooms (gold, turquoise and crystal) a vast courtyard with sunken gardens and reflecting pools. When the Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif moved the capital from Marrakech to Meknes at the end of the 17th century, he stripped the El Badi Palace of its treasures. Today, the palace is in ruins, but the scale of the grandeur can be imagined when contemplating the size of the courtyard, and sunken gardens. Climbing up onto the ramparts provides extensive views over Marrakech, and to the Atlas Mountains beyond. Storks have claimed the top of the palace walls for their nests – which are huge untidy affairs.
I love Minbars, so was very pleased to find the Koutoubia Minbar, the work of 12th century Cordoban artists, on display at the El Badi Palace. The Minbar was removed from the Koutoubia Mosque in 1962. Like most Minbars I have seen, the Koutoubia Minbar an exquisitely decorated work of Islamic art.
The Saadian Tombs are a short walk from the El Badi Palace – or would have been had my sense of direction not failed me woefully. In my defence, it is difficult to navigate areas where streets are unmarked, the red earth walls surrounding buildings all look the same, and I did try to take a short cut through a pleasant looking alleyway, which became rather grim and felt sinister, the further I got into it. My stroll became a power walking experience.
The entry to the tombs is through a rather nondescript laneway, which emerges into a lovely courtyard garden, which contains two mausoleums, which externally give no hint of the beauty of the rooms. The tombs in the mausoleums house the remains of seven Sultans and around 62 family members. The Saadian’s ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659. The tombs were sealed off and hidden after the fall of the dynasty, and were only rediscovered in 1917.
Although the queue to see the tombs in the mausoleums was long and slow moving, there was plenty to enjoy in the gardens, including tombs of less important people. A workman was repairing patterned stone mosaic tiles in the courtyard – I acquired a small tile for a reasonable price – one which was being discarded – or so the workman said. That tile is now affixed to one of my art poles – bit of a comedown for the tile, from Marrakech to suburban Sydney.
I am not a patient person in queues. I have been known to walk away from something I really wished to see – the cut off the nose to spite the face syndrome. Thank goodness I did not walk away from the Saadian Tombs. The beauty of their decoration was a little like the decoration in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Carrara marble, ornamental vaulting decorated with gold, zellij tiles – geometrically patterned stone mosaics. The first of the two mausoleums contains three rooms. The hall of Twelve Columns is the most ornate of the rooms, and contains the tomb of Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur. The Mihrab Room contains a prayer niche facing Mecca, and the Room of 3 Niches. The smaller mausoleum is much more simply decorated, although its lower walls were decorated with beautiful faience mosaics.
The Saadian Tombs are historically significant and so exquisite, that I wanted time to contemplate what I had learnt and what I had seen. It was time to find the bar, rather improbably called the Kozybar. It was nearby, and its balcony provided great views across the El Badi Palace, the storks nests on top of the walls and across rooftops to the Koutoubia Mosque. It was a perfect place to relax The wine was excellent.
Strolling back to the Riad, I missed the laneway turnoff, and ended up in the Djemaa El Fnaa, which had become one giant outdoor restaurant. I blame the wine for my navigation fail.
I visited an extraordinary botanical garden, Le Jardin Majorelle which was created by Jacques Majorelle over a period of 40 years, from the early 1920’s. Majorelle was an avid plant collector, and the garden contains 300 species of plants from 5 continents, and include banana trees, coconut palms, bougainvilleas and groves of bamboo, along with many varieties of cacti and succulents. The plantings are enhanced by fountains, marble pools of water lilies, and channels of running water.
Le Jardin Majorelle is the most colourful garden I have ever visited – not just the plants and flowers but also from the bright berber blue, orange, purple and yellow plant pots lining walkways, and the Moorish Art Deco Villa in the gardens, also painted berber blue and yellow.
I felt as if I was a detail in a magnificent painting (like the donor in the corner), and indeed Majorelle was an artist – it is said the garden composition is that of the composition of a major painting.
The Villa and Gardens had been abandoned after the death of Majorelle. They were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1981, which saved them from demolition and re-development.
I spent my final day in Marrakech visiting the Bahia Palace, then wandering around the Medina.
The Bahia Palace was built between 1866 and 1867, and sits on 2 acres of garden. The Palace contains 150 rooms, all beautifully decorated. Some of the rooms contain zellig tiled fireplaces and floors. There are carved cedarwood and stucco lintels, and highly decorative ceilings. Stained glass was used in some rooms, said to be the first time it had been used in Islamic Moroccan style buildings. Visualising the plain light coloured walls and ceilings any house I have lived in, I felt deprived.
From the Bahia Palace, my wanderings took me to the Kasbah Mosque, built in 1190, the Koutoubia Mosque, built in 1158, (and the main landmark in Marrakech with a Minaret of 77 metres) the Koutoubia Gardens and along many laneways, alleyways and streets.
A glass or two of wine at the Kozybar, enjoying watching the storks coming back to their nests and the sun setting over the High Atlas Mountains was a very fitting conclusion to a trip which stimulated all the senses.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may wish to read about my day trip from Marrakech over the High Atlas Mountains to Ait Ben Haddou at travelwithgma.wordpress.com/2018/09/04