Dreaming in Marrakesh’s arms
BY ANJA FAHS
Marrakesh – merely the sound of the name of this Moroccan royal city awakens oriental fantasies in us. It has captivated generations of travellers and there is hardly any other North African town in which life pulsates as much as it does in this one. The imposing town walls glow red in the sunlight and the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains shimmer in the distance. Green palm groves, fragrant Jasmine, colourful carpets and sparkling ceramic mosaics all combine with one another to create an overwhelming oriental colour frenzy that indulges the senses.
If you travel to Marrakesh, there’s no better place to stay than in one of the beautifully restored Riad hotels right in the middle of the old bustling Medina of the town. A Riad is a traditional house or palace. High surrounding walls seal off the interior from the outside and create privacy for the inhabitants. In most cases the living spaces are grouped around a small inner courtyard or garden and many of the old attractive Riads have been converted into luxurious hotels. One of the most beautiful buildings is the Riad Dar Darma. The guests’ path to the hotel takes them right through the small winding lanes of the old town. The palace dates back to the 18th century and is located in the Moqf District right in the heart of the Medina. The Marrakesh Museum and the famous Ben Youssef Madrasa Quran School, an attraction visited by many tourists, are just around the corner. The school was founded back in the fourteenth century and extended to become the largest Islamic-theological academy of the Maghreb from 1570 onwards.
No sooner have we entered the imposing, now hotel building, than the heavy, artistically carved wooden door slams shut behind us and we’re surrounded by a heavenly peace that contrasts with the loud, effervescent life of the lanes outside. Even though the entrance area is plainly furnished in black and white with old monochrome photographs on the walls, minimalism is not the credo of the building. The Dar Darma Riad abounds with opulent luxury. Artistically carved doors, wonderful old furniture with inlaid decoration, colourful oriental lamps and soft, velvet-covered armchairs adorn the various rooms. The building comprises over 1,200 square metres of living space and has been lovingly and lavishly restored. Great value has been placed in old Moroccan craftsmanship so that, for example, the typical “Tadelakt”, the antique Moroccan lime plaster, has been used in all the bathrooms. There are four suites and two large apartments each with two bedrooms. All rooms have been lavishly furnished with antique furniture and some have beds in artistically decorated alcoves and an open fireplace. You’ll find Moroccan silver artisan craftwork everywhere, chased candleholders and antique ceramics – always masterfully staged with the modern art on the walls. Kilims and furs are the colourful carpets on the floor and of course, all rooms are perfectly equipped with modern-day technology: a TV and Internet.
It doesn’t take long to find your way around the numerous palace rooms. The Dar Darma consists of several buildings joined into one. There are two romantically enchanted inner courtyards where pools and fountains ripple quietly and rose petals float around on the surface of the water. Guests have numerous communal rooms at their disposal, including a library, a lounge, a conservatory area and a salon and it is always possible to find a quiet, peaceful corner to read a book, or settle down with a glass of wine between shopping expeditions and sightseeing. A few steps lead up to the large roof terrace; a wonderful space with a small plunge pool, shady loungers and daybeds. From here you can look across the roofs of Marrakesh towards the famous Koutoubia Mosque minaret. This is Marrakesh’s largest mosque, dates back to the second half of the 12th century, and is one of the oldest mosques in Morocco.
In general, a large proportion of domestic life takes place on the roof terraces. This is the female domain, where the women dry their washing on the roofs and the children play in the sun. The numerous rooftop cafés and restaurants in Marrakesh are wonderful. You can eat great food and enjoy a Mocha, lie in soft cushions, smoke shisha and watch the many storks that live on the thick walls of the old Dar El Bacha Palace, when they spend the winter here, for example. On the strength of the large number of architecturally significant buildings, Marrakesh old town, along with the Agdal Gardens and Menara Gardens, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. But above all, it is the Souk in Marrakesh’s Medina with its effervescent, bustling life that is a tourist attraction. Here you’ll find the entire array of sumptuous oriental spices and food items, just as much as wonderful carvings, objects artistically decorated with inlaid work, carpets, fabrics, antiques and most of all, leather goods. The traders love to haggle extensively and there’s a deal to be made on every object, it’s part of the sale.
Outside the town walls is another gem of art and history: the Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh was a place of retreat and source of inspiration for the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008. Surrounded by a wealth of plants and oriental architecture he created many Haute Couture designs here in the garden and house that in their colourfulness, reflect Moroccan life. Like Yves Saint Laurent, many other artists have also been drawn to Marrakesh. Intoxicated by the magic of the exotic atmosphere, Eugène Delacroix and Henri Matisse settled here in as early as the 19th century, for example. Later, poets of the hippy generation, musicians, actors, actresses and jet-set greats like Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Catherine Deneuve and Paul Getty all followed in their footsteps. In their search for a truth that was beyond the rationalism of the western world, they allowed themselves to be beguiled by the fragrances and sounds of foreign culture.
As the sun slowly sets and the muezzin’s call rings out across the Medina it, is time for the town’s main attraction: the Djemaa el Fna, which in Arabian means something like the ‘Meeting of the Dead’. But after sunset it’s everything but dead here, because the world-famous medieval market and Executioner’s Square have become a vibrant place full of storytellers, fortune-tellers, snake charmers and jugglers. It is here that you’ll see the water sellers in their striking costume, old Berber women offer to decorate the hands and feet of female tourists with Mehndi painting in henna, and hundreds of cook shops are constructed. It’s not only tourists who enjoy their evening meal at Djemaa el Fna however; the locals also enjoy the extremely tasty Moroccan cuisine. It’s just a short walk from Riad Dar Darma and the aroma of flame-grilled lamb cooked over a charcoal fire delights your sense of smell before you arrive. There are all sorts of Tajine dishes, chicken with salt lemons, or beef with almonds and plums that have been cooked in a tajine pot for hours – the pot that gives the stew dishes their name. In addition there are pigeon pies, rich bean soups, the national dish of couscous in a myriad of variations, vegetables and delicious sweet dishes. Morocco’s cuisine is known far and wide and Marrakesh is its culinary centre.
Thus, the Dar Darma also offers wonderful cuisine. There isn’t a set menu. At midday the guests tell the members of staff what they would like to eat in the evening and where – in this palace you can eat in all the communal rooms or on the roof terrace. A table will be lovingly laid in your chosen location, strewn with rose petals and dinner will be served at the desired time. The chef is more than delighted to be at the guests’ disposal for cooking courses and teaches them how to cook like the Berber using traditional earthenware and how to prepare couscous according to handed-down recipes. It is in this way that oriental tradition meets modern-day living in the luxurious Riad Dar Darma and in the whole of Marrakesh. It is a mixture that has helped the cultural life of this unique town to spread its wings and fly.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q1 2016. Picture credit © Stefano Scatà