Haunting calls to prayer echoed through early afternoon hillsides raising the hair on our arms, the sun shone for most of the day before dissolving into an early wet twilight and the tang of freshly made tagines filled our plates. Our first day in Morocco had passed in a haze of poolside snacks (and a very excited Skype call home) after a bone wearingly flight, so as the second dawned we were determined to explore. (Well, ok, dawned is a touch untruthful, perhaps ‘as the second day 8am-ed’ is a little more accurate – we were after all on holiday.)
Forewarned about the attention we could get travelling as women on our own in Morocco, we arranged for a local guide to meet us in the foyer of our hotel. His name was Sahmi, an enthusiastic 65-year old ex-primary school teacher who asked us what we wanted to see.
Still slightly clueless despite frantic googling the night before and rather jet-lagged, we arranged for a half day walking tour to include the Yves St Laurent cactus garden, the labyrinthine souk and Sahmi’s favourite spots. We also asked to see the tanneries to Sahmi’s slight discomfort – they’re not a very ladylike place to show guests.
The Old Town of Marrakech nestles behind high walls of weather-beaten earth punctuated with square slits to let the dusty Arabic winds whistle through and keep the city breathing. Homes dripping with exotic dessert plants drape the outskirts of the sprawling souk, and somewhere at the centre lies a tourist enticing gem.
The Jardin Majorelle is a carefully manicured collection of exotic plantings from 5 continents, gathered over 40 years by Jacques Majorelle, a French painter who discovered the delights of Marrakech in 1917; immediately bewitched by the “oasis-city whose colours, light and souks [were] soaked with fertile and happy life”.
We dodged through the selfie taking tourists (selfie sticks abounded) and admired the striking studio, painted in “Majorelle blue, an ultramarine, cobalt blue, ‘evoking Africa’. Strong, deep, intense, it accentuates the green of the leaves and makes them sing.” With the intense cost of garden upkeep, it looked likely to be sold and bulldozed for a hotel before being discovered by Yves St Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. It inspired the fashion of Yves St Laurent for many years before his death in 2008, at which point a very classical memorial was built in the garden.
We left the garden to begin tracing our guides steps through the ochre walls of the Souk, a fantastical collection of winding street heaped with everything you could imagine. Stalls festooned with silk scarves, hand carved wooden everythings (included polished life size football ornaments!?), tables laden with teeth suckingly sweet slices flavoured with rose, spice, orange and cardamon.
Walls lined with jars of Berber health cures as old as the dessert itself, the odd set of coloured fake spice cones surrounded by agog tourists, bewitching door frames hung with lamps in every metal and glass hue and tagine pots heaped in groaning piles, every size shape and colour. The smell was a riot of fragrance: fresh lemon wood carving, ylang-ylang, wafts of food from small cafes, winter orange blossom heavy on the trees, mint tea and just the hustle and bustle of people.
What struck me the most were the eyes of the shop owners. Most were trained outwards to watch their passing trade as we wandered around corners hung with metal work and down teeny alleyways. We trotted along behind our guide, popping into suggested shops (usually his friends I guess?) and Rebecca and I just soaked it all in.
We did make it through the tanneries – our sweet guide stopping off at a local market to buy handfuls of Mint for us to hold to our noses against the, er, earthy smells.
The Morocco tanneries were almost primal; small rooms of men hand scraping the hides off animals, a field of men stood hip deep in pits full of natural dyes and storerooms of feathers, straw, mopeds speeding around corners and donkeys pulling carts of goods (who then enjoyed a sweet treat of our mint).
We then were taken to the mosaic encrusted Bahia Palace.
It was an experience like no other.
Pin for later