AN ANCIENT CITY’S ALLURE
By Dustin O’Regan
By Dustin O’Regan
I have always dreamed of visiting Marrakech, a former imperial city founded almost 1,000 years ago. It is a place where Arabic and French words dance in your ears, and the culture is a confluence of Berber, Islamic, and European traditions.
Marrakech’s captivating charm has long enchanted the world’s greats. As Edith Wharton noted, “To visit Morocco is like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript.” Equally enamored, Winston Churchill pronounced to Franklin Roosevelt that Marrakech, “is the most lovely spot in the whole world.”
The “ochre city”—nicknamed for its red sandstone buildings— today is a major economic center home to mosques, palaces, gardens, and glorious architecture. While we expected the intensity of the crowded city, we were pleasantly surprised by the tranquility of our resort—The Oberoi, Marrakech. The juxtaposition of these two experiences made for a unique adventure in this ancient North African city. Let’s begin with an exploration of the energetic metropolis.
On our first full day in Marrakech, we set off with our Abercrombie & Kent guide, Samir, and our driver in a luxury vehicle. We zipped through the Marrakech streets as motorcycles (some bearing ladders or piled high with cement bags) careened by and pedestrians haphazardly crossed the lanes—behind the wheel or on foot, none heeded the rules of the road.
We began at the Majorelle Gardens. Originally designed in 1924 by French artist Jacques Majorelle, the garden is a tropical paradise surrounded by cobalt blue buildings, lily-covered and fish-filled ponds, and an assortment of enormous cacti. The Berber Museum, which tells the tales of North Africa’s most ancient people, is fittingly found at the heart of this urban oasis.
The Yves Saint Laurent Museum, conveniently located next door to the Majorelle Gardens, was our next destination. Here, we perused the designer’s most precious designs and learned how Marrakech influenced his collections. As Yves Saint Laurent observed until his visits to this vibrant city taught him the power of color, “everything was black.”
Next stop, the walled medieval city of Medina. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the “souk,” Morocco’s largest traditional market where we found a bewildering array of stalls and ateliers devoted to specific crafts. The dark and smoky blacksmith quarter, where a cacophony of hammers echoed and sparks danced in the air, was especially mesmerizing. In search of the renowned Argan oil, we wound our way through the honeycomb of stalls illuminated by a golden light piercing through the planked roofs. The stalls contained every good imaginable from stacks of traditional Berber carpets and plaster carvings to piles of brightly colored clothing and equally vivid spices to an elaborate display of olives. After our guide introduced us to a reputable herboriste, we purchased bottles of the oil, an indigenous treasure, along with a few other elixirs promising eternal youth. After hours of souk-scouring, we took a break for lunch at Café Arabe—a lovely restaurant occupying a former riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard.
Once sated, we set off to explore several of Morocco’s most architecturally significant sites. When I first saw the exteriors of these buildings, I was surprised by their austerity. Samir explained that Islamic architecture resembles a geode—appearing nondescript on the outside but concealing jewels on the inside.
We began at the Bahia Palace, which with its ornate mosaics, delicately carved stucco and stunning Grand Courtyard is a remarkable example of Arab-Andalusian architecture. Dar El Bacha was our second stop and our favorite of the architectural tour. This extraordinary palace was the former residence of Thami El Glaoui, who ruled Marrakech for more than 40 years and was legendary for hosting lavish affairs for famous guests like Winston Churchill. Ben Youssef Madrasa is a stunning structure and was once the largest Islamic college in Morocco housing as many as 800 students learning Islamic jurisprudence, literature, science, and history. Today, it is a historical site with tourists rather than students wandering the hallways and dormitories.
Leaving the former center for learning, we ventured into the Jewish Quarter called “Mellah.” The quarter’s name, the Arabic word for salt, pays tribute to the fact that many of the early Jewish residents were salt sellers. Historically salt was an important and precious commodity. In ancient times, sub-Saharan Moorish merchants traded one ounce of salt for one ounce of gold. A visit to the Salat el Alzama Synagogue, also known as the “Blue Synagogue,” and the Miaara Jewish Cemetery rounded out our exploration of the Jewish community’s long history in Marrakech.
We ended our city tour at Jemaa El Fna, the city’s main square where we found snake charmers, horse-drawn carriages, street artists, food stalls, and an assortment of goods for sale—a veritable symphony of sounds and smells. A glimpse of the famed Koutoubia Mosque, a symbol of the city with its 12th-century Moorish minaret visible for miles, was the perfect end to our exciting day. As we drove back to our hotel, we watched the minaret fade into the distance and grew excited for the peace that awaited us at the resort.
Located 25 minutes from the city center is The Oberoi, Marrakech, a 25-acre oasis at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Upon our arrival, an attendant dressed in a traditional Moroccan velvet selham (tunic) greeted us with his hand on his heart—a signature gesture of the Oberoi brand. The company’s motto “the guest is everything” is a sentiment woven into every aspect of the resort experience.
Beyond the unassuming ochre exterior lay an expansive courtyard dotted with decorative trees and at its center, a vast pool of water. At the courtyard’s far end, massive handcrafted wooden doors opened to reveal a sanctuary of design inspired by the traditional Moroccan and Andalusian architectural styles used in 14th-century grand palaces. The elements included intricately carved, soaring wood ceilings, wall mosaics composed of zellige tiles in vibrant colors and geometric designs, and towering panels of sculpted plasterwork subtly adorned with Arabic phrases such as “El Afia El Bakia” meaning “eternal health.” No surface is left untouched or unadorned.
We exited the main building via a beautiful marble corridor where a series of lanterns swayed under exquisitely carved marble arches illuminating the gleaming marble floors. En route to our private villa, we could see the Atlas Mountains in the distance. Our route took us along the resort’s “grand canal,” a scent-filled pathway filled with jasmine hedges and rosemary bushes. Scents from the acres of citrus and olive groves and the lavender field on the property further perfumed the air.
Passing under a canopy of olive branches, we found our private villa tucked in an exotic garden of flowers and palm trees. The villa matched the main building in elegance—an intricately patterned stone floor and carved cedarwood dome graced the entrance hall. The massive bedroom opened to a living/dining area that spilled into a private landscaped garden where bougainvillea trellises, lemon trees, and rosemary bushes surrounded our own pool. The bathing quarters (they are so much more than a “bathroom”) contained a large shower with a floor-to-ceiling glass door, which opened onto the courtyard for an open-air bathing experience. Birdsong and light breezes definitely elevated this morning ritual.
The Oberoi, Marrakech has three beautiful restaurants offering highly curated dishes created by the hotel’s talented chefs using the finest seasonal ingredients sourced from the Moroccan terroir. One “tree-to-table” ingredient is the cold-pressed unrefined olive oil produced from olives harvested from the property’s 2,500 olive trees.
We began our days with breakfast at Tamimt on a terrace overlooking the cypress tree and white rose-lined grand canal. In Berber, “tamimt” means “delight” and the eatery lived up to its moniker in every aspect—cuisine, service, and ambiance. The morning buffet was beyond measure and even included a tower of every imaginable kind of honey (think orange blossom, jujube, and eucalyptus). The honey was best sampled with croissants and pastries, their delicate layers adding to the sinful pleasure of each bite.
Dinner on Tamimt’s terrace was equally delightful. The view of the sun disappearing into the horizon and the moon moving across the backdrop of mountain peaks was the sublime end to every meal.
Siniman was another favorite for dinner. As “siniman” means the souls of the father and the mother in Berber, the restaurant’s rich fabrics, marble, zellige tiles, elaborately carved wood, and immense glowing fireplace invoke a cozy, warm feeling. Some nights we chose to dine under a blanket of stars and tables in the courtyard provided the perfect spot. I had so many favorites here but the selection of Moroccan salads—a visual delight, unlike any American salad—really stood out. For the main course, we ordered a Seabass Chermoula tagine with sweet bell peppers, tomatoes, and saffron potatoes. Lifting the lid of the earthenware pot released a deliciously heady scent and revealed a presentation as brilliant as the flavors.
Between all our delicious meals, we indulged in the resort’s many activities. In fact, there was such an array of activities that we only left the resort compound once venturing to the Agafay Desert for an evening of camel riding and dinner in a Bedouin tent at The White Camel Camp. Back at The Oberoi, Marrakech our lesson in the art of falconry from a member of Morocco’s indigenous Kwassem tribe was a cultural delight. Following our falconry lesson, we discovered a palm-encircled pool with two floating pool decks at the center of the property’s olive grove. The bright tangerine towels dotting the pool area’s numerous day beds, chaise lounges, and hammocks contrasted beautifully with the pool’s lapis blue tile. Is it any wonder lounging poolside became a favorite activity?
One afternoon we swapped our pool lounges for massage tables at the Oberoi Spa, a serene oasis located on a small lake surrounded by orchards. Its location is highly symbolic because Islamic culture esteems water as a means of spiritual cleansing. Thus, as guests cross the lake to enter the spa, they figuratively leave the outside world behind and embark on a unique journey to well-being. In addition to soothing treatment rooms, light-filled yoga studios, and a full workout facility, the spa contains an indoor pool and an interior maze garden. The resort’s signature wellness program, SAHA, offers a wide range of fitness options from morning runs with a fitness coach to cardio boxing. SAHA, named after the Arabic word for “health,” is a testament to The Oberoi, Marrakech’s commitment to making every moment of a guest’s visit healthier and more fulfilling.
As we made our way back to our villa from the spa, the sound of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, echoed through the air. The soothing chant, which sounded five times a day from a nearby mosque, was a grand reminder that we were steeped in another culture in a faraway land.
Seeking a unique exploration of a country’s culture? Hoping to experience both the fervor of a bustling city and the tranquility of a world-class resort? Marrakech is your destination. Book a tour with Abercrombie & Kent to uncover the secrets of this ancient city and stay at The Oberoi, Marrakech where you will receive a heartfelt welcome in a magnificent setting.
For more information about Abercrombie & Kent tours, visit abercrombiekent.com. For more information about The Oberoi, Marrakech visit oberoihotels.com. For more information about The White Camel Camp, visit whitecamel.ma.