Rare Places: Journeys in Morocco

Central Marrakech

I visited Marrakech while studying for my art foundation diploma in 2010 and even now, 10 years later still treasure that trip for the incredible culture, architecture, food and scenery. It is such a vibrant and diverse country, full of wonderful and unusual smells, rich colours and experiences unlike anything I’d ever seen before. One of my favourite memories is of a wonderful café / restaurant, Zeitoun Café, that we discovered overlooking the Jemaa El-Fna square and with spectacular views of the Koutoubia Mosque. Having been plied with delicious food and Moroccan tea for a couple of hours, we were then lucky enough to witness the sunset from the top floor and the transformation of the square into a teeming marketplace, full of smoke and noise and an intoxicating blend of delicious smells. We ended up spending hours in that café, people watching as the last of the daylight disappeared and the ambient lighting from the market lit up the night sky.

The following day, we ventured into the labyrinthine souks, the undercover marketplace next to Jemaa El-Fna Square packed with spices, ingredients, hand-crafted leather items, ceramics and all manner of other gorgeous Moroccan accessories and homewares. Some of my favourites were an array of stunning tapestries hung against a wall in the heart of the souk, each one in a different, hand-woven pattern and an assortment of beautiful, rich colours. Unfortunately being chaperoned by our college lecturers meant I was unable to fill the entire contents of my suitcase with every item of Moroccan home decor that I could get my hands on, and I was forced to wistfully walk away, vowing to return another year and bring a much bigger case with me. We spent a few hours wandering through the stalls and alleyways, immersing ourselves in the smells of spices and delicious food, and chatting with the shopkeepers. Being in a small group of girls, I think we provided as much entertainment as the other way around, and after a few hours wandering, we had each been offered a varying number of camels for our hands in marriage. One friend earned the dubious offer of 1 million camels, which seemed a little unrealistic, however apparently my own offer of 5000 camels and (most importantly) 1 chicken was the winner, although I did politely decline!

Other highlights also included a trip into the stunning atlas mountains which provided a unique insight into rural Moroccan life and also proved for many of us to be our first foray into squat toilets, an experience that I am now too familiar with courtesy of Cambodia. We were however treated to a wonderful lunch, sat amongst the stunning mountain ranges, dotted with farms and crop fields and watched daily life tick by. The food here, too, was utterly delicious, and was my first tasting of authentic Moroccan tagine which I have loved ever since.

JARDIN MAJORELLE - YVES SAINT LAURENT'S GARDEN

One of my favourite visits during our time in Marrakech was visiting the Maj0relle Gardens, a vibrant oasis in the heart of the city. Created in 1923, with its growth and development lasting nearly 40 years, by the French artist Jacques Majorelle, the gardens and associated villa were later purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé who lovingly restored it. The villa itself is resplendent in a very particular shade of cobalt blue that Majorelle had fallen in love with after seeing decorative tiles in the same colour throughout Marrakech. He later patented this colour as Majorelle Blue, and its pigment can be bought in little glass vials for that ultimate keepsake. 

The garden is an intoxicating mix of colour and spectacular plant-life, and home to more than 15 species of birds native to northern Africa. It is also populated with sculpture and fountains, creating a tranquil and contemplative space away from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh. Bathed in sunlight, with striking shadows and silhouettes created by the architecture and sclutpures, it really is an artists haven and we happily spent hours drawing, painting and immersing ourselves in the beautiful scenery.

ESSAOUIRA

On our final full-day, we travelled to the coast to visit the small beach-side town Essaouira, a historic port city on Morocco’s atlantic coast. Famed for its artisan industries, in particular inlaid cabinetwork, it is a fascinating mix of traditional fishing, beautiful riads and intricate design. Similar to Marrakech medina, the town is populated by a warren of narrow winding passages, lined with stalls and the occasional glimpse of yet another spectacular riad behind ornately carved doorways. However, Essaouira’s medina (old town), now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is distinguished by a unique difference in colour palette. We were interested to see that many of the town’s buildings are painted white with cobalt blue doors and windows, giving it a decidedly different, almost mediterranean feel in comparison to the peaches and oranges of Marrakech.

This theme is noticeable throughout the town, with even the rustic fishing boats proudly sporting shades of the same cobalt blue, and local restaurants welcoming you in from the midday sun under their own blue umbrellas. The atmosphere too was noticeably more relaxed and tranquil in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, with locals and tourists happily mingling amongst its ancient walls. We spent hours wandering with them, exploring the old city fortifications, modest sunbathing on the beautiful beach, witnessing the organised chaos of the fishing port and finally exploring some of the towns fantastic eateries. 

The highlight to the end of our trip however, came upon our return to the city that evening. Our college lecturers had organised for us all to go out for a drink near the medina, and upon following their directions, and getting somewhat lost in the process, we eventually emerged into an alleyway in front of the entrance to possibly the best bar in Marrakech. Narwama is at first glance a beautiful riad, resplendent in beautiful tiles, fountains and Moroccan decor to make any creative mind green with envy. Yet at night, it transforms into a bar unlike no other. We emerged into the central courtyard, and were instantly faced with a fountain that seemed to produce both fire and water simultaneously, and a dramatic bar flanked by two enormous tusks (I’m still none the wiser as to whether these were real – I hope not). Energetic Moroccan music provided an exciting backdrop, and then there were the dancers. As we settled onto our cushions, gymnasts descended from the ceiling on aerial silks, twirling and contorting like human works of art. Their performance lasted about 10 minutes, although I could’ve happily watched them all evening, before they were replaced by more performers, this time wearing elaborate costumes decorated with lights and glowing details. One energetic dance replaced another, before the final act of the evening, Whirling Dervishes, provided the incredible finale. It was honestly a performance that is still so clear in my mind even 10 years later, like nothing I’d seen previously nor since and the icing on top of an incredible trip.

Yet there is still so much more of this amazing country that I can’t wait to visit. I have yet to venture into the true Sahara, and experience life in the Berber villages, along with visiting Fez, and the city of Ourzazate that looks like it has been plucked straight out of Indiana Jones. Tangiers also fascinates me due to its mysterious and much recorded history, along with it’s numerous famous (and infamous) guests who at some point called it home. While it still may be a long way off due to our current travel restrictions, Morocco is well and truly cemented in my list of countries that I can’t wait to return to – the main question is, where to visit first?

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