Please note that I wrote this story just before a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountains 75km southwest of Marrakech on September 8th. I was very lucky to have visited Anraz, one of the Berber villages nestled in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, when I was there.
According to Louise Cooke, Senior Lecturer in Conservation at York University, although it’s too early to guage the full extent of the impact, initial reports suggest some of the city’s historical treasures, including the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque and the renowned red wall, may have suffered some damage.
There’s a marvellous description of the big main square in Marrakech by Esther Freud in her quirky book Hideous Kinky:
“A cloud of drumming hung above the main square called Djemaa El Fna. Groups of men moved tirelessly from one spectacle to the next, forming circles to watch the dancers and the tambourine players, the African who dressed up as a woman with cymbals on his wrists and a full silver tea set on his head, the acrobats, and the snake charmers whose songs seeped across the square and mingled with a wailing like a bagpipe I couldn’t trace. A waterman roamed from corner to corner clanking his brass cups and calling to the thirsty to buy a drink of his warm and rusty water.”
It vividly captures my first impressions of this lively square into which run a maze of alleyways and souks. Surrounded by 17 kilometres of 12th century pinkish-red walls which enclose the historic medina districts, Marrakech is often referred to as the ochre or rose city. Having driven from Essaouira on the Atlantic coast via Val d’Argan and through the moonscape of the Agafay desert, I could see how these sandy red terracotta colours had inspired the first inhabitants of Marrakech. In fact Marrakech is often called “the red city” because of the colour of its houses which must, according to city regulations, be like the color of the land that surrounds it.
I’d been booked into the Dar Attajmil guesthouse and couldn’t wait to find my way to the square. But the moment I stepped out of the riad and turned into the narrow alley leading through the souk to the square, I realised how easy to was to get lost and kept an alert eye out for signposts along the way. I was taken aback by the number of noisy polluting motorbikes and mopeds edging their way through the crowds in the laneways and was surprised they’re allowed in the medina.
It was late afternoon by the time I arrived at Djemaa El Fna, having woven my way cautiously through the throngs of people and shops full of everything under the sun. As I entered the square, I was delighted to see fabulous jars of olives and preserved lemons on display and bunches of fresh mint for sale.
It was much easier the following day being led around by Idar, my guide, who took me to many of Marrakech’s fabled places. As I only had one full day here, his tour was the most effective way of seeing the highlights of the medina. First up was a visit to Le Jardin Secret (the Secret Garden) which is based on a traditional Islamic paradise garden made up of a pair of courtyard gardens with a fountain in the first section and a doorway in the corner leading to an adjacent garden planted with exotic plants and trees from the four corners of the earth. Australian landscape and garden photographer Claire Takacs explains that the transition between the two garden spaces was handled in traditional manner by means of a tiled pavilion.
“The contrast as one emerges into the Islamic garden is dramatic, as the space opens up to reveal a traditional gridded orchard of citrus trees. As the ground surface changes from pink brick to emerald tiles, it feels like walking into the sea.”
Idar pointed out the ingenious 11th century hydraulic irrigation system set up by the Almoravids (an imperial Berber Muslim dynasty) and encouraged me to watch a 3D animated video which shows how they moved water through underground channels (khettaras) from the Atlas mountains to Marrakech. I could have lingered here much longer but it was time to step back out into the busy lanes of the Mouassine district.
It was a short walk to Dar El Bacha Palace, once the home of Thami El Glaoui, the Pacha of Marrakech who built this stunning residence to impress guests. Renowned for his expensive properties and lifestyle, he was attracted to Western culture. Guests to one of his legendary gatherings incluced Winston Churchill, Josephine Baker, Colette and Charlie Chaplin. Rooted deep in Moroccan architecture it features fountains and Seville orange trees in the central courtyard, traditional seating areas and a hamman.
I was knocked out by the diverse geometric patterns and colours of the zellige tiles which cover the columns and intricately carved stucco decoration and cedar doors and ceilings. Not to be missed is the Bacha Coffee House where you can sit down and sample 100% Arabica coffee from all over the world after wandering around the Museum of Confluences which is now housed in the palace.
Then it was off to visit his friend Aziz at Dar Mejbar, a well-known rug wholesaler. Here I was offered traditional sweet mint tea while a series of magnificent rugs and kilims were thrown on the floor for me to view. So tempting!
It was a long walk through Souk Semarine, the largest market in Morocco, to the Bahia Palace. On the way we passed by a hammam where Idar stopped to introduce me to Mohamed Soudani, a Berber musician who was playing Gnawa music, a mixture of Sub-Saharan, Berber and Sufi music. I was mesmerised by the unusual sounds of the hajhuj, a three-string lute he was playing and by his head nodding to the rhythm while the tassels on his fez spun around and around.
“We call it the helicopter hat,” commented Idar with a laugh.
I could smell something delicious wafting through the smoky atmosphere and Idar explained that Mohamed had been cooking tangia in the hot embers used to heat the water in the hamman.
“You mean tagine?” I asked.
“No, no, I mean tangia. It’s a traditional Marrakesh meat stew, sometimes called bachelor’s stew because it’s made by unmarried men who would slow cook it in the ashes from the fire used to heat the bathhouse.”
He explained it’s made with lamb or beef, onions, garlic and preserved lemons and flavoured with a variety of spices including ras el hanout, cumin, saffron, turmeric, ginger and black and white pepper, and that it’s cooked in its own tangia clay pot.
It was nearing lunchtime and the smell of the tangia was making me hungry. Idar told me he knew of a good family run restaurant, Cafe dar Touareg, on the far side of Djemaa el Fna where I could taste an excellent version. He rang ahead to order one specially for me and off we set.
And yes, it was absolutely delicious and I sure didn’t need dinner that night.
I did, however, enjoy a cocktail at the stunning El Fenn Rooftop Bar while watching the sun go down over the city and would highly recommend a visit here if just for a drink. Co-owned by Vanessa Branson, Richard Branson’s sister, it’s one of the swishest spots in Marrkech and is where Madonna celebrated her 60th birthday. If you have time, check out the boutique downstairs and take a look around the gorgeous hotel.
A visit to Marrakech wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Le Jardin Majorelle, a botanic garden outside the medina created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and updated by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1980s. He trademarked the vivid intense blue used to paint the garden walls, fountains and villa with the name Majorelle Blue, a colour I’d love to have in my tool kit. Planted with tall palm and coconut trees, bamboo, yucca plants, bougainvillea, unusual cacti and waterlillies, the garden attracts over 700,000 people a year so it’s wise to book well ahead. My booking was for 8.30am and a queue had already formed along the footpath outside. You might like to also book the YSL Museum which is just up the street though I found it disappointing.
And then out of the blue came the highlight of my visit to Marrakech: a visit to a Berber village about an hour and a half’s drive out of the city. Although I’d read a bit about Berber culture, I really had no idea what to expect. We drove past plum, peach, apricot and quince farms on our way to Ouirgane, a small town set in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains where we were met by Mohamed Air Mhand who lives in Anraz village, one of the villages which line the river running through the valley.
He climbed into the back seat of the car and directed us along a rough dirt road whilst explaining how he started his walking tours 17 years ago.
“Life here hasn’t changed a lot over hundreds of years. My father is a farmer and uses a mule for transporting wood, vegetables, olives.
Tourists would take the mule when they went camping and hunting for wild boar and deer in the mountains and sometimes I would go with them when I was young. Back then the tourists were mainly French but now they’re English, German, Italian.
“When I finished at the lycee, I went to guide school and became a licensed trekking guide. I now show tourists around our village, tell them about our Berber way of life and do personalised walking tours like mountain climbing, hiking in the Ouirgane Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys of the High Atlas Mountain, and trekking on mules.”
There are 300 people in Mohamed’s 1000 year old village and, much to my surprise, there’s also a mosque and a synagogue which was built by Jewish people who came from Jerusalem in the 18th century.
I can hear a rooster crowing as we drive up to Mohamed’s mud brick family home. We climb steep stairs to the rooftop terrace where I look out over the peaceful lush green valley of juniper, olive and pine trees.
One of Mohamed’s brothers had prepared a wholesome tagine of chicken and vegetables. All the ingredients had come from their garden.
“We have very good volcanic soil,” Mohamed tells me. “We grow carrots, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, capsicum, beetroot, zucchini and pumpkin and just planted aubergine.
“And we have lots of olives and sell our olive oil at the weekly market in exchange for sugar, tea, spices, pasta, rice, melons and citrus.
“Our fertiliser comes from chicken, sheep and goat manure and we use smoke to get rid of insects.”
When we had finished our lunch, Mohamed took me to see the kitchen where the family cook over embers and then for a tour around the village.
Mohamed then persuaded me to get up on the mule which was being led on a leash by one of the villagers. I was reluctant at first but once up and riding through the peaceful sunlit olive groves, I felt I was somewhere close to paradise.
I would have happily roamed through the olive, juniper and pine trees for the rest of the afternoon but we were approaching a main road, below which loomed Barrage Ouirgane, a large turquoise reservoir which dams the Oued Nfis river, and it was time to dismount and return to Marrakech.
As much as I loved the indoor courtyard gardens of the palaces and riads I had seen, I felt my heart opening wide to the peace and quiet out here amongst the olive, juniper and pine trees.
Reading back now over what I wrote a few weeks ago fills me with sadness. Who could have predicted how violently mother earth would erupt and shake this region?
Mohamed assures me that he and his family are safe and well and that only a few homes were destroyed in his village.
“ I’m good and my family are good too. Two people died in my village sadly! Many houses are broken. But it’s ok. Some neighbouring villages are more damaged . Thank you very much for asking about me and my village.”
On a recent Facebook post he wrote:
“the people who affected [sic] by the devastating earthquake that struck the Al Haouz province and the difficult humanitarian and social repercussions it caused, we extend our sincere thanks to all the institutions, associations and individuals who came to the aid and relief in order to alleviate the tragedie. We also call on everyone to continue their support.”
Donations to trustworthy organisations such as UNICEF will help. So too will tourism dollars.
Sunset Cocktails at El Fenn Rooftop Bar, Vanessa Branson’s swish gem in the medina which includes a road (hotel), boutique, pool, restaurants and bars [/caption]