Djeema el-Fna, the Assembly
of the Dead. What an odd name for a place that is so alive, the pulsating and
noisy center of Marrakesh. One of the worlds great spectacles,
it is hardly an assembly of the dead (the square was once the scene of executions)
but is a grand party with a thousand milling guests. By day it is animated with
crowds of merchants and their customers. At dusk it turns into a spinning kaleidoscope
of tastes, smells and sights. People gather in small circles to watch non-stop
performersacrobats, monkey tamers, sword swallowers, soothsayers, snake
charmers, jugglers, dancers, musicians and storytellers who act out their tales
with dramatic gestures. Even an outdoor dentist, herbalists, religious prophets
and tarot card readers draw attention. Berbers from the High Atlas Mountains
stand out in their traditional red clothing.
Here in one magic bound you pass
the frontiers of several centuries for this is no simple show for tourists.
This is true living folklore of other times. In the sprawling central plaza
of Moroccos most fabled Imperial city, you discover how common people
sought diversion since the Middle Ages.
|Djeema el-Fna, Marrakesh
(credit: Moroccan National Tourist Office)
In one corner vendors string out
their carts and sell freshly squeezed juice. In another space tables and benches
rest near portable kitchens from which blue smoke curls up, scenting the air
with charcoal-grilled sausages, kebabs and such.
Only six- and one-half hours from
New York, Morocco, nevertheless, feels worlds away. Here you find
yourself deep in another civilization where you are beset by new perceptions,
sounds, sensations and flavors. Even the architecture is different. The walls
are finished with zelliges, glittering mosaic tiles of many hues; tadillakt,
a rich hand-rubbed polish of lime, pigment, black soap and egg yolk, which creates
a soft, marble-smooth luster; and gueps, hand-carved plasterwork cut
In the narrow alleys of the
old medinas you are introduced to bustle and clamor. Many of the men and women
transacting business still wear djellabahs (cotton or wool hooded robes).
In the winding passageways filled with open-fronted stalls, you are borne along
by the flow of people and donkeys coursing through. Shopkeepers hawk fabrics,
spices and foodstuffs; silversmiths, leather craftsmen and tailors are hard
at work; and carpet sellers dart at you lizard-like begging you to enter just
to look around.
Hoping we would feel more like discoverers
than travelers, we were drawn to Morocco for the chance to step out of our Western
sensibility and into a rich and diverse tableau.
With limited time at our disposal,
we chose the four dazzling Imperial cities where the sun is always hot, the
nights are cool, the faces are friendly and the people helpful.
Morocco is such an old country, with
a long history of migrations, conquests, dynasties and social changes that each
of these cities has at various times been a capital: Rabat, Meknes, Fez and
Marrakesh. The first three, located in the central area, are no more than 200
kilometers from each other. Marrakesh, the dominant hub of the South, is farther
After arriving in Casablanca,
we took a one- and one-half hour train ride directly from the airport to Rabat,
the present seat of the government and of the kings main residences. Although
first-class compartments are not as plush as the ones on European trains, the
railroad is frequently the most efficient way to travel because of the short
As early as the 8th century BC indigenous
peoples settled in Rabat. Phoenicians and Romans followed. It later became a
Berber kingdom and was converted to Islam with the arrival of the Arabs in the
late 7th century. In the 12th century Yacoub al-Mansour declared it the Imperial
city and built walls around the medina. His plan to erect the largest mosque
in the Moslem West was left unfinished by his death in 1199. In 1912 the French
established a protectorate over much of Morocco (the Spanish did the same in
the North of the country) and made Rabat the capital of their administration.
Since independence (1956) it remains the political and royal center.
French is still the major language
in the Southern part; Arabic is spoken, too. Due to the French influence, there
is a "ville nouvelle" in addition to the old souk-filled streets. Each royal
city has one standout color and in Rabat it is white.
The sightseeing highlights include
the Tour Hassan. On this site are remains of a striking incomplete
minaret and parts of some reconstructed columns of the mosque begun by al-Mansour
and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the present kings father,
is buried in an open chamber below ground. A large creviced wall, into which
visitors slip notes, edges one part of the expanse. The Archaeology Museum,
the necropolis of Chellah whose walls enclose the ruins of the Roman
town and Sala Colonio are recommended stops.
On our way to Meknes, a city
of green tiled roofs, the shade of Islam, one of the occupants in the compartment
was a university student whose sister was meeting the train. They insisted on
driving us to our hotel before going home themselves. We found this kind of
cordial help to be common in Morocco. On a different occasion, a gentleman with
whom we struck up a conversation accompanied us to our lodging.
Other people implore you to come
with them to the casbah. In a country with unemployment as high as Morocco many young men, who often are as thick as flies and just as pesky, eke out a
living as unlicensed guides. With unerring instinct they zero in on foreigners.
Meknes, a city that is identified
with the color blue also has many ochre structures. It is perhaps a thousand
years old, but it became important as recently as 1672 when Moulay Ismail made
it his capital. He conquered most of Morocco and initiated a grand building
spree. Obsessed with defense, he built 23 miles of walls with three concentric
systems of ramparts. He prepared for a 20-year siege with granaries and a reservoir
and maintained a standing army of 150,000 men brought from the Sudan. The Bab
Mansour Gate leading into the medina is a sign of triumph for Moulay Ismail.
Moulay Ismails Mausoleum, Dar Jamai Palace and the Bou
Inania Medersa are on the tourist circuit, too.
The most compelling reason to overnight
in Meknes is its proximity17 miles from townto the ruins of Volubilis,
a Roman city that flourished 2,000 years ago. The arrangement of the streets
and public buildingscapitol, basilica, baths and
forumillustrate the Roman approach to municipal planning. Some
have well preserved mosaic floors depicting mythological scenes.
The ride to Fez, just east
of Rabat, takes less than one hour. As you approach the city you notice that
the roofs are made of green fluted tiles. But Fezs color is a rich royal
blue; pottery and tiles are painted Fez blue.
|Mint Tea and Music, Medina, Fez
(credit: Edwin Fancher)
Fez was an established Berber town
by 800 and soon received many Arab Muslims fleeing from Tunisia and elsewhere.
It became the capital city several times, alternately losing that status to
Meknes, Rabat or Marrakesh.
City walls were built, then torn
down by one sultan and rebuilt by another. More bastions were constructed within
and outside the walls. Two medinas were created: Fez el Bali with its
miles of twisted alleys, entered by several spectacular gates, and Fez el
Jedid. In the 14th century the Jewish population was removed from the old
medina to the new adjacent district and the first ghetto, the mellah,
was established. The Jews left for Israel in the1950s, but remnants of their
culture remain. The medieval quarter still holds a population of 60,000 living
not too differently than they did in the Middle Ages. Only donkeys are allowed
to deliver along the 1,000 derbs (dead-end alleys).
Fez boasts the oldest university
in the West and the Kairaouine Mosque built in 857. Non-Muslims may not
enter this large religious shrine, but may admire it through an open door.
We saved the most exciting Imperial
CityMarrakeshfor last and on our first night there rushed to the
Djeema el-Fna and also explored the medina at whose rim the great square sits.
The medina is different from those in the other cities. Some of its passageways
are wide and are covered in parts. The city has been described as pink and alternately
rose, apricot, red, peach and ochre. The great focus of Berber, Arab and African
culture, it is the gateway to the High Atlas Mountains and Berber villages on
The Badi Palace and Saadian
Tombs reveal some of the citys history. Marrakesh has long unusual
ramparts and lovely gardens. The Menara Garden is in a large olive grove
beside a peaceful lagoon and the Majorelle Garden holds giant bamboo,
other luxuriant vegetation, the rarest of essences and a brilliant medley of
birds. In addition to the ancient section, there is a very modern part with
broad streets, upscale stores and all the semblance of a large European metropolis.
It is well located for day trips. We took a private eight-hour trip from Marrakesh
to the charming fortified seaside town, Essouira, formerly Mogador, whose
ramparts were erected by the Portuguese.
We signed up with Mogador Tours,
which offers excursions both in and out of town. For a private two-person tour
you get your own car and driver. Group tours number four and up. In Marrakesh
you can briefly visit the important sites in half a day or take a garden tour.
Fantasia (a folkloric show) and Moroccan evenings, including dinner, are on
the schedule. Seven different trips to one of the surrounding areas, including
Essouria and the High Atlas Mountains, are also available.
Menara Tours, 41, Avenue Yougoslavie,
Tel. 212-4-44-66-54. Vans are in excellent condition and prices are reasonable.
During our stay in Rabat, the city
hosted games between Morocco and Jamaica and France and Japan. The Princess of
Japan came to root for her countrys team. Like other foreign royalty and
dignitaries, the Rabat Hotel Hilton was where she and her entourage,
as well as the athletes, stayed.
|Tour Hassan, Rabat
(credit: Moroccan National Tourist Office)
A sprawling hotel with bright and
open spaces, the architecture is a blend of modern and Levantine. All rooms
have balconies; some overlook the colorful Andalusian flower garden. Facilities
include a nine-hole golf course, typical hammam (Eastern-style steam bath),
well equipped health club, tennis courts and an oversized pool.
Service is outstanding; the general
manager and his carefully trained staff are on top of every detail. They willingly
go that extra yard, frequently inquiring whether everything is satisfactory.
During breakfast in the Executive Lounge, we asked for an item that was not
on the menu. The headwaiter went to the main kitchen to get it.
A delectable tray of Moroccan pastries
and fruit bowl with new selections every day is standard in the guestrooms.
So perhaps we have one tiny complaint. Its hard not to nibble on those
Rabat Hotel Hilton, PO Box 450
Souissi, Rabat, MA 10000, Tel. 212-37-675656. Rates begin at $105. www.Rabat
Our introduction to traditional Moroccan
dining took place at Dinjaret. During that first evening we discovered
that the preferred choice for dinner is in the medina at restaurants that are
housed in former palaces or palace-style homes. Similar in architecture, they
are designed around courtyards that are usually double-height and surrounded
by separate alcoves. Remodeled 10 years ago from a late 16th-century Andulsian
house, guests reach Dinjaret as they do most other restaurants in the ancient
section. An escort with a lantern meets you at the edge of the medina and guides
you through the labyrinth alleys.
Well prepared Moroccan cuisine is
little known in the West. The food at Dinjaretrefined and imaginativerepresents
the national table at its best. Dinner always starts with an array of salads
and the spread here was especially good. Cold vegetables included beets,
potatoes and carrots and eggplant prepared two ways. Before taking your order for
the main course, the amiable proprietress asks whether you prefer sweet or spicy.
We were served a sweet lamb tagine (casserole) with raisins. The sauce was so
beguiling, it deserves a place in gustatory heaven. We skipped dessert knowing
the pastries back at the hotel beckoned to us.
Dinjaret, 6, Rue Belgnaoui, Tel.
212-7-70 42 39.Reasonable.
There are not many hotels in Meknes.
The best two rate only four stars. The Transatlantique, across the river
and overlooking town, offers amenitiestennis courts and greenerythat
the in-town and more commercial Rif does not. The outdoor pool is a plus. Accommodations
vary. The rooms on the first floor (the 100 series) nearest the lobby have balconies
and are decorated in cheerful Moroccan country style. Avoid the second floor,
which is motel-like and shabby. Even the suite was found wanting. The clientele
is European tour groups. A more than acceptable breakfast is included. Despite
the absence of a top-tier hotel, a stay in Meknes is recommended because of
the historic sites and the proximity to Volubilis.
Hotel Transatlantique, Rue El Merinyine,
212-5-52-50-50. Rates begin at $45.
Riad has not been open very
long and, therefore, has yet to establish a solid reputation. But what an incredible
find it is. The word is getting around and tour operators call frequently hoping
to make arrangements for groups. To preserve the establishments character,
owner Raouf Ismaili turns them away. Mr. IsmailiMoulay Ismail is his forbearstill
lives in the large family palace where he was born and which appears on UNESCOs
World Heritage List. In addition to the dining facility, he is converting part
of the riad into an eight-room inn scheduled to open in March 2001.
Gardens are an integral part of the
design and some of the space, including a second story terrace, opens to the
sky. The interior with its heavy original 17th-century carved doors was painstakingly
Moroccan chefs are for the most part
women. Mr. Ismaili put his wife and mother in charge of the kitchen. Using family
recipes, the food they prepare is sublime. The traditional harira soup was thick,
gutsy and redolent of turmeric, cumin and cinnamon. Mechoui, the best way to
cook lamb, was, perhaps, the most delicious weve ever tasted. It was slowly
roasted for hours, which rendered it lean and fork tender. The couscous, prepared
Berber style with currants and nuts, was a perfect partner.
Riad, 79, Kdsar Chaacha-Dar Lakbira.
Tel. 212-5- 53 05 42. Reasonable.
With an unsurpassed
combination of tranquility and exoticism, Palais Jamai is the spot to bed down
in Fez. It is so jarringly resplendent that youll rub your eyes in amazement
when you see it. Built in Arab-Moorish style toward the end of the 19th century,
it was the jewel in a collection of homes owned by the Jamai family, whose patriarch
served as grand vizir (prime minister) to the sultan. Ideally located at the
edge of the medina, it is surrounded by imposing park-like grounds that are
lovingly landscaped on a sloping and terraced terrain. A walk through the property
feels like an excursion through paradise. The color and detailsMoroccan
cedar painted with geometric motifs, tile, mosaics, arches, chandeliers, rich
carpets and furnishingsare endless. Better make that more than one spin
around to take it all in. The breakfast buffet, with a setting to match, is
outstanding. Birds serenade you as you sit in the open air and enjoy a pleasant
breeze with your morning repast.
Palais Jamai, El Bab Guissa Fez
30000, Morocco, Tel. 800-763-4835, 212-5-635-096. Rates start at $150.
Thanks to the grandson of astrologer
and judge, Si Mohammed El Abbadi, the family palace, now Le Maison Bleue
and built in 1915, was converted to an inn and restaurant a few years back.
Passionate about keeping up the spirit of the house and eager to share it with
visitors, dinner is presented as though you are a guest in Mehdi El Abbadis
home. You dine like a pasha on brocaded divans in a candlelit salon while being
served by costumed waiters in pantaloons and babouches (pointed slippers).
Some restaurants, including Le Maison Bleue, located inside the walls of the
medinas offer prix-fixe dinners only. They usually average about $50 and include
alcoholic beverages and wine. There is no menu, but the dishes vary each evening
and might include, in addition to appetizer salads, two main courses, such as
fragrant chicken with preserved lemons and olives and tantalizing lamb tagine.
Two desserts top off the meal and inevitably one is pastilla au lait,
flaky pastry leaves with almonds and custard sauce. One of several musicians
comes to your table and serenades you on the lute while singing a Gnaouan song.
When you finish your after-dinner drink in the main courtyard, a man with a
lantern guides you through a corridor, whose floor is paved with blue zellige
mosaics, out into the medieval quarter. La Maison Bleue, 2, Place de listiqlal Batha 30000. Tel. 212 55 636052. www.maisonbleue.com
Dar Saada, a 16th-century
palace that is inside of Fezs cavernous medina, is open at lunchtime only
and there is no attendant to show you the way. Its hard not to get lost
in the endless alleys, but the helpful shopkeepers will direct you and they
might even escort you themselves. Tall ceilings, glorious hues, huge columns
and lots of tile and brass add to the sensorial high. Order a la carte or select
one of three five-course set lunches. The menu pecheur (fish in Morocco is very
tasty) offers bastilla with fruits de mer and a tajine of poisson mcharmel.
Entertainmentbelly dancing, singing and musicduring the meal is
non-stop. Like other elegant riad restaurants, Dar Saada hosts large
tours at noontime. Khalid Benamour, the owner, has just opened Riad Arabesque, a
small inn inside the medina.Dar Saada, 21, Souk Attairine. Tel. 212-5-63 73 70/71. Reasonable. http://www.arabesquehotel.com
Think Taj Mahal meets Sheherazades
Palace and you might get a glimmer of Amanjena, the newest addition to
the Aman collection. But not quite. The astounding resort defies description
and is, in our opinion, at the top of the worlds greats. Ed Tuttle, an
architect, who planned seven of the 11 Aman hotels, is faultless in his taste,
imagination, attention to detail and exquisite eye. Regardless of location,
you know instantly that the resort has the stamp of an Aman for there is a unity
in the entire group, but there is also a sense of place. The walls are pink,
the color of Marrakesh, and the design draws on mosque architecture. Amanjena
was built and decorated with native materialsleather, tulya wood, cedar,
pise (earth mixed with straw) and green fluted roof tiles. Local forms
were also usedhigh columns, arches arranged in series, small pools and
a large central basin, which traditionally collects rainwater.
Each of 41 separate pavilions is
surrounded by half walls and encompasses a gazebo with lounging and dining areas.
The piece de resistance in the private quarters is the 26-foot high domed ceiling
with small windows that open to the morning light. Bathing and dressing areas
There are two restaurants, a spa
and hammam, heated pool and a boutique whose well edited merchandise puts it
on a par with a museum shop. A library with a full-time librarian and designed
like a medarsa (Koranic school) is housed in its own building,
Amanjena, Route de Quarzazate,
Km 12, Marrakech (four miles outside the city in The Palmerie). Tel. 800-637-7200,
212-4-40 33 53. Rates begin at $550. www.amanjena.com
In the middle of July 2000 a press
release arrived with a bold statement covering an entire page, "The world-famous
Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech closed its doors on June 30."
What, we wondered? We had been there
a few weeks earlier and it seemed as popular as it had been in its nearly 80
years of existence. False alarm. I turned the page and read that "Celebrated
French designer (Alberto Pinto) reinterprets La Mamounia." The renovation is
now complete and the hotel is ready to receive the same well known royalty,
socialites, celebrities and politicos.
"The lobby, restaurants and public
spaces are too beautiful to consider altering," said Robert Berge, managing
director. The last renovation, which took place in 1986, married Art Deco with
Moroccan. New guests will have a choice as to which style room they prefer.
When we return wed like to stay in the same wing we occupied before with
its Art Deco mirrors and painted Moroccan doors. Were glad to learn that
theyre not taking down the rotagravure and sepia photos from the 20s
through the 50s that line the hallways or removing the piano that does
double duty as a bar in Le Churchill Piano Bar, so named because this was the
prime ministers favorite hotel.
La Mamounia is smack in the center
of the city, but is nevertheless a resort, because of its 20-acre park, mammoth
swimming pool, spa and gallery of shops and restaurants.
La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Djedid,
40.000, Marrakech. Tel. 212 44 38 86 00. Rates begin at $300. www.mamounia.com
An elderly gentleman dressed in a
flowing white djellabah and a red fez walks you from your cab to Le
Yacouts entrance. Like other medina restaurants that are housed in
renovated private palaces the anonymous door offers no hint of the elaborate
and many-roomed interior. No wonder it took 12 years to complete the makeover.
The results are straight out of a "Thousand and One Nights." Dinner here is a two- and
one-half-hour production. You are led to the roof, seated at a small table,
served a drink and can wander to the four sides to look at the medina, the moon
and the minarets while listening to the rhythms of a drum and stringed instruments.
A waiter then helps you down the winding staircase to one of several settings,
a vaulted second floor chamber, the central area surrounding the turquoise pool,
an intimate glassed-in salon or one of the alcoves. The fixed price, $50 with
all drinks, started with the best assortment of appetizers that we had in Morocco:
sweet mashed as well as mildly spiced carrots, two kinds of eggplant, tomato
confit, chunks of sheeps liver and briouttes filled with beef and other
delights. There are no menus, but you may choose two out of four entrees. We
ordered bastilla, the Moroccan standout of flaky parchment pastry filled with
pigeon, nuts and eggs and flavored with cinnamon, which is often an appetizer,
and beef with fava beans, which was kept warm with an embroidered velvet cover.
Dessert was tiny cookies presented on a four-tiered stand and fresh fruit. Service
is unhurried, courteous and efficient.
Le Yacout, 79, Sidi Ahmed Soussi,
Tel. 212-4-38-29-29. Reservations essential.
Frenchwoman Christine Rio, owner
of Le Tobsil (meaning dish in Arabic) is the consummate hostess. She
joins guests to drink, chat and make them feel at home. Dinner in this small
riad is a succession of exciting courses. The kitchen turns out Moroccan
favorites that are prepared with creative variations. Olives, the equivalent
of butter in a Moroccan meal, arrived with house-baked flat, round, focaccia-like
Arab bread. Salads included tangy stewed spinach in a spicy dressing. Next came
a moist chicken dish, falling off the bones and seasoned with onions and parsley
and Moroccos most popular herb, coriander. The lamb tagine with spices,
honey and figs was an example of the way cooks season with sweet and savory
and combine meat, fish or poultry and fruit. Next came an outstanding couscous
topped with vegetables, raisins and chickpeas. Every grain of this light semolina
was moist and tender, yet firm. The meal ended with beautifully poached fruit.
Like all restaurants of the genre,
the courtyardyou can eat on the balcony or downstairsopens to the
sky and lanterns and candles provide the lighting. The rose petals that were
strewn on the tablecloths are a way of saying welcome. One of the musicians
gets up from the floor from time to time, moves to the beat and swirls the tassel
on top of his hat.
Le Tobsil, 22 Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien,
Rmila Bab Ksour. Tel 212-44-44 40 52 / 212-44-44 45 35. Dinner is $50,
When youve had your fill of
fancy food and palatial settings, try Le Marrakchi, located two flights
up on the edge of the Djeema el-Fna. Ask for a seat near the front windows so
that you can look down on the square below and at the illuminated Koutoubia
Mosque. The tented ceiling adds to the authentic atmosphere. The simple foodharira
soup and couscousis good. But why the popcorn? Olives and bread alone
work as appropriate pre-dinner snacks. The entertainment is pleasant. A musician
sits in the corner and a belly dancer wiggles from table to table while carrying
a tray of lighted candles on her head.
Restaurant Le Marrakchi, 52 Rue des
Banques. Tel. 4-44 33 77. Dinners are $25, $35 or $45.
Planes from overseas land in and take off from Casablanca,
the countrys commercial center. Conducting business and staying over between
planes are the major reasons people pause here. Theres not much to see;
golf and going to the beach are major pastimes. Le Royal Mansour Meridian,
located downtown and close to the medina, is considered one of the citys
best hotels. The other three top hotels also belong to chains. Our room needed
a bit of sprucing up. The service and attention to guests could not be faulted,
despite the large tour groups checking in and out. A generous breakfast buffet
is served in the central jardin dhiver. There is an excellent fitness
Le Royal Mansour Meridien, 27, Avenue de lArmee
Royale. Tel. 800-543-4300, 212-2-31 48 18. Rates begin at $132. www.lemeridien.com/morocco/casablanca/hotel_ma1273.shtml
The best French food in Morocco is found way out on
the corniche at A Ma Bretagne, which caters almost exclusively to natives.
To enjoy the changing sky, go before nightfall. As the light fades, orange,
pink, mauve and blue stripes rimimng the ocean recede into darkness. The setting
is modern and the restaurant sits squarely on the beach. Andre Halbert, chef-owner,
prepared a tasting dinner centered largely on fish and seafood, his specialties.
He bakes the best rolls in all Morocco. Monsieur Halbert could be cooking in
any five-star restaurant in New York or Paris.
First came a tempura of shredded calamari with two lip
smacking sauces. Next was oysters mille-feuille with zucchini and another divine
sauce. Rabbit surrounded by pureed vegetables followed salmon stuffed with spinach.
A light and fruity Chardonnay bottled in Morocco accompanied the meal that ended
with warm chocolate cake with a runny interior.
A Ma Bretagne, Sidi Abderrahman, Bd. de la Corniche,
Casablanca. Tel. 212-2-36 21 12. Expensive. www.amabretagne.com