Usually one has preconceived notions af what a place or country one is visiting will feel and look like. Usually my fantasies and illusions are shattered rapidly upon arrival. Frequently one imagines a place will be like something that did exist, accept that it existed in that way fifty or a hundred years before. One can still gaze upon the pyramids of Giza from ones balcony at the Mena House, just as travelers there did in the 1880’s: just don’t look behind you, because then you will encounter the creeping ugliness of modern Cairo right at your back.
When I lived in Beijing in the early eighties, one could still feel the Imperial past. It was tangible. Most of the Hutongs (alley ways) and courtyard houses were still standing even if in a sorry state. There were few buildings higher than Coal Hill, a pleasure mountain created from building the moat around the Forbidden City. The Imperial City itself was mostly deserted and the Confucian Temple’s stillness allowed you to loose yourself among the steles memorializing learned beureacrats of centuries past. There were few cars: China as we fantasize it, still existed was still there to be touched and breathed in. Not so much today! Today’s Beijing with its freeways in gridlock, it thousands of gruesome high rises its wanton destruction of its ancient past, its mass tourism trampling through the halls of Imperial Wisdom, is not the China most of us dream of.
So, in fact, it is an axiom of travel, that whatever you are expecting in a place may not be their, has long since fled, been encroached upon, fallen to the wreckers ball or just been overwhelmed by the onslaught of the modern world. So, I’ve started to visit new places with a new mantra: go without preconceived notions of what you will find. Try hard not to make assumptions good or bad of what you will see. Remember that romantic 18th century biography is just that, a lot can happen in a hundred years! Remember that guide books show you pretty pictures and can give you only the most cursorrary glimpse into a country or region. That’s is not to say one should go in ignorance; the more you know about a country and its history and society the more you will get out of your experiences while there. But after the study, put it all aside and take in your own impressions as if YOU were the first to experience this place.
You were wondering if I’d ever get to the Marrakesh part of this epistle! Well my preconceived ideas of what I would see in experience in Morocco were shattered within ten minutes of leaving the Casablanca airport. A city by the way, that has few if any redeeming qualities for visitors. I’m not quite sure what I thought I’d see but what we found as we headed out on a modern, twelve year old freeway were abundant green fields that stretched seemingly forever! As we drove along this comfortable ribbon of asphalt, we remarked to each other, “this looks like central California!” Yes, folks, it’s modern clean, orderly and pleasant
Then we had the reverse mind flip. Marrakesh looked exactly as we had expected! We approached the outskirts mired by the typical blight of the modern world, gas stations and construction. But that quickly gave way to the City Nouvelle, an upscale area created by the French during the colonial and “Protectorate” periods in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Elegant cafes, apartments and shops that went on for blocks and blocks continued the impression of prosperity. Finally we came to the ancient walls of the old city. The Avenue was broad, citizens were out on roller blades and jogging, tourists filled horse drawn caleeches and palms dotted the road. Now this was a place that looked like the guide book photos!
We arrived at our hotel, the historic and newly restored (for four years) La Moumonia. Now let’s back track a bit and I will explain why this was still for us at least, the best place to stay. Mohamed the V, Morocco’s popular and progressive king, early in his reign, launched an aggressive program to boost tourism in Morocco from two million a year to ten million. And in 2010 he announced his vision 2020 which invisions making Morocco one of the top 20 tourist destinations. It’s great for the prosperity of the nation and in some ways great for visitors, there’s been an explosion of upscale hotel building in Marrakech and that gives all of us more choices at better cost. But it also means an ancient city, and a fragile culture are experiencing the onslaught of more and more tourists.
So why stay at the La Moumonia? First location. It’s just outside the old walls of the city set in sixty acres of walled gardens on royal property. You can easily walk into the old city, or hop a cab to a chic new club in the City Nouvelle. Second history, this was Winston Churchill’s favorite place in the world, and he always stayed at La Moumonia. Third, it has been newly restored (albeit the technology is a bit quirky). The rooms though cozy for deluxe rooms, are elegant and have a strong sense of place accented with lovely touches such as roses and fresh fruit every day. Our room looked out from the fourth (highest floor) onto palm trees and the spectacular Atlas Mountains (more about those in a later story). The gym, a huge freestanding building is state of the art and set looking out onto the gardens. The pool is large and glittering. The Churchill Bar is a must, it’s cozy and elegant and the lobby bar is sexy and elegant as well. Okay, there are down sides. The clientele is mainly upper class Parisian who vary as always from lovely to vile in equal amounts. They smoke inside and a lot! Even our hallway in our room reeked of cigarette smoke wafting up from the bar! Some people might be freaked out by this. Also, the signage is irritatingly in French and everything has cutesie names making most things difficult to find. Since the hotel is a destination itself the public spaces often become overwhelmed by day trippers. Note to the management, Morocco is no longer a protectorate of France and hasn’t been since 1956; English is the international language, and Arabic the national tongue.
Of course there is a plethora of other lodging options including the Uber elegant and exclusive Royal Mansour which is adjacent to La Moumonia and also is a pet project of the King. Just be prepared to pony up double the already sizable tariff of La Moumonia! There are also tons of Riads (courtyard mansion homes) now outfitted as chic hotels. This isn’t our cup of tea, as we enjoy the full services of a hotel, but for many it’s the perfect romantic part of a stay in Morocco. Two that we see consistently noted as top drawer are Palais Khum and Riad l’Orangerie. There are also many new hotels as I previously noted among them a usual favorite of ours, The Four Seasons. The only problem with many of these is that they are on the outskirts of town and surrounded by new construction! Research these areas and hotels carefully before booking.
For first time visitors to Marrakech, we really recommend a guide in the old city as it is a twisted medieval polis and it is extremely easy to lose your bearings. Okay, if your cool with your latest ap, great, give a whirl, people will help you, if you get lost for some small change. But we prefer to know the lay of the land before losing our way. This being said, guides are pretty much uniformly irritating though cheap in this town (about $20.00 for four hours). Be very clear about what you want to see and do! If you want to shop, they will be more than eager to take you to the best places. If you want to see historical sites be very clear about this and talk about your itinerary before you set out. A visit to the stunning YSL museum in the the upscale residential section of the city called Guelize is really a must even if you’re not a fashionista. A visit to the adjacent Marjorelle Gardens is also a treat. Here the great designer and his long term lover and business partner lived and relaxed for over three decades. Be sure to purchase tickets from your concierge ahead of time! The lines are VERY long to purchase tickets at the door. If you stay at La Moumonia or The Royal Mansour, they can also arrange a very special tour of the masters home. Other hotels and riads do not have this in.
After a visit to the museum have your cabbie take you to Cafe de La Poste. This institution, in business since before the turn of the last century, runs perfectly. The food is classic French bistro fare with some Moroccan twists and the service is friendly and efficient. Everyone eats at La Poste! As far as eating in the city of Marrakech you’re are in for a treat. Realize however that Moroccans until recently really did not have a restaurant culture. Mom cooked for you and your guests at home. This of course is changing rapidly. On our arrival night, as we had traveled from Dubai and were pretty tired, we chose to eat at Le Morrocan at the Moumonia. Set in a traditional Riad amidst the acres a gardens, a better choice could not have been made. The food was traditional and elegant and the surroundings soothing to our tired souls. We also enjoyed the refined Moroccan fare at the romantic Riad Dar Marjana and on our last night we went to the family run restaurant Al Faissia for robust delicious fare.
And then there is street food….Marrakech is a street food lovers paradise. Just be careful! We’ve personally had our share of food poisoning being “adventurous”. So here’s our advice on food stalls. Look for the busy ones and ones that look clean and the produce looks fresh. Make sure your food is cooked then and there and that it’s HOT. Those slices of delicious fruit are a sirens song: don’t do it! The center of the old Medina Djemaa is the ultimate site for food stands in the Medina. Try the Murguez (sausages) or Kefta (beef patties). Maybe pass on the salads? But definitely try the Harira (meat, lentil and chickpea stew).
For us, Marrakech was a special place. Filled with the expected, the unexpected and the totally unexpected. It’s a place to go to now! Much more success in promoting tourism, and the place may lose much of its romance.