The Red City
It had been a tiring few days and when I was directed to stay face down on the fragrant towel-lined massage table, I let out a sigh of relief. I had been looking forward to this since the day it was included in the itinerary by the very generous Movenpick Marrakech. The three days leading up to this late morning appointment were run on pure adrenaline, definitely not stamina. The calves and back would have told you so.
Malika spoke very little English, but enough for an efficient conversation. I closed my eyes as Malika run her hands on my shoulders and back, and inspected the knotted muscles. Somehow she knew just the amount of pressure and the right oil for my battered back.
My mind wandered off with the music that was playing. It was so different from the Asian-inspired spa music that I'm used to. The night before, we had heard a similar mesmerising tune to which a lithe and graceful belly dancer had enchanted an audience at the dining concept of Lotus Privelege. This music, in that moment, brought my thoughts on Morocco to surface. Movies based on the larger Arab and North African culture have for long reduced it to a caricaturish depiction of tarbooshes, snake charmers and belly dancers. My encounters in the Arab world had been far removed from these representations, to the point I have often wondered where these impressions came from in the first place. In that moment, while at the Ô de Rose spa, I found my answer- Morocco! It is this culture that first served the intrigue and mystery of Arabia to the world.
Two evenings before, I was walking through the Jemaa El Fna, a short drive from the Movenpick. I had seen enough pictures of it to know what it looked like, but nothing had prepared me for what it would feel like. It is chaos and cacophony indeed, but it is also irresistibly dazzling. The Jemaa El Fna experience starts a good couple of hundred meters before it is even in your line of sight, right by the Koutubia mosque, when you hear a constant din punctuated by high pitched sounds. As you get closer and see the mass of people, it intimidates and attracts at the same time. All five us decided to stay close and not move on until we were all together. Jemaa El Fna demands such measures, but sticking to a plan is the most difficult thing to do there. You're drawn in all directions by sights, sounds and smells that tempt- snake charmers, potion peddlers, monkey handlers, musicians and performers, stalls of the most inviting fresh juices, succulent pieces of meat sizzling on burning coals, women enticing you with henna-adorned hands, reminding you that can have them too... it is impossible to fix your gaze in one direction! The next best way to experience Jemaa is from the rooftop of a cafe that skirts the plaza. Ours came with a languid breeze, an enviable vantage point and a roar of football fans cheering on Bayern Munich and Real Madrid (mostly).
The antidote to Jemaa El Fna (if one is needed) was our hotel. It's sprawling grounds encompassed sophistication of Moroccan architecture, the hues of the Sahara, the serenity of the Atlas Mountains, and the fragrances of a tagine simmering with olive oil and prunes, all in one. While on tour of the property the same day (ask them for a tour if you stay there!), our host began the tour by taking us through a corridor resplendent with small lamps, flickering in welcome. A few steps towards the lobby, and we heard a heavy, drawn-out woosh of a sliding door followed by the tranquil sound of a waterfall. We were led into a circular copper room where water poured along its copper walls. The room was designed based on the Moroccan belief that copper cleanses air. I am convinced it does, for the air in this room felt light and laden with energy. I love ancient wisdom of cultures. What I love more is when distant, seemingly disconnected cultures converge and have things in common. So imagine my excitement when I learnt about the importance of copper in Moroccan culture, an integral part of ancient Indian concepts of health and well-being.
Later that day, Atlas Elite had organized a guided tour for us to the key attractions of Marrakech. Our first stop was the Jardin Majorelle, the beautiful garden created by Jacques Majorelle and preserved by Yves Saint Laurent. A thick mass of green in bamboo, palms and cacti, through which intense blue, yellow and white walls pop, had to capture the interest of this crew of photographers. Despite the throngs of people, we found enough isolated frames that let these colours shout out loud. One can see a connection between YSL's work and this garden that inspired him- devoid of restraint.
Shortly after, our cameras (our other eyes!) were treated to unparalleled symmetry and sights at the Bahia Palace. The grandeur and vastness of the complex completely threw our schedule off for every zellij, every corridor, every cove, every courtyard drew us to it. Every section we walked to kept making this labyrinthine complex more intriguing. Coves led to secret passages, then into rooms, rooms opened into corridors, corridors ran parallel to courtyards and courtyards overlapped with lush gardens. Each corner spoke volumes of the Moroccan craft, exemplified by ornate doorways and ceilings, each carved or painted to exquisiteness!
What a beautiful city Marrakech is- I could see how it is this culture that gave rise to a beautiful mind such as Yves Saint Laurent's and at the same time still nurtures snake charmers and shawafas and black magic.
As I lay, my face peering through that funny weird hole at the head of massage tables, I thought back at the days that had brought me as much excitement as they did fatigue. The sights of Marrakech will remain with me- the bright red flag with the solitary green star, seemingly crumbling walls of the Medina that may be flaking, but still remain bright as if painted just yesterday, avenues flanked by orange trees, and streets lined with fragrant jasmine and bougainvilleas of every colour- from the usual pink and orange, to white and green.
Here are some vignettes to lure you to Marrakech.