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  • Brian Johnson

Morocco Journal: Marrakech, March 17-19, 2024

Updated: May 17

March 17:

Our driver picked us up outside the city walls of Essaouira and we continued our road trip across the heart of Morocco. Our next stop: fabled Marrakech. It is hard to imagine two places more different from each other than Essaouira and Marrakech. Essaouira is like your hipster uncle, chill, laid back, tolerant, fun, relaxed, while Marrakech is your boisterous uncle, loud, brash, energetic, opinionated, and in your face. Founded in 1070, Marrakech served as the royal capital for hundreds of years, and even after the capital was moved to Fez, and later Rabat, maintained a place of prime importance on the caravan route coming down from the Atlas Mountains after the long journey across the Sahara.

As in Essaouira, we are staying in a riad within the walls of the old medina, where no cars are allowed, meaning our driver dropped us off outside the walls, leaving us to negotiate the winding maze of streets to our suite in the Riad Palais Sebban. After a welcome beverage of refreshing Moroccan mint tea in the elegant central courtyard and a bit of relaxing in our room we took a deep breath and took the plunge into the medina. Our first stop was the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, long designated a UNESCO world heritage site due to its cultural significance.

If Marrakech is the heart of Morocco, then the Jemaa el-Fnaa is the heart of Marrakech. It has a long, storied history, and over the centuries has served as a public gathering spot, a place to find all manner of entertainment, food, and merchandise, and a place of public executions. Today it is filled with food stalls and merchandise stands and musicians and magicians and artists and performers and scammers and hawkers and snake charmers, which really are a thing. A warren of narrow streets and alleys radiate out from the square, and the souks, or markets, adjoin the square. We spent several hours exploring the huge square and the souks. Just about any kind of merchandise you would want can be found, from artisan goods to modern conveniences, along with the shopkeepers aggressively hawking their wares, including one offering marijuana, but I think that was just a side business for him. Although cars are forbidden in the medina, motorbikes are not, and a walk through the area means fending off the vendors while dodging the motorbikes. There are no rules, or speed limits, other than those dictated by the laws of physics, and riders careen through narrow alleys barely wide enough for two people to pass, without regard for human safety, much less courtesy, sometimes with two and even three to a bike, and it’s not uncommon to be bumped in passing, like in a Nascar race. The entire area vibrates with life and color and noise, and the odors of exotic spices and all manner of food being cooked mingle with the smell of gasoline fumes and humanity. It is a wild, crazy, wonderful, horrible place of magic and madness and mayhem, chaos and confusion, and I hated it. It is not a place for my peaceful soul.

With darkness approaching we decided it was time to find our way back to the central square, but we made heavy work of it, taking several wrong turns and once even going in a circle, finding ourselves back in the same place we had passed through several minutes before. No, navigation apps do not work, both because service is spotty and because even when available, map apps don’t seem to know what to do with the dense warren of streets. Eventually we emerged from the maze and spilled back out into the square. On our first pass through I had come to the considered opinion that the place was absolutely insane. On our second go around I realized that there are levels, and darkness brought a level up. Several dozen food stalls had opened up, and the smells of grilling meat and vegetables filled the night. As we wandered among the stalls we were accosted in waves by aggressive shills trying to pull us into their particular food stall, each with a seating area attached consisting of long wooden benches where you sit elbow to elbow with strangers from all over the globe. After a couple of pass throughs we decided to go ahead and try out the Marrakech street food scene, so we rolled the dice and picked one of the stalls and sat down. We were brought a veritable feast of grilled chicken (I hope) and vegetable skewers, along with bread and french fries, believe it or not, and two dipping sauces, one a somewhat bland tomato based sauce and one hot enough to burn your tongue, all washed down with a couple of cold cokes. The food was good and filling, though perhaps the highest standards of food safety and hygiene were not strictly adhered to.

Sated and suffering from sensory overload, we headed back to our riad, itself located down a dark and narrow alleyway. Entry is through a nondescript door in the wall, but once you step through it a whole different world of peace, harmony, and elegance presents itself. It’s truly like stepping through the looking glass. Built in the 1800s, the riad is a luxurious oasis of fountains, blooming flowers, and candlelight, with a wading pool in the central courtyard and another pool on the rooftop terrace. After a nightcap in the elegant little bar to calm our sensory overload we retired to our room, where I write these words as the clock ticks toward midnight. Tomorrow is another day, and maybe a good night’s sleep is what I need to alter my perspective.

Continued below...

March 18:

After wandering through the maze of alleys in the medina this morning we were finally able to find our destination: the Ben Youssef Medersa. Begun in 1564, the medersa is one of the finest surviving examples of Moroccan and Andalusian architecture in Morocco, and perhaps the most important historic building in Marrakech. A medersa, or madrasa, is an Islamic college, and the Ben Youssef was once the largest in North Africa, housing over 800 students in its heyday. The focal point is a large central courtyard with a shallow reflective pool in the middle. Galleries branch out to both sides, with student dormitories on the upper and lower levels. Apparently no expense was spared in its construction, with carved stucco, ceramic tile, and carved cedar wood used throughout. It was certainly beautiful, and easy to see why it’s considered one of the top attractions in Marrakech, but unfortunately other people read guidebooks too, and we shared the place with a large crowd, which always limits my enjoyment.

On a happier note, the Museum of Marrakech is basically next door, and appears to not be on popular radar. It’s housed in the 19th century Dar Menebhi Palace and the architecture is stunning, if not quite as ornate as the medersa, with the added benefit of housing some impressive art work and historical artifacts. For several precious minutes we even had the place entirely to ourselves. One of those special finds.

After lingering in the museum we plunged back into the maze and after several wrong turns, and a notable dead end, we found the Jardin Secret. That’s “Secret Garden” for those of you who don’t speak French. Occupying the grounds of a restored historic riad, the gardens are a calm oasis in the heart of the frenetic medina. There are actually two gardens: one is an Islamic garden laid out according to strict geometric principles and designed to demonstrate the imposition of Muslim order over disordered nature. The second garden is an exotic garden with plants and shrubs from all over the world. Water is a defining theme throughout, with pools and fountains interspersed among the plants and trees. It was a lovely, peaceful place incongruously existing in the midst of one of the most chaotic places on earth. A bonus was the climb to the top of the tower at the far end of the gardens, with views out over the city.  It was a surprise stop for Lynn, and she loved it. And that’s how you get extra credit husband points, which I’m all about, as I sometimes tend to use up my points at an alarming rate, so I can never have too many.

Now at mid afternoon, and the heat of the day, we wandered back through the souks to our riad for a little siesta before dinner. Lynn bought me a Moroccan linen shirt on the way back, so I looked nice to go to dinner. Good boys get treats. For dinner we had reservations at Le Foundouk, at the northern end of the souks. It was another magical evening on a rooftop terrace, one named by CNN as one of the best rooftop dining experiences in the world. For you novice husbands out there, a candlelit dinner under the stars is another good way to get extra credit. I did lose a few points by getting lost a couple of times on the way back in a maze of dark, deserted alleys, but still ended up on the plus side of the ledger.

Continued below:

March 19:

I had a surprise planned for Lynn today, as I had bought us tickets to go see the Jardin Marjorelle, a large exotic garden formerly owned by Yves Saint-Laurent. It turns out the surprise was on me though, as the taxi drive there was a whole lot more exciting than I was prepared for that early in the morning, or any other time for that matter. Under orders from Lynn, however, the complete story is only available for special subscribers. For now suffice it to say that what could have been an absolutely horrible experience ended up reinforcing our faith in the possibility of fundamental human goodness, and especially justifying our original decision to come to Morocco. We did eventually make it into the garden, and after pausing to dry some tears and stop hyperventilating, found that the lovely gardens were the perfect tonic to soothe our nerves.

The garden was first established by the French painter Jacques Marjorelle in 1923, but after his death fell into a state of disrepair until being purchased and restored by French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent n 1980. Today the gardens are home to a huge variety of tropical flowers and exotic plants, including 400 types of palm trees and 1800 different species of cactus. Waterways run throughout the garden, feeding the various fountains and providing irrigation for the plants. It was a pleasant way to spend the morning and escape the 90 degree heat.

After leaving the garden we took a taxi to the Bahia Palace, without incident this time, although negotiating Marrakech traffic is always a little thrilling. I think one of my iconic memories of Marrakech will be watching a woman in a full length black burka with her face covered, riding a motorbike with her little girl on the back, weaving in and out of traffic three cars wide on a two lane road.

The Bahia Palace was built in two stages by successive Grand Viziers to the Sultan at the end of the 19th century. The first part consists of apartments arranged around a marble courtyard and a second courtyard containing pools and cypress, orange, and jasmine trees. The second part is a huge and ornately decorated palace with a main courtyard paved with marble and ceramic tile and three fountains in the center. It was reserved for use of the vizier’s concubines. It seems like being Grand Vizier was a pretty good job.

After the Bahia Palace we walked the short distance to an entirely different kind of palace complex. After defeating the Portuguese at the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578, Sultan El-Mansour ordered a grand palace to be built, eventually containing 360 rooms decorated with Italian marble, Irish granite, Indian onyx, and coverings of gold leaf. For a hundred years it was considered a wonder of the Muslim world, until in 1683 a sultan of a subsequent dynasty gutted the palace and used the material to decorate his own palace in the new imperial city of Meknes. Today the impressive stone ramparts remain, along with a huge central courtyard with several pools and a sunken garden planted with citrus trees, but the rest of the huge complex is mostly an empty shell.

Now late in the hot afternoon we walked back to our riad in the medina to cool off, brushing off a friendly hustler on the way. We stopped on the grounds of the Koutoubia Mosque, begun about 1147, and now occupying the center of Marrakech near the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. It is an impressive focal point of the city, but entry is forbidden to non-Muslims. A colorfully dressed gentleman with an “official” tour guide badge offered to guide us back to our riad, but really just wanted to steer us to a local “Berber Market”, no doubt run by relatives. We peeled off at the gate to the medina and wished him a good day. Back in our riad we enjoyed a cocktail on the upper terrace looking out over the city before heading down for dinner in the lovely central courtyard by the pool. We have very much enjoyed our stay in this beautiful and peaceful setting, even if we are ready to move on from Marrakech tomorrow.

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