There are few destinations as magical and mesmerizing as the North African settlement of Marrakesh in western Morocco. This former imperial city, which is also known by the French spelling Marrakech), has a mystical allure of ancient Islamic tradition which touches every corner, along with the teeming, pulsating and playfully confrontational rhythm of the souk.
I have never before and never since experienced the simultaneous sense of adventure, welcome and intrigue that took hold of me from the first moment I set foot on Moroccan soil.
The juxtaposition of European and Maghrebi cultures in Morocco is jarring. Nestled within the confines of a luxury resort hotel in the up-and-coming French district of L’Hivernage, you could be forgiven for thinking you were kicking back in St. Tropez, rather than sitting on the edge of the yawning, unforgiving Sahara desert.
Less than a 15-minute amble from this salubrious postcode, the arresting heartbeat of the Medina throbs from dawn until dusk, and there is the distinct sense that you are certainly not in Kansas anymore.
The aroma of cardamom hangs delicately in the air, following you like a constant companion across the length and breadth of the burnt orange metropolis. The locals are humorous, playful and cheeky; with just the most rudimentary attempt at Arabic, a laborious ‘shukran jazeelan’ uttered in my flat, Irish tone, an initial smile bursts into a warm, welcoming beam, and I felt an inexplicable sense of belonging and safety among the Moroccan people.
Old Town Marrakesh
Exiting a taxi just short of midnight, I found myself enveloped by darkness inside the old town walls of Marrakesh. Curved doors with ornate handles hid a myriad of mysteries from the city streets, conjuring scenes from Arabian Nights in my mind’s eye.
A short-haired ebony cat weaved its way seamlessly through my legs as I strode into the black labyrinth of the Medina’s side streets towards the Riad Nasreen, aided by my smiling driver Abdullah who possessed just un petit peu d’Anglais.
The night air was heavy with moisture, and no light penetrated the maze like tributaries of these time-worn alleys, save for the flickering glimmer of an archaic lamp nailed to the crumbling exterior of a building on my right hand side.
As we rounded what seemed like the eleventh corner of our winding journey, I was confronted with the finality of a dim, dank cul de sac, the only decoration a heaving ochre door at its end. I swallowed a pang of trepidation and trotted behind Abdullah, who was encouraging me with intermittent gesticulations – ‘this way, please!’ – as he rapped three times on the antiquated door front.
The latch clicked backward and a tiny square in the middle of the frame seemed to materialise out of thin air, revealing a friendly pair of mahogany eyes set into a kind, angular face.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum, miss, I am Habib. Welcome to Marrakech!”
The door swung open and I was greeted with one of those few scenes in life that truly takes your breath away. As with all things in Marrakech, nothing is as it seems. Tucked away at the end of this twisting maze of silent blackness was a physical manifestation of Aladdin’s cave – tiles of marble laced with shimmering opal lined the hallway, and the purifying sound of a trickling fountain syncopated the conversation. Rich, burgundy curtains laced with filigree framed the main space of the Riad, and as I graciously accepted an inviting cup of mint tea from my host, I felt sure that the sights and sounds of this enchanting place would remain with me forever.
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