Marrakech is one of those places that I have wanted to go to for simply ages but never got round to doing so. I remember listening to the Graham Nash song, Marrakech Express, in the early 1970s, and being inspired by the idea of snake charmers and fire eaters everywhere. Iggy Pop ice described the song as the worst pop song ever, but that was in the 1970s when the music was so much better than today…. and also before he started advertising insurance!
I then read a more recent article about the Jardin Majorelle, the gardens of the house in which the designer Yves St Laurent spent much of his time putting together his fashion designs, and thought “If not now, then when?” Two weeks later, I was on an Easy Jet flight to Marrakech.
I had decided to stay in a Riad, a traditional Moroccan form of accommodation, with the rooms built around an internal courtyard, much like an ancient Roman villa, rather than a conventional Western hotel. I was going to Morocco to “see what I could find” (to use Graham Nash’s phase), so it would be important to soak up as much tradition as possible. The two factors I was looking for in my choice was price and location. Price: as in anything you get what you pay for, so I wanted to be comfortable without wallowing in luxury. Location: Not too close to the centre, but within walking distance. I ended up at the Riad Calista at the bottom end of the Kasbah. It was simple, clean, and with an extremely helpful manager. There was an attractive pool in the courtyard, with the water being somewhere between absolutely freezing to refreshing, depending upon your perception. I would certainly recommend staying in a riad rather than a hotel, but it is important to accept that most of them are not hotels. They are perhaps closer to what we expect an Air BnB to be, and you are a guest in someone’s house, rather than a guest in a hotel.
On my first day I had decided to walk to the Jardin Majorelles, but had not taken into account the fact that the most direct route was through the souks of the Medina. Try getting through there with your wallet intact! Although I was on my guard, I was quickly lured into a shop will all the skill of an excellent angler reeling in his fish, and found myself looking at the most beautiful carpets. I didn’t want a carpet, couldn’t carry one home on the plane, in spite of my new best mate, Abdullah, insisting that his 6 foot carpet could be rolled up into the smallest of packages that not even Easy Jet would know it was there. In the end I managed to escape with only a fabulous handbag and a surprisingly comfortable pair of Ali Baba slippers. Escape into the clutches of the silk dyers! It was fascinating looking at the pigments and watching the silks dry in the wind. I had planned on buying some pashminas as they are small and light, so selling me four was not particularly difficult. And then it was into the perfume market, from which I emerged smelling of jasmine and amber, and one or two other aromas, but without buying anything.
Finally I managed to emerge, and headed towards the Jardin Majorelle. The entrance is down a small side street, and there was a small queue outside, but stepping inside was like stepping into a different world, one of calm and serenity. On many of the streets leading up to the Jardin are banners on lamp posts with the words (from Yves St Laurent) “When I discovered Marrakech, it came as an enormous shock. Especially its colours. The city opened my eyes to colour.” And the use of colour in the Jardin is immediately apparent. Pale green, exotic plants lead you inexorably but calmly to the most extraordinary cobalt blue house, standing proud not just in the green background, but also even bluer than the very blue sky. It is challenging yet strangely peaceful. It stands out, almost out of place, perhaps like YSL himself, and yet still manages to be perfectly in place.
The House now features a museum to Berber arts and crafts. What is so striking coming from the Souks is how little has changed over the centuries. What was sitting behind glass in the museum would not be out of place in the stalls and shops of the Medina. And why would you want to change things that are so beautiful?
I decided not to go on to the Yves St Laurent Museum. It was hot and the souks had sapped most of my energy, so it was back to the Kasbah for an evening meal and to prepare myself for the next day, a cookery lesson at the Clock Cafe, close to the Riad in which I was staying. That and my trip to the Atlas Mountains will have to form the subject of later blogs!