A Moroccan Christmas
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It was my first trip to Morocco, even though it’s not so far to go from France. The airfare is reasonable, the flights are direct from Nice (EasyJet.com), the weather is warmer and they speak French. It’s no wonder the French make this a regular destination. But it’s a very different world from the one we know in France and Europe.
My friend and I booked nine different “riads” (with cancellation possible) before making a final choice, settling on the Riad Andalla Spa in the “medina.” A riad is a kind of interior courtyard of the traditional Moroccan palaces, and now is the term for a type of bed and breakfast…many very luxurious. The medina is Marrakesh’s original fortified citadel, with the central Jemaa el-Fna square teeming with snake charmers, folk dancers, and street food vendors serving all manner of food. In the evenings it comes most alive, although we never managed to get there at that time, leaving a reason to return to Marrakesh. The maze of cobblestone streets of the medina is filled with hammam bath houses, spice and textile “souks” (markets).
The Riad Andalla Spa had a 9.8 rating on Booking.com, which is just about as good as it gets. Naturally, it was a bit more expensive than most of the others, but we wanted to have as good an experience as possible, and since the riads aren’t as expensive as the hotels, it was a good compromise. It was a beautiful facility, having been reconstructed from a complete shell only about five years ago. The service was impeccable and the room was quite lovely. The owner, a Frenchman named Christophe, and his staff could not have been more welcoming and helpful. They really took good care of us. The only real downside is that all the rooms faced two courtyards and therefore there were no windows, no views, and no light. We did miss that.
The beds at the Andalla were like hard boards…however, we had a solution. We asked that they put a comforter UNDER the sheet to soften the surface of the bed. I had done the same with my own bed at home and know this to be a quick fix. They gladly arranged it and yes, the bed was much more comfortable the subsequent nights. I slept like a baby.
We had every inch of the trip planned, including some special dinners and sightseeing excursions. The first morning started off with a tour of the city on foot led by a guide named Ahmed, a nickname for “Mohammed.” He was a qualified guide and quite a nice guy, who led the six hour trek to see the highlights of the medina. The first stop was the Bahia Palace, a 19th-century palace considered a historic monument and major tourist attraction open to the public, with ornate courtyards, mosaics, and gardens. Our timing was perfect as when we entered, there were only a few visitors, buy upon leaving, it was wall-to-wall with holiday-goers.
Not far from the palace was our second stop—the Slat al-Azama Synagogue or Lazama Synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the city, known as the “Mellah.” The Jews of this synagogue were primarily Sephardic, expelled from Spain in 1492. The synagogue is amazingly still functioning to date. The synagogue did not fit the norm I grew up with, where the women are separate from the men, as in Ashkenazi tradition, but it was warm and inviting. I started to recall how many Moroccan Jewish friends I have or have known over the years, particularly since living in France. Considering how prominent the Muslim community is in North Africa, we tend to forget what an important role the Jews played in this part of the world, especially since they were the first on record.
Ahmed also took us to his friends’ shops where he likely got a kickback if we bought something, although he never divulged that. We indulged him, by patronizing those shops, making it part of the experience, even if we spent a bit more than we might have elsewhere. It was in a kind of “pharmacy” that specializes in organically produced spices and oils that we bought very high-quality black soap and argon oil at a healthy price. In a shop run by a Jewish merchant, I bargained for a pair of silver earrings and believe I scored okay. One scene that was a bit comical was in a carpet vendor’s shop where they insisted on opening up a dozen or more of carpets on our behalf even though we never stopped asserting that we were not in the market for carpets. (Perhaps it just gave them something to do, as there were no other customers with whom they could occupy their time.)
French influence is everywhere. Everyone speaks French, and because we certainly didn’t look or behave Moroccan, the street vendors and restaurant staff immediately spoke to us in French…or English. At the Jemaa el-Fna Square is the well-known Café de France, which seems to be THE spot to get your morning coffee while watching the square come to life. I sat at a sunny table our last day and watched the scene, just like all the other tourists. It’s clearly not where the locals have breakfast, which we witnessed instead at small stalls along the narrow streets munching down on pastries and other local delicacies.
After walking about 10,000 steps or more, we had lunch at Café des Epices known as a MUST STOP in the medina, situated on the Place des Epices, one of the market squares. The square is mostly filled with vendors of woven baskets and spices, punctuated by cages of turtles and iguanas. It’s quite a scene. The food at Les Epices was quite good and we could then tick it off our list of things to do in Marrakesh.
There is no shortage of great restaurants to try in Marrakesh, but you need more than four days to get to many of them. We changed our reservations so many times at +61 that we finally gave up and never managed to get there. But we did taxi over to the Guéliz area of the city to dine at Al Fassia, a totally woman-run traditional Moroccan restaurant. It was filled with non-Moroccans much like us wanting to taste their well-prepared fare and support the cause. Having opened in 1987, a professional hotelier, Mohammed Chab and his wife, Fatima, conceptualized a women-only run restaurant, and thus it was born. More than 35 years ago, this was a very bold concept in such a male-driven society.
There were several signs of support organizations for women in Marrakesh, although we all know the truth—women in this culture are mostly just utilitarian. We were told to be careful as women traveling alone, particularly on the narrow streets at night. Even if lost, we were counseled to only ask the shop owners for directions rather than just anyone on the street. Our hotel staff even offered to escort us to and from our destinations to be sure of our safety. That being said, I can’t say I felt threatened in any way. I’m personally never intimidated by much and have always felt that my obvious aura of self-confidence acts as a kind of “karmic condom!”
Guéliz is the part of Marrakesh that is the real and modern city. Wide “French-era” streets lined with contemporary apartment and office buildings would make you think you were in some other place entirely, even any French city. It is here that one finds most of the city’s chicest restaurants, cabarets, bars, art galleries and fashion boutiques. And it is here that Yves Saint Laurent’s home and the Majorelle Gardens are located…again, a MUST SEE for every visitor. We had tickets to visit it for Christmas day.
Christmas Eve day and evening we did a few very special things. In the morning we toured Le Jardin Secret, a riad that is more than 400 years old dating back to the Saadian Dynasty. Recently renovated, it’s now open to the public for a visit to the garden and its buildings. The garden is filled with plants from all over the world that had me in absolute awe of their beauty. We sat on a rooftop terrace overlooking the garden over a strong espresso with the warm sun on our faces. Again, our timing was perfect as by noon, it was filled to capacity, but when we arrived, we were some of the first to enjoy its peace and splendor.
At lunchtime, thanks to the great hospitality of the riad staff, we scored a reservation at Nomad, one of the city’s best restaurants, with a multi-level rooftop terrace just opposite the Café des Epices and overlooking the Place des Epices. It’s part of the same family of the city’s best restaurants opened by entrepreneur Kamal Laftimi in partnership with Sebastian de Gzell, including Café des Epices, Le Jardin, +61 and Le Kilim. The meal was definitely one of our best.
I took 90 minutes that afternoon in the riad’s own hamman, to have a body scrub with black soap and a one-hour massage. If black soap is the only thing you bring back from Marakesh, you will have scored. Also known as “beldi” soap, it’s a high-alkaline Castile soap made from olive oil and macerated olives with a gel-like consistency, the reason for its dark greenish-black color. It’s used for cleansing, moisturizing the skin, and exfoliating when used with a washcloth (usually in the form of a mitt) called a “kessa.” The soap is high in Vitamin E, an antioxidant. After the full treatment, I must have laid there like a mummy not wanting to move and come back into the light, but felt fully rejuvenated.
For months I had been looking forward to Christmas Eve dinner at the famous and luxurious Hotel La Mamounia. Friends had told me it was the ultimate experience and not to be missed. Dinner reservations at one of their three restaurants was a pricey affair. I was prepared to pay it in exchange for such a special experience. We got dressed up and taxied over.
To find Le Moracain, the restaurant in the hotel that we chose for its authentic cuisine, we had to walk through the entire hotel, down its long jungle-like garden to the very end and to another building hidden in the greenery. We were escorted into a room off the main central riad that held two tables, each for two diners. That was not what I had in mind—to be secluded with my friend with no atmosphere to speak of, although there were musicians playing traditional music just outside the dining room. For a romantic couple, it might have been perfect, but for a Christmas Eve celebration, unfitting.
The first “amuse bouche” was a cup of soup that was nothing special. The “entrée” I ordered was made of sliced scallops and so salty that I sent it back. They brought me another one, equally as salty, so I sent it back. The third one had been prepared by their main chef, but was no better. I begged for a substitute so they did bring something else, that was acceptable, but not special. By this time I was longing for any one of the things I’d had at the Nomad!
For a main course, I ordered a lamb tagine, which should have been simple enough, but not only was it mediocre, it was downright overcooked and not hot. I didn’t eat it. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Normally, I live with no expectations to avoid such disappointments, but when the price of the meal is five times any other one might have in Marrakesh, it’s impossible not to expect at least a bit above the norm. It was not even close. On top of that, they made no effort to make amends, such as comping the wine…which they did not. My advice: don’t waste your time or money. Go to visit the hotel and maybe have a coffee in the bar, but no more. And FYI, they allow smoking in the bar, so be prepared to hold your nose!
Le Jardin Majorelle was a special treat on Christmas Day. I was overwhelmed with tears when we first stepped into the famous garden and saw its incredible beauty. This is where designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, lived since 1980, having purchased it and saved it from destruction at the hands of hotel developers. They called Jacques Majorelle’s villa, the house on the grounds, the “Villa Oasis.”
The garden is situated on 9,000 square meters and considered one of the most enchanting and mysterious gardens in Morocco. It’s taken over 40 years to create such splendor, “a labyrinth of crisscrossing alleyways on different levels and boldly-colored buildings that blend both Art Deco and Moorish influences.” The French painter Jacques Majorelle originally conceived of this large and luxuriant garden as a sanctuary and botanical “laboratory.” In 1922, he began planting it with exotic botanical specimens from the far corners of the world. YSL said of it, “For many years, the Jardin Majorelle has provided me with an endless source of inspiration, and I have often dreamt of its unique colors.”
We didn’t want to leave, but the “pièce de la résistence” was the boutique before leaving, filled with beautiful things. I left with a large shopping bag of very special mementos and gifts. The concept stores across the street at Number 33 rue Majorelle are also worth a visit. The entire excursion was one of the highlights of our trip.
Last night, which was our last night in Marrakesh, we had reservations at Le Jardin, which was a trek from the riad on the maze of streets. Instead of taking the risk of getting lost, we opted to take a tuk-tuk as transport—the best way to maneuver the medina, even if a terribly bumpy ride. We laughed during the ride all the way there and all the way back.
In reflection, Marrakesh was pretty much what I expected. It’s utter chaos, but not quite as much sensory overload as is Delhi or Mumbai…although close. Without a headscarf, women like me stand out from the crowd as obvious foreigners. I noticed that at 5’4″ tall, I was taller than most, so the Moroccans are not very big people. The people were generally very nice and friendly. French is universally spoken and English is a third language spoken by almost everyone. Everything is inexpensive and that makes it very affordable, especially if you want a bit of luxury on a budget. Our riad was an oasis of calm and the service we got was impeccable. A couple of times, they came to rescue us—even once a taxi driver got lost trying to find the riad and one of the staff met us at the taxi stand to take us “home.”
I can’t say that I felt very comfortable in such a male-dominated world and it’s painful to see how women are treated, covered head-to-toe in their kaftans designed to make them less attractive and unavailable to anyone but their husbands. But, this is a Muslim world and that’s all part of its charm.
Would I survive in Morocco for any length of time? Never.
Would I come back? Yes, but not immediately.
Was it worth visiting? Absolutely!
Would I recommend it as a great getaway? Definitely.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
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