As the waiter removed the lid with a flourish, he unveiled a platter of tender and semi-browned delicately spiced chicken tagine, which was deftly carved up into seven portions and simply melted in the mouth. We ate till we could not ingest a sliver more..
The Dar Yacout restaurant is a foodie’s delight and claims to be the last frontier for authentic local cuisine in Marrakech. The Moroccan mezze included innumerable salads as starters – including a sweet tomato puree, which serves as a sharp contrast to the crisp raw vegetables. My favourite was the chopped liver with a hint of tomato gravy – great when mopped up with the fresh bread. However, the lamb tagine had a very overpowering smell and I had to pass.
The must-have from the dessert menu – Pastilla au lait et amandes (sheets of filo pastry alternating with a sweet milky sauce and almonds), a crunchy and light dessert that is a fitting end to the evening – I shamelessly showered myself with flakes of pastry as I bit into a new layer.
The musicians sang a traditional and endless mix of old Berber, Lebanese and Egyptian songs in the background – my Arab friends at the dinner translated the songs that spoke of love – stories of the beloved, of pining, of the unrequited.. When they were not singing along with the musicians.. It was drizzling off and on but no one complained. Our last night in Marrakech seemed intertwined in some kind of magic and mint tea.
Four days ago, I had set the alarm for 4 am. After the endless check of switches, passport and keys, I walked bleary-eyed into the airport – the flight leaves at 7.30 am from Dubai. We flew Emirates to Casablanca – a long eight hours of sleep, movies, food and more sleep. In February, the airline replaced the Airbus A340-500 for the bigger aircraft Boeing 777-300 to Morocco. Being a movie buff, I managed to catch two captivating Malayalam films – Arjunan Saakshi (a thriller) and City of God, another brilliant and dark thriller, which uses the hyperlink cinema format to reveal the intricate intermingling of different lives. As the flight descended into Casablanca, one could see endless stretches of mountains and farms creating beautiful patterns of brown and green landscape. The photographs were taken by Moi with my favourite Nikon D60 and new Nokia 808 (worth the price for great pixs and videos on the go).
The airport has a 70s feel and the two hour drive to Marrakech was pretty uneventful – long stretches of farmland, small huts, horses, two-storied buildings, donkeys and erratic heaps of tires but a very smooth highway. And brilliant sunshine minus the humidity one is so used to in other hot climates. While Casablanca is known as the Blue City, Marrakech, which was founded in 1070 by Youssef Ben Tachfine, the chief of the Almoravides dynasty, is known as the Red City.
Palais Namaskar marks the Oetker Collection’s first hotel in Africa and is located on an offbeat road in Marrakech between the Atlas Mountains and Djebilet Hills. The first glimpse of the hotel was a surprise – orange trees growing around the walls. A long walkway through a fragrant archway leads you to a serendipitous moment – a delicate balance of water and walkways leading to villas and palaces amidst a tranquil Balinese inspired landscaping. The owner, Philippe Soulier, along with the French-Algerian designer Imaad Rahmouni, set out to create a destination based on Feng Shui philosophy – to make it as close to nature as possible.
It is a success based on firsthand experience. Over the next four days, I did not switch on the television (even as background noise).
Most of my free time in the villa was actually spent sitting outdoors and gazing at the stars – including a 5 am session with a steaming cup of tea. Look for the free yoga mat in the cupboards – it is a pleasure to do Suryanamaskar outdoors at 6 am when the water sprinklers come on and birdsong fills the air.
No matter how you travel, each hotel is like the woman Elvis is singing about in Moody Blues “When Monday comes, she’s Tuesday, when Tuesday comes, she’s Wednesday…” What won my heart was the service – an attendant walked you through the entire villa and explained the angle to insert the key, the location of every light switch and button (with the name next to it). A rarity in most hotels – normally, you are expected to stumble your way through geeky gadgetry and then the reception sounds condescending when you call after managing to soak your self with the overhead shower instead of the spray.
Language can get a bit of a barrier – French and Arabic win over English in Morocco. But sign language works and one can always call the reception.
Places to visit
Marrakech is exotic, quirky and at times exasperating – but the highs are so delightful that one forgets the rest. The heat is deceptive – so use a hat or long scarf and don’t forget to drink water as you go. Wear loose and comfortable clothing, slip on a sturdy pair of walking shoes, carry a backpack to dump your finds and leave your hands free to take pictures. Don’t forget to pick a bottle of cold-pressed argan oil – Morocco’s beauty secret. Everything is more expensive at the airport – so look, bargain and pick up when you see a must-have.
Gueliz : an interesting place for picking up odd antiques, jewellery, leather and clothes. Go into the inner lanes, which have shops saying “solde” (“Sale’ to the uninitiated). Lunch at the Café de la poste, an olde-worlde restaurant that serves a great citrusy and tangy beef tagine – the taste still lingers.. The restaurant is behind the main Gueliz post office and the interiors features old fans, palms and a movie-like feel.
Djemaa El Fna: The square and the surrounding souq is a must-see. Be prepared to give up three hours of your life exploring the lanes and inner lanes and running into sing-song guides and confused tourist groups – just like yours. Anytime post 3 pm will be ideal to visit this famed souk, which sells beautiful and unique leather bags, jewellery, Moroccan tea-pots (the heavier, the better), mirrors, the famed babouche slippers, decorative locks and trinkets..
Start with 2/5th of the price quoted by the shopkeeper and be prepared for continuous rounds of bargaining. This includes walking away, being called back to show you the difference between the real and the fake piece, exasperation at your stubbornness – it is all a game that both the shopper and the shopkeeper must enjoy with laughs and mock dismay. I have good practice in this game having grown up in Mumbai.
Warnings – if you take pictures with the traditional dancers, snake charmers and such exotica, be prepared to pay them for giving you the honour to just stand next to them.. It can get ugly. By evenings, the souk turns into a bustling market place, which also translates as being roughed around by rival guides and food stalls. An ex-colleague told me that the solution lies in shopping and then parking at the first floor of a restaurant around the square before twilight – so that one can enjoy the sights from a distance.
Jardin Majorelle in Guéliz. Yves Saint Laurent’s electric blue Art Deco estate is another must-visit. It was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. The special shade of bold cobalt blue, which he used extensively in the garden and its buildings is named after him, bleu Majorelle—Majorelle Blue. If you look close, the bamboo trees have been vandalised by grafitti from sharp objects – the “A loves B” kinds or just names of people who wished to immortalise themselves. On bamboo!
Yahya Gallery – featuring the work of Yahya Rouach, the famed metal designer, who moved to Marrakech in 2002. Declared unfit for art school, he has also worked as a martial art instructor in his other avatars. “It was a case of the first will finish last and the last first,” he said as we walked around the gallery. He also been commissioned to work on some of the leading hotels in the world, including the Royal Mansour in Marrakech and currently working on a collection of 25 handmade pieces with artist Mehdi Qotbi, which will be exhibited in Paris at ‘Institut du Monde Arabe’ in April & May 2013. He is looking at options to set up galleries in Dubai, Doha, Riyadh, and other cities in KSA, Europe & Asia but in no particular order he said.
La Mamounia Hotel – Go, if only for a drink. The hotel, which opened in 1923 and had a major facelift in 2009, features dark, opulent Moroccan interiors with Art Deco touches that take you back to another world.
Comptoir – The first lounge restaurant in Marrakech located at Hivernaget features a spectacular show at 10.30 pm – the lights dim and a bevy of belly dancers come down the grand staircase and dance around tables to an accompaniment of music, drums and loud ululations. The food is not much to write home about though.. Despite other me-toos in Marrakech, it remains on the must-visit list.
The last night in Morocco was filled with showers and the heady fragrance of freshly soaked earth. The candle-lit lanterns and the arches were reflected in the water – on the hotel walkway and made me feel like I was walking in a beautiful, never ending illusion.
I woke up at 5 am next morning and lay in bed with the doors open. It was cold. The sky was overcast with brooding clouds. I was ensconced beneath the thick duvet and soaking in the intoxicating beauty of the monsoon. The flight was at 2.30 pm – so we left the hotel by 10 am after a delicious outdoor breakfast.. The manager remembered that I liked ginger in my tea.. The rains had soaked all the outdoor seating cushions… I did not want to leave..
I slept for most of the way – lulled by the beautiful landscape and grey sky. Strangely, the shops at the airport actually price everything in Euros – though they accept dirhams and dollars. I learned from my newly-made friend Merieme that the best argan oil comes from Agadir and costs far below the airport prices. She also educated me about the difference in the kinds of oil – the toasted amber one is used for cooking while the yellow, cold-pressed argan oil is the Berber beauty secret.
The flight landed around 1 am in Dubai.. Everything seemed so warm and familiar and yet, I knew that some part of me had changed again.. The nomad NRI now fully understood the old Zen saying.. “Before Zen, chop wood, carry water, after Zen, chop wood, carry water.”