The Marrakesh Express

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Travel Writer

The first thing you may notice about Marrakesh, especially if you arrive in the morning, is how cool and fresh the air is. Here on the desert fringe of the Atlas Mountains, chilly, star-filled nights give way to a searing daytime sun. The antidote to this arid climate, as generations of Western visitors have found out, is a cup of fresh-squeezed juice from a fruit cart.

Morocco’s red-walled medieval city has been a tourist town for 1,000 years. Over those centuries, Marrakesh has served as a haven for Sephardic Jewry, a nexus for Arab spice merchants, a magnet for ’60s hippies, and a favored resort of the French.

Most recently, Marrakesh tourism has a gentrified presence. Way out on Morocco’s Atlantic side, Marrakesh is one of the few North African destinations unaffected by the region’s recent political turbulence. As such, it has become a magnet for posh hotels and dance clubs, upscale hammams (traditional spas), and new venues for Islamic art and culture. So while the orange juice and mint tea still available taste of yesteryear, today’s visitors have more options than ever.

Most tourists plant themselves in the Medina, Marrakesh’s old city. Ideally, you want lodgings with a rooftop terrace — the better to take in the iconic view of a skyline punctuated with palm trees and minarets. In a city that lacks beaches, the best of these terraces have their own swimming pools.

If your hotel lacks a view, you can find one at the recently opened La Maison de la Photographie. The panoramic terrace of this historic villa is one of the highest in the Medina, offering breezy views over the tented market stalls. Inside, a permanent exhibit entitled “Scenes from Daily Life” is just that: a portrait of diverse Moroccan cultures from the 1870s through the early 20th Century, including photographs of Berbers, Jews, and Arabs at work and at prayer.

Nearby, most travelers stop at the Bahia Palace. This is a sultan’s fantasy to delight any 19th-century Orientalist, with mosaic-tiled archways, lavish fountains and ornately decorated rooms for the harem.

In the end, though, it’s the souks of Medina that draw in visitors. More than any individual attraction, people come to Marrakesh for a sensory immersion into North African sights, sounds and smells.

In the Medina’s ancient lanes, the rhythms of Eastern pop mingle with Arabic prayer calls and the shouts of vendors. Handbags woven in rich threads of gold and terracotta, mirrors inlaid with seashells, and vats of fragrant spices all catch the eye as the smell of chickpeas and harissa wafts from steaming carts.

Famed for a cuisine based on spicy tagines and couscous, Marrakesh restaurants rarely disappoint. The more traditional joints offer simple stews, pastries and teas served to patrons seated on cushions. Newer places offer self-consciously retro versions of the same — romantic evocations of colonial Morocco draped in white linen, fanned with palm fronds and thick with incense and candlelight.

Despite a thousand-year history, Marrakesh Jewry is a subtle presence in 2012. A community that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, according to some estimates, is down to a small fraction of that. A half-millennium ago, waves of Sephardim fled Iberia to settle here; their descendants have lately emigrated to the more promising shores of Israel, North America and Western Europe.

But deep in the Mellah, Marrakesh’s medieval Jewish ghetto, are tangible vestiges of a vibrant Jewish culture. Finding these vestiges does take work: most shuls have been converted into private residences or shops, and only a few remain active or even identifiable.

Everyone tells you just to enter the Mellah and ask local street children to show you the Alzama Synagogue, a living Jewish landmark. This strategy, I found, is right on the money — literally. The kids are waiting for tourists, eager to guide us toward a blue-and-white temple built around a peaceful courtyard, and just as eager for a tip upon delivery. If you ask, they’ll also show you toward the historic Jewish cemetery — a surprisingly well-kept, if modest, array of whitewashed tombs and sandy graves.

For a break from the city center’s perpetually teeming streets, do as French aristocrats do: head out of the Medina. Fifteen minutes by taxi or (more romantically) by horse-drawn carriage takes you to the Jardin Majorelle, a peaceful desert oasis built by the painter of that name in the ’20s.

You can happily lose yourself in these 12 acres of sculptural cacti, towering palms and shimmering marble-tile pools. But the eye is constantly drawn to the garden’s buildings, all of them an arresting shade of blue — something between sky and lapis — a hue Yves Klein would have loved.

As it happens, the Majorelle has a major style pedigree as the erstwhile haunt of Yves Saint Laurent, whose ashes were scattered here and whose foundation maintains the property. With objets from carpets to ceramics and jewelry to textiles, the collection of the garden’s Museum of Islamic Art can feel like a particularly refined boutique — a primer on the Oriental aesthetics that so influenced the designer.

In such an intoxicating setting, it’s easy to see how artists from Saint Laurent to Matisse kicked off their Western cares and gave in to incense-laced hedonism. You, too, may be inspired to draw and paint — or at least to shop for a caftan. 
 

The Jardin Majorelle, built by the painter of that name, in Medina. Fondation Jardin Majorelle

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