I apologise if a) this is all old news to those that have been to Marrakech and b) if it all reads like a hackneyed travelogue stereotype. I can only write it how I see it and the truth is… I’ve come back genuinely extolling the sort of cliches that a city like Marrakech inspires. To me, the city was “magical”, “mystical” and “mysterious”… any other words beginning with M that fit the bill? Those words are fully warranted. A rudimentary Google search on Marrakech though is enough to convince any vague aesthete of its virtues – the saturated colours, the pride in craft and and its inherent ties with design evident in almost every nook and cranny of their buildings and interiors. Why it’s taken so long for me to visit a city that is drenched in colour and print is probably down to my own laziness. I therefore have to thank my sister Louisa, who happens to be the art director of Black Tomato, the boutique travel agency which arranged this trip. A three day trip to Marrakech blind would not have been half as enjoyable as the well researched one that we enjoyed.
I hope you’ll allow me to go a bit “lifestyle” and a bit “travel” on you. It’s my opportunity to indulge in a bit of Trip Advisor-esque critique minus the tedious comments on cleanliness. But in case you’re wondering if this is a little bit tenuous, a quick scroll through the pics might convince you of Marrakech’s mystique (oh look, another one…) and connection to style.
We arrived into town and were immediately picked up by the wonderful staff of Riad Farnatchi, on the edge of the souks and in the heart of the Medina. Or should I say hosts. It was my first riad experience and I’m now loathe to go back to conventional hotels as you are welcomed in as though it was somebody’s private home (which they were, designed to create privacy and protection). Any one of the nine suites at Riad Farnatchi is a treat with private balconies or roof terraces attached to the lavishly decorated rooms. I have no other Riad experience to compare with but the Farnatchi is pretty hard to beat in my mind – every little detail from the nightly canapés, the fruit arrangement at breakfast and the thorough hammam experience was well thought out. I especially liked the personal tidbits in the information guides, written by the owner James himself. Nothing felt standardised or systematic. Had it been hotter (rain and 15 to 22 degree temperatures didn’t dent my experience), i probably would have wiled away hours on the rooftop or in the lush courtyard pool.
We got a bit carried away with our complimentary fez hats and djellaba robes. Breakfasts and baths are way more fun when you’ve got a Fez hat on.
We then went over to The Fellah, twenty minutes south of Marrakech to have lunch and to get a tour around what would definitely be my alternative choice of accommodation if I wanted to be away from the bustle of the Medina (a combo of an in-town Riad and something like The Fellah would make sense to me if I came back for a longer trip). It’s a cool, slightly “hipsterfied” retreat-driven counterpart to the authentic and traditional Riad, with plenty of Insta-friendly interior details. It’s not all about surface though as the community, eco and cultural exchange aspects are quite impressive You can brew tea, train in a boxing ring or milk a goat with a local Berber villager. You can also learn about Arab literature or see an artist in residence at its cultural centre Dar Al-Ma’mûn. Or else, just enjoy the poolside view overlooking the Atlas mountains.
Thanks to my super duper organised sister, the next day, we headed out for a day trip to the foot of the Atlas Mountains in the Imlil Valley passing through several Berber villages backgrounded by the surreal sight of snow-covered Toubkal (the highest mountain in the Atlas mountains), next to autumnal leaves and lush greenery. Another “Awesome, Immense, Dose of Nature!” ticked off the bucket list.
En route we stopped off at a female cooperative producing argan oil and like the good tourists that we were, bought a needless amount of the stuff (both for eating and cosmetic use) as souvenirs.
Guided by Noureddine, we got an insight into Berber village culture and also got a lot of inquisitive. In manner of Sue Perkins in the Mekong, it does feel a bit odd to be trekking through a village with inquisitive kids and cats scampering about everywhere, as though it could be intrusive. Noureddine assured us though that the reliance on tourism in Morocco means we are welcome by the villagers so long as we don’t point our cameras at them.
Instead we pointed them at the imposing and mighty Toubkal… and my *ahem* interesting choice of hiking gear. Yes you can trek with three different prints on…
Around the corner from our Riad, is Medersa Ben Youssef, the former Islamic college built in the 14th century, which is just as impressive up close as it is from afar. We managed to catch the famous courtyard, surrounded by marble and stucco carvings and rich geometric tiles, with nobody in it but the cleaner. I love that you get these moments of real tranquility shielded by high walls and adorned by courtyard pools, that contrast with the madness of the souks beyond.
Another place of far-removed tranquility is of course the Jardin Majorelle, which I talked up yesterday. It’s hard to convey in pictures, the incredibly intense saturation levels of the “Majorelle” blue of the Villa Oasis, contrasted with bright yellow accents. As we approached the building, I believe we did do a collective squeal.
Another note about the Boutique Majorelle, where I purchased the Yves Saint Laurent “Love” inspired leather slippers: it’s really not just another gift shop. The selection of caftans, blankets, slippers, jewellery and other ornamental gifts are sympathetic to the Jardin’s connection with Saint Laurent, as exemplified by the orange and pink satin kaftan and turban combo below as well as to traditional Moroccan craftsmanship.
Just across the road 33 rue Majorelle, Marrakech’s first and (only?) concept store, there’s more evidence of a new generation of designers wanting to place Moroccan craft into a contemporary context. I loved the pieces like a Berber wrap skirt by Bakchic, designed by Moroccan fashion blogger Sofia El Arabi and the dyed leather bags by Fez-based label Mouhib.
Back in the Medina, Norya Ayron is updating traditional kaftans and aybayas in a range of modern fabrics at her Pop-Up Shop at the restaurant Le Jardin.
I’ve left the best and the most “relevant” until last. Souks galore of course! I was actually setting myself up for a disappointing browsing experience as having been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I was pretty much disillusioned by all the tourist tat and vaguely sexist/racist yelling. The souk sellers in the Medina do try and lure you in but it’s less hardcore than their Turkish counterparts, unless you stop and make eye contact and enter into a bartering position. And the actual products on sale – away from the main drags running off the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa – is definitely worthy of your attention (and your dirhams!). Without even buying anything it’s worth spending many an hour walking around, connecting up colour and pattern seen in every shop and its merchandise.
We had walked two minutes into souk on Sunday and we were immediately told by an overly enthusiastic guy that they were dyeing the silk and wool and after ducking in and out of several alley ways, we found ourselves in the dyers’ souk where natural pigments and spools of yarn are processed in a large vat. The owners of the accompanying scarf stall were trying to lure us into buying something, wrapping Steve up in Yves Klein blue but in the end, once we said it was a firm no, they did let us go without any aggression.
Staying in the Riad Farnatchi, we were lucky enough to be a stone’s throw away from many a craftsman. It’s a world that exists not just for tourists but as a nod to local traditions – there’s a weaver, a tannery, a lamp welder (no candlestick maker…). It’s not craft for craft’s sake but a concrete way of making a living here. And I’ve never been in a city where practically every street has a seamstress/tailor working for local trade.
I was expecting the hard sell to be harder and so in the end, was pleasantly surprised. Save for the food sellers on Jemaa el-Fnaa, who seem to think us Brits would be sold in with a spot of Cockney slang and bad impressions of Jamie Oliver, the people in the souks were quite helpful and eager to talk about their wares once you got past the initial cat calls of “Konichiwa”. If I had more time, I might have gotten carried away with the shopping but on our first souk experience, we came away with a few wooden cooking utensils, some spices that we needed in the pantry anyway, a vintage tile and my primary target of purchase – two boucherouite rugs.
Yes, they flood every savvy interiors blog and yes, they’ve been “on-trend” for a while. I always felt they’ve been sold at inflated prices on eBay, Easy and interior shops so I thought it was better to go to the source (well at least the same country) to buy them. Once you’ve seen these rugs, made out of fabric scraps, in the humble homes of Berber villages and on the backs of donkeys and mules used as saddle covers, it’s hard to see them as a bijoux interior item priced at a trend-led premium. That said, it was a joy to see so many to choose from in every carpet shop. No two are the same which just meant I ended up in a rug quandary everywhere I went, frustrating both the sellers and my travel gang. In the end I chose two small ones that would fit my tiddly bedrooms and paid a price that didn’t insult the seller and in my mind, was well worth the trip to Marrakech.
I know I say this after every travel post that I’ll be back. I’m keeping my promise with Marrakech and other parts of Morocco will be on the agenda soon enough…
Experience Morocco with Black Tomato