Coming to Morocco is a long held dream of mine that was finally realised when I arrived late in the evening on Thursday last week. Upon stepping off the plane, I was welcomed by teaming rain and a toothless taxi driver baring my name on a tattered placard. ‘You speak French?’ he asked, before ushering me into the taxi, ‘a bit,’ I replied, and with that we were arranging for me to be fluent in Arabic by the time I leave in a month, taking surf lessons when I arrive in Essaouira next week, and I mustn’t forget ‘over there, that is the Royal Palace, the King stays in another Palace, but that is the Royal Palace’. ‘Right, that is the Royal Palace,’ I muttered, and ‘voila, here is the entrance to the Medina,’ he added as we raced under an arch and into the Old City, barely utilising two wheels out of four.
Colette loved Morocco and so did the darling of French song, Dalida, as well as Gertrude Stein, Orson Wells, Edith Wharton, Henri Matisse, Edith Piaf, Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Winston Churchill, Jacques Majorelle, Marlene Dietrich, Henri Bordeaux, Anais Nin and Voltaire – just to name a few. And not forgetting my favourite, Yves Saint Laurent.
For my 16th Christmas present, Mum gave me a bottle of Paris by YSL- a perfume that I wore religiously for the following twenty years of my life before switching to Vetyverio by Diptyque during a moment of heartbreak in my mid thirties. Perfume has a funny way of doing that, and I often ponder the irony that was the end of my relationship (now we’re talking perfume), with a product named after the city I now call home, in the very same year that I took up learning French.
I know, it’s gripping stuff. But in life, change is inevitable.
When I was 17, I read Yves Saint Laurent’s biography with eyes watering at every mention of his life in Paris and love for his other home, Marrakech. With each spray of his perfume, I thought of him and those horn rimmed glasses, his dazzling designs and in the days before Google, I’d pore over images of his muse- a much younger Catherine Deneuve – all fiery and cool with her short, sleek hair and high waisted YSL trousers on the pages of black and white coffee table books.
And of course, when it comes to Morocco, there is also the rich Islamic culture and breathtaking call to prayer five times a day, the High Atlas Mountains, the Berber people, the Sahara Desert, the Medinas, the souks, the snake charmers and a general romantic essence of everything that is Eastern and beautiful – all just hours away from Paris.
My time is now.
As my head hit the pillow on my first night in Marrakech, I drifted off to the sound of pattering rain of the roof and ‘adhan’ (call to prayer) in the distance. I woke the following morning to the first call of the day competing with roosters calling from a neighbouring garden. Maps, notes and suggestions from those who’ve trodden this path before me, lay splayed out on the breakfast table, and I enjoyed at least five cups of mint tea before I stepped through the door of the riad and onto the street below. Moments later ‘Hey, Spice Girl’ was called out to me and, not certain if I was supposed to take on the guise of Sporty, Baby, Posh, Ginger or Scary, I gave up guessing pretty quickly, smiled, gripped my umbrella and continued on my way.
The people of Marrakech are as charming as they are beautiful. The millions of stalls in the souk leading off the square Jamaa El Fnaa, are as magical as they appear in magazines and coffee table books. The moorish architecture and the minarets atop the mosques reach for the sky, seeing me gazing upwards and tripping over my feet far too often. There are fewer cars than I’d imagined, and the little larks that fight for my breakfast baguette untouched in its basket, have slowly become my friends.
I spent my first morning developing a new found love for my second language which sees me often faking deafness and ignoring phone calls in Paris, but with Moroccans speaking French at a much slower pace, a new confidence was quickly acquired. I immediately found them to be grateful for my tattered attempts, and complimentary with every word.
Spice Girl soon had a skip in her stride, something that is often lost on me with Parisians who, as much as I love them, can be intimidating – leaving me feeling humiliated with their heigh standards expected with each and every spoken word of their delicious language. For anyone looking to improve their French, just hit the souks in Marrakech where you are thanked, rather than spanked, for giving it a go. Gone were the English menus and futile American accented quips of ‘bye, bye, see you next time,’ often found in Paris at the sheer sniff of an accent, replaced with a much needed ‘Madame, vous parlez bien Français’. I suppose it helps, when Madame is lining up a thousand pairs of shoes and pondering every colour.
By lunchtime, I was sitting on a rooftop deep within the souk feasting on a vegetarian pastilla, feeling very happy to be here.
Later that afternoon, as the sky cleared and umbrellas went down in unison with the sun, I met with a great friend of our family who, in a moment of pure serendipity, was finishing up in Marrakech just as I arrived.
After meeting in the middle of the main square, Jamaa El Fnaa, we dodged plops of rain in the souk along with offers of tea and presents as we giggled our way through piles of leather bags, walls of raffia shoes, endless baskets and seemingly thousands of bottles of Argon Oil.
‘This is Trisha, my mother’s greatest friend,’ I offered to anyone who’d listen, and with that, there were gifts of glittering key rings and tours around every ‘upstairs,’ where we were shown more wares that neither of us needed, as much as we were reassured that everything was made in Morocco, ‘pas Chine’.
The larks danced on palm fronds as we walked home through the warm evening air before enjoying a special moment of non stop chatter – refreshing cocktail in hand, at the Churchill Bar in the beautiful Hotel Mamounia on the edge of the Medina – a wonderful end to my first day in Marrakech.
As a young aspiring painter, Jacques Majorelle arrived in Morocco in 1917, invited by the French Resident General, Marshal Lyautey. After spending a short time in Casablanca he travelled to Marrakech and like many of his contemporaries, fell in love with the vibrant colours and street life he found here.
In 1923, Majorelle purchased a four-acre plot situated on the border of a vast palm grove, and in 1930 he built an Art Deco house and studio and painted it in ‘Majorelle Blue’.
Following Majorelles death in 1962, the garden and house fell into an abandoned state before being purchased and rescued by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent in 1980.
Early on Saturday morning, I set off for les Jardins Majorelle located just outside the walls of the Medina. Skipping through endless boot loads of carpets, second hand books, wooden carts filled of fruit and vegetables, fresh orange juice vendors pressing cup after cup of juice, and seemingly millions of people, I finally made the dash across the busy Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, before emerging in the cosmopolitan and comparatively peaceful, Rue Yves Saint Laurent.
The following hour was spent in the magnificent, recently opened Musée – a shrine to a man who the Moroccans loved and one who made a significant contribution to this city for the duration of his time here with Pierre, the man he loved. The walls are adorned with photos of Catherine et al and as well as a decent collection of his incredible sketches. Videos of catwalk models from a bygone era, naturally beautiful, barely tanned and definitely not botoxed, are beamed through a screen in a thoroughly modern theatre.
Down the hallway in a darkened room lit up only by a temporary exhibition of his sparkling dresses barely reaching the knees of the mannequins that they adorned, I almost walked into mirrors as I navigated my way through the glittering darkness.
In a city where it is not unusual to see many women covered from head to toe, I found myself momentary ‘nowhere,’ and feeling more than just a little bit contemplative.
Next door, the Jardin Majorelle was busy with afternoon foot traffic made up of at least three Chinese brides posing under Majorelle’s studio window; wheelchairs scooted down paths and lost children called for their mothers, while couples and families from every single corner of the world took selfies in a thousand different languages. Bustling groups of middle aged women on their once in a lifetime trip together, shouted across rare cactus plants about important things like the price they paid earlier in the day for a fresh orange juice in the main square.
All of this was made bearable by the sheer size of the gardens, where quiet corners in this expansive and beautiful oasis are easy to come by. It is a truly magnificent place, and like the city outside it’s four walls, this is a place for everyone.
In a nod to Morocco’s Berber culture (who also make up the oldest people in North Africa), a staggering collection of over 600 objects ranging from jewellery, clothing, arms, basketry, textiles and carpets accompanied volumes of text, are all housed in a fabulous museum within the walls of what was once Majorelles studio.
After three hours, following a fusion of cultures fastidiously arranged within square metres of each other, I collapsed into a chair in the garden café with a fresh juice of pineapple, ginger and soda.
Marrakech is blanketed by the High Atlas Mountains which loom importantly in the distance from every vantage point and rooftop. Each night, I climb up to the roof of my Riad and join the larks as the sun begins to set – and together we soak up the magic that are the colours of the day painting the peaks of this staggeringly beautiful and vast mountain range.
I had romantic visions of being driven up to the mountains through the Vallée Oukira and finding plentiful waterfalls, pack mules, Berber villages and breathtaking views. A car arrived on Sunday morning and my driver was delighted that I was willing to spend the day in French.
‘I also speak excellent England,’ he assured me, before we set off on an adventure towards the Oukira Valley in the lower reaches of the Atlas Mountains.
Conversations about the Berber people, the importance of olives, agriculture, magnesium and tourism followed, as we wound our way out of the city and towards the mountains. ‘Tu comprends,’ he’d check, met with plentiful ‘oui’s’ and ‘d’accords’ from me.
Slow and considered with every word, we stopped from time to time at places selling tajines stacked neatly upon each other and tapis hanging from the walls.
The track leading into to the Atlas from Marrakech is a winding road filled with tour buses, four wheel drives, city taxis and locals waiting to sell everything from market baskets to bunches of flowers, ceramics and jewellery.
‘Better than the Swiss Alps’ he rejoiced, as we headed deeper into the valley.
I was exhausted by the time we reached our isolated lunch spot at midday, where we were greeted by a jolly fellow who offered tajines of beef, chicken, vegetables and cous cous. ‘Pas touristique’ my driver smiled, ‘c’est très typique des gens Berbères,’ he added.
Seated in a windswept corner of the isolated restaurant, overlooking the river and surrounded by the mountains, I tried my hardest to romanticise the experience.
A tajine that smelt pretty dreadful and tasted even worse that had been prepared in a pot beside the WC, was proudly presented with a tall glass of water. I spent the following hour attempting to savour every bite, but was defeated by a growing sense of cynicism and eventually pushed it aside.
More like the lower reaches of the Himalayas than the romantic wonderland written up with enthusiastic vigour in magazines, I soon concluded that the valleys beneath the Atlas Mountains have become a wasteland of plastic chairs in the cafés that line the river, along with Argon oil workshops run by women designed for tourists to capture with the zoom lens of their cameras.
When I arrived home last night, I painted a picture in my mind of what the valley would have been like a hundred years ago, before drifting off to sleep.
As with everything in life, change is inevitable but one thing is for sure, the magic of Marrakech remains.
Pictured: the shadows of palm fronds bouncing off the beautiful home and studio of Jacques Majorelle