By Bonnie Blanchard
Fourth of five parts
Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my my, my, my, my mouth
Colored cottons hang in air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped Djellebas we can wear at home
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express
All aboard the train“Marrakesh Express,” by Graham Nash, 1969
Many of those from the 1960s “hippie” generation remember the lyrics to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Marrakesh Express.” The Marrakesh Express ran from Casablanca to Marrakesh and was a widely sought ticket. This song sums up the cultural reflections of singer Graham Nash on a trip he took in 1966 through India and North Africa. Fast forward 50 years and I find myself in that same world, snake charmers and all.
One of the most colorful open air markets in the world, Djemaa el-Fna is something not to miss in Marrakesh. It would be akin to going to church and not praying. It is a dramatic open-air theater featuring everything from snake oil to snake charmers. The men wearing brightly colored red costumes with tasseled hats are water sellers who walk around market places, ringing their bells and for a small fee serve water in brass cups from a bag made of goat hide. These water sellers also spread messages in the community and help with lost and found objects as they connect people who found objects with others who lost items. If you correctly identify your lost item, you get it back, of course for a small fee.
When the grill chefs make their appearance the square takes on the smell of one big restaurant. These food stalls in many cases are better than restaurants because you can see the food cooked right before your eyes. The food comes fresh from the markets across the street. This city square comes alive especially at night when folks meander through the city, and, yes, the snake charmers. All the hoopla continues still as this center has been around since around 1050.
One of the landmarks of Marrakesh is the Koutoubia Mosque…the largest in Marrakesh and located in the southwest medina portion of the city. Koutoubia is called the Mosque of Booksellers. It is closed to non-Muslims but its history and beauty can be marveled from the ornamented curved windows, decorative arches, and its mix of decorative styles undertaken in its many restorations. Its Berber heritage is seen everywhere.
Arriving in this “red city”, called so because of its red buildings and walls, we were not prepared for Marrakesh’s hypnotic effect. Our van drove as far as it could into the middle of a good size square in the height of evening rush hour.
Negotiating the way to our riad (hotel) was a 20 minute walk of sense assaulting experiences. The small alleys were filled with small, smelly motor bikes, while pedestrian traffic clung closely to walls shuffling their way home while holding groceries and children. Our van dropped us off in the middle of a sizable square, as it could go no further through the small alleys. While we waited for our motor bike with carts to carry our luggage to our hotel, we watched this traffic jam in prime time. It was then that I decided to jump in and ride in the baggage cart. Since my slip on a wet marble floor in Casablanca left me with a seriously bruised hip, and having had to walk at least six hours a day, it was time to revolt. We wove in and out of the alley in my little baggage trolley, setting off laughter and cheers from the crowds. What could I do? I laughed with them and gave a royal hand wave. The hijab-donned women gave me both thumbs up as they clenched their veiling between their teeth, indicating I earned the badge of courage for this.
Finally arriving at our little riad, and one needed a GPS to get there, we were ready for a relaxing evening. Our riad was located in a separate building only steps from the larger riad; we occupied the entire smaller quarters with our own outdoor living room that opened to the sky. After checking in, we walked the four-flight climb to the roof-top of the main riad. We were treated to a breathtakingly beautiful orange sun-setting skyline as muezzins around town called all to evening prayer. We wandered around the lounging areas, some tented, some open to the sky; then we supped at our canopied dining table well-lit with candles. As we lingered around the table a soft rain fell around us.
Nothing is still in this city. The next few days were filled with excursions through medinas, and the Saadien Tombs, a mausoleum for the Saadi Dynasty (1578-1603). The tombs were discovered in 1917 and renovated. Because of the beauty of their decoration, the tombs are a major attraction for visitors. At an herbal apothecary located across from Saadien Tombs, we were introduced to a variety of medicinal herbal remedies, spices, cosmetics and culinary herbs gathered from local farmers. The energy of the city lured us to wander in search of purchases.
We had heard much about hammams, and for a different spa treatment a visit there was in order. Reservations were made for me and my fellow traveler, Jamel, and Addi walked us over where we were greeted and ushered off. Hammams (traditional bathhouse) have been part of the urban Moroccan landscape since around 1082 during the Almohad reign. All public hammams are single sex with separate times for men and women, with women getting the best selection. Many can be found near mosques as they share a water source with ablution fountains and in many instances are the only source of hot water for a village. Traditionally built of mudbrick, they are lined with “tadelakt” (satiny, hand-polished limestone plaster that traps moisture) and capped with vents for escaping steam.
The adventure of a hamman visit begins with stripping at your locker and donning your flip-flops because it is dark, steamy and slippery everywhere. It is a clean environment as floors and seating ledges are constantly mopped and cleaned. You are led to a slippery tiled ledge (tadelakt) where your new best friend for the next hour will proceed to douse you with buckets of warm water as she scrubs like you were an old potato with an “el-kis” (a little black sand-paper like mitt that we got to keep) and a little bar of black clay soap (made from olive resin).
First, you to have to lie face down and begin the “grommage;” your body is scrubbed from the soles of your feet to your shoulders, and rinsed; turn around, same treatment, and another bucket of water. Eventually you are led to the shower with another bucket of water thrown atop you and a packet of shampoo if you want to wash your hair. After this hot/cool scrub session you are then wrapped in a lush terry robe, head wrapped in a towel and led to a comfy reclining chaise and presented with a cup of steaming tea. Tick-tock, tick-tock, then another woman comes to escort you to the massage area; in our case it was up a steep staircase into dark, low-lit cubbies with massage tables. Lying down face up, waiting for my masseuse, I heard soft jazz that seemed to float out of the walls. The dark shiny woodwork in the ceiling and walls revealed jaw dropping colorfully painted patterns in a variety of curlicues and geometric shapes. As one is pounded into Kobe beef for the next hour, you are completely and exquisitely absorbed into another dream-world.
After this mellowing experience the once old dried up potato was bright and shiny. What could be next but dinner? Jamel and I walked silently, with molasses-like speed to our hotel, with the aid of our guide Addi Ouadderrou who came to fetch us. We don’t know if we would have ever made it back on our own. Our $50 was the most valuable experience by far. The most difficult thing we had to do next was climb the four flights to the dining room for another wonderful evening.
After a good night’s sleep we ventured out to explore the beauty of the Majorelle Gardens. In the middle of the city is this extraordinary jewel of property bought nearly a century ago by French painter Jacques Majorelle. Eventually abandoned and in disrepair, it was purchased by French fashion designer Yves St. Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980, thereby saving if from real estate developers.
Showcasing a stellar display of bamboo and a notable collection of cacti with over 300 specimens, this 12-acre botanical garden and artist’s landscape garden also contain an art-deco studio housing a Berber Art Museum. With a collection of over 600 pieces including jewelry, leather work, basketry and textiles, it is a testament to the rich vibrant Berber culture.
In 1917, noted American author, Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence) traveled to Morocco amid the turmoil of World War I, and shared her journey through cities and deserts. In her words, it was a country without a guide-book, where pirates were still in business in Rabat, and no Europeans were allowed in parts of Morocco as war-time travel was limited. It was the French Occupation’s constant efforts to keep the “trails” fit for wheeled traffic. We are now a century ahead and still the long stretches of parched earth and rock and its sameness lend to the enchantment of the desert even today. There is so much that Marrakesh offers in the way of top historical sites, shopping, food, nightlife and tours, and museums for photography and visual arts. It was tantalizing to glimpse these tidbits of a vibrant culture.
To learn more about visiting Morocco, contact Addi Ouadderrou, owner of Moroccan Caravan at 285 Washington Street in Somerville, or call 617-833-1503. Moroccan Caravan is a showroom and gallery of all Moroccan products.
This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. Other articles in this series: