Into The Heart of Marrakech

Jennifer Evans Gardner takes us on a soul-searching journey into the ancient “Red City.”

Desert Camels by Pilar Calandra

In Morocco, they shake hands from the heart. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Marrakech. The man who came to pick us up from our hotel shook my hand warmly, and then touched his heart in the traditional greeting. The gesture moved me, and I was hooked. Just weeks before my girls’ trip to Morocco, there was a deadly bombing in the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakech, Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were exploding. Friends and family begged me to cancel the trip, but I fought the urge to succumb to fear. I had been dreaming of Morocco since my twenties, and nothing was going to stop me. It was a milestone birthday, and time to get to work on that bucket list. At half a century, I know I don’t have forever–just today.

Morocco, steeped in magic, mystery and romance, is the perfect place for a spiritual quest, which is what I needed amidst some uncertain life changes. Recently separated from my husband of 14 years with a teenage son to raise, I knew I had some soul searching to do.

La Mamounia

La Mamounia

In Marrakech our guide, Khadija, explained how years ago the city’s rapidly expanding tourism and population had prompted the rampant development of apartment complexes and luxury hotels–including The Royal Mansour, The Four Seasons and The Mandarin Oriental, to name a few. And though some of those hotels weren’t open on this trip, there was only one place I was really interested in staying: La Mamounia, the glamorous, mythical palace where Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and countless celebrities have rested their heads through the decades.

At La Mamounia, we were greeted as women should always be greeted—in fairytale style. Six beautiful Moroccan doormen in traditional garb swept open the grand doors with broad smiles, and in velvety voices murmured, “Welcome to Marrakech.” We were guided to a seating area where a tray bearing fresh dates and jeweled glasses of almond milk scented with orange blossom welcomed us, Moroccan style.

La Mamounia underwent a $175 million renovation a few years ago, and it shows in every detail designed by the internationally acclaimed interior designer, Jacques Garcia, from the elegant lobby studded with marble columns and chandeliers to the camel-leather lined elevators. Yet its soul still remains.

Situated just inside the medina, La Mamounia is named after its legendary 200-year-old gardens, originally given as an 18th-century wedding gift to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father, King Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah. There are two Michelin-star restaurants at the hotel, but we couldn’t resist dining in the scented gardens of Le Morocain, where my taste buds experienced fireworks that first night. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and saffron danced together in the delicately sweet pigeon b’stilla, tagines of chicken, lamb and vegetables, and fluffy couscous, all washed down with crisp Moroccan rosé.

Mamounia pool

La Mamounia Pool

Later that night in the Djemaa El Fna square, against the backdrop of a glowing Katoubia minaret, we walked, overwhelmed by an exotic swirl of noises, sights and sounds. Snake charmers, “water men,” hawkers and storytellers converged, along with stalls selling everything from aphrodisiacs to seafood. While I have never felt so alive, I couldn’t ignore the disturbing visual of the soot-covered cafe, its roof completely torn off by the bomb just weeks before. Still, locals filled the other cafes in the square, refusing to be deterred from their lifestyle. As if reading my mind, Khadija said simply, “Life goes on.”

Five women, three days. So much to soak up, starting with Yves Saint Laurent’s lush, colorful Majorelle Garden, the 19th century Bahia Palace, and the souks. Oh, the souks! While nothing was as inexpensive as we had hoped ($5 argan oil? I think not), each of us got caught up in the frenzy, purchasing rugs, slippers, spices, pouffes (leather foot stools) and Fatima’s hand bracelets for protection against the evil eye.

A trip to the Berber villages of the High Atlas Mountains served as a perfect reality check, as we were gently reminded of those who have so little, yet seem to hold the secret of happiness in their smiles. We stopped to take in the expansive view of the valley and as my friends snapped photos, I closed my eyes under the sheltering sky. A warm breeze touched me, along with the realization that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Khadija was right. Despite its challenges, life goes on.

Atlas Woman by Arianne Palmieri

A Berber woman walking along the road reminded me of my great grandmother with her wrinkled skin and wise eyes, her colorful outfit on closer look was not actually traditional, but, rather, a hodgepodge of mismatched Goodwill castoffs from the West. We had to step out of the car to say hello. As I shook her hand, I looked into her beautiful eyes and touched my heart.

WHERE TO EAT
Le Marocain
In the heart of La Mamounia’s famed gardens, this stunning restaurant serves traditional Moroccan food in an opulent setting.

Le Tobsil
Wind your way through a maze of streets to this restaurant inside of an old riad with an open roof, where the ambiance and Moroccan food are intoxicating. Dinner served daily except Tuesday. / 22 Derb Abdellah ben Hessaien, Bab Ksour, Marrakech (00 212 2444 4052).

Terrasse des Epices
This rooftop restaurant in the middle of the medina makes the perfect lunch stop for a day of shopping in the souks. Salads, grilled meats, desserts are both Moroccan and Mediterranean.
Al Fassia
Traditional Moroccan food in a rich, elegant setting in the Guéliz area, run solely by women.

GUIDE
Khadija
An incredibly knowledgeable and warm guide, she knows all of the best restaurants, shops and local sights to see. Khadija will also bargain in the souks for you to make sure you get the best prices.

DON’T MISS
Jemaa el-Fna Square
The main square in the medina, this is where the action is. By day, it’s filled with orange juice stalls, water sellers, monkeys, snake charmers, dancers, musicians and story-tellers, and by night, dozens of food stalls open amidst even larger crowds.

Domaine de La Roseraie
Located in the High Atlas Mountains just 45 minutes from Marrakech, this resort is surrounded by garden roses and features a lovely restaurant on the terrace. Though they have a few French offerings, go for the traditional Moroccan cuisine.

Jardin Majorelle
(Marjorelle Gardens)
A lush, colorful botanical garden originally created in the 1920s by French painter Jacques Majorelle, later owned by designer Yves Saint-Laurent.

Story by Jennifer Evans Gardner

Comments

  1. I always love reading about Morocco, such a vibrant welcoming country. Having visited three times and driven from Tangier through and in to Western Sahara, I can honestly say I enjoyed every mile.

    I haven’t managed to stay at La Mamounia yet, there is always a next time.

    Great post and photos.

    Si

  2. I too recently celebrated my “big 5-0″ in Morocco and much like Jennifer, my experience there was dreamy and delicious in every sense of the senses. However, I feel compelled to advise fellow travelers that while La Mamounia is nothing short of amazing, it is also quite a challenge just to walk in the door. On our first attempt to have lunch in the hotel, we were turned away being told the hotel was closed to anyone except guests. No reason was given why. When we told this to the concierge at our lovely Riad (Jardin de la Medina, which I would highly recommend), they too were surpised. They made a lunch reservation for us the following day and again we were given the third degree at the security checkpoint outside the La Mamounia gate but were ultimately allowed to pass through those beautiful doors held open by those lovely footmen. Once inside the oppulent, multi-million dollar palace was completely empty. We enjoyed a fabulous poolside lunch along with about 10 other guests. It was all quite strange and completely contrary to the extraordinary hospitality we experienced at every other riad and hotel we visited during our 3 weeks in Morocco. In short, my advice, if you want to visit La Mammounia, make a reservation, if only for a cocktail. It would be a shame to go all that way only to be turned away from their recently renovated, much written-about beautiful doors.

  3. Ann Wycoff says:

    I think it’s a great spot for a 50th!!! Life altering and magical.

  4. Really enjoyed this article. Made me want to here more. Follow Up by any chance.

  5. Refreshing to read about the lovely people, interesting sights, and the experience of a lifetime that Jennifer traversed with an open heart.

  6. I really never thought a country like Morocco would be as welcoming as Jennifer seems to have found it; however, in my travels I have found that the way you treat people is the way they will treat you. If you go, go with an open mind and a loving heart as she has obviously done. What a great trip! And what a great article! I felt I was there with her!

  7. I have got to admit this place looks amazing, I have been wanting to visit Marrakech for quite some time now when your photos just made me realize that it’s about time I get to it. I’m going to look at airline ticketa and see how much it costs, thanks for motivating me to do it.

    I will share it with my friends on facebook, your photos are amazing, Thanks,

  8. Im from this beautiful city, spell it by red city. I advice everyone to visit it in order to discover.Each place and take an idea about marrakech

  9. Susan Eden says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I just started writing for wandermelon, and this article is so heartfelt,
    and inspiring to me.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.
    Susan Eden

  10. I lové to Go back to visit Marrakech.
    The hospitality takes the 1st place. Moroccan people are awesome.

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