Marrakech, January 17, 2015
To push open the heavy wooden windows of La Mamounia’s silken bedroom is to be pulled into another lifetime. The call to prayer pulls at my core and I am beckoned, almost forced against my will to stare at the tower from where the call comes. It is the only structure rising up and above the rest of the medina. It is a powerful draw, instinctual and animalistic even. The call is too hard to resist. I don’t pray, but it’s all I can do to not throw myself out the window across the medina to the tower itself. So I pray in my own way: I capture. I photograph the pink hued tower at dawn while I breathe in the aromatically incensed thick and primal air. I drink the spicy strong Arabic coffee while I let the scene sink in further. The age of all that surrounds me makes me feel small and unborn.
The medina itself is a delicious madness–a thrilling madness. I feel too excited to sit still in the horse and carriage ride that we take around it. I am like an antsy toddler as my mom, aunt, cousin and I are bombarded by too much base sensation and visual stimulation. The cobras are a fear, the tassle fez hats a joy, the smells are ancient shifting layers and the shops are endless temptations. The best shop I find (where I get great deals and have everything shipped home quickly and with great ease) is Societe Les Nomades de Marrakech located at Zaouiat Lahder No. 40. These salesman are humble and professional. The rooftop of the shop is a perfect vantage spot. I also fall in love with Jade Bijoux (conveniently located at the front door of my La Mamounia hotel). My home’s front hall is now adorned with an antique rug from that sweet man.
Our tour guide, Youssef Kharroubi, is patient and informative, and he takes good pictures. This should, in my opinion, be an integral part of all tour-guide training. He is there to guide us, and inform us. But, to be capable of capturing the moment with our iphones and Nikons makes him invaluable.
He takes us to the Berber museum and to Jardin Majorelle, Yves St. Laurent’s famous garden where we marvel at the array of cacti and the deep blue buildings. We venture up to the Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret tower, the one I am drawn to, but we do not enter. We tour Saadian Tombs and get swarmed by cats and we see the beautiful Bahia Palace.
Youssef takes us to see a hammam (public bathhouse) which is heated by a fire that stays lit by handfuls of sawdust scooped in by a man who sits in ash-filled air all day long. We want the scene to not be true. We also see how bread is baked, swaddled in cloth, pushed into large wood burning ovens on long wooden handles all day long by men who take pride. Hard lives.
And somewhere during that first day, I begin to learn a new language: shokran bezaf which means thank you very much. I find that I really mean it every time I say it. We also learn As-salamu alaykum which basically means peace be with you, just like at church. Youssef tells us that Islam means surrender, submission, sincerity, obedience and peace, and so I try hard to surrender any anxiety I might have in this land of Muslim men.
Our lunch spot on Day 1 is in a riad where heavenly lamb tagines and cous cous adorn our outdoor table within a green-hued courtyard covered in cats and oranges. That is the spot of my very first Morroccan Mint tea–the unforgettable long pour that feels like an invitation. To be on the receiving end of that first pour is to fall head first into Marrakech’s pool of ancient invigoration.
Our visit to Aux 100,000 epices at 53-57 Rue de la Kasbah (in front of the Saadian Tombs) held so many herbal treasures. My favorites were the tagine of rouge and the cobalt eyeliner along with the unique spice mixes perfect for steak and fish. We haggle for some great purses and scarves in the souks. It’s so natural to crave head coverings when surrounded by beautiful Arabic women adorning them.
Dine in a riad: Al Fassia and Dar Moha are both great choices. Experience the thrill of haggling and taking away new treasures from the souk. Soak up the inescapable French influence. We do so with croque monsieurs for lunch in the medina, along with the equally inescapable and heavenly fresh squeezed Moroccan orange juice.
Take a day or more to see the outskirts. Ride the camels. Travel to the foothills of the Atlas mountains to take a peek at Richard Branson’s place, Kasbah Tamadot (or better yet, stay there for a night or two). Make sure to visit a Berber village, alongside the rushing red rivers. It’s a powerful experience.
Images burn into my mind: the rough hands of the Berber village woman, her cold tough life, the warm fire. No English is spoken, but gestures speak volumes. I move into a smoke filled, choke filled room to sit beside her on a tiny stool beside the fire, the only spot in the house that is not cold and damp. I catch my breath at the dramatic difference this life is from my La Mamounia bedroom overlooking the Medina, where a glass of champagne costs 32 USD and I rub elbows with the Queens of Qatar and Monoco as they pass me by in the lobby after lunch.
But to actually feel royal one must go, no run, to the Hotel Royal Mansour where we dined on our last night. It’s indescribable. Stay there if you can.
Go see the tannery, but go with a guide. In spite of the handfuls of mint you will be given to inhale, the stink of it will stay in your sinuses for days. But you can’t not go. The cats there loiter and linger long into your dreams long after you leave Marrakech. Stray and strong these cats move about Marrakech. Don’t leave without photographing them and soaking in their wild presence and resilience.
Buy rugs. My favorites are the ones that jingle and hang on the wall. There is incredible craftsmanship, selection and prices. Bring the feel and scents of Morocco home with you, in lotions, potions, spices, scarves, leather purses and rugs. You will be grateful that you did.
And don’t leave Marrakech without a visit to Bains de Marrakech in the heart of the medina for a fabulous massage before you head to the airport. And as you depart, with your head in a spin, channel your own inner Bogart in a Moroccan farewell, and vow to return.