Megan Abbott

CITY GUIDE: MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

Megan Abbott
CITY GUIDE: MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

Originally published in SUITCASE Magazine, Issue 14

Our hands are stained with the scent of eucalyptus and black cumin. “You know what this is?” continues the medicine man, who sits cross-legged at his stall, buried in the madness of Jemma el-Fnaa square, “Menthe. This is for the brain, the heart and the soul.” He drops a miniscule crystal into a copper pan of boiling water and beckons me to breathe in. I jump back in shock at the strength of it. In a single inhalation, it shoots up my nose and down the back of my throat, snapping my eyelids open. “We’ll take 10g.” I say, after my eyes have stopped watering. The medicine man laughs and scoops some into a little black pouch for me, tying it with string. “Marhaba!” He cries out. “Big welcome!” We pull ourselves up from the tiny chairs he set out for us, clutching our bag of treasure. We probably paid far too much for it, but we don’t mind. If our time in Marrakech has taught us anything, it is that there is little measure of right and wrong here. You have to do what feels right. And in this case, that was to pay an outlandish amount for something we will likely never use, just to see this stranger smile up at us with a brittle grin and eyes like moonlight. We ask for directions and he points us left then right, sending us off in the wrong direction. Forty minutes and four more sets of wrong directions later, we end up in the same place we started. The medicine man cackles warmly. We buy a stick of roasted sweetcorn and begin our journey again.

Marrakech is a city steeped in tradition. There are things about the place that define it, and are rooted to its very personality. It is the clattering of glasses against a silver tray, the sound of steaming mint tea being poured from a great height. It is the chugging of motorbike engines traversing the streets. It is that long and haunting call to Allah, which rumbles through the air five times a day. Birdsong twines with the shouts of market traders, donkeys clop through the streets and street food sizzles. The sun sets, throwing smoky light onto the presiding Atlas Mountains, while the cityscape turns into collection of blushing pink cubes. Some things are destined to stay the same. Locals and first-time visitors to Marrakech rejoice in the city’s oldest habits. Take the souk, for example. It is as much a challenge as a delight to navigate its heady tangle of shops. Look in one direction and you will see a small room filled from floor to ceiling with glinting brass lanterns. Look in another and you will see piles of emerald pottery in leaning stacks. You will see cats slinking around the feet of traders snoozing on fading leather ottomans, and entire dried crocodile skins pinned up against the wall. If you look ahead you will see gaggles of school children chasing one another on their way out of the gates, just beyond a wooden cart piled with faded encaustic tiles, cracked but still magnificent. Look up and you might see bunches of freshly dyed wool hanging from washing lines on the roof; burnt orange, azure blue, fiery red. Through this maze, the sun breaks through the cracks in the bamboo roof and casts streams of dusty light across the dark alleyways. The souk is Marrakech’s unyielding feature. And we hope it will always stay this way.

Yet there is also change in the air here. It hums like background music, shifting the atmosphere around it. This change is down to an erupting art, music and food scene charged by Marrakech’s young creatives. And it is all happening within the ancient walls of the Medina. “What the eye sees is not always what is going on.” The designer Artsi Ifrach tells us, blowing out a plume of cigarette smoke, “There are two levels to Marrakech – the tourism and the underground.” He is right. At eye level, the old city seems much the same as it has always been – dusty, chaotic, magical. But if you scratch the surface, a world of cutting edge creativity awaits.

Marrakech’s contemporary art scene is being spearheaded by a small but motivated group of locals and expats. It is alive not only in the city’s remarkable galleries and museums, but in communal studios and new meeting places like Le Jardin, where emerging artists gather to discuss their work between book readings and bowls of steaming couscous. Laila Hida is the Moroccan photographer behind Riad 18, where bedrooms for resident artists wrap around a courtyard of faded blue tiles. Her place has become a hub of activity for local and international artists to work and exhibit. Laila opened the riad to draw the artists of the city together. “I came back to Marrakech from Paris and I could not figure out where all the artists were hiding.” She explains, “There were the institutions and the studios, but there was something missing. An alternative. I opened this space as a way to gather them together in some way.” Riad 18 has become the nucleus of Marrakech’s alternative art scene, whose leaders congregate here to share ideas. “The aim was to create a space where we could have people around all the time, where artists could come and meet other artists.” Laila continues as she leads us around the main courtyard, coloured by greenery and piles of books, “Having both local and international artists allows new dialogues to open up. The art scene here is moving at a fast pace all over Morocco. Marrakech is an experimental space for a new scene of more local, less institutional art. That’s what the riad is about.”

From Laila’s place we wander to the showroom of Artsi Ifrach (Art/C), one of Marrakech’s most noted fashion designers. His clientele is global, but his work is almost entirely informed by the character of his city. For him, creativity is inescapable in Marrakech. “Art finds you in Morocco.” He tells us, “It’s very strange. A lot of people who have never touched art before suddenly become creative living here. There is some kind of energy here…” He leans forward, “I think I know why, though.” He says, “Firstly, it is how colourful it is. Colour inspires you. And secondly, it is free. There is a freedom here that doesn’t exist in many countries. It doesn’t function like a city; there are no rules, there is no trend to think about. People are free to become themselves.” Artsi pulls a photograph out to show us; it is of Laila and him on the roof of Nomad, one of Marrakech’s prime hangouts. He reveals that they frequently work together on photography projects. We are surprised by this unexpected connection. But Artsi is not. “Marrakech is a small place. Everyone is connected.” He says, “The art scene is not big. We have to remain tight.”

Vanessa Branson, owner of Riad El Fenn, launched the Marrakech Biennale in 2009. The festival takes place every two years, opening up galleries and public spaces around the city to showcase the latest work of Morocco’s leading artists. The Biennale has helped to secure Marrakech as a world centre for fine art. “In the last year or so one has the feeling that there is now a critical mass of artists living in the city,” Vanessa tells us, “More and more people are being attracted to the exotic lifestyle, glorious weather and dramatic landscape in Marrakech. Designers, architects and restaurateurs are all leading to a virtuous cycle of creativity.”

The evening after meeting Artsi, we too find ourselves up on the Nomad rooftop, scooping up olive oil with hacha bread and sharing crumbly pastilla. The sun is dipping behind the mountains and the glowing lanterns sway in the breeze. We gaze out over the scene below, where young boys are kicking footballs on a rooftop and market traders start a game of draughts, perched on wooden crates. In the distance we hear old Jemaa el-Fnaa spring into action, the sounds of drums and snake charmer flutes mingling with the smoke of the first food stalls spiraling up into the sky.

Among the guests slowly filling the tables at Nomad, we recognise a few people; a couple of restaurant developers; a gallerist; a Parisian expat turning crumbling riads into opulent homes; a photographer playing with the last of the evening light. It seems impossible that this many leaders of Marrakech’s emerging scene could be gathered in one space. Yet here they are, discussing work, travel, the lack of snow on the mountains. The future of Marrakech is tied up in this small group of creatives. And it is the city that wraps around us now, steeped in all of the magic of the past, which is inspiring them.

TO EAT:

Le Jardin

Push open a creaking wooden door in the heart of the medina to discover one of Marrakech’s prime meeting places for artists and intellectuals. Le Jardin is a licensed restaurant, art space and hub of creative activity, hosting book launches and talks throughout the year. This palpable energy exists in a courtyard enclosed in a 17th century mansion, veiled by banana leaves, palm trees and water features, with emerald tiles covering every surface.

32, Souk el Jeld. Sidi Abdelaziz

lejardin.ma

Nomad

Nomad is at the centre of Marrakech’s social scene, for tourists and locals alike. Set over four levels and looking out over the old spice market, this dreamy cocktail bar and restaurant serves dishes inspired by traditional North African flavours. It frequently hosts pop-ups by local and international chefs. The menu is studded with reworked classics like chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives and a gently spiced take on a traditional pastilla - thin pastry usually filled with pigeon. You can also feast on inventive modern dishes created using local produce. There are few places as magical as Nomad’s rooftop to watch the sun dip behind the Atlas Mountains, sipping cold rose on one of the sand-coloured sofa lit by strings of lanterns. The memory of drinking iced Baileys by candlelight under a crystal clear night sky is one we won’t be shaking off any time soon.

1, Derb Aarjan

nomadmarrakech.com

Café Des Épices

Also the work of Nomad’s Kamal Laftimi, Café Des Epices is located directly opposite, interrupted only by the colourful bustle of the spice market. Like Nomad, a cool, expat atmosphere prevails here. Visitors taking a break from the madness of the medina to eat vibrant salads, grilled meats and homemade sweets on the warm terracotta terrace, shaded by wicker awnings.

Derb Rahba Lakdima

cafedesepices.net

Terrasse des Épices

Café Des Epices’ sister branch, this rooftop restaurant was dreamed up designer Anne Favier. The deep black terrace offers panoramic views of the city and the snow-capped mountains, with cosy alcoves to bury yourself in for an entire evening. Open for lunch and dinner, the menu combines classic Moroccan and international flavours, with dishes like monkfish tagine, gazpacho and citrus-spiked sardine tarts making it one of the city’s most beloved spots.

Al Fassia

Five days in, with about seven tagine experiences under our belts, Al Fassia offered possibly the best one yet. This sprawling restaurant is worth venturing out to the new town for. Run exclusively by women, it offers traditional dishes bursting with flavour in a warm, candlelit room filled with both locals and tourists. Huge Moroccan families gather round the white-clothed tables for giant dishes of soft lamb with prunes, almonds and caramelised onions, perfect couscous and traditional Moroccan desserts like almond pastry or pancakes with orange and honey.

55 Boulevard Zerktouni, Guéliz

alfassia.com

TO DO:

Jardin Majorelle

There are few images as alluring as that of the infamous couturist Yves Saint Laurent leaning from the balcony of his riad, looking out over the oasis of surrealist cacti and trickling waters. Probably with a cigarette in his mouth. He discovered the garden and art-deco house, designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle, on a trip to Marrakech in 1966. He soon made the place his home, and it has since become synonymous with his creative genius. Wander around the gardens, filled with sky-high exotic plants. The colour of the house, an impossible shade of intense blue, will imprint itself in your memory. It was an oasis for Yves Saint Laurent throughout his later years, and is a stamp of brave creativity that continues to inspire artists today.

Rue Yves Saint Laurent

jardinmajorelle.com

Maison de la Photographie

Buried inside the medina is this iconic gallery, housing some of the world’s most iconic images of Morocco’s history. Amid a courtyard of cool white and peach tiles, bewitching photographs of snake charmers, market traders, camel trainers and elegant young women between the years of 1879 and 1960 fill the walls.

46 Rue Souk Ahl His

maisondelaphotographie.ma

Galerie Rê 

Opened in 2006, this small art space was launched to showcase the work of Moroccan, North African and international artists. Galerie Re plays host to diverse exhibitions of contemporary sculpture, photography, painting and instillation.

Rue Ibn Toummert

galeriere.com

Beldi Country Club

Take a short taxi ride through a small countryside village to the hotel and country club Beldi, which has become internationally renowned for its celebrity weddings and high fashion photo shoots. Poppy Delavigne just got married here, and after trailing its flower-lined pathways, reading under the shade of a lemon tree and visiting a conservatory brimming with greenery, we think we might just have to as well. It is pure romance. Spend an afternoon swimming in the oasis-like pools, visiting the exquisite spa, or feasting on the dishes of the day overlooking an endless rose field. ‘Beldi’ is an Arabic word for ‘traditional’, and the club prides itself on its on-site bakery, souk, recycled glass factory, pottery studio and miles of surrounding produce.

KM6 route du Barrage

Beldicountryclub.com

TO SHOP:

Chabi Chic

Just when we thought Nomad couldn’t make us any happier, we discovered the small homeware store located on the ground floor. The handmade ceramics, woven baskets, soups and wooden utensils make Chabi Chic a refreshing change from the souk – all products are as high quality as they are charming, and the fixed prices offer a welcome break from haggling. Which we never quite got the hang of.

Rahba Kedima

chabi-chic.com

Akbar Delights

Another pleasing change from the souk, this classy little boutique is piled high with hand-woven cushions, babouche slippers (buy some. You won’t regret it), antique woodwork, intricate lamps and delicate kaftans. Given, the prices are higher than in the surrounding souk, but at least you can be sure of the quality.

Place Bab Fteuh, Medina

akbardelightscollections.com

Max and Jan Medina

Behold the collective work of Maximilian Scharl and January Pauwels, a Swiss and Belgian designer duo. This flagship store, of four around the country, houses a large collection of their fairtrade accessories and clothing informed by sharp European silhouettes and a rich Ethnic colour palette.

14 Rue Amsefah, Sidi Abdelaziz

maxandjan.ma

Rue Dar el Bacha

With the whole of the medina at times feeling like a labyrinth of market stalls, it is a pleasure to wander down this relatively serene street filled with fine furniture shops, small galleries, rug stalls, tea shops and colourful clothing stores.

TO DRINK

Atay Café

Otherwise known as ‘Terrasse Panoramique’, the rooftop of this cool little café looks out over miles of the city, the skyline marked by the majestic Koutoubia Mosque. Downstairs, you can take a seat on one of the colourfully woven chairs and observe the theatre of the medina at street level. Order mint tea – it is one of the sweetest and strongest we’ve tasted.

Rue Amsafah

Le Grand Café de la Poste

Located, unsurprisingly, in a former post office, Café de la Poste became a nightly fixture on our trip. Set over three floors, this elegant bar glows by night. A candlelit marble staircase cuts down the centre of the room, which is filled with greenery, crimson velvet sofas and bamboo furniture on a black and white chequered floor. Head to the top floor to sip Moroccan wine beside a roaring fireplace, while soft blues music floats through the air.

Angle Boulevard el Mansour Eddahbi et, Avenue Imam Malik

grandcafedelaposte-marrakech.com

TO STAY

El Fenn

The work of art powerhouse Vanessa Branson, co-owner Howell James and French designer Frederic Scholl, El Fenn is a restored ancient riad tucked away down a quiet street in the medina. Drenched in all of the colours of the souk, from the scrubbed bronze walls and crimson entrance hall to its elaborate gold candlesticks and deep pink velvet sofas, El Fenn is a feast for the eyes. Which probably explains why we spent the duration of our stay doing lengths of our emerald bathtub and exploring every inch of the place.

Twenty bedrooms overlook a courtyard shaded by orange trees, while the rooftop restaurant has panoramic views of the city. There is a library with an open fireplace, three majestic swimming pools, hammocks strung between lemon trees, soaring ceilings, a celebrated spa and a cinema. As well as being one of the world’s most beautiful hotels, El Fenn is also brimming with acclaimed art. Branson has filled the riad with select pieces from her private collection, including a chandelier by Francis Upritchard, ink studies by Sir Anthony Gormley and a series of photographs of 1960s Morocco by Terence Donovan.

Derb Moulay Abdullah Ben Hezzian, 2

El-fenn.com

La Sultana

From the glistening gold doors that greet you at the entrance to the intricately decorated pillars that surround the pool, every inch of La Sultana is dripping in old-world Moroccan grandeur. The hotel is connected by five riads, each one unique in colour and concept. The sumptuous spa could keep you indoors for days, offering a (slightly less brutal than is traditional) hammam experience, which we emerged from with the complexions of a newborn. Upstairs, you can lie in the sun among the greenery or enjoy a cocktail on the sprawling rooftop, which offers perfect views of the Atlas Mountains and the bustling market below. Behind their heavy wooded doors, each suite is perfectly designed, with beaded chandeliers, gold basins, pots of plump roses and Moroccan crafts bringing colour and warmth to each corner. Pure luxury in the centre of the humming medina.

Rue de La Kasbah

Lasultanahotel.com