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Published: June 13th 2020
Good weather followed us every day so far, and Day 10 of our Moroccan adventure was no different although on this day the humidity could be keenly felt. An ambitious agenda was planned for our first full day in Marrakesh which is not surprising considering how much there is to see and do here.
As mentioned in my preceding blog, the noise from the heavily congested roundabout traffic circle next to our hotel could have ruined a good night’s sleep, but didn’t thanks to the two pairs of heavy sliding doors leading to our balcony so our room was quiet.
We were joined at breakfast in the Le Rossini International Restaurant by another member of our group. A buffet-style breakfast is served here each morning and included a variety of salads, cheeses, cold cuts, fruit and cereal could be supplemented by several hot entrees ordered on the spot from the cook stationed near the restaurant entrance – eggs any style, along with msemen, etc. Unfortunately the coffee dispensed from a machine here was somewhat disappointing and a good jolt of caffeine would have been welcomed.
Our morning city tour began with the short drive first to the mellah
originally the Jewish residential and business quarter of Marrakesh. The Arabic term, mellah, is said to mean salt or salt marsh and so was applied to the Jewish quarter as their wealth was acquired through the salt trade. By the time we visited, streets and shops in the mellah were already busy with the morning’s hustle & bustle of the day’s business.
Our guide, Larbi, pointed out architectural differences which distinguish the mellah from other sections of the medina. Here narrow streets are lined with buildings with ground level shops or cafes while the second story houses apartments, many featuring fanciful Spanish-style balconies. The balconies reflect the heritage of Morocco’s original Jewish population which migrated here in the late 15th
century after being expelled from Spain.
The majority of mellah’s Jewish residents have moved to Marrakesh’s Guéliz neighborhoods although some Jewish-owned businesses, and synagogues (including the 1492 Slat Al Azama Synagogue), a cemetery, and streets with Jewish names still remain there.
The mellah is quite close to the lovely Bahia Palace
and a short walk through unexpectedly gritty back lanes brought us to the unimpressive arched gate which belies the beauty of the palace itself. Bahia means
“brilliance” and this palace certainly seems to live up to its name. Built in the 19th
century for the Grand Vizier, Si Moussa, to the Alaouite Sultan. Si Moussa’s successor, Abu Bou Ahmed, a humble as a black slave who rose to the 2nd
most powerful position in the kingdom while defying the odds, substantially enlarged the palace into what we see today.
I was surprised to learn that the palace and grounds covers nearly 20 acres, and includes an astounding 150 rooms, gardens, courtyards, and more. Sadly, when Abu Bou Ahmed died in 1900, the palace was looted and its treasures stolen which is why the rooms we saw were devoid of any furniture or artwork that are not part of the structure itself.
In 1912, the ruling French Protectorate took over the palace and used it as the Governor’s Residence. It wasn’t until the early 21st
century that real restoration of the palace began to take place. Looking at it now, it’s difficult to imagine the immense amount of work and craftsmanship required to restore this incredible place --- it is a magnificent piece of art.
The combination of Moorish and Andalusian architecture immediately appealed
to me -- the intricate, multi-layered carved stucco, marquetry and zouak
(painted cedar wood) ceilings in combination with the painted shutters, doors, zellige/zillij tile, and inscriptions surrounding pediments.
Here the zouak took center stage. Room ceilings, large and small, were uniquely shaped with amazing painted patterns and designs. Lovely ceiling pendant lamps added light in rooms without windows. One particular room’s walls were topped by a band of windows just below the ceiling which followed a sequenced pattern which repeated itself: a beautifully arched stained-glass window, followed by a carved stone or stucco panel, followed by a window designed with ornamental metal work and clear glass. Light streamed into the room playing colorful patterns on the floor.
Most people find the “Cour d’Honneur” or grand inner courtyard the most deserving of attention. This 1,600 sq. ft. space is completely floored in Italian Carrara marble and Moroccan zellige tiles, two elements used widely in grand mosques and buildings. Forming a quadrangle with latticework-trimmed colonnades shading walkways on two sides, the 12 rooms opening onto the courtyard formed the harem and were intended for the Grand Vizier’s 24 concubines. His 4 wives each had equally-sized quarters elsewhere in the palace.
I admired this site as much for its architectural beauty as that of its historical importance. If you love architectural detail, the Bahia Palace is a must see, and for an extremely nominal entry fee of 10 dirhams it is well worth the time to visit it.
Walking south from Bahia Palace we entered the Kasbah District and came to the Rue de la Kasbah which is quite close to Bab Agnaou and the Kasbah Mosque. From here, we gained entrance into the historical site known as the Saâdian Tombs
, recognized by UNESCO as a site of Outstanding Universal Value in itself which also falls under the umbrella recognition of Marrakesh’s medina as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by earthy clay walls, these tombs escaped destruction by the ruthless Moulay Ismail but totally concealed by him, and only rediscovered in 1912 thanks to an aerial survey conducted by the French.
The first sultan of the Saâdian Dynasty (ruling 1549 – 1659) established this site as a royal necropolis, and his son, Ahmed el Mansour, is credited with ushering in a highly prosperous and glorious era, especially for Marrakesh. El Mansour went on to enlarge this entire
burial site and added 2 mausoleums which would accommodate his father, mother (Lalla Messaouda), himself and his descendants.
Close to this site’s entrance, the most significant mausoleum contains 3 interconnecting rooms: “The Room of the Twelve Pillars” (aka “The Room of the Twelve Columns”), the “Room of the Three Niches” (for children) and “Mihrab Room” (for prayer) are either side of that. There is no doubt that the most significant and elaborate tomb is that of Sultan Ahmed el Mansour himself which lies in the beautiful “Hall of the Twelve Pillars,” the central room. I was immediately struck by the ethereal, almost luminescent light inside this room.
Italian Carrara marble pillars (columns) support the vaulted ceiling which rises above El Mansour’s tomb. Unlike other tombs in the garden and elsewhere, El Mansour’s tomb was slender and had neither a totally flat profile nor was it covered in the ubiquitous zillij/zellige tiles. On either side of his tomb were 2 slender tombs, all 3 were capped with thick levels of beveled marble with the deceased buried below floor level.
The end of our visit to the Saâdian Tombs would have been a good point at which to take
a break, but our guide wanted to push on.
I was happy for a chance to sit on the bus for just a few minutes before being dropped at the 12th
-century Koutoubia Mosque
, one of Marrakesh’s most recognizable landmarks. Koutoubia Mosque, or “Mosque of the Booksellers,” is not the first mosque to be built on this site; the current mosque was completed about 1158 after corrections had been made in its qibla
(direction of prayer) alignment toward Mecca. On the north side of the current mosque the foundations remains of the first mosque take on an almost monument-like presence. Here too, on the northern wall remnants of the first mosque’s mihrab niches can be seen.
Koutoubia Mosque was beautiful but my opinion is necessarily based on its exterior alone since non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. In the bright daylight, the warm golden stone of Koutoubia, its lovely minaret, and the gardens surrounding it emit a welcoming presence. At just over 250 ft. high, the minaret is a landmark which can be seen for many miles in all directions. The minaret’s main tower is surmounted by a smaller tower, both featuring stepped crenellations, which is crowned with a
dome and spire piercing 4 golden globes in graduating sizes. Bands of aqua green tile around the top of both towers greatly enhance the beauty of the minaret’s architecture as do the various arched window niches. Adjacent is Parc Lalla Hasna with its long, slender canal reflecting pool, fountains and beautiful gardens and landscape.
Shortly we were on our way to the much praised Marjorelle Gardens
and Berber Museum. Having seen photos of the Gardens previously, I was eager to visit. But, what I thought would be a good experience was anything but that!!
The lines of tourists at the gate should have been an indication, but that didn’t prepare me for just how crowded and confined the Garden grounds were. Larbi managed to secure our group’s timed tickets while we waited. With timed tickets for entry, you would assume the number of visitors inside would be kept to manageable but obviously this system didn’t work.
The original Gardens were the brain child of French painter, Jacques Marjorelle, who commissioned the onsite villa and designed the Gardens using exotic plants he collected in his lifetime of travels. He opened the Gardens to the public in 1947, but
Marjorelle died less than 20 years later and the property was abandoned until it was purchased by French designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé in 1980. They restored the property and Gardens and added a boutique, book store, café and museum – all of which we visited and all of which were overpriced in my opinion.
The Garden displayed a wide variety of cacti which I especially like, and the Art Deco-style Villa Oasis home painted in fabulous colors of Marjorelle Blue and deep yellow was charming, but it was all obscured and ruined by the crowds. We decided to pay the admission to the Berber Museum and I must admit to being very disappointed. There were several interesting exhibits, but the museum was small, very poorly lit, and signage was in Arabic only.
By this point we were very hungry and tried to salvage our time here by having a nice lunch in the Gardens’ café. We waited perhaps 15 – 20 minutes for a table which wasn’t too bad, and when seated only ordered tea and a soup thinking this would be quick. But 30 minutes or so later, we were still waiting
for the soup, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We left money enough to cover the cost of our tea and bread only as we had no other option --- it was leave with our group, or get left behind.
It must have been mid-afternoon when we arrived at Djemaa el Fna Square to explore the souks, and the day had turned hot and humid. Inside of the crowded souks, this could be even more keenly felt and might have put a slight damper on being able to enjoy the whole experience if you let it bother you.
A fascinating labyrinth, we wandered through the souk's many sections in a serpentine pattern trying to see anything and everything there. The souk’s stalls were grouped together by type of merchandise – spices, jewelry, pottery, wood, leather, clothing, etc.,. Everything was displayed to catch the shopper’s eye in a most tempting way: soft leather slippers, rainbow-colored scarves and caftans, etched tea trays, teapots and lovely glasses, ceramic tagines, mosaic glass and pierced-metal pendant lamps, straw baskets, etc. While the men in our group were most likely the least vulnerable when it came to buying things here,
it would have been more than easy for me to find many things I like and wished to buy.
I can only imagine how much fun it would be to let yourself get lost in the souks if time allowed. Without a doubt, the key to enjoying the souks is to see them in an unhurried fashion.
The Djemaa el Fna Square was somewhat empty of vendors at this time of day, but around the edges there were food stalls with mountainous displays of fruit, and selling cold drinks and snacks, hats, souvenirs, sunglasses, etc. Our tour ended after visiting the souks, but we opted to stay and explored a bit more with a few tour group members.
Since restaurants ringed the edge of the square and lined small lanes, several of us chose to go to the Argana Café s second floor for a panoramic view of the square. Rick and I ordered a refreshing frozen sorbet drenched in orange juice topped with a Pirouette cookie. Delicious on a hot day!
Back in the square, the anticipated snake charmers were set up under umbrellas, calling to tourists with snakes in hand. Getting a photo with
one or two of the creatures was on my husband’s list of must do’s. Much braver than I am, he got his photo (scary!) after which the snake charmer wanted to charge him a fortune for it. My husband settled for a lower price, but these photos were no bargain! Better to settle on a price before they wrap a viper around your neck!
Truth be told, everyone seems to agree that nighttime is best for a magical experience in Djemaa el Fna Square. Aromas and smoke curling into the air from the braziers of innumerable food stalls, the crush and din of the crowd, the music and performers — the sights and sounds, the aromas – make for a charged atmosphere feeling electric.
By this time, tired and in need of a cool shower, we used Koutoubia’s minaret as a guiding landmark and made our way through the lane of horse-drawn carriages or calèches to the end and just to the right. Rick struck a deal with the driver of a petite taxi costing only 40 dirhams for the ride to the hotel.
We had only a couple of hours to get ready for the dinner
excursion we opted for. The beautiful blush of evening light and balmy air were a good omen -- several horse-drawn carriages arrived to gather passengers. I had been saving special treats for the horses for this evening and asked the owner permission to give them to the horses which he had no problem with. Our carriage ride was really delightful and made even more so as darkness brought out the twinkling lights of special places we passed.
Our approach to Restaurant Lotus Privilege on Onderb Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch in the Quartier Dar El Bacha was frankly a little disconcerting as the area looked down on its luck. We left our carriage and saw that hidden from street view, we had to follow a long narrow gravel pathway between buildings to find the entrance of the restaurant. One would never guess that secreted among the rough surroundings a true hidden gem of a restaurant was waiting for us! Like you might find in a beautiful riad, we first stepped into an open-air courtyard dotted with mature trees, and large potted plants. Black & white marble floors surrounded a small lovely pool in the center of the room. Here we
were welcomed with mint tea and a performance by Gnawa (Gnaoua) musicians with their distinctive music, instruments, and cowrie-shell studded fez hats.
Afterward we were ushered into the elegant, but non-traditional dining room. Maybe I see nearly everything with glassy eyes while traveling, but I couldn’t help but admire how truly special this setting was as we took seats at the beautifully set long table that had been prepared for us. Mossy green painted walls were the backdrop for framed embellished caftans, and a mix of crystal chandeliers and pierced metal hanging lanterns provided the lighting.
A menu tied with ribbon had been left at each plate offering individuals their choice of a chicken, beef or fish tagine and several choices of dessert. Breads and appetizers of triangular-shaped briwates
filled with cheese, vegetables or beef were nice additions. My husband and I chose the ‘fish of the day’ tagine which was served with safran, and Atlas vegetables and the crispy light cream pastilla topped with crushed almonds for dessert. It was perfection. Rather than only a single glass of wine to accompany the meal and entertainment, our very attentive server poured more whenever your glass was nearing empty.
Chilled bottled water was also abundant.
Near the end of the meal, the Gnawa musicians performed once again. Gnawa music can be very hypnotic -- rhythmic music and watching the musicians’ heads twirling with their tasseled fezes, the inflective singing, clicking sounds of krakebs
and plucked notes on the sinter
. The finale was a beautiful belly dancer who lent yet another exotic flare to our exceptional evening.
Some travelers find places and experiences like this 'too touristy'? Maybe for some, but not for me -- I enjoyed every minute.
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