Good Morning Marrakech: Part 1
It took less than a day to backpedal on all of my initial opinions about Marrakech. I laid in bed, terrified and full of regret on the first night and thinking to myself, "We should have gone to Amsterdam." I've since learned to love the ancient foundations and harsh beauty of this city. It's not aways safe or clean, and it's rarely quiet. People will intimidate and annoy you for your money, and men are forward to a point that it's perturbing. But all of this becomes minor, manageable and easy to look past the longer you're here.
Marrakech is not like Paris or Barcelona. The city doesn't
immediately sweep off your feet with splendid romance and grandeur. If anything, it's underwhelming at first. But as you
slowly peel back Marrakech's tough layers, you're slapped in the senses by all the colors, textures, sounds and smells.
As you make your way through the dizzying maze of the medina, you'll pass endless rows of souks selling fragrant spices, freshly tanned leathers and hand-stitched carpets. You'll discover the local cuisine and venerable mosques peppered throughout the ancient the city. Little by little, Marrakech will work hard to earn your affection. And once it does, you'll find yourself in a lifelong Moroccan love affair.
One huge benefit of our relocation to the Savoy le Grand Hotel, is Mehdi Ghaghdea. Mehdi is our concierge at the Savoy. Every morning he assists us as we plan out our day. He helps us book tours, pick restaurants and call taxis. Isabel and I have a running joke that Mehdi has embraced the role of our Moroccan Godfather.
Our first day out was oppressively hot, and and the city's energy is draining. But we didn't let it keep us from promenading around the oasis-like Jardin Majorelle or stepping back in time with a tour of Marrakech's historic medina.
1. Jardin Majorelle
I am no haute fashionista, but even I know the name Yves Saint Laurent. What I didn't know is that he was so enamored and inspired by Marrakech, that he bestowed his adopted city with the Jardin Majorelle. Nor was I aware that his ashes were brought to the city of Marrakech to be buried in the gardens.
Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé restored an energetically blue villa, with gold accents among lush gardens and vegetation. The project was a heartfelt an attempt to preserve the vision of the original owner, Jaques Majorelle. Majorelle was a Parisian artist turned Moroccan expat. He began the jardin to a proclamation of love for the city of Marrakech. He started it in 1923 and continued to work on it for another 40 years. He created the blue shade of the villa, so vivid that it was dubbed "Majorelle blue." The garden eventually became to expensive to maintain, so Majorelle sold his house he opened it to the public to offset the cost of maintenance. That's when Saint Laurent and Bergé stepped in. They vowed to keep it open to the public.
With hundreds of different species of plants, paved orange paths and the azure-colored villa, the Jardin Majorelle
is a multi-colored mirage in the middle of Morocco.
We lackadaisically meandered through the gardens for an hour or so, half entranced by the dramatic colors, half in the hazy stupor that accompanies the body's attempt at adjusting to the 115 degree afternoons of Marrakech.
If you lose interest in plants and need a break from the heat, the Musée Berbère is located in the same property as the gardens. The museum is beautifully curated and features the artistry and culture of Morocco's Amazigh peoples,
showcasing wood and metal work, jewelry and textiles.
Jardin Majorelle is truly the oasis of Marrakech and an overall worthwhile attraction. We used our time in the Jardin to calm down and collect ourselves before heading back into the sweltering hustle and bustle of the city.
2. The Old Medina Souks & Djemaa El Fna
Our entire first day in Morocco was a tour organized by Mehdi (Seriously, bless him.) After the Jardin Majorelle, we were picked up in an air-conditioned SUV with ice-cold water bottles waiting in the center consoles. The car took us back to where the trip all started, the medina.
The fresh scars of our first encounter still looming, it was time to face our fears. This time we had a friendly and medina-savvy local as our guide. He confidently led us through the labyrinth of crowded of alleyways. The Medina of Marrakech was founded between 1070-72, it's over one thousand years old and used to be a fortified city within stuccoed walls. Now the enduring red fortress house over 250,000 different souks.
We weaved and bopped out of different souks. We admired freshly tanned leather bags, watched fresh bread rise out of underground ovens, marveled at the kaleidoscope of colors stitched textiles and had a lengthy conversation with a woodworking merchant. He showed us the magic behind
the trick jewelry boxes her crafted. They came in every stain and shape imaginable, they were smooth and embellished with etchings and gemstones. He even boasted a prized photo of Brad Pitt visiting his souk on a trip to Marrakech.
That's not the only reason that I forked over some dirhams for one of his boxes, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to say that Brad and I preferred the same souks. So I purchased an chiseled and stained wooden box. After some light-hearted bartering, we reached a price that we were both satisfied with.
It was evident that our guide was Marrakech born and raised. He could have guided us through the medina blindfolded. Many of the merchants were his friends, he knew them well enough that they slowed their work talk to us, and reveal aspect about their souks that most of the public doesn't see. For instance, most artisans sleep on mats behind the facade of the souk because it's where they work and live. The tour was an equally exotic and humbling experience.
Two pieces of advice if you ever choose to visit Marrakech: Hire a guide!!! I can't stress this enough! I know guides seem like a touristy waste of money, but in a place like Marrakech they are an invaluable asset. A guide will not only make your experience culturally richer, but will make the city more accessible. The guides know the city and its inhabitants. They know where to find the best goods and the dangerous parts to avoid.
Secondly, be careful of who and what you photograph. When locals and artisans think that they are in your photos, they will demand money. And if I haven't already made it clear, they are aggressive. It's better to be safe than sorry in Marrakech.
3. Castles! Ali Ben Youssef Medersa
Marrakech continually turns out to be more than meets the eye. What many don't know, is that there are galleries museums and palaces hidden among throughout the medina. Our guide took us to two, Ali Ben Youssef Medersa and the Bahia Palace.
Ali Ben Youssef has stood its ground for over six centuries and still maintains the elegance of its soft wooden latices and stunning stucco arches. It was built in the early 1400s and became a school that once housed over 900 students.
Eventually it became a monument of Marrakech, open to the public, but still regal with it's enduring academic presence.
4. Kafe Merstan
Bartering, touring and simply surviving July in Morocco is enough to make anyone work up a voracious appetite. We mentioned our rumbling tummies to our guide, and he immediately turned a new corner knowing we'd follow. We wound up at a red stucco building that resembled so many others, but he self-assuredly ambled in. Following him was instinctual by this point.
The interior of Kafé Merstan looked like a humble home with mismatched tables, nonetheless we followed our guide up three narrow flights of stairs to a secluded rooftop terrace. He led us to a table and left us to relax and peruse the menu. That terrace was so tranquil. It provided a much-needed hiatus from the bustling medina. We munched on
complimentary khobz (Moroccan bread) and olives, sipped mint tea (and no, I can't explain the allure of drinking the hot and sweet Moroccan staple on a 115 degree afternoon, but it's a thing). We both ordered the lamb couscous.
I have had the good fortune of some exquisite meals all throughout this summer, but the lunch on that blazing afternoon at Kafé Merstan will always stand out as one of the best. The couscous was pillowy and perfectly cooked, topped with an assortment of multicolored roasted carrots and tender lamb meat, all doused in a thick sauce of plump raisins and caramelized onions. It was all cooke and served in a beautiful clay tagine.
5. Moroccan Rugs
After refreshing and refueling at Kafé Merstan, the last leg of our gave us a peek at the at of Moroccan rug making. In case
you don't know, Moroccans are renowned for their rugs. Everything is intricate and handwoven and it's been that way since Paleolithic era Morocco. Not initially prized for their decorative characteristics, they are now becoming increasingly sought after by Westerners lusting after the brightly hued woven patterns.
We were treated to a hands-on experience of rug weaving, more mint tea, and a presentation of some beautiful rugs. It wouldnt be Morocco if we weren't seriously pressured to buy something. I was so enchanted by the colors and textures that, if not for Isabel being the voice of reason, I would have left with a rug that I couldn't afford or fit in to my suitcase.