A Visit to Marrakech
by Annette Bartlett-Golden
Courtyard of the Ben Youssef Koranic school.
An ancient African city teeming with history, Marrakech in the Kingdom of Morocco is like no city I have ever been before. It is a place of Arabs and Berbers, dazzling architecture, and astonishing gardens on the edge of the Sahara Desert. After flying over an arid landscape dotted here and there with vegetation, I arrived at the modern Marrakech airport on a very hot Saturday evening for a two and a half day stay, accompanied by my husband and son. We had taken an inexpensive Ryanair flight from Valencia, Spain to Marrakech and the mood on the plane was a very festive one with much cheering when we landed.
Soon we were speeding away from the airport in our prearranged taxi driven by an English-speaking and rather grumpy twenty-something man. Without warning, the taxi stopped at a busy intersection where an old man with a small garden sort of cart greeted the driver. Our luggage was put in the cart and off we went, following our prearranged porter to the bed and breakfast where we would be staying.
A few minutes later, we entered a huge triangular plaza bustling with activity. There were rows of food vendors in the center, people aggressively selling sunglasses, shoes and other such things, snake charmers playing exotic melodies on reedy flutes, and monkeys on chain leashes. Restaurants lined the plaza on three sides with a large network of souks (Arab marketplaces) just around the corner and the iconic Koutobia Mosque was visible to the west. Motorbikes zipped through the crowds which were a mix of locals, both men and women, in long flowing traditional Moroccan djellabas (some wore western clothes, too) and tourists from all over the world. Jemaa el-Fnaa, as the place is known, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is in many ways the heart of the city.
The iconic Koutobia Mosque of Marrakech seen as approached from Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza and one of the many alleyways of the old city.
From there the porter led us into a covered, narrow cobbled street of the old city lined with little open shops selling scarves, brightly colored djellabas, meat, bread, pastries and numerous other things. Sounds of Arabic and French mingled with the beeping of motorbikes while pedestrians hurried along on their errands. Then we turned into a high pink walled alleyway and the contrast was striking. There were few people about and as we continued walking, passing doors in the walls every few yards, the din of the street behind died away.
Suddenly the porter stopped at a large tidy door with a brass plaque that read Riad Itrane. Here was our bed and breakfast. As we stepped inside and were warmly welcomed, a feeling of peacefulness enveloped us. We were in an oasis of tranquility. There were several courtyards, comfortable sitting rooms, an inviting small pool, and a fabulous rooftop terrace. Two riads, or traditional Moroccan homes with rooms around a courtyard garden, had been renovated and combined into one to create a charming bed and breakfast. Staying there made our trip extra special.
One of the courtyards with the pool at Riad Itrane and one of the lovely sitting areas.
Our visit happened to coincide with Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Since almost everyone in Morocco is Muslim, it had a big impact on the city. During the day when healthy adult Muslims fast and don’t drink anything either, the mood was subdued, especially as the afternoon wore on and the heat rose, often above 100°F. Many restaurants outside of the old city and tourist sites closed early. Generally, women and children stayed inside to keep cool. At dusk, people broke their fast by drinking water and eating dates and porridge. Then after the evening prayer, Marrakech began feasting and celebrating. Late one evening the narrow streets and alleyways near the riad were so crammed with people happy to be out-- children, women, men, a donkey cart and motorbikes – that we could barely move for some time. It was quite an experience.
There were other ways, too, in which Moroccan culture was very different from my own. For example, in the souks, all nonfood items required bargaining and nothing had a price tag. Often if a passerby just looked at something, the seller would jump to present their wares and make a sale, in French, English or Spanish. So, buying anything was an experience in itself. Also, every act of kindness or service required a small tip of several dirhams (Moroccan coins) – from the museum guard who offered an explanation of an artifact to the porter and bathroom attendants. It wasn’t until after our visit that I realized it was the Moroccan way of saying “thank you” and was just a matter of good manners.
Rooftop view of Marrakech with the minaret of the Koutubia Mosque in the distance (top), storks atop a roof peak at the Badi Palace, and Mimi the cat at Riad Itrane.
I loved seeing the exquisitely decorated palaces, eating breakfast at the riad with homemade apricot jam, watching the sunset on the pink walls of the city from the rooftop terrace while hearing the evening calls to prayer. Looking at the handmade shoes and purses and colorful clothing and other things in the souks was fun too. And the local animal life. I spied cats everywhere- in alleyways, palace ruins, rooftop terraces and gardens. The one at the riad was called Mimi. Storks too, were abundant on palace walls and minarets while honey bees joined us for breakfast.
When it was time to go, we were ready to return to peaceful Spain after the exotic bustle of Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza and an immersion into a culture so unlike our own, which I found a bit overwhelming. Still, we had a good time and learned so much. In the weeks since my visit to Morocco, I have often thought of our experiences there and how it has changed my understanding of a part of the world I had only read about. While we initially went to Marrakech because of a garden (see the article Majorelle Gardens above), we found so much more! Sometime, I would like to return.
Annette Bartlett-Golden paints a wide range of subjects from landscapes to animals and makes abstract works with paper. Using vibrant colors, she imparts a sense of immediacy, vivacity and optimism to her paintings and paper collages.