Thanks to Hollywood, we’d always thought of Casablanca at the mention of Morocco, but we found that Marrakech is actually the place with “the look” that we were seeking in a North Africa trip. With its souks and sand-tinted, centuries-old buildings shaded by tall date palms, Marrakech has a long history as a travelers’ way station.
Our first stop in Marrakech was Jemaa el Fna or “assembly of the dead,” a public plaza named for its previous role as an execution site. We found that today life, not death, fills the square. For the price of a small baksheesh, we watched a cobra sway to the tune of a wooden flute, photographed colorful water sellers draped in coats of dangling brass cups, and gingerly walked past the “dentist,” who advertised his extraction skills with a tooth-covered table.
But for us the real attraction of Marrakech awaited behind Jemaa el Fna in the sprawling souks. Miles of twisting walkways lead to specialty markets overflowing with fabrics, fragrant spices, meats, metalwork, clothing and more. We strolled along displays of Berber jewelry, babouches (leather slippers) and omnipresent silver teapots, a symbol of Arab hospitality.
Soon we headed deep into the souk to visit the shop of a rug merchant, a place where traditionally we were almost guaranteed our first taste of what seemed like the national drink of Morocco — hot mint tea, sweet as liquefied chewing gum. We found ourselves walking into a den of designs stacked with carpets from floor to ceiling. The air was heavy with the thick aroma of wool. “There is no plan; each pattern is in the mind of the ladies who make them,” explained the owner of La Porte d’Or. We sat cross-legged on a pile of what turned out to be Kilim designs as assistants repeatedly produced carpets with a grand flourish, sending the room-sized rugs rolling across the floor (accompanied by an explosion of wool fibers).
Soon starting to fight for a breath of fresh air in this cavern of carpets, we decided to move the process along. “What would be the price for a small rug like this one?” But something as important as discussion of carpets was not to be hurried. “Color, design, dye, quality of work, they all determine the price,” we were told. This wasn’t progressing. Carpet fibers began to settle on our clothing.
With another flourish of the owner’s arm, an assistant produced a silver teapot perched atop a silver tray. Tiny glasses, far more practical for holding a shot of liquor than a glass of near-boiling water, were produced. The assistant raised the teapot high over his head and began pouring the scalding tea into the micro-glasses, forming a head on each cup of tea.
Two hours later, filled with glass after glass of mint tea, we left the carpet seller, sans carpet. It turned out the prices for the carpets were out of our league, ranging up to $12,000. There was no pressure to buy, however. A Moroccan afternoon spent drinking tea is never a complete waste, for the buyer or the seller.
After our souk adventure, we headed to nearby La Mamounia, one of Morocco’s most elegant hotels and the one-time favorite of Winston Churchill. A quiet escape from the frenetic pace of the souk, this elegant hotel is home to five restaurants. Our destination was Le Marocain, the hotel’s elegant Moroccan eatery. Before long a steaming plate of lamb tajine, a celestial mixture of lamb, couscous and sliced lemon, was unveiled from beneath a conical clay pot. We also ordered a bottle of Moroccan wine and a plate of local desserts called gazelle horns — pastry crescents filled with almonds and honey — a sweet end to a good meal. It was not, however, the end of the evening; soon a belly dancer took to the floor, accompanied by Gnaoua dancers, who sent their hats’ tassels into orbit with their rhythmic dance and the jangle of their brass castanets. The show was just a sneak peek of what we’d see outside, though; in the nighttim e hours, Jemaa el Fna had been transformed into a streetside circus, a mixture of street performers that rivaled what we’d witnessed earlier in the afternoon.
The next day, we were off to explore other areas of the historical city that dates to the 11th century. Almost seven miles of sand-colored walls surround the medina, the old city. Here the tallest structure is also one of its oldest: the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque. The square tower’s distinctive shape has been used as a pattern for minarets by mosques throughout the country. The mosque is topped by copper balls originally believed to be gold and, according to legend, produced from the melted jewelry of a sultan’s wife. We had to be satisfied with a view of the exterior of the famous landmark, however; like all other mosques in Morocco (with the exception of Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque and Meknes’s Moulay Ismael Mosque), Koutoubia is closed to non-Muslims.
We traveled from the mosque to La Bahia Palace, once used as the French governor’s residence. The sound of children singing Arabic songs wafted from over another sand-colored wall as we strolled to the palace. Here walls were covered in small tiles to form Arabesque designs, elaborate geometric patterns in myriad colors. On Fridays, local women often come to the palace to look at these designs and get ideas for their own embroidery and home projects.
Our last stop of the day was the Majorelle Gardens; the largest gardens in the city are owned by French designer Yves Saint-Laurent. First planted by French painter Jacques Majorelle between 1922 and 1962, the gardens are an oasis and a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. Bamboo joins cacti to create a haven for doves perched in honeysuckle-covered palm trees.
The next day we returned to the souk, wandering among the seemingly thousands of shops and stalls in search of a silver teapot. We hadn’t bought a Moroccan rug, but the memory of that tea ceremony certainly was deserving of a travel souvenir.
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