Our arrival in Morocco was nothing short of chaotic. An hour late, we arrived at the same time as a fleet of planes from all corners of the world, the snaking lines of people in front of passport control seemed to be working at a standstill.
This gave me enough time to make an initial assessment of my very first touch-down on African soil:
Furnace heat. Intriguing faces. Secretive women swathed in djebellas standing beside women in midriff tanks and painted orange tans. Nonchalant staff seem all too happy to let the afternoon slide into disorder; when we finally get to the counter, the officer is casually sending texts on his phone.
The chaos in Marrakech is somehow infectiously fun, and the taxi ride has me grinning wildly, everything a pleasure to see. I catch sight of a purple thread seemingly suspended in mid-air, only to find a crooked-back man winding the bright purple wool, walking backwards down the alley. The smells float through the window – of charcoal, BBQ meat, sweet orange. Sometimes they mingle with the open sewer on the street.
Horse and cart aren’t an unlikely event on the highway, casually trotting alongside the whirlwind of taxis, cars and trucks. Meanwhile, other cars are hugging lanes, careless to whomever they’re blocking, disregarding the sounds of the horns and curses in French and Arabic. French street signs are romantically named and sometimes paradoxical to the neighborhood – ‘Rue Aqua Marine’ titled a particularly dirty, red alleyway.
We turn near a turquoise-crowned mosque and arrive abruptly down a dusty lane, a carved wooden door marked “P’tit Habibi” in front of us. This will be our home for the next few days, a luxurious treat (via Mr and Mrs Smith Hotels) granted by our dear friends at home to celebrate our engagement. Waffi meets us at the door, a soft-speaking, gentle man who will be our host during our stay.
He greets us warmly and takes us through to the grand patio, and makes us a fresh brew of black tea flavoured with mint and sugar, poured from high in a tarnished silver pot. It’s insanely delicious. When I ask him about the ingredients, I think for a moment he said he added whiskey – surely not. Owen says I caught the tail end of a local joke. They refer to mint tea as ‘berber whiskey’…just like the donkeys are ‘berber limos’, and the djebellas are ‘berber tuxedos’. Waffi takes us for a tour of the Riad as the sun glows on the horizon, and we settle in for the night, ready to take on the medina in the morning.
Our simple but beautiful room is called ‘the Love Nest’. Everything is hand-painted with care: pictures of little birds and miniature blooms grace the doors, the window shutters, the cupboards. The towel hooks are blunt bull horns. We get dressed and make our way to the rooftop terrace for breakfast. The pool is still cool to touch, yet to be warmed by the morning sun. Fuchsia and tangerine bougainvillea blooms stand brightly against warm terracotta walls, as beautiful in the morning light as a stained glass window.
Breakfast is served in tagine pots on our private rooftop terrace. Spiced omelettes and bronzed pancakes are presented along with fresh orange juice, slightly tart, and sweet goats yogurt over bright-colored chunks of melon and banana. We hear donkeys braying, and children chanting school songs in the yard below. Black birds swoop dizzily above, whilst brown-bottomed bumblebees dance between the flower heads.
As we sit in the still morning air, the speakerphone from the nearby mosque begins to warble on high. One by one, the rest of the town follows suit; wailing, lilting prayers each drowning out the raucous sound of their brothers. Waffi comes up to clear our table, and helps us to plan a route for the day. He even walks us part of the way to the Jardin Majorelle, famed for being owned by Yves Saint Laurent since 1980.
The garden is truly an oasis that you can drink from with your eyes alone. The bold cobalt blue of the archways and buildings provides a striking backdrop for the amazing collection of cacti and palms gracing the grounds, and the fountains send a delicate spray into the air, softening the fierce blow of the midday heat. We spend a few hours wandering the paths and admiring the appending artworks to the gardens, before heading into the medina.
Dinner at our Riad later that evening meets every expectation. The rooftop terrace changes character by night: the dusky twilight sky belies the dark shapes of the mountains in the distance, and the city glows and chatters from the streets below, even busier than during the day. The red muslin curtains are drawn about our lounge, providing an intensely private dining area. The granite tabletop reflects the flickering light from the white stone lanterns, the hundreds of tiny holes casting brilliant yellow light across its surface.
Waffi presents our meal – a tagine of fall-apart beef, braised with prunes and roasted almonds. Owen also chooses a tagine of goat, perfectly stewed with apricots, tomatoes and plump olives. The accompanying local rose wine is a pale peach color, the same shade as the faded terracotta walls of the riad. To drink, it tastes of sun-ripened yellow raisins and soft pink flowers.
Our host suggests that we take our coffee and dessert in the private movie theatre downstairs – a white-walled bunkette laden with pretty cushions, a projector, and beside it a cavernous room full of DVDs. We eat vanilla-bean and fresh raspberry sorbet whilst watching the best of Quentin Tarantino. It is all so delicious and unbelievably decadent, I wish we could stay in this little exotic piece of paradise forever.
Our next stop is Essaouira for a surfing break on the coast, but on the day we go to leave, our taxi driver is nowhere to be seen. As the hour whiles away, Waffi becomes a little exasperated, calling our driver every two minutes – he is caught in the mad midday traffic of the medina. When he finally arrives, we don’t know if we will even make it in time to the bus station, but Ahmed is determined to get us there. Careering at a crazed, hands-over-the-eyes pace through the streets, I realised that to truly appreciate this place, you must let go of any need for order, logic and caution. You need to breathe deeply, relax, and let the craziness of this city wash over you as one unforgettable, unreplicable experience.
We make it with not even 30 seconds to spare – Ahmed receives our gushing thanks and a deserved tip. As the bus pulls away, I see a man carving a watermelon with his pocket knife, flies like buzzards as he carefully cubes the ripe fuchsia flesh of the fruit. Marrakech leaves me feeling strangely calmer than I arrived. Whilst you could argue the sights and sounds, all fresh to my eyes, are a recipe for over-stimulation, I instead find myself pausing to process each new exposure, somehow re-discovering the pleasure of each moment amidst the chaos of the medina.