Just Back From....Morocco
The mood was distinctly jovial Tuesday morning at the weekly Berber market in the town of Tahnnow, near Marrakech. The holy feast of Abraham (Eid al-Adha) was approaching, which meant a lamb dinner, for those families who could afford it. There was a buzz in the northwest corner of the market where some men were hawking sheep, while others were assiduously inspecting their options. (“Look for ones with lively eyes,” my guide, Rashid, advised.) Two men rode off sharing a moped with a live sheep wedged sideways between them, a sight I was to see many times later in the week. One of the things that makes Marrakech so intriguing is this collision between tradition and modernity, like the man in the dapper tweed blazer astride a donkey, or the woman dressed in a headscarf, tight jeans, and heels. (The latter phenomenon is referred to by Rashid and his friends as, “Iqraa from above, Rotana from below,” Iqraa being the religious tv channel and Rotana being the more progressive tv channel.) There were plenty of examples of these sorts of contradictions at the weekly market. In front: a parking lot for mopeds and cars. In back: a parking lot for donkeys and mules. (Both were crowded.) Past bunches of fresh herbs, trays of tiny local eggplants, baskets of henna and dates, solid blocks of sugar (considered much more highbrow than loose sugar) and triangular mounds of saffron, was a table of carefully arranged used BlackBerries and cellphones. Nearby was a stall for a healer (long line) and another for a barber who doubled as a tooth puller (no line); he was equipped with a pair of pliers and a cloth to bind your hands, in lieu of anaesthetic. As we strolled past racks of djellabas, through the meat market stands amid piles of fresh sheep heads (“stewed, they’re delicious,” Rashid assured me), we were assailed by an avalanche of scents: charcoal, roasting kebabs, fresh mint, wood smoke, cumin, stewed onions, paprika, raw meat. There were tables of men elbow to elbow eating creamy soup and roasted nuts and laughing. Mangy dogs, cats and chickens wandered around. Men rode off on their mules with great sacks of onions and potatoes and bunches of bananas. Women (not many of them) often had babies strapped to their backs.
After so much chaos, it was calming to pull off the main road in the town of Tnine Ouirka and begin bumping down a rutted dirt road, past children playing in the dirt, then winding up a steep hill to the marvelous hideaway hotel hidden there. Although it is just two years old, Kasbah Bab Ourika looks like it has always held its mountaintop perch. For one thing, it is made of the same red adobe as the surrounding Berber villages. “We relied primarily on local materials,” says owner Stephen Skinner, a Brit who also owns Ryad Edward in Marrakech. “The walls are made of mud and limestone in the traditional rammed-earth fashion, and we used palm tree trunks as ceiling beams.” The eco-minded approach extends to every detail of the hotel. Solar panels heat the water, which comes from a well (which now also supplies the nearest village, a game changer for the local community) and is recycled through the garden. The 20 guest rooms, though spacious, are simple and spare. The real luxury of Kasbah Bab Ourika is the setting, which is unforgettable. On one side is Salt National Park, a spectacular red rock canyon (reminiscent of Utah’s Bryce Canyon), where guests can go trekking with a guide on foot or on camels or mules. Turn your gaze and the snowy Atlas mountains spread before you, with Berber villages in the foothills and a verdant creek bed below. For those who appreciate a rustic, low-key vibe, Bab Ourika is a serene, family-friendly oasis with a marvelous sense of authenticity. Read my full review of Bab Ourika. It’s very different in atmosphere from the other Indagare favorite, Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s Atlas mountain property, which is over-the-top fabulous, from the exquisitely landscaped grounds (orange trees, rosemary, pomegranates, jasmine) to the infinity pool to the decadent Berber tent rooms.
I spent the rest of the week in Marrakech at Amanjena, a resort of such peace, beauty and harmony that it felt almost spiritual. The staff was flawless and intuitive (they started preparing my cappuccino as they saw me approaching breakfast). The property is centered on a huge square reflecting pool lined by palms and ferns. At night, amid the sparkle of dozens of perfectly placed lanterns and crackling bonfires, it is simply magical. Rooms are huge and cosseting, with private outdoor seating areas. The only downside to Amanjena is that it is a good twenty-minute drive from the medina, which means you spend a lot of time in cars going back and forth. I ended up using my car trips to get to know some of the staff members and hear about their lives, which I loved. One, who had grown up in Ouarzazate, told me that his village only got electricity and running water four years ago. Prior to that, the family had two lanterns they would light each night. One hung in the kitchen and they would cook dinner by it. The other was a mobile lantern that the family would share and bring to the dining area when they were ready to eat.
And isn’t that always the way with travel? No matter how fabulous the destination, what you find turning over and over in your mind afterwards are the moments that you got a peek into the everyday life of another culture. I loved hearing my guide, Rashid, tell me about the history of Morocco, but what stuck with me were his tales about being the parent of two girls, the eldest of whom was struggling with the decision of whether or not to wear a headscarf like her mother. “I will support whatever decision she makes,” Rashid insisted, but I could tell he was anxious about it. Religion was important to him, and because he was concerned that Americans had a negative view of Islam, he wanted to make sure I saw the good in it through his eyes. On the days he was guiding, he would postpone his prayers to the end of the day, but what really centered him was going to the mosque. “Standing shoulder to shoulder, you feel such warmth, such peace,” he told me. “You feel the strength of being with your brothers.”
I had been to Morocco before, but this trip felt different, because I was able to scratch the surface more. It left me longing to go back again, especially to the Atlas mountains.
While you’re in Marrakech, be sure to:
• Have dinner at Villa des Orangers, our favorite riad in the medina.
• Have lunch at the chic and delicious Grande Café de la Poste.
Read our Marrakech destination report
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