Mundane magic

Red city

I fell for Marrakesh the moment I set foot on this idyllic city. What I love about the city is that it still has a magical, exotic air to it, which you don’t find in any other European destination. I loved wandering through the old town and the souks, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the Red City, as it is popularly known.

Marrakesh boasts of numerous options to stay, from minimalist retreats to opulent palatial residences. Finding a relaxing accommodation in Marrakesh should be a priority.

After dodging donkeys and carts, and indulging in some serious haggling, it’s important to return to a place that soothes, relaxes and revives you, and there is no better place to stay than a riad — a traditional town house. To keep costs down, my husband and I decided to spend two nights in a riad and two nights in a reasonably-priced hotel. We took a taxi from the airport, but the driver dropped us near a junction,  which he said was close to our riad and sped off before we could ask him anything. We were wondering which way to turn when a wide-eyed, scrawny kitten darted across the narrow street with the dexterity of a Brazilian football player, evading the oncoming tackles of a donkey cart, a scooter, a couple of bicycles and a mass of feet. It found sanctuary in a dark alley, and my husband and I followed. 

Finally, we located our riad and stepped through the door. And then a great calm descended and for the first time in hours, we stopped somewhere for longer than 20 seconds, breathed and looked around. The riad was set around a courtyard filled with citrus trees and a cool, emerald green-tiled pool. In contrast to the dusty pink streets outside, the interior was a neutral palette of white, stone and pale teal, embellished with intricate latticework shutters.

Old and new

Marrakesh is divided, broadly, into the still vibrant medina quarter, rebuilt under the French protectorate of 1912—’56, and the new town of Gueliz. The city walls are made of tabia — red mud of the plains mixed with lime. Our first stop was Marrakesh’s bewilderingly seductive Djemaa el-Fna in the old town. It is abutted by souks and backed by the spectacularly beautiful Atlas mountains.

It draws locals and tourists alike in a perpetual round of trading, eating and entertainment. Partly for its elusiveness, Djemaa el-Fna is a compelling spectacle, with a sensory overload of cooking smells and stove smoke, car horns and mesmeric drum beats. It was dusk, and musicians, snake-charmers, acrobats, healers and henna painters competed to beguile onlookers.

The square throbbed with noise — the cries of stallholders selling spices, dry fruits, ginseng tea, stewed snails, hearty soups and cooked sheep’s heads, and the drone of motorbikes. Just west of Djemaa el-Fna is the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, a towering city landmark deemed the finest Islamic monument in north Africa.

The food stalls amid the acrobats and storytellers constitute one of the world’s biggest and most colourful alfresco diners. You can sample every Moroccan staple here — tajines and couscous, harira (lamb, lentil and chickpea soup), kefta (spicy minced lamb), kebabs and merguez (spicy sausage). I was lured to a stall by a man who seemed to be besotted with India. He sang us a few catchy Bollywood numbers but he turned out to be a crook in the end when he supplied us items we hadn’t ordered. We ended up sampling possibly every Moroccan staple under the sun, though we had ordered only chicken tajine. When we confronted the trickster, he pretended not to understand English and we ended up shelling out a hefty sum for our dinner.

A short distance away from the hustle of Djemaa el-Fna lies one of the city’s hidden wonders, which we visited next morning. It’s a stunning botanical garden, the vision of French artist Jacques Majorelle, which was bought by Yves Saint Laurent close to three decades ago. In the centre of the garden is a block of colour — a cobalt blue so intense that once you’ve seen it, you will always describe it as Majorelle blue. But blue is not the only colour at work here. The ironwork, windows and pots are bright yellow, doors are apple-green, paths are red, pink or blue; while purple bougainvillea can be found all around the place. Here is a garden which is a joyous celebration of colours. The Menara, in the southern part of the city, is more of an olive grove for picnickers. It has a tranquil reservoir around it where locals hang out regularly.

The city’s real delight is wandering through ancient souks, where shopkeepers ply you with mint tea while you haggle at leisure over a kaftan or a carpet, and where you can watch artisans at work —  dyeing, tanning, carving or hammering their various wares. We were spoilt for choice as the market had an impressive range of traditional craft items on sale. It also included quirky wares made from recycled car and bike tyres.

Moroccan casseroles in glazed red earthenware also impressed me, but they were too large to fit into my suitcase. I also toyed with the idea of buying a djellaba (long-flowing robe) and colourful babouches (slippers), but decided against it after much thought. I did purchase a leather handbag, however. Unfortunately, it turned out to be dreadful when I returned home as the leather hadn’t been treated properly.

After sunset, we re-entered the main square which looked very different now. Traders were trickling in and setting up their stalls. A few jugglers, acrobats, drummers and fortune-tellers lolled about. Weaving between them were grandmothers taking tired-looking children to school and street cleaners pushing their brushes. It was a mixture of the mundane and the magical.

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