The airport in Marrakesh looks like it was built by the Rajasthan PWD, but then you should never judge a city by its airport (or, speaking as a Bangalorean, by its lack of one). I have never quite been able to shake the habit of comparing new places to ones that I know well. I once exasperated a good friend by travelling halfway across the world to see him in Rio de Janeiro and exclaiming, while we were driving through a leafy suburb: “Wow, this looks like Indiranagar!” I am comforted by the thought that some of the best writers in the world have done this. (Virginia Woolf thought Athens — yes, the one in Greece — was like St Ives in Cornwall. I suppose they both have the sea.)
Marrakesh stopped looking like it was developed by the Rajasthan PWD as soon as we registered that the roads were actually very good and that they led into a cityscape, the likes of which we had never seen anywhere before. Not long after we had passed the old city's high earth walls, we were deposited at the edge of a large square. From here, we had to walk to the hotel in which we were meant to be staying. Taxis do not venture into Marrakesh's old city or medina, but everything else does — mopeds, vans, donkey carts, bicycles, people with tiny fragile babies in cumbersome prams. This would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that the medina is an intricate warren of congested alleyways, the broadest of which are not more than 10 feet wide. Opening off these are still narrower passageways, some vaulted, quieter except for the occasional two-wheeler, and lined with scores of anonymous doorways. Some lead into decrepit interiors, old houses that have seen better days. Others conceal quiet oases of luxury — boutique hotels in souped-up riads, their rooms grouped around courtyards with fruit trees and fountains, and furnished with the most exquisite artefacts sourced from Marrakesh's souks.
The medina's alleys are its alveoli, teeming with life at all times of day and night. The closest I have come to anything like this is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the Bazaar is a positively sedate, orderly and contained space in comparison. In Marrakesh, the entire northern half of the medina is effectively one huge open-air bazaar. There is method in the chaos — the souks seem to be roughly divided into occupational zones: spices and olives, jewellery, textiles, leather, carpets, handicrafts and antiques, pottery, metalwork and everywhere slippers, slippers, slippers. But maps will only get you so far. This is the sort of place where a ball of string would be more helpful. Or children. They seemed to dart out of nowhere, knew instinctively what we were looking for and offered to lead the way. Many asked for money, and when it became apparent that they weren't going to get much out of us asked, puzzlingly, for “un stylo”. These we happily dispensed, but what did they go off and do with them? Set up a resale market in pens? Or doodle? The latter is an entirely likely possibility, for this is a city of designers that has survived into the 21st century on the strength of its artisanship.
All roads in the medina seem to lead back to Jemaa El Fna — the square that is not quite a square, that is the throbbing heart of the medina, and indeed of Marrakesh itself. The name roughly translates as 'Assembly of the Dead', referring to its one-time use as a venue for executions where the decapitated heads of unfortunate victims were mounted on spikes for all to see. Marrakchis display a sense of irony in retaining the name because the square is the setting for a sort of ritualised bedlam that takes place every day. By early evening, temporary shelters are erected and chairs and communal dining tables laid out. There is plenty of couscous and tagine and kebabs, but the hungry can also feast on snails or scoop the brains out of a ram's head (served complete with horns). Just beyond the food stalls, actors, musicians, snake charmers and acrobats entertain groups of goggle-eyed onlookers; a woman offers passers-by henna tattoos, brandishing a dirty syringe menacingly; two men lecture their audience on the workings of the human body using plaster of paris models with the outer layers helpfully cut away to reveal gory innards; Tuareg merchants sell aphrodisiacs and pills and potions for every imaginable ailment. Everyone in Jemaa El Fna seems to be in search of their fix, singing, dancing, cruising, fishing Coke bottles, smoking up, juggling, drinking tea, or just enjoying the end of another day in the company of friends. An hour after midnight, the square is empty again.
The southern medina contains many of the city's most impressive monuments. The Royal Palace is closed to visitors, but we managed to see the 19th-century Bahia Palace (a somewhat random series of oddly shaped pavilions and courtyards decorated in traditional Moroccan style). The nearby 16th-century Badii Palace is a good deal more inspiring, even though very little remains of the original structure. Reputedly encrusted with gold from Timbuktu when it was first built, it was stripped bare less than a century later by a subsequent ruler, its riches used in the construction of a new capital at Meknès. Its spacious central courtyard features a massive central pool flanked by four sunken gardens. We climbed up to the roof and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding areas. Back on the ground, we soon found ourselves in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. Another unexpected boy-guide led us to a still functioning synagogue, excitedly pointing out Star of David tiles on the walls and proudly proclaiming himself a Muslim.
Everywhere we went, we were identified with relentless accuracy. “India-Pakistan?”, people would call out, as if referring to a schizophrenic but essentially singular place. Or “Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan!” Every theatre displayed posters of Indian films, albeit a few years out of date. One restaurant discreetly changed its house music to play an entire CD of Kajol songs while we dined on — what else — couscous and tagine. It was all very friendly, but I got the sense that they didn't quite know how to place us. “Hindu-Muslim?”,some asked (again hyphenated, troubled).
Because we were scrimping on the budget, we didn't venture very far into the Atlas Mountains. That would have taken a four-wheel drive and many more days. But even the short drive to Kasbah Telouet offered spectacular views from a highway that snaked in jagged hairpin bends through the foothills of the High Atlas. It was astonishing to be able to stand in hot, baking valleys of scrub vegetation and cactus and look at the snow-capped peaks not very far away, knowing that the great Sahara itself was only a few more hours beyond. The Kasbah (fortress) of Telouet is in such a state of disrepair that you would think it was a medieval structure. In fact, large parts of it were added in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but it has been allowed to go to seed because complicated inheritance laws mean that all members of the once fearsome Glaoui clan, who own it, would have to agree to any changes in its ownership and management. All that remains of what must once have been a magnificent structure is a central banquet hall with an ornate wrought-iron window which affords breathtaking views of the valley below.
Perched on a hillock, the Kasbah is separated from the tiny village of Telouet by a strip of vegetation that hugs the narrow trickle of a stream flowing through the valley. Green fields and gnarled white almond trees contrast strikingly with the earthy brown of a clutch of dirt-poor mud huts.
Our guide in Telouet was a man named Ali. Ali is Berber but looks uncannily like Thierry Henry and cuts a striking figure in the hobbit-like cloak that all Moroccan men wear. He insisted on speaking to us in English because he said he needed the practice. He struggled to find words on occasion, but thanks to his fluency in French, he would startle us every now and then by using a word like 'anarchy' or 'dissension' or 'autarchic'.
At some point on the road west out of Marrakesh, the buildings change from pink to blue and white, the air becomes cooler and the landscape more gentle and fertile. Our final destination was the pretty seaside town of Essaouira, sheltered by its castle-like ramparts from the Atlantic Ocean perpetually crashing on the rocks outside. Dinner at a fish stall on the beach was the undoubted gastronomic highlight of the entire trip. We chose our meal from the catch of the day laid out in a slithering, squelching mass of fish flesh — sea bass and jumbo prawns, lobsters, eels, shark and crabs, still moving.
Essaouira is an eclectic place. As with anywhere else in Morocco, Islam is everywhere, the architecture is Moorish, but the town has long been a favoured destination for beatniks and counter-cultural figures (Jimi Hendrix is said to have visited and Cat Stevens is a regular). There are hippies everywhere sporting dreadlocks, smoking ganja, selling Rasta caps, bongo drums, Bob Marley posters and reggae music. There is a sort of placidity with which all these incongruous influences seem to coexist. But this is true of Morocco itself. As the closest thing to Europe that is not Europe, the country has always occupied a special place in the Western exotic imagination. The French of course stayed to rule for more than half a century and, like imperialists everywhere, left behind hotchpotch, mishmash, multicultural mélange. “Comment ça va?” “Alhamdulillah”, the waiters call out to each other in the big gloomy cafés surrounding Jemaa El Fna. What else is there to say but “Nous reviendrons, inch'Allah!”
Air France flies from both Mumbai and Delhi to Marrakesh (via Paris). An economy class ticket on either sector costs Rs 45,056 including all taxes. (Source: Shikhar Travels, 011-41523667.)
The Medina is best explored on foot (cabs will only take you as far as Jemaa El Fna anyway). Guéliz (the new city) is a 5min cab ride or a hot, half-hour walk from here. If you take a cab, make sure to haggle — anything more than 6dh by day or 10dh by night to get from the Medina to Guéliz means that you are being taken for a ride. (1 Moroccan dh = approx. Rs 4.90).
Where to stay
Undoubtedly in the Medina. For five-star comfort, go to the Jardins de la Koutoubia (from $265 a double; +212-44388800, www.lesjardinsdelakoutoubia.com), located a stone's throw from Jemaa El Fna and the Koutoubia mosque. Don't miss its quietly opulent Piano Bar and the Moroccan and Continental restaurants across the courtyard. At the budget end of the accommodation spectrum is the (not so) Grand Tazi ($35 double; +24442787), also located very close to Jemaa El Fna in a cluster of cheap hotels on rue Bab Agnaou. The best places to stay in Marrakesh are its riads, of which there are several in the Medina. Riad Magi ($108 double; +24426688), owned by the charming and garrulous English expatriate Maggie Perry, is beautifully restored and run by an attentive and efficient staff.
What to see & do
> Marrakesh has few conventional attractions, so it is best experienced by wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. The Medina's central square, Jemaa El Fna, is an attraction in itself, particularly in the evenings when it becomes the setting for a daily carnival that is its most unique attraction. Visit the Koutoubia mosque, but be aware that non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques in Morocco.
> Spend a day or two browsing in the souks. Indian bargaining techniques will get you far. Don't bother using a map, all roads seem to lead back to Jemaa El Fna.
> In the northern Medina, stop at the Musée de Marrakech — more for the building itself than its exhibits. Also in this area are the tanneries.
> In the southern Medina, the Bahia Palace is crowded and missable. Much more awe-inspiring are the ruins of the nearby Badii Palace. Also in this area are the Kasbah mosque and the well-preserved Saadian Tombs. Wander through the Mellah (the old Jewish area) and you will almost certainly be accosted by children offering to take you to the synagogue.
Where & what to eat
Tagine (a slow-cooked stew of meat — usually lamb or chicken — and vegetables, served variously with olives, lemon, almonds or prunes) and couscous (coarse-ground semolina flour, topped with meat or vegetable stew) are standard fare, available virtually everywhere. If you find the food on the bland side, ask for harissa (a spicy Tunisian chilli sauce). Grilled brochettes (kebabs), kefta (kofta) and merguez (spicy sausages) also feature on most menus.
Jemaa El Fna is ringed by cafés and big gloomy restaurants that feel incredibly like Koshy's in Bangalore. Waiters will let you sit around for hours (in the Café de France they will also take hours to serve you) and these are great places to people-watch. The food stalls set up in the square every evening offer a unique eating experience, great value for money and didn't upset these travellers' stomachs. If you are getting sick of Moroccan food, head to Guéliz, where you can eat everything from fast food (there is a big McDonald's at Place du 16 Novembre) to Continental haute cuisine — there's even an Indian restaurant called Salaam Bombay (1 avenue Mohammed VI) run by people from Chennai.
> Telouet is less than three hours by road, south-east of Marrakesh. Stay at the rather basic New Inn (www.telouet.com), and ask for Ali to be your guide. If you have the time and money, be a little more ambitious and head for Ouarzazate (you will need a 4X4 vehicle).
> Essaouira: The seaside town is about three hours by bus, west of Marrakesh on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Buses leave Marrakesh three or four times a day from the Supratours Terminus in Guéliz (avenue Hassan II), but you should buy tickets the day before you leave. Beau Rivage (¤35; www.essaouiranet.com/beau-rivage/index) is an excellent budget option. After Marrakesh, the Medina here is smaller, cleaner, prettier and almost entirely pedestrianised — it's worth strolling down to the port or climbing up the ramparts to watch the sun set over the ocean. Make sure to sample the catch of the day at the fish stalls on the port side of place Moulay Hassan.
To experience Marrakesh at its most modern, take a cab to Guéliz. The area between the two main roads (Mohammed V and Hassan II) contains some expensive antique shops, but there is also a much more contemporary aesthetic on display in the art galleries and leather boutiques. The tiny single-street old Spanish quarter is at the junction of rue de la Liberté and rue de Yougoslavie. Guéliz becomes less of a walking area as you head west — the city blocks become larger and the buildings more monumental (see here the Royal Opera House and the Palais de Congrès, where the GATT agreements were signed in 1994). Then walk from central Guéliz east along boulevard Zerktouni, to the gorgeous Majorelle Gardens, owned by Yves Saint Laurent but open to the public (8am-5.30pm daily; admission 30dh).