The Moroccan desert is desiccated, baked under the unforgiving African sun. Goatherds kick up clouds of red dust as they maunder the arid land in search of grazing, stray dogs sprawl in the sparse shade of roadside bushes and there is a dearth of wildlife. But more apparent is the silence. Drifting over the bronzed plains, some 600ft up, the sky tinged with yellows and oranges, you really notice the silence, broken only by the distant echoes of children playing football in the small Berber communities way below, and the faint drone of a clapped-out motorbike streaking towards the horizon. The calm is a far cry from the previous two days.
Marrakech: a cultural cauldron
If you want to experience unbridled panic, separate yourself from your guide in the middle of Marrakech’s souk. The place is a labyrinth. I only stopped for a second to admire one of the many dark grottos bursting with various trinkets and baubles, but on turning back into the melee my guide was nowhere to be seen.
The panic was short-lived – my chaperon, having seen a familiar face in the crowds, had bounced over to embrace him in typical gregarious Moroccan nature, but was back in sight 30 seconds later, soothing my anxiety. Honestly, it’d be easier to find your way off K2 with a blindfold than it is to navigate the souk in broad daylight. But it’s intoxicating.
The souk was once the trading floor for gold, ivory and slaves and is like no shopping spree you know: it is a glorious assault on the senses – sights, sounds and smells rip your soul from a pacific state and throw it into a tumble drier powered by lightning. Haggling is a conventional dance, toing and froing all part of the ritual, more for the theatrics than negotiation on price.
Motorbikes dart through the narrow backstreets, drivers hot on their scratchy horns, black smoke bellowing from exhausts, with babies balanced on the handlebars. Shopkeepers tear towering rug piles apart to keep the attention of interested tourists. Cats run amok. A strong waft of cumin balms the air. Men play draughts with bottle caps, perched on rickety plastic crates; others huddle around distorted television sets to cheer on Barcelona FC; and shards of dusted light break through the corrugated iron roof slats creating celestial scenes amongst the hubbub, as three old men take a moment to discuss the going rate of oranges.
Marrakech is unpredictable and barely pauses for breath – it is one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East – confusing and enthralling in equal measure. Its centre is the Jemaa el Fna Square, a cultural cauldron of multifarious cuisine, snake charmers and abstract artists that gathers pace through the day, coming to the boil in the dark of night. The locals are exceptionally friendly – you’ll soon be drowned in offers of tea that is sweeter than honey, and everyone wants you to acknowledge their wares, but you won’t be hassled to do so.
Amongst this beautiful madness, culture and legacy are still intrinsic. El Badi Palace, a vast relic of the palace commissioned by sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1578, gives an insight into the incredible artistry of the Saadian period (admission is less than £2). Climb up to the parapets, where lanky white storks stand atop giant nests, and admire the view over the Red City, a vista that has changed little over the years as no building can be taller than the Koutoubia Mosque.
From El Badi, take the short walk to the 19th-century Bahia Palace. It translates as ‘brilliance’, reflecting the time and effort that went into the detailed ceramic mosaics and decorative wooden carvings – the mind boggles at the man-hours that must have gone them. They aim to capture the sacrosanct essence of Islamic style. (Always remember to look up; while the floors, walls and doors are works of art, the intricacy of the ceilings is hard to fathom.)
And then there are the gardens, welcome escape from the pandemonium. Visit the Menara, an ancient olive grove with a backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, irrigated by a large rectangular basin full of lethargic carp, which suck hunks of bread from the grimy surface. It is one of many precincts within the city open to the public.
The most eminent of these is the Jardin Majorelle, the 40-year opus of French painter Jacques Majorelle, later to become the home of Yves Saint Laurent. It comprises over 300 species of cacti, trees and exotic plants from five continents within its two and a half acres – verdant greens contrasted against the vibrant Majorelle blue of the Art-Deco painting studio designed by Paul Sinoir in 1931 (now the Berber museum).
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé first visited the garden in 1966, and were instantly taken hostage by its beauty. ‘We were seduced by this oasis where colours used by Matisse were mixed with those of nature,’ said Yves Saint Laurent on acquiring the tract in 1980, saving it from falling victim to a real estate project. It is now one of the most visited sites in Morocco.
The Berber museum lays bare the troubled past of one of the original peoples of North Africa. Their history spans back 9,000 years and, in the words of Pierre Bergé, ‘they have not ceased to reclaim their identity in spite of the vicissitudes they have faced’. As with the Bahia Palace mosaics, the ornaments and jewels of the Berber tribes showcase the splendour of traditional Moroccan art forms.
We opt to see out our final evening in Nomad, a rooftop restaurant in the old town, enjoying Casablanca beers and customary briouates as the sun sets in biblical fashion. Down below, the medina scrum continues. A riot of spice fills the humid air, the clattering of hooves on cobble comes and goes, and the far-off wail of the pungi lingers. Soon, the muezzin’s call to prayer will ring out across the city once more. The assault on the senses is never ending in Marrakech.
This article was published in the May/Jun issue of Gentleman's Journal.