Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Marrakesh II

February 5, 2011

It didn’t take long for my eerie premonition of Magreban Revolution to play out in Tunisia and now Egypt.  Morocco could well be next.  I was riveted by the surge of protests which erupted in Tunisia the week of our return.  They gained astonishing momentum, prompting the clandestine flight of Ben Ali, the autocratic, unelected president, in what Tunisians are calling their ”Jasmine Revolution”.  Ben Ali, who ousted Tunisia’s popular post-colonial president in 1987, had been preparing a gilded retirement in France, where he owns sumptuous properties in Paris, the Cote d’Azur and Courchevel.  He was refused the right to land here and members of his immediate family, already in France, were told to leave.  So much for that pipe dream.

The mood in France is supportive of the Tunisian people’s emancipation. The Sarkozy government took heat for protracted silence throughout the protests, then proposing support to help quell violence.  Most took that as a sign of support for Ben Ali rather than a strategy to avert violence used against protesters. The police fired on crowds and there were scores of deaths.  Hard for the French administration to stage a graceful about-face after positioning Ali as a close friend, putting up with his despotic, corrupt rule, because he squashed Islamic opposition parties and claimed the healthiest economic growth record in Africa.  Ali was hardly a comic book villain like Saddam Hussein, but has plenty in common with Permanent President Mubarak in Egypt where freedom of speech and true political opposition are also forbidden – as we can no longer ignore.

Morocco’s Royal Highness, despite his seeming popularity, has reason to be nervous.  The domino effect could take off as it did in formerly communist Eastern Europe.  The fact that Mohammed VI’s portrait is ubiquitous in commercial establishments throughout Morocco can be interpreted as a gesture of fear rather than fealty.

Geopolitics aside, I did promise to share visit recommendations to the Rose city. The reaction of French friends to our Marrakech holiday was a chorus of,  “It’s nothing like it was… isn’t the real Morocco… Morocco à la Française.”  But hey, french tourists flock to New York and Miami – which are hardly representative of America’s heartland.  Key to Marrakech’s appeal is the alluring cocktail of cosmopolitan sophistication, exoticism and a whiff of decadence – out of your cultural comfort zone without being overly disorienting or dangerous.

If you read French (and even if you can’t), pick up a free copy of the monthly official Marrakech Pocket Guide, distributed in hotels and restaurants.  It has a calendar of events, most of the addresses you’ll need grouped by category, plus ads for many good restaurants, cafes and shops.


We rented Riad le Loft through Homelidays, a site with a tremendous selection of Marrakech vacation properties. Renting a riad is cheaper than the price of four rooms at 3 star hotels, and is a more congenial environment for families and groups of friends.  Ours was located on a residential back street off rue de la Kasbah in the Medina.   The ground floor has four doubles with ensuite bathrooms around an open courtyard with reflecting pool and out door fireplace.   A sculptural flight of stairs (not a house suitable for young children) leads up to a dining room, spacious salon with fireplace, adjoining terrace and kitchen.  There’s also a roof terrace with canopied eating nook and lounge chairs.

Le Loft is newly renovated in a minimalist contemporary style created by a Moroccan interior designer and artisan. The absence of folkloric bric-a-brac was a welcome aesthetic respite from the sensory overload of the souk and dusty streets of the Kasbah.   The roof terrace views were my favorite feature:  the Kasbah mosque, Atlas mountains, myriad stork nests, satellite dishes and mix of posh roof top gardens next to crumbling edifices draped with the day’s wash.   The week’s rental included housekeeping and breakfast made and served by Samira, a lovely young woman, who was also willing to do shopping to stock the fridge with water, etc and cooked a couple of meals, which were reasonably priced and quite good.


Despite precautions, half our group was struck by gastro-intestinal afflictions.  Be vigilant about where and what you eat – staying the course between neurosis and negligence.  Locals recommended the restaurant-clubs with a lively cross-cultural scene that Parisians tend to frequent, including:


Jad Mahal Jad Mahal

Lotus Club

Café de La Poste


Jad Mahal features a floorshow of exotic dancers around 10:30 pm on weekends and holiday periods.  Menus include a choice of Moroccan, French and Asian fare.   Jad Mahal in the former French quarter is the most over the top in terms of décor and entertainment.  The not so traditional belly dancers shake their stuff between tables and encourge the occasional patron to get up and join in the act.

Bo&Zin (“drinking & fooding”) is the newcomer to the group.  Located 3.5 kms out of town on the route de l’Ourika, the cuisine is taken a bit more seriously the ambiance more pretentious.  They propose a chauffeur pick up service.  The Lotus Club has a neo Deco décor (created by the designer of our riad) and young French chefs.  Landmark Grand Café de la Poste is good place for drinks after shopping or touring the new town. They propose free hors d’oeuvres. Not recommended unless you are with a lively large group, is Le Stylia in the Medina.  The décor is worth a gander but they are stuck in the set menu era and it all feels a bit stilted and past its sell by.

Lunch: While doing the souks, a place to take a break is Café des Epices or Terrace des Epices, (recently opened by same owner to handle Café overflow).  Simple formula, inexpensive and fun.  No alcohol.  Lunch for seven at the Café came to 485 dirham.

If you prefer cushier seating, more extensive menu and a glass of wine, try the terrace at Kosybar on place des Ferblantiers by the Bahia museum and Mellah.  You can do your shopping for a wrought iron lantern in the square.  Lovely cityscape view from terrace.  A Japanese chef explains presence of sushi on the fusion menu.


The Hamaam experience is as varied as the multitude of establishments throughout the city.  We enjoyed the intimate, low-key environment of Les Bains de L’Alhambra, conveniently located a few doors down from our riad in the Kasbah.  Owned by a European, the clientele is principally foreign but the female staff is local.  I opted for a Moroccan massage, which is relaxing and gently enough for sensitive souls.  The same can’t be said for the Moroccan Hamaam, which features a body scrub done with a cloth mitt the texture of diamond sand paper.  Dead skin rolls off as you writhe in astonishment that you are paying for this.  The soles of your feet are beyond ticklish.  The compensation is feeling like a newborn, sipping mint tea on a divan while enjoying a soothing foot massage.

1hr massage 350dhs, 45-minute traditional hamaam 150dhs.


We hardly covered all the sites but here’s what I wouldn’t miss.  Place Jema El Fna at sunset when things get rolling and strolling throughout the Medina throughout the day, are essential.

Saadian Tombs

Burial ground of 66 members of late 16thC/early 17thC dynasty with origins in Saudia Arabia.  Classic Alhambran style architecture. Was hidden for centuries until rediscovered by French colonial official in early 20th C.  Seems that successive dynasties tended to destroy the masterpieces of their predecessors but this bijou survived.  While there, the area in front of the entrance was recently cleared to allow for tour bus access.  Our guide claims the King on one of his walkabouts determined it was too important a cultural monument to be hidden away, so he bought up the square block of buildings and razed the lot.  Installation of new streets and pavements were almost complete by the time we left.

Ben Youssef Medersa

Former Koran school built in the 16th century.  Large central courtyard lined with two stories of monastic student cells.  Beautiful mosaic tiling, carved cedar and stucco work.   Evocative ambiance.  Tricky to locate in the souks.  Next to Marrakech museum and Place Ben Youssef.

Bahia Palace

Labyrinth 19th century palace with succession of courtyards and highly decorated salons.  Be sure to wander into the hamaam.

Majorelle Gardens

Originally home and studio of artist Jacques Majorelle, who built the modernist studio and created the exotic garden planted with hundreds of cactus, succulent and Mediterranean specimens around a series of basins and fountains.  The studio, now a museum, is painted electric blue with acid yellow and trim.  The blue, known as Majorelle blue is a recurrent motif throughout the city.  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berger purchased, restored and enhanced the property in the 1980’s.  This is where Saint Laurent designed his couture collections twice a year, many of which were directly inspired by the colors and silhouettes of traditional Moroccan attire.


To establish a benchmark for handicrafts and souvenirs before venturing into the souks go by at Ets. Bouchaib on the main street of the Kasbah.  This is a vast emporium stocked with endless aisles of every imaginable souvenir item from Argan oil to fine jewelry.  The prices are fixed and inexpensive.  You will find finer workmanship and better styling elsewhere but it helps to know roughly what you should be paying for the basics before testing your haggling mettle.  The store is referred to as government run but there are too many leather knock off items for this to be feasible.

If you are crowd phobic, avoid the souks at dusk, especially Saturday, when the crush can be intense. Exceptional, original creations are the exception. Esprit Coton, Laila Fargeix’s spare, walk-up boutique at 38 Hal Chiadmi Mouassine, is a cool respite from the bling-bling, cram it all in merchandising of souk stands.  A native of Tangiers, Laila’s elegant range of clothing, accessories and linens are made to her specifications.  Berber woman she has trained, make whimsical miniature cloth dolls in folkloric costumes.

Galerie Birkemeyer at 165-167 rue Mohamed El Beqal in the new town is the favored leather goods emporium.  They specialize in well-crafted knockoff designer bags, shoes and accessories.  With the level of workmanship, it’s a pity they don’t hire designers to develop their own collection.  Leather and suede jackets, ponchos, trousers, and belts – you name it, for men and women, plus knock off RTW (Ralph Lauren, Burberry et al, if you must).  They will replicate made to measure leather clothing in 24-48 hours if you bring along a magazine tear sheet.  The shoe store across the street Hayni, has cute flats in a rainbow of color selections at a great price.

A Closing note – something you should be prepared for is the noise level in public spaces.  Jamal El Fna square is known to be bedlam from sunset on, but street life in general is consistently loud in the Medina.  I’m posting this very belatedly in Buenos Aires, after spending a week in Montevideo, Uruguay without an Internet connection.  If you are seeking a calm, blissfully peaceful city – Montevideo is it, but more on that later…

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