Arabian nights and days

Marrakech and Essaouira boast some of Morocco’s most striking contrasts. Rebecca Lo explores the imperial city’s medina before enjoying a relaxed sojourn by the sea.
As our train pulled into Marrakech’s station in the south end of the imperial city, I pinched myself. We were really here! Morocco has topped my bucket list for almost two decades, and we were finally about to explore its fascinating Red City.

We were greeted with a warm smile by the towering figure of Mehdi Ennaciri, manager of DesignHotel AnaYela. We would call his five-room riad, a traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard, home for the next few days, and he immediately made us feel welcome despite the hour of waiting he had to endure due to our train’s delay.

As we drove through the Ville Nouvelle, which resembled an Arabic southern Californian town, I noticed that many of the buildings were constructed from the same red sandstone that dominated the surrounding countryside.

“That is why Marrakech is known as the Red City,” Mehdi explains as we approached the medina-the citadel dates to the 11th century.

AnaYela is situated within the northern part of the medina and close to Zaouia Sidi-Bel-Abbes mosque. We learned to use the mosque as a handy reference point while navigating the medina’s narrow alleys. My high school French helped, too, as it is the second most common language spoken after Arabic.

 

Mehdi parked the SUV and led us through a rabbit warren of stone paths that crisscrossed an organic labyrinth of houses. The occasional square allowed shafts of sunlight to penetrate down past the thick four-story walls, which keeps the houses deliciously cool inside.

Children played soccer while mothers watched from open doorways. We jostled with donkeys pulling carts for right of passage. If it weren’t for the electrical wires and satellite dishes above our heads, we could have been in a medieval town.

In the past two decades, many of the city’s riads have been converted into chic guesthouses and restaurants, with designs running the gamut from contemporary to theatrical. AnaYela was once a former home. We entered its white stucco courtyard with central swimming pool and were shown the centuries-old manuscript by a young girl named Yela.

The German owners Bernd and Andrea Kolb discovered it during the property’s renovation. They learned that Yela used to live in the house and fell in love with a boy who became her husband. Yela’s romance inspired many aspects of the riad, including a corner of the roof dubbed the flying carpet where guests indulge in candlelit dinners.

Our room was the honeymoon suite, and we had the benefit of a roaring fire to take the chill off the winter evenings. An enormous onyx bathtub easily could have fit half a dozen people, and I loved the arabesque doorways that gave the riad a sense of place.

We asked Mehdi to recommend somewhere for pastilla, the sweet and savory Moroccan pie typically stuffed with poultry. He immediately booked us a table at Dar Zellij and had one of his staff escort us to the restaurant.

We sat in its open courtyard dotted with trees with their trunks painted white to mimic the whitewashed surrounds furnished with Moroccan antiques. As a lute player entertained us, we feasted on a six-course menu, featuring a myriad of Moroccan salads, succulent lamb tagine and sweet pastry with milk custard.

The next morning, we went for an extended walk beyond the medina walls and ended up at Marjorelle Gardens, adjacent to the home of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The gardens were originally developed by French furniture maker Louis Marjorelle in 1924. After he passed away in the mid-1960s, the grounds were neglected until Saint Laurent restored them in the 1980s.

The 4.86-hectare garden contained a number of architectural features, including a monument to Saint Laurent, whose ashes were scattered on the grounds. Running from one end to another was a long reflecting pool that ended in a fountain leading to the Berber Museum. Cacti dominated, contrasting sharply against the intense colors of indigo, mustard and emerald. Despite the crowds jockeying for photo opportunities, the garden had a lush, tranquil quality that was a delightful respite in busy Marrakech.

As dusk approached, we wandered back into the medina and south to Jemaa el Fna. Marrakech’s outdoor market boasts snake charmers and fortunetellers plying their trade alongside endless rows of hawkers selling harira soup, freshly squeezed citrus juices, snails, entrails and other Moroccan delicacies.

The street carnival atmosphere was made all the more lively by the mixture of locals and international tourists heeding the persuasive vendors’ call. It was a feast for all the senses, and we happily got lost among the crowds seeking exotic entertainment.

After slurping down some harira, an ochre-colored tomato and lentil soup with little bits of noodles, we tried snails. I liked the accompanying broth better than picking out the slimy creatures. It tasted a little medicinal, and I recognized some of the same herbs from Malaysian bak kut teh. We then joined a table indulging in charcoal grilled sausages and liver. These were served with chili sauce, deftly scooped up with the ubiquitous durum wheat pita bread available at every meal.

Bright and early the next morning, we boarded a Supratours Comfort Plus bus for the seaside town of Essaouira. Mehdi had arranged for a return taxi to the depot plus return bus tickets. In hindsight, I was glad that we planned our trip in advance, as the Comfort Plus’ wide and comfortable seats were sold out by the time we arrived at the station.

As we descended from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to sea level during the three-hour journey, we enjoyed a landscape of rolling hills planted with argan trees. A coffee break mid-route introduced us to the nutritious oil derived from these trees, made into soap, shampoo and delicious oil-based spreads. After marveling at how more than half a dozen sheep perched upon a tree that we passed, we arrived at our destination.

Essaouira is a windsurfers’ paradise. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we discovered why: trade winds blow continuously through this laidback town. Its white architecture and grid-like medina makes it a pleasant contrast to Marrakech’s maze, and we found its citizens friendlier, too.

After strolling through the main arteries of Rue Mohammed el Qorry and Avenue de L’Istiqlal, the pungent aroma of charcoal-grilled fish reminded us that it was lunchtime. We selected some squid, sea bream and sardines; after haggling with the vendor, we chose an outdoor table to enjoy the sea view. Our seafood was served grilled with a sprinkling of salt and served with a tomato salad that enhanced its smoky freshness.

Back within the medina walls, we climbed up the North Bastion for a panoramic view of the sea from the ancient fortress. Along nearby rue de la Skala, there were numerous shops selling woodcarvings and marquetry. The craftsmen used mostly thuya, an aromatic local conifer similar to mahogany. I found a beautiful box carved with simplified zellijs (geometrical mosaics characterised for the Moroccan architecture) for a friend’s birthday gift, and expertly negotiated a satisfactory price with the shop owner.
A tea break on the roof terrace of the aptly named Chaabi Chic cafe in the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, gave us just enough energy to explore Essaouira’s souk. Located along Avenue Mohammed Zerktouni, its colorful cones of olives gave way to fresh carcasses of beef, and fish still twitching after being out of water for mere minutes. At a sweets stall, I picked up some honeyed almonds to try-almonds are a Moroccan must.

Back and reclining in the dining lounge of AnaYela, we toasted to a perfect beachside day as we sipped our Meknes wine and tucked into pastilla, chicken tagine and couscous beside a roaring fire. And then we toasted Morocco for exceeding our expectations.

IF YOU GO

Swiss Air offers daily flights from Beijing to Marrakech via Zurich.

Stay Awhile

AnaYela

A lovingly restored five-room riad DesignHotel in Marrakech’s medina, AnaYela is all about the romance inspired by Yela, a young girl who left a manuscript in the house. Her story is etched into the metallic panels running throughout the property, and in thoughtful details, such as leather slippers and homemade jams at breakfast.

Zaouia 44

The seven-room riad was restored by its French owner to be a tranquil haven set within Marrakech’s busy medina. Contemporary elegance is reflected in its sealed gray concrete floors and walls, lush central rose garden with a reflecting pool, simply furnished rooms and shaded rooftop terrace.

Heure Bleue

A 33-room Relais & Chateaux property just inside Bab Marrakech in Essaouira, its luxuriously appointed interiors and relaxed vibe make it a welcome retreat after a day of seaside activities. It features several places to dine, including a Moroccan restaurant and English salon, hamman, billiards room and rooftop pool.

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