Tuesday, October 09, 2007

10 Things You Need To Know About Marrakech

An air of mystery surrounds Morocco. Delacroix visited in 1832 and filled seven notebooks with drawings and it still looks much like the same places he sketched. Along the narrow and labyrinthine lanes of the Marrakech souk shopkeepers sit on low stools outside their crowded stalls, sipping sugary thé a la menthe, waiting for the next customer. Crafts are everywhere, leather, ceramic, metalwork, weaving, woodcarving, inlay. Visit the colorful markets and you can get lost in shadowy passages lined with spice dealers with baskets of vibrant colored powders, strange apothecaries, clothing stalls, artifact both old and new, curio sellers, shoe and sandal makers, or vendors simply dispensing the necessities of life to the locals. This glorious and accessible land just across the Straits of Gibraltar below Spain can often act as a bridge to Islam, for the call to prayer merges with the pulsing beat of French African rap, and the veil coexists with designer jeans. And Marrakech, Morocco’s de facto capital, knows it is driven by tourism and agriculture. It’s far enough inland to be less populated by the criminal elements you confront in the teeming port of Tangier. The last two regimes have conducted large scale information campaigns to educate the population on how to interact with tourists, so there is some savoir faire about receiving foreign guests. And there are holiday options to fit every pocketbook. The following are some broad notes assembled after a visit to Marrakech in November 2006.

1. Getting there is not half the fun. Air France and Royal Air Maroc have somewhat civilized flights to Marrakech. But be warned that Ryanair regards you as a commodity to be marketed to at every juncture, with high-cost near-inedible food, overpriced duty free, raffle tickets, and seats that do not recline. Depending on the length of your flight, definitely opt for comfort. You could easily spend as much time going through immigration in the Marrakech airport as you spent flying there. Don’t expect jetways- you walk down steps from your aircraft and totter across the tarmac into a cavernous room where tiny signs, most in French, announce that first you must fill out a landing card –available only in the terminal. Tourists crowd around the illegible signs trying to puzzle them out, then mob the narrow ledges where the cards are stacked. No pens are furnished, nor flat surfaces for filling out the cards, which require your flight and passport number, dates of visit and local address. Once your card is ready you then stand in a long line at a desk, where a generally agreeable official stamps your passport. A comparable wait for luggage can be followed by a dash for cabs or public transport. Welcome to Marrakech.

2. Stay in a riad. These are usually opulent former private residences converted into guest houses, typically having rooms facing inward to a central court, with mosaic-covered fountains on the ground floor. They’re hidden away along side streets behind ancient doors- you’d never know they were there, and you can find riads to fit all budgets. All have roof gardens or patios, and many have small wading or lap pools. Breakfast on the roof can be a dream: fresh squeezed orange juice, bread still warm from the oven, interesting confiture flavors, and ornate table settings, overlooking the city and its minarets. You can often eat dinner at your riad and discover authentic cuisine at a fraction of restaurant prices. Three excellent Marrakech properties are

Riad L'Orangerie
61, rue Sidi El Yamani
44000 Marrakech
33 06 23 92 40 05
A well-established gastro-riad, with a reputation for excellent food. So well-known it is almost always heavily booked, thus reservations far in advance a necessity. Modernist décor, clean and comfortable, a retreat from the hustle-bustle outside. Superior accommodation and located quite central to all the monuments.

Riad Dar El Siam
Derb Dabachi - Jdid no 12
44000 Marrakech
33 06 09 08 39 88
Michele Blin-Meyer
A beautiful design experience, with personable management and a very warm staff. The kitchen hums with good vibes and pleasant smells. Repeat business keeps this riad full; its profile is not as high as others, but it is a quality experience. Very comfortable.

Riad Albizzia

Derb Sbaiya no 7
44000 Marrakech
33 06 09 87 97 78
Michel Darciaux
An intimate riad of only 4 bedrooms, opened in October 2006. The owner has great taste- and the chef is top-notch. Definitely eat at this riad, a 15-minute walk south of the main square, in a typical neighborhood not populated by tourists. It’s a bit of an adventure to find the property the first night, but once you get your landmarks memorized you will appreciate its out-of-the-way location.

3. Locals know when not to shower. The big untold secret is that water pressure throughout the Marrakech medina drops from 7:30am-6:30pm, due to the demand on the ancient water system. Thus, if you intend to bathe, do so outside these hours, or you will find an anaemic trickle from your otherwise beautiful tiled shower.

4. Rock the souk. You are absolutely obliged to barter in the souk. It is expected of you, and if you accept the first price named then you will be regarded as easy prey. Having said this, time is at a premium and it may be worth your while to pay the extra dollar or two to get the object in hand immediately and simply let the shopkeeper gloat. The amount of bartering time should be directly proportional to the numerical value, factored by the degree of desire for the object. It is advisable not to buy the first day, time permitting: simply stroll around, locate the objects you might want, ask the prices, memorize and compare. There is so much stuff in the souk you can usually go back and get what you want the next day. Expect to pay 30-40% of the first price quoted, if your bartering skills are high. Part of the ritual, especially with higher priced objects, is hanging around with the merchant and drinking mint tea. Don’t be afraid to say no. The protocol typically goes You ask price, merchant names first price, you offer 30% of price, merchant counters with 80% of first number, you counter with 40%, merchant asks 50%, you stand firm at 40%, at which point merchant may or may not agree. Good luck. Prices are highest just adjacent to the main square. The district called Mellah is reputed to have better prices than the tourist quarter, but you will first need to find it, which may require asking some directions.

5. The dirt on rugs. Marrakech insiders will tell you all rug dealers are thieves, but carpet prices can be cheaper in Marrakech. Local guides typically get a commission on any sale, remember. The secret is doing your homework. An amazing variety of styles are produced in Morocco, identifiable to the trained eye by region, tribe, even village of origin. Bring along a seasoned local, or study the styles in advance and carry color copies of what you seek. Rug merchants like to fiddle with the terms of purchase, “If you buy this one and also this one I will give you the third one you like as a gift.” The unprepared buyer can fall victim to lesser weaves and dyes, synthetic yarns, lower-grade items. Yet visiting one of the vaulted rug palaces and examining a multitude of rugs is a unique experience of local theatre not to be missed. If you don’t carry the rug home- and many are seriously heavy- the merchant will ship, but after the wait you may find the ultimate cost in money equals what a rug would go for if purchased where you live. The difference, of course, is the variety you have seen, the performance you attended and the right to say “I bought this from a robber in the souk in Marrakech.”

6. Experience Jamma al Fnaa. The main square whose name translates “Assembly of the Dead” comes to life at dusk, filling with colorful sights, thrilling sounds, enticing smells. Lanes from the medina lead into the square from all directions, and crowds drift towards its center as if hypnotized. An eerie cloud of smoke from a thousand braziers hangs overhead, visible from the distance as you approach the place, the rhythmic pulsing of percussion and flutes, cymbals and bells beckoning. You can get everything from a haircut to your fortune told, watch swirling dancers and snake-charmers, listen to storytellers, eat amazing food cooked to order at little stalls, buy spices and nuts and fruits, or get your picture taken with people in strange costumes. A teeming, undulating mass of humanity moves about like a slow current. It’s the apocalypse, Armageddon, Babylon, all rolled into one gigantic space. Less-adventurous souls can find a ringside table at the cafes which surround the square, on overhead terraces where you can roost and drink and watch the parade below. But life on the ground is where the real Marrakech can be found. Why sit on the sidelines with the real thing so very close?

7. Majorelle Gardens, formerly the home of Yves St Laurent and Pierre Berge, historic walled gardens now a park open to the public for a small admission charge. The surprising variety of botanical specimens envelops winding paths past pools and fountains. Not as vast as the guidebooks lead you to believe- you can walk the grounds in a half hour at a leisurely pace- but filled with inspiration, especially for the beautifully restored mosaics, the startling blue color of the house now a museum of primitive art, for hidden pergolas and flowers ablaze on all sides. An interesting little gift shop. The gardens are about a 15 minute ride from the souk, and there is not much to do in the residential neighborhood around it. But cabs are always available, lurking nearby, ready to return you to the madness.

8. El-Badi palace. Arguably the most impressive classical architecture in Marrakech, this sprawling 15th century compound is especially interesting for what it must have been in its heyday. Soaring walls surround an expansive court with the ruins of long pools and orchards. Heroic archways lead to the foundations of adjacent palaces and assembly spaces, while remnants of masterful tilework attest to the opulence of centuries past. Over the years the palace fell into ruin and was stripped of its marble cladding, which once covered every inch of the place. Today only terra cotta-colored walls remain, the domain of storks who nest on the ramparts.

9. Amanjena. Aman’s outstanding luxury property to the east of town is very much like what El-Badi palace might have been in its glory days. It’s a gated resort which lives in its own space and time, beyond the influences of the everyday world. A broad rectangular mosaic pool (they call it a “lake” for good reason) surrounded by palms serves as the tranquil centerpiece of this remarkable oasis, where pavilions, each with its own private pool hidden behind high walls, allow rest and respite from the chaos of the medina.

The bathrooms are spacious and opulent, and the extraordinary soaps and cosmetics made by hand in the nearby Atlas mountains are absolutely terrific. This would be an excellent place to spend your last few days in Marrakech, since you feel miles away from the pandemonium, with a multitude of options for pampering. You might want to swim laps in the pool, then enjoy a leisurely breakfast at poolside, play a round of golf on the course which adjoins the property, lose a few hours in the spa, fill up on traditional cuisine in the fine dining restaurant or simply thumb through books in the well-furnished library. Amanjena has many other enticements besides privacy and comfort. Management can hand-tailor exclusive getaways- you could visit the farms up in the hills where the hotel’s cosmetics are made, steal away with some Bedouins for an overnight camel journey into the desert, sleep in a tent under the Maghreb moon, fly into remote valleys to visit historic walled cities, see traditional carpet-weaving. Or never leave your own domed palace, exist on room service, and take the sun by your own storybook pool.

10. It’s not easy to leave. Getting to the airport, no problem but then, surprise! You stand in line only to discover Ryanair charges for any checked baggage, the fine print at the bottom of your e-ticket you didn’t bother to read. They won’t accept the bag until the fee is paid. Oops, sorry, the computers are down today. You can’t pay by card at the counter, not unless you have exact change in Moroccan currency. They send you to an office nearby, where other vagabonds in the same condition are packed shoulder-to-shoulder. The computers are down there too, you can’t pay there with a credit card, either. They can only take cash, or you can’t leave. You have no more dirhams? You spent all your last Morrocan currency, even dropped the few final coins into a charity box. You visit the cash machine and liberate the minimum denomination it gives, more Morrocan money than you will ever need again. The office can’t make change- they need the exact amount. You buy candy from the newsstand, go back and give the nice lady in the office a Mars bar and the exact change and go stand in line again at Ryanair with your receipt, and the bag finally gets checked. Then it’s off to immigration: another line, a long chaotic line, a long wait, another embarkation card, the same scenario of no pens and no flat surfaces, finally the passport stamp, and into the waiting room. Of course they have neither posted nor announced departure gates, you are obliged to watch all the Ryanair gates. You follow the droves to the first posted gate, everyone crowds around. Ryanair changes the gate, everyone herds there. Finally you get on the plane. But no room left for worry now, it’s only three and half hours to London, and you can be sure of one thing: the seat doesn’t recline. Au revoir, Marrakech.