Marrakesh is a state of mind. A sensory overload of color, sounds, sights, and experiences. A city with many complex layers.
Were the walls of the city blush rose, dusky pink, or ashes of roses? What was the soundtrack: the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, the clip-clop of horse carriages, or the shrill cries of hawkers? The city’s rich tapestry of colors and cacophony of sounds is what remains etched in my mind long after I return home…
Marrakesh, the Moroccan city set against the dramatic jagged line of the High Atlas Mountains, used to be an ancient marketplace, where tribes and nomads traded in gold, ivory, and spices brought by caravans; it was later settled by the Almoravid sultans from North Africa and Andalusia. The city is a bewildering cocktail of different cultures and traditions –from native Berbers to African slaves, Arab traders and French colonizers. The city has always attracted artists and musicians in search of sensory inspiration, who are drawn to its exotic markets and music.
I am in Marrakesh taking a culinary holiday with a travel company, which besides exploring food and markets offers sightseeing and local experiences like a hammam on its itinerary. My home away from home is the Riad Dar Les Cigognes -an atmospheric townhouse with courtyards and fountains that feels more like a home than a hotel. My room has a painted wooden ceiling, a huge copper lantern, and a fireplace. “Many old homes in
Medina have been converted into atmospheric riads, reviving backstreet neighborhoods, and salvaging precious architecture,” said my local guide Abes.
I start my days with breakfast on the terrace of the riad smothered in greenery -there were piles of semolina pancakes known as beghrir, served with honey, butter and amlou, a mix of argan oil and honey that's akin to peanut butter, fresh fruit and a variety of flaky breads.
Over the next few days, I learn to make couscous the traditional way from a dada -a traditional female cook, who imbibed the cooking techniques of her mother and grandmother. A part of my cooking lesson is visiting the local Jewish covered market in the Mellah area which is a sensory overload. Mounds of artichokes and peppers, bottles of preserves and pickled olives, farm fresh eggs and meat as well as mounds of cumin and paprika. Bread which is the centerpiece of Moroccan food is baked at small communal bakeries where for a small fee of one dirham, families get their own oven-fresh bread!
I walk through the labyrinthine lanes of the chaotic Old City, under a dazzlingly blue sky, looking at its buildings of reddish pink clay draped with cacti and bougainvillea, stopping at markets with spices in perfect pyramids, tasting sweets, figs and dates and sipping on fragrant mint tea -the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is topped by a lantern of three gold spheres representing earth, water and sun.
Located in the Medina, near the Jewish Quarter is the 19th-century Bahia Palace which was constructed by the viziers of the sultan who wanted to build a palace that would outshine any other palace. Today a labyrinth of passages, courtyards, shaded gardens, orange trees with their fragrant blossoms, and trickling fountains make this place live up to its name which means "brilliance." I soak in the intricate details of its architecture: every inch of space is studded with iridescent mosaics known as zellij and ornately carved ceilings with crimson paint and gold leaf.
The city is protected by building laws that prevent buildings higher than palm trees, except minarets! Creativity and artistic vibe permeate everything: every architectural detail is picture-worthy and even the most prosaic object seems to be ethereal - from the technicolor tiles to fountain-filled courtyards, ornate door knockers to brass lanterns that cast filigreed shadows.
I walk from the Jewish quarter through the Place des Ferblantiers (filled with metal craftsmen) to the Kasbah which was the walled city of the early sultans where they had their palaces, their administrative buildings, and the mosque. I walk around the deserted El-Badi Palace with its vast corridors, and ruins of underground rooms. Today, it is largely in ruins but in the past was a playground for princes and visiting diplomats and had richly decorated rooms with gold, ivory, marble, and onyx.
One of the most fascinating things on display in a small museum inside the palace complex is the pulpit from the Koutoubia Mosque, which the imam used to ascend every Friday to lead the prayers from the Qur’an. Shaped like a staircase, this was made in Cordoba, Spain and brought to Marrakesh in pieces and assembled here. Intricately carved out of different kinds of wood, in shapes ranging from six-pointed stars to hexagons in vibrant colors, with inlays and designs -this is the work of talented Muslim artisans.
In the heart of the Medina, is my favorite building, the Madrasa Ben Youssef which used to be an Islamic college of science and theology and is today a museum. Narrow monastic student cells overlook a tranquil courtyard with a pool -it’s a visual feast with glazed tiles, cedar wood and calligraphy. I admire the pinecone and palm motifs of the prayer hall and the horseshoe-shaped arches.
If you want to fill your shopping bags, Marrakesh is the place! I navigate the souqs in the old town -a maze of connecting alleys, dodging kamikaze mopeds and donkey carts, feral cats, and trawl through packed shops that sell everything from chessboards, gleaming brass lanterns, rainbow colored slippers called babouches to tribal carpets and killims in myriad colors.
The city feels like an open-air museum where entertainment is around every corner. I rock to the rhythms of Gnawa musicians, who are descendants of North African slaves, with chants and dancing, performing with their heads swirling and tasseled fezzes spinning. I am fascinated by the water sellers wearing traditional clothes -water used to be a precious commodity! These colorfully dressed men with furry goatskin bags full of water and wide-brimmed Berber hats are some kind of cultural icons and touristy photo ops!
Come evening I make my way to the most extraordinary public space that I have seen in my life -the gargantuan Djemaa El-Fnaa market square, in the medina of the old city, and perch myself on the terrace of a bustling café watching the square transform into a dramatic and vibrant tableau, with food tents and makeshift benches, offering everything from tagine to fresh orange juice. In the glow of the orange cooking fires, are silhouetted the faces of henna artists, astrologers, buskers, acrobats, and snake charmers. This open-air party which looks like a gigantic movie set is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its oral and intangible heritage. As I slowly absorb all the mesmerizing sights and sounds, I muse on the fact that Marrakesh is truly an experience to be savored in every sense.