We can never agree on what kind of vacation to take. One of us likes restful vacations with lots of lying around doing nothing: reading, rolling into the nearest ocean or swimming pool occasionally to cool off -- the bare minimum in the way of exertion. The other likes activity: exotic atmosphere dripping with history, absorbing architecture richly decorated, markets filled with plunder and riches at semiaffordable prices. We both want memorable meals.
Marrakech turned out to be the perfect solution for us. We found as much relaxation as we could want in surroundings that would put the Garden of Eden to shame, exotic historic sites minutes away, splendid architecture, tempting markets and more than passable restaurants with a variety of cuisines at reasonable prices.
Marrakech manages to combine comfort with character, sophistication with simplicity in a way that is charming. Morocco is Arab, but it is also Berber and the mix yields something quite different from what one finds in the Mideast.
The palaces of Marrakech show a love of grand schemes and fastidious attention to detail, rich ornamentation and concern for ambiance. The result is fantastic. Because of this, the city has attracted the rich and famous (and the not so rich and the unknown) for years.
Teddy Roosevelt went there to unwind. Winston Churchill's suite is something of a museum now at La Mamounia hotel. Charles de Gaulle paid a visit after meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Casablanca during World War II. Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles and a potpourri of royalty and nobility have graced the city with their presences.
Historians trace the origin of Marrakech back to the 11th century, and at various times in Morocco's history Marrakech has alternated with Fe's as the capital (which is now Rabat). A nine-mile-long wall was built around the city to protect it, and much of the old city is still surrounded by pinkish ramparts. Of the original 15 gates, five are still in use today.
The city's souk (open-air market) continues to be a storehouse of Arab and Berber handiwork, much of it old, some even antique. Where the restaurants are not Moroccan, the menus are usually French (with some notable exceptions).
What makes Marrakech ideal as a vacation spot is that it serves a variety of tastes simultaneously. It is both a place to get away from it all -- the pool and gardens at La Mamounia where we stayed are unforgettable -- and a central location for day trips that offer fascinating glimpses of the country and people.
Although the city has the atmosphere of an oasis, with palm trees growing everywhere and dusty streets, it is really not surrounded by desert. It sits on the broad El Haouz plain at the edge of the High Atlas and Anti Atlas mountains. The Sahara lies beyond the mountains, where various Berber tribes still live -- not entirely unaffected by the modern world, but not transformed by it, either.
An easy hour's drive from Marrakech is the once-a-week market at Ourhmat, a souk that continues customs and traditions that date back more than a millennium. The Berbers still come down from the Atlas Mountains to this souk to sell their wares -- including jewelry and rugs -- and to buy what they need to live. Musicians entertain, restaurants are set up in tents to serve steaming stews, and barbers occupy stalls where they offer shaves and haircuts. Berber doctors also tend to the sick, using herbs and folk medicine.
From Ourhmat, we continued another hour to Setti Fatma, a village built on the side of a mountain, hugging a stream that carries icy water from the upper reaches of the Atlas Mountains down to the broad plain surrounding Marrakech. The visit was well worth the time and effort, but one should wear shoes that won't be ruined if they get wet, which is entirely likely as one makes his or her way along the stream that leads up to Setti Fatma.
The greatest attraction is Marrakech itself -- especially the medina, or old city. It is possible to visit the medina without a guide -- but it is not advisable. As we discovered on the one venture outside our hotel without a guide, tourists are fair game for hordes of teen-agers who descended on us and hounded us (a nice way of putting it under the circumstances) until we retreated to our rented car and drove back to the hotel. Touring Marrakech without a guide may well make an otherwise delightful experience unpleasant. And the guides are cheap enough -- $8 to $10 a day tops, $4 for half a day -- that there's no good reason not to have one, if only for peace of mind.
The most famous, colorful and delightful of Marrakech's attractions is a square called Djemaa-el-Fna, which isn't really a square at all but an irregularly shaped triangle. Djemaa-el-Fna is the magnet that draws snake charmers, sword swallowers, storytellers, acrobats, magicians, performing monkeys, fortunetellers and a variety of food vendors into an area of not more than 100 or 200 square yards. The activities begin in the morning, as the shops on the edge of the square open and the food vendors start cooking. But it is in the late afternoon, when the performers come out, that the square truly comes to life.
You can enjoy the scene up close, moving leisurely from one event to another (tipping is expected, and if the tip isn't large enough, you will be told so by the collector) or from a distance -- sitting in one of the several cafe's and restaurants that offer rooftop tables where the whole scene can be surveyed sitting down, drink in hand.
In the market, which adjoins the square, artisans continue to work by hand on leather, brass, tin, copper, gold, silver and semiprecious stones that are found in the nearby mountains. Morocco also is noted for its pottery, which often integrates metalwork into the design of vases, urns and bowls in a way that is striking.
Bargaining, it goes without saying, is expected. Anyone who pays the asking price for almost anything in the market should forget about boasting to friends about how little he or she paid. Whatever it was, they paid too much.
Besides pottery, leather goods and metalwork, the market offers antiques -- muskets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, powder horns with intricate designs in silver and other metals, brass pitchers and matching bowls for the hand-washing ritual before the meal, gold and silver jewelry from Berber tribes.
The other important item that can be bought in the market is carpets. New Moroccan carpeting is graded according to quality, and the prices are set by the government. Old or used carpeting, however, varies in price according to the age, quality, condition, uniqueness of the item and the willingness of the buyer to dig in.
The activity of rug-buying may be the same the world over (although Moroccan rugs, generally speaking, are not of the same quality as Persian rugs), but the wise buyer's greatest asset is a willingness to walk away from a rug he or she simply can't live without. We purchased a kilim for $110 after the merchant started out asking $350. Real or feigned indifference can knock large amounts of money off the asking price of a carpet -- especially in the off-season, when tourists are scarce.
We visited Marrakech in mid-October, shortly before the season had fully opened. The weather was perfect, mid-70s and 80s all week with only one shower, mid-afternoon, which we decided to tough out poolside by reading under protective cover.
Otherwise, our regimen (reflecting the compromise we worked out) was to set out fairly early in the morning, 8 or 9, visit the souk or a local site in town, or drive outside the city and get back in time for lunch at 1 or 1:30, then spend the rest of the afternoon by the pool.
(Driving, by the way, is no problem in Morocco, although it is advisable to have an international driver's license, which can be obtained through the AAA. We rented a well-used but perfectly serviceable four-door Renault for about $30 a day, unlimited mileage.)
Beside Djemaa-el-Fna square, we found a number of other sites in Marrakech particularly interesting and attractive:
Dar Si Said now houses the Museum of Moroccan Arts, including the finest antique carpeting from all over Morocco displayed in a magnificent setting: Room after room of intricate mosaic designs on the walls and floors built around an atrium with a garden. The garden is dominated by a hand-carved wooden octagon with a small fountain in the middle surrounded by mosaic tiles. Some of the rooms are awe-inspiring in their size and the beauty and intricacy of the detail work.
Bahia Palace is a somewhat ostentatious monument to Moroccan architecture. But it again demonstrates the attention that Moroccans showed -- and continue to show -- to ambiance and detail. The palace has fine examples of the carved plaster that is a trademark of Moroccan architecture. Inadeqate lighting in some cases obscures the detail in the palace, which includes magnificent, intricately designed painted ceilings.
The Koutoubia minaret dominates the skyline of Marrakech in somewhat the same way that the Eiffel Tower is noticeable all over Paris. Mosques in Morocco cannot be entered by non-Moslems, but only viewed from the outside. Still, it is possible to see into the Koutoubia, which was begun in 1158 and completed in 1190.
The Saadian Tombs were constructed by the Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur in the late 16th century as a burial site for the Saadian royal family. Buried in the two pavilions are 62 sultans, their wives and children, with another 100 graves in the courtyard. The architecture of the tombs again shows the same attention to detail, and on a sunny, warm morning the gardens outside the pavilion are wonderfully quiet and inviting.
The Palmeraie, supposedly grown from the seeds of date-carrying Arab warriors centuries ago, is a vast expanse of thousands of palm trees just outside of Marrakech. Interspersed among the trees, which are now carefully protected from being cut down, are villas.
Inside a walled compound we found two villas (with a swimming pool) that can be rented by the week or month for less than the cost of a moderate-priced hotel. The villas can include -- for less than $10 a day, we were told -- a cook to prepare whatever we wanted in the way of food, which we could buy ourselves or ask the cook to purchase in the market.
That brings up the matter of eating. We did not have a single bad meal while in Marrakech. Some were more memorable than others, but the food was always at least good and plentiful. Local wine was available at reasonable prices.
If we had a complaint about the restaurants -- at least the Moroccan restaurants -- it was simply that the menus didn't vary much from one place to the next. The same basic dishes are found in most restaurants.
The pie ce de re'sistance of a Moroccan meal is Bstilla, or pigeon pie. Bstilla consists of layers and layers of sweet, flaky dough with finely chopped pigeon meat, scrambled eggs, sugar, spices -- especially cinammon -- and nuts. Although Bstilla isn't cheap, a Moroccan meal without it is incomplete (something like a day without sunshine). The other basic dishes include lemon chicken, lamb kebabs and, of course, couscous.
We weren't able to eat at the highly rated La Maison Arabe while we were in Marrakech because it was closed for the season. But we managed to find a number of other good restaurants:
La Mamounia has two fine restaurants, one Moroccan and the other offering traditional French cuisine. Both are excellent, although the French restaurant is somewhat on the pricey side by Marrakech standards. The Moroccan restaurant in the hotel serves delicious food and also offers entertainment -- Moroccan music, which can be spell-binding when played well, and belly-dancing (which can also be spell-binding when done right).
Le Riadh is located in an old Moorish house. Guests sit at low tables on cushions in a vast room covered with mosaic tiles. Although the restaurant is essentially one large space, it is artfully divided and quite comfortable. The meal was adequate, but the music was too loud, preventing any sort of conversation while it was playing.
Stylia, which is located in an old pasha's house inside the medina, offered the most complete and satisfying experience of any meal we had in Morocco. The setting is unforgettable. The tables are placed in what was once the courtyard, covered for the winter with a black cloth 40 or 50 feet overhead. The feeling that one is dining outside is preserved. The service was impeccable and the meal was delicious. But dinner for two was more than $50, which is high for Morocco.
For a change of pace we ate one night at La Trattoria de Giancarlo, which serves Italian food. Giancarlo is an Italian architect who has lived in Marrakech for several years. The meal was excellent and reasonably priced.
For lunch, we tried the poolside buffet at La Mamounia, which is spectacular (cold lobster, chicken, lamb, roast beef, several salads, vegetables, breads, five or six desserts) but is also spectacularly expensive -- about $35 a person.
We also ate a late lunch by the pool at Es Saadi, near the casino (which we never tried). The pool and garden at Es Saadi hotel were beautiful, and we found a shady spot on the terrace to eat a light lunch that was reasonably priced.
All in all, our six-day stay in Marrakech served to whet rather than satisfy our appetites. The only question remaining for us about the city is not whether we go back, but when and where we decide to stay. Next time we may well decide to try the villa in the Palmeraie, hire the cook and enjoy a different view of the Garden of Eden.