Marrakech—A Sensory Mardi Gras
By Highland Park Resident Reporter Hillary Scurtis
Memories of Marrakech bring many things to mind—from the opulent riads and hotels and the cleaning relaxation of a Hamman experience, to the robust smells, searing heat, riotous colors and jostling street vendors of its market, to a stroll through its remarkable gardens, and the sounds of water everywhere.
Riads are authentic residences that have been turned into charming accommodations offering spa and dining. A small footpath led to a formidable locked door at Riad Tarabel in the Médina near the Dar El Bacha Palace, where I stayed. Once inside, there was a courtyard centered around a shallow fountain. It was an atmosphere of simplicity, but attention to detail was exceptional–from the deliciously fresh food to the wonderful Hamman experience. Whether your budget allows you to stay at the sumptuous Royal Mansour Hotel, or not, it is a must see. Inspired by the palaces of King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, it is noted as one of the most beautiful and unusual hotels in the world.
Hillary at the famous Jardin Marjorelle
Learning how to make Chicken Tangine in a cooking class at Maison Arabe
Making tiles at Popham Design
Olives in the Medina market
Mint stall at the Medina market
A bountiful meal enjoyed in the Atlas Mountains
The tempo of the day in Marrakesh is marked by the five calls to prayer which can be heard all throughout the Médina. Marrakech was a French protectorate, so there is a decidedly large French influence with many French tourists and expats in residence. Navigating the “souk,” (market) with a guide is highly recommended. Do not allow a stranger “to show you the way” or rely on app maps. You will end up down a side street to another place altogether, and there will be a demand for payment.
Artisans are celebrated here. Makers and weavers of all varieties producing useful and exceptional products including textiles, baskets, rugs, clothing, shoes, artwork, jewelry, oil, spices and fresh produce. The currency is the dirham. Most merchants prefer cash and if credit card is taken, it is exclusively VISA. (Note that the currency of the dirham is a closed currency, so you cannot convert it back into euros or dollars. You are also limited in how much currency you are allowed to leave the country with, so only get what you need!)
Marrakech is, in itself, an oasis with natural springs running underneath, supplying the city with sufficient water to run the city and a dozen golf courses. The Marjorelle Garden offers a collection of succulents including those in its own defined color called Marjorelle blue. It contains one of the largest specimens of cactus called “chaise mere en lois” which means “mother in law’s chair” …ha! Also worth a visit is The Jardin Secret, composed of two stunning garden designs– the Islamic Garden looking like a scene out of Game of Thrones and an exotic garden that lives up to its moniker, “a rose among the palm trees.” The backdrop to the city is the majestic Atlas Mountains. A trip to mountains hosted by a Berber guide and a visit to Richard Branson’s retreat, Kasbah Tamadot, are a must!
The typical Moroccan meal is a combination of fresh vegetables, bread and tandoori meats. When available, the wine coming from Morocco is quite delicious; some restaurants, however, do not serve alcohol. Al Fassia is particularly scrumptious run by an all-female staff and kitchen. As unusual as it may seem, the pigeon pie is truly divine. For those who love to cook. I recommend a wonderful class by La Maison Arabe. Each person is given their own station with burner. ingredients and kitchen tools. The class instruction is conducted by a talented Berber woman. At the end of the class. all the participants sit down to a beautifully set table to enjoy the food and convivial conversation.
Marrakech is a city uniquely singular in its tradition, hospitality, and creativity.
La Maison Arabe (cooking class)
Popham Design (brilliant cement tiles)
Herboriste La Sagesse (herborist)
Marrakshi Life (textile maker and designer)
Musee Yves Saint Laurent
Jardin Majorelle Le Jardin Secret
Le Petit Cornichon
Grand Café de La Poste Ling Ling
Le Jardin at Royal Mansour