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2014 01 Multi-sensory Marrakesh

James column for the SligoWeekender

As I lay face-down in my birthday-suit, greased in Argan oil, my Gluteus very Maximus being worked like it’s never been worked before, my masseuse at last redeployed her drifting digits downwards, having repeatedly attempted to extract a tip, literally. Sampling my first “Hammam” seemed like the ideal happy ending to my Marrakesh trip. I had thoroughly enjoyed being soaped, scrubbed, steamed, exfoliated, smeared in clay and rinsed with bowls of tepid water, and was then escorted into my private treatment room for my ‘multi-sensory’ massage, emphasis on ‘multi’. Blushing and butt-naked, I kinda knew this massage was heading down a more intrusive invasive route than usual.

Enchanting Marrakesh has always been high on my ‘Bucket List’ and so I began by getting my bearings aboard the highly informative hop-on-hop-off bus. Marrakesh’s main square Jemaa el Fna was a place of execution until the 19th Century but has become the old town’s pulsating hub. Surrounded by sprawling souks, after sunset the square transforms itself into an open-air dining room, the smoke billowing skywards. The on-tap entertainment is undeniably varied – cobra charmers, Moroccan story-tellers, monkey handlers, tooth-pullers with ginormous pliers, tattoo artists, transvestite dancers, musicians, fortune-tellers, all vying for loose dirhams. A ring-side table high up in one of the ‘restaurants panoramiques’ offers a splendid view of sunsets behind the 12th Century Koutoubia Minaret (the city’s emblem) and across the bustling ‘Fna’. Freshly squeezed citrus juices are irresistibly the real thing, and available across the stalls, as well as herbs, plants and dried fruits.

The El Badi Palace with its vast central courtyard, red pisé walls , four sunken citrus tree gardens separated by central pools, and tiled guest quarters, is a highly impressive rambling ruin. The Terrasse offers breathtaking views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountain, but also a snoop into the lives of the storks nesting precariously atop the palace ramparts, chattering like distant roadworks. A 12th Century Minbar (pulpit) left over from Andalusian Islamic rule is worth the additional entrance fee, incidentally about one euro!

El Badi’s alternative title “The Incomparable” is not over-stated, nor indeed is the nearby Bahia Palace, “bahia” meaning ‘brilliant’. The Alhambra-esque arcaded courtyards, vestibules, minutely decorated ceilings, stained glass, and carved stucco are quite simply astounding in their detail, only surpassed marginally perhaps by the 14th Century Ben Youssef Medersa (a Medieval Koranic school) where the tilework, stucco and finely carved cedarwood were for me the city’s most visually satisfying. At the nearby Marrakesh Museum, the building somewhat upstages its exhibits, but is worth the visit, as are the Saadian tombs (rediscovered in 1917).

Passing down the Avenue Mohammed V from the ancient Medina to the “Nouvelle Ville” of Marrakesh with its upmarket shops, trendy cafés and night-life, one can’t help but notice how seamlessly the two styles merge.

The meticulously preened Majorelle ‘botanic’ garden is a haven of cobalt-blue tranquillity, with imposing bamboo, lily-ponds, cacti, and a memorial to its sponsor Yves Saint Laurent.
Marrakesh’s spectacular Atlas backdrop proved too luring, and so we took a ‘Grand Taxi’ through the quasi-lunar Lower Atlas with our driver Omar. Later with our Berber guide Ali we trekked along uneven stony paths through five ancient Berber villages. Tiered houses made of red clay clung to hillsides – the villages only recently electrified. The Atlas are mostly inhabited by indigenous Berbers, Morocco’s oldest race. Joyous work-songs resonated through olive groves and valleys, pack mules and donkeys clambered up steep slopes, as we sauntered beneath carob, juniper and citrus trees, feeling privileged for our brief slice of a lifestyle fast-disappearing. I asked Ali why the Berber cemeteries had no head-stones or names. “When you’re dead, you’re dead” he replied.

Passing below Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak (4167m), we arrived back at the ‘Fna’ and treated ourselves to a pastry and coffee at “Patisserie des Princes”, delicious and only €2 total. Everything is wonderfully cheap in Marrakesh (although agree taxi fares first, or ask them to turn on their meters). Even our peaceful friendly accommodation at the “Riad Arahanta” (5 mins from the ‘Fna’) was incredible value at €25 a night, breakfast included.

Top of the Rough Guide’s recommended restaurants was the all-Moroccan “Al Fassia”, run entirely by gregarious ladies. Pigeon Pastilla to start, Lamb Tagine for main, and a satisfying Moroccan Sauvignon – I simply cannot recommend “Al Fassia” highly enough on every level.

My abiding memory of Marrakesh is of a friendly welcoming city. My masseuse however overstepped the friendship line a little. I’m not sure snake-charming is her thing either. All I know is she definitely rubbed me up the wrong way.