Jennifer Evans Gardner takes us on a soul-searching journey into the ancient “Red City.”
In Morocco, they shake hands from the heart. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Marrakech. The man who came to pick us up from our hotel shook my hand warmly, and then touched his heart in the traditional greeting. The gesture moved me, and I was hooked. Just weeks before my girls’ trip to Morocco, there was a deadly bombing in the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakech, Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were exploding. Friends and family begged me to cancel the trip, but I fought the urge to succumb to fear. I had been dreaming of Morocco since my twenties, and nothing was going to stop me. It was a milestone birthday, and time to get to work on that bucket list. At half a century, I know I don’t have forever–just today.
Morocco, steeped in magic, mystery and romance, is the perfect place for a spiritual quest, which is what I needed amidst some uncertain life changes. Recently separated from my husband of 14 years with a teenage son to raise, I knew I had some soul searching to do.
In Marrakech our guide, Khadija, explained how years ago the city’s rapidly expanding tourism and population had prompted the rampant development of apartment complexes and luxury hotels–including The Royal Mansour, The Four Seasons and The Mandarin Oriental, to name a few. And though some of those hotels weren’t open on this trip, there was only one place I was really interested in staying: La Mamounia, the glamorous, mythical palace where Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and countless celebrities have rested their heads through the decades.
At La Mamounia, we were greeted as women should always be greeted—in fairytale style. Six beautiful Moroccan doormen in traditional garb swept open the grand doors with broad smiles, and in velvety voices murmured, “Welcome to Marrakech.” We were guided to a seating area where a tray bearing fresh dates and jeweled glasses of almond milk scented with orange blossom welcomed us, Moroccan style.
La Mamounia underwent a $175 million renovation a few years ago, and it shows in every detail designed by the internationally acclaimed interior designer, Jacques Garcia, from the elegant lobby studded with marble columns and chandeliers to the camel-leather lined elevators. Yet its soul still remains.
Situated just inside the medina, La Mamounia is named after its legendary 200-year-old gardens, originally given as an 18th-century wedding gift to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father, King Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah. There are two Michelin-star restaurants at the hotel, but we couldn’t resist dining in the scented gardens of Le Morocain, where my taste buds experienced fireworks that first night. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and saffron danced together in the delicately sweet pigeon b’stilla, tagines of chicken, lamb and vegetables, and fluffy couscous, all washed down with crisp Moroccan rosé.
Later that night in the Djemaa El Fna square, against the backdrop of a glowing Katoubia minaret, we walked, overwhelmed by an exotic swirl of noises, sights and sounds. Snake charmers, “water men,” hawkers and storytellers converged, along with stalls selling everything from aphrodisiacs to seafood. While I have never felt so alive, I couldn’t ignore the disturbing visual of the soot-covered cafe, its roof completely torn off by the bomb just weeks before. Still, locals filled the other cafes in the square, refusing to be deterred from their lifestyle. As if reading my mind, Khadija said simply, “Life goes on.”
Five women, three days. So much to soak up, starting with Yves Saint Laurent’s lush, colorful Majorelle Garden, the 19th century Bahia Palace, and the souks. Oh, the souks! While nothing was as inexpensive as we had hoped ($5 argan oil? I think not), each of us got caught up in the frenzy, purchasing rugs, slippers, spices, pouffes (leather foot stools) and Fatima’s hand bracelets for protection against the evil eye.
A trip to the Berber villages of the High Atlas Mountains served as a perfect reality check, as we were gently reminded of those who have so little, yet seem to hold the secret of happiness in their smiles. We stopped to take in the expansive view of the valley and as my friends snapped photos, I closed my eyes under the sheltering sky. A warm breeze touched me, along with the realization that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Khadija was right. Despite its challenges, life goes on.
A Berber woman walking along the road reminded me of my great grandmother with her wrinkled skin and wise eyes, her colorful outfit on closer look was not actually traditional, but, rather, a hodgepodge of mismatched Goodwill castoffs from the West. We had to step out of the car to say hello. As I shook her hand, I looked into her beautiful eyes and touched my heart.
WHERE TO EAT
Le Marocain In the heart of La Mamounia’s famed gardens, this stunning restaurant serves traditional Moroccan food in an opulent setting.
Wind your way through a maze of streets to this restaurant inside of an old riad with an open roof, where the ambiance and Moroccan food are intoxicating. Dinner served daily except Tuesday. / 22 Derb Abdellah ben Hessaien, Bab Ksour, Marrakech (00 212 2444 4052).
Terrasse des Epices
This rooftop restaurant in the middle of the medina makes the perfect lunch stop for a day of shopping in the souks. Salads, grilled meats, desserts are both Moroccan and Mediterranean.
Traditional Moroccan food in a rich, elegant setting in the Guéliz area, run solely by women.
An incredibly knowledgeable and warm guide, she knows all of the best restaurants, shops and local sights to see. Khadija will also bargain in the souks for you to make sure you get the best prices.
Jemaa el-Fna Square
The main square in the medina, this is where the action is. By day, it’s filled with orange juice stalls, water sellers, monkeys, snake charmers, dancers, musicians and story-tellers, and by night, dozens of food stalls open amidst even larger crowds.
Domaine de La Roseraie
Located in the High Atlas Mountains just 45 minutes from Marrakech, this resort is surrounded by garden roses and features a lovely restaurant on the terrace. Though they have a few French offerings, go for the traditional Moroccan cuisine.
Jardin Majorelle (Marjorelle Gardens)
A lush, colorful botanical garden originally created in the 1920s by French painter Jacques Majorelle, later owned by designer Yves Saint-Laurent.
Story by Jennifer Evans Gardner