Marrakech, the Red City

Am I really here? I’m pinching myself. It seems impossible.

Yesterday morning in Fes, we were completely prepared to hop on a train to take an 8-hour cross-country ride from Fes to Marrakech. We checked out, and then sat in the courtyard killing time, waiting for our porter. But the owner of the riad, Fred, overheard that we were heading to Marrakech and mentioned that we could catch a plane that would get us there in 50 minutes, and cost about 40 EURO each. I immediately wanted to investigate, and so, over the next hour, a bit of craziness ensued. Rajae, the manager, called the airline. We were in luck. Flights were every other day (yesterday being one of them!) and there was availability, and, we had time to get to the airport, but, we had to move fast. Rajae called us a taxi, the porter trollied our bags (and us) back to the Batha gate and, after a quick flight chatting with a beautiful Senagalese woman wearing Elie Saab, we were standing in the center of Jemaa-el-Fna in Marrakech at 6:30pm in utter amazement. Had we taken the train, we would not have arrived until 11PM and we would have missed a staggering red-orange setting sun. So, thank you again to the Laaroussa team. Phenomenal service.

So? Where do I begin? Jemaa-el Fna is Marrakech’s center square in the medina, which, at the southwest corner stands the Kutubiyya (Koutoubia) Mosque. If Times Square is a feast for the eyes, Jemaa-el Fna is a feast for all your other senses. Competing smells of kefta, couscous, chicken, nuts, spices, and oranges. The sounds of African drums, Moroccan flutes, castanets, whirling Sufi music. A horse-drawn carriage, snake charmers, belly dancers, animals, French, Arabic, Spanish, English, and people everywhere, everywhere imploring you to come into the souks and buy their wares, go on a tour, see the sights, book their hotels… A bit stunned, it was about then our porter, Hassan, found us and quickly whisked us away to the “safety” of our new riad. But I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to be mad. Jack Kerouac once wrote, “[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” That’s Jemaa-el Fna. Beautiful, exploding, mad. I had finally made it here, and I didn’t want to miss anything.

Riyad El Cadi

But quietness was essential too. Turning inward and away, to meditate, think, write. And the juxtaposition of the outside chaos and the inside tranquility that Marrakech offers is salient and undeniable. The spiritual life is both social and solitary.

Getting to the Riyad El Cadi was not just a stroll down any old street. It was a passage in time. It was yet another part of this exquisite adventure. We went deeper and deeper into the medina, where streets got darker and quieter. Where you could hear singular conversations, smell the food families were getting ready to eat for dinner; you could hear cats meowing. There was still a clear blue sky above us and ochre walls all around us until we reached a very old door and a tiny sign that let us know we’d arrived.

This is probably my favorite hotel. Ever. And this is what I’ve realized: I don’t need lavish. I don’t need luxury. I need modest, sturdily built. I need winding stairways that lead to secret corners. I need bright sunny courtyards and a room with a stone floor and huge screenless French windows that open onto blue pools and floral, tiled patios and gardens. I need quiet, with the promise of chaos and excitement five minutes walk away. I need 300-year-old Moroccan doors with latches of iron and keyholes the size of a blue bird. I need walls decorated with Berber rugs and local paintings and books and wooden bowls from hundreds of years ago. I need an old walnut desk. I need a toilet that is in a separate room from the shower. I need 20 foot ceilings with vigas.

And the hooing of a morning dove and the chirping of swallows and the gentle  swishing sound of palm fronds in the breeze in the early evening. I need to hear the Muezzin’s call in the distance and the occasional beat of the Sufi’s drum. I need a rooftop with pots filled with bougainvillea, and a view that looks across a blue sky and ancient rooftops where I can sip a coffee and pretend I came from this land. I need an olive tree. And an orange tree. And I need a winding narrow street with red and ochre walls to get there.

Before heading out to dinner
Photo cred: Riyad el Cadi, rooftop

 

 

 

 

 

 

After we dumped our bags in our room, and sprawled out in the living room, Doug on the sofa, me at the desk, we both kind of went through that giddiness of newly arriving somewhere. Looked in closets, opened windows, jumped on the bed, ate the cookies. And definitely explored the courtyards, pool area and rooftop. The El Cadi is really five houses that share two main courtyards and each courtyard has three or four stairways, so it can get seriously confusing. By the end of a three-night stay we should have our bearings. The space in our actual apartment is grand. And, if I could rent this place for three months straight, I would. Every year. It’s truly a dream property.  Stone tile floors, a living room with windows that open on each side, a separate bedroom that looks out over an interior courtyard pool, a shower room, and a toilet room. There are hundreds of fabulous places to stay in Marrakech, many far more opulent. But, this place. Uff. The best.

Anyway, it was getting late, and we were definitely hungry. Sadly, we really only knew how to get back to the square, and we didn’t do much research on restaurants (we thought we’d be eating on the train). So, we ended up at this busy, touristy spot, which had fabulous couscous and tagine, and belly dancers to boot that danced with trays of lit candles on their heads (no thanks). A bigger perk than the dancers and great food? We got to watch the sun set over Jemaa-el-Fna.

It was a voiceless, dark walk back. Like I said, the deeper you twist and turn into the residential quarters of the medina, the quieter it gets. A few families sit inside their stoops to catch some fresh air from a hot kitchen. The evening Adhan can be heard muffled in the distance. The stars overhead are desert stars of the nearby Sahara, vain and bright, having no rivals from light pollution on the ground. They are stars that shine so brightly they pop, like a sky filled with glittering supernovae.

The Souks

Marrakech is Fes’s rival. It is the capital of the south, whereas Fes is the capital of the north. Not exactly true (as Rabat is the actual capital), but hard to argue that it is not the cultural capital of Morocco. In the 60’s and 70’s Marrakech was a haven for hippies, and later, affluent tourists like Yves St. Laurent. Western money has clearly been poured into this town, and Eastern now, as well (you will hear constant refrains from locals that the Chinese are taking over. And to some degree, it’s true. Many of the shops in the souks sell cheaply manufactured, unauthentic “made in China” knock offs of traditional Berber crafts. Lamps, being a good example).To the untrained eye, Marrakech simply looks like the artisanal craft mecca of the world. And yet, with more tourists coming to this city, I hate to say it, Morocco depends on the Chinese to meet the demands of the tourist industry. And yet, this comes at a price. As more people buy the cheap stuff, the more the real Berber craftsmen and women suffer a loss of in their own businesses. So, be sure to ask for recommendations to shops that sell authentic Berber crafts from your hotel or licensed tourist board guides, usually with name tags). This immensely helps the local economy, and, you’re not walking away with a cheesy, mass-produced knock-off.

Our day-two was mostly spent braving the souks on our own. After being guided through Tangier, then guided through Fes, we acquired a bit of confidence that led us to believe (ok, just me) that we could attempt the souks alone. And while I think Doug was fine to walk through the souks without a guide, I also think the disorder and frenzy of the shopping experience, paired with the seeming disarrangement of the streets was not his thing. And while he negotiates for work all the time, this is different. You are bargaining and negotiating for honor. A dollar here, a dollar there. Obviously sometimes much more. What’s important is that whether you are haggling for a dollar or a hundred, it’s the process that counts. And I wasn’t about to deny any man his self-respect by not at least trying to negotiate a fair deal.

We definitely got lost. Lost in the spice district, then the clothing district, then the blacksmith district, the rugs, the leather, the pottery. You name it. I think we saw it all. I saw a young boy hop off his bike and help a blind man walk down a street. I saw a man dig his hands into a huge canister of cardamom to smell it. I saw a popular bakery filled with clients, waiting in line for baked goods and when I went in to see what they were selling there were swarms of bees in the pastry cases that no one seemed to care about. I saw so many men sitting out on their front stoop, in front of their shops, washing their feet (is this a religious thing? I don’t know). We were in there for what seemed hours and every time we’d follow a sign that said: “This way to Jemaa el Fna” we’d be deeper in and more lost. But it was only exasperating when we were ready to leave. And it was then that we sat down to have a coffee at a “Literary Cafe” to get our bearings. There were two Danes who were having tea at a table near ours and they were on their fourth and final day in Marrakech, pros. After our drinks, they pointed the way out, which was literally five steps around a corner. The Great and Powerful Oz told Dorothy she had the ability to get back home the entire time, she just had to learn it for herself.

Lunch was in the souks. I had read about the Terrace des Epices, a popular restaurant in the spice district, and we somehow stumbled upon it and grabbed a seat. We had lunch next to a blond woman from Louisiana and her two daughters. The first thing she said was how thrilled she was to meet other Americans. That she hadn’t met many here. I found that surprising. Then again, you know, Trump. I think many of us feel unwelcomed in many parts of the world because of his policies and tariffs. Then she proceeded to tell us that she can’t grasp how any of the shop owners make any money because there are so darn many of them. I actually had the same thought earlier. I mean there are gazillions of shops! Then she added that she bought something but didn’t haggle. “What’s $50 to me? For these people it’s a week’s wages. Why bother haggling.” Hmmm…. I’m not sure I agreed with her on that one. However, we did agree on one thing, she said, “I feel safer here than in Whole Foods back home,” which led to a few laughs and a dark, depressing convo on school shootings. Her one daughter is studying in Barcelona. My youngest son is studying in Madrid. We both acknowledged a sense of relief that our children were not attending universities in the states, and how happy we were that they were getting an international education.

This is why I travel. To have these kinds of conversations.

Rooftop of el Cadi, wearing the dress Marisa made for me
The Nomad

At night, after a long repose back at El Cadi, Hassan took us to Nomad where we sat on the roof and watched the sunset and ate dangerous foods. I had an avocado and banana berry smoothie (made with ice!), an arugula salad with goat cheese and almonds, and some vegetarian chickpea dish with bulgar and millet. It was so good, but we were both weary. Tomorrow, it’s into the Atlas Mountains we go.

⦿ Lodging Riyad El Cadi, Marrakech Medina

⦿Shopping: no question, you have to go into the souks. If it seems too overwhelming, get a guide. Your hotel will recommend someone. Read up on it first so you can get your bearings and know what to expect.

⦿ Food: There’s tons of fabulous places and not so fabulous places to eat. Because we were not there long enough to build up a system of good bacteria in our gut for Moroccan water, we stuck to hotel and boutique restaurants. In the end, we both had tummy issues. C’est la vie! 

Marrakech Restaurants:

NOMAD

Grand Cafe du la Poste 

Amal 

CAFE GLACIER L’OPERA; AVENUE MOHAMED VI, HIVERNAGE

SNACK OTHMAN; BOULEVARD MOULAY RACHID, NEAR WINOO – GUELIZ

CAFE 16 PLACE DU 16 NOVEMBRE; GUELEIZ

BEJGHUENI; 65, RUE MOHAMED EL BEKAL | GUELIZ

LA FAMILLE, RIAD ZITOUN JDID, MEDINA

Jemaa Al Fna Stall 93 or 31 for grilled foods and Stall 14 “Krita”

LE TROU AU MUR – DERB FERNATCHI – MEDINA

KSAR ESSAOUSSAN, 3 RUE ESSAOUSSAN, MEDINA

SALT MARRAKECH, 108 RUE DE BERIMA, MEDINA

OLIVERI, 9 BOULEVARD EL MANSOUR EDDAHBI, GUELEIZ

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