Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The magic of marvellous Marrakech

I've been away for the past few days, in Morocco, staying just outside Marrakech in the most wonderful hotel called Tigmi. I'm supposed to be writing a travel piece about the trip for The Independent, but I'm starting to wonder what I'll say. It's difficult to sound original when everyone I know seems to have been to Marrakech already.
Not only that, but I am the biggest sucker in the world when it comes to haggling. I only need to take one look at the hurt expression on the vendor's face as he explains about his starving children and aged parents, and I pay up without another quibble.
How do I avoid the usual clichés? How did I manage to come back with a carpet, when I am a veteran of North African carpet shops and have always sworn I would never succumb? How did I manage to spend so much money? I can only ascribe it to a kind of magical charm that this city exerts over all who visit.
OK, so the clichés. Driving south from Marrakech to the small village of Tagadert, you leave the new developments of hotels and golf courses behind and head into countryside that looks as if it hasn't changed since Biblical times. There are shepherds abiding in the fields and in the distance a figure on a donkey makes its way across the hillside.

The taxi lurches down a road that is so unmade the cast of an entire nativity play could fall into one of the potholes and never be seen again. Can there possibly be a hotel at the end of it or will we find a building site full of rubble and scaffolding? No, here is Tigmi, offering a cool green welcome after the dusty journey from the airport.

Marrakech itself doesn't disappoint. It's like a film set for one of those Agatha Christie movies with an A-list cast. October is a terrific time to visit as the weather is hot but bearable and the kaleidoscope of colour - the red of the city walls, the carpets in the souk, the endless rows of babouches (slippers), scarves, bags and pottery shimmer beneath a blue sky like a cinematographer's dream.

It's a city of flowers too - the first thing that hits you (after the warm sunshine) is the smell of roses as you enter the airport. Roses, which are planted along many of the roadsides, seem to flower all year round in Marrakech, apparently disease-free. There are other plants too - palms, bananas, bougainvillea, and succulents such as cacti and aloes that bask in the dry heat.
The main square, the Djemaa el-Fna, is famous for its snake charmers and musicians, who provide a non-stop cabaret from early evening onwards amid a smoky melee of stalls selling mint tea, soup and barbecue. Here's a huckster trying to persuade two tourists to be photographed with his monkey. Don't you just love the monkey's expression?

Needless to say, my mother and I found ourselves drawn to the plant stalls, below, but didn't find any bargains. Prices in Morocco seems to be pretty similar to the UK. The tall bougainvilleas on this stall were 250 Moroccan dirhams, about £20.

The most famous of the city's gardens is the Jardin Majorelle, built in the 1920s and subsequently bought by Yves Saint Laurent. It features the bright blue - Majorelle blue - that everyone associates with Morocco. Did we visit? No, we didn't. Time was short and I'd heard reports of huge coach parties and slight disappointment. Instead we visited the gardens of La Mamounia hotel, taking advantage of the Open Sesame effect a journalist's pass bestows.
La Mamounia is the smartest hotel in Marrakech. Newly reopened after a three-year refit, it has a strict dress code and while it doesn't actually discourage casual visitors from stopping for lunch or a drink, it doesn't actively encourage them either. The security guards with walkie-talkies at the gates see to that, while once you reach the entrance, what seem like eight (but is probably 12) footmen dressed in white Moroccan dress leap to open the doors into the imposing foyer.
La Mamounia's main claim to fame is that it was one of Churchill's favourite places to stay. It is the most sensational place - as if Death on the Nile had been produced by Gianni Versace - but away from the leopard print and leather-padded cocktail bars and plush restaurants, the gardens offer a green respite from wall-to-wall sophistication, with allées leading between trees and lawns, and pavilions dotted around.

I think it's these sort of contrasts that make Marrakech so vibrant. One minute you're haggling in the souk over a scarf, the next you can be in the tranquil gardens of a palace.
Ah yes, the souk. We cheated and had a guide, courtesy of Best of Morocco who were hosting my visit. Most Moroccans, and especially the ones who are selling you things, speak a bit of English and they all speak French (and Arabic, of course). Language isn't a problem - it's the hassle of fending off over-eager salesmen. The minute you show an interest in anything, they want to sell you two, "for very good price". The idea of window-shopping is a completely alien concept.
Allegedly, the guides take you to their friends' stalls where one presumes they get a commission, but since we wanted to buy stuff anyway (I even had a long shopping list), this was fine by us. And it's certainly true that we wouldn't have had the energy to get round the whole souk if we hadn't been with Ahmed. Cruising along in his wake was so much easier than fighting our way through by ourselves.
Souks are traditionally split up into sections; one for leather, one for silver, one for carpets and so on. The carpets are made in the villages, but walking round the souk, you can see tanners at work and watch the metal-workers beat out their brass patterns with a kind of atonal syncopation.

Here's a traditional medicine shop, with its animal and snake skins hanging up outside. Goodness only knows what they use them for.

Mint tea, traditionally served by the carpet sellers as they unroll rug after gorgeous rug in front of you. Each one is different, and the Berber techniques that you see in Morocco involve knotting, weaving and embroidery, or sometimes even a mixture of all three.
I've sat through a few of these mint tea routines in Tunisia, where the colours and designs are much more traditional and I've always found them a bit headache-inducing. In Marrakech, we were shown a wonderful selection of both traditional and contemporary designs, in the most gorgeous colours.
The shop here is the Artisanat du Sud, owned by Hossni Ait Rammania (half-hidden by the carpet) and his brother Khalid. I'd never be able to find it again - I'd have to get hold of Ahmed. As the salesmen hold up the rug, you either say: "Nakh-am [yes]" or "Laa [no]". It was very difficult to say laa.