The sun brazens down from a steely sky, shadows sharp-edged. Small dust devils whirl and die. Horses neigh in the distance, the clop of their hooves and creak of carriage wheels drawing nearer. Then, suddenly the deep, sonorous call of the muezzin from the nearby Koutoubia mosque reverberates on the air.
This is the Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech and the scene in front of me, like a movie clip, is an ever changing panorama of movement and colour.
Women in parrot-green and electric blue gowns thread through shifting crowds, dancers in scarlet robes, and beaded skull caps leap to the rhythm of a drum, a hooded cobra sways to the wail of a snake charmer’s flute; acrobats and astrologers entice audiences. On the fringes of the square, stalls display clay terrines, bamboo woven baskets, cotton kaftans and pyramids of powdered spices.
Along with my group of fellow travelers, we stroll through the narrow lanes of the adjoining souk, pausing to look at displays of sticky-looking halva, perfumes, embossed leather slippers and handbags. Men pushing carts stacked with wooden crates bawl warnings as they make their way through the twisting corridors. The warm air is heavy with the smell of apricots and dates, freshly baked flat bread, and skewers of spiced lamb.
In contrast to the surging energy of the souk, the Majorelle Jardin is a haven of tranquility. Moorish architectural design predominates, and buildings, ornamental pots, pillars and borders around a lily pool are painted a vivid “Majorelle Blue”.
The gardens, bought in 1980 by Yves Saint Laurent (and his partner Pierre Berge) are laced by avenues of bamboo and palm trees and the earth smells fresh and cool. A riot of orange and scarlet bougainvillea creepers cascade over walls and trellises, but the thing that halts me in my tracks is the collection of cactus on display: some of them spiny explosions standing on end like a rock star’s hairstyle, others as gnarled and twisted as a knuckled fist, or splayed like the talons of a bird of prey.
Nothing prepares me for the extravagant decor of our next destination – the El Bahia Palace. Set in a fragrant garden of roses, cypress and orange trees the palace was built in the latter decades of the 1800s and took fifteen years to complete.
Mouth agape, I stare at ceilings decorated with zouak woodwork, with designs of flowers, birds and stars in bright natural pigments derived from saffron, poppy and mint. Intricate zellij geometric mosaics line walls of passageways, arched carved screens embellished with designs as delicate as white lace overlook shady courtyards, and verandahs with tiled floors dazzle the eye.
Our group assembles for dinner in a restaurant that conjures up romantic images of clandestine trysts: flickering candlelight in a palm-fringed courtyard, tables set among flowering bushes of jasmine, a lute and tambourine playing softly in the background, shadowy servers, goblets of rich red wine and tagines heaped with aromatic herbed Moroccan cuisine. Exotic, bewitching.
Dinner over, we emerge from the restaurant onto a small cobbled lane leading to the Djemaa el-Fna square. The square by night is transformed into a world of mystery and seduction. Street lights elongate the shadows of magicians dressed in flowing robes as they dazzle audiences with strange, almost macabre, wizardry; strolling troubadours and belly dancers, sinuous and seductive, perform to the sound of metallic castanets, drums accompany the whizz of fireworks that shoot into the night sky and kids whoop and clap their hands with each new explosion of light and colour.
The central area is now an open-air kitchen with lantern-lit food stalls, plank benches and tables. Above the sound of laughter and conversation from the food tents, the rich aromas of sizzling kebabs, thicken the night air. A water-seller with an enormous feathered hat, his gown draped with bells and gongs offers to pose for my camera – after which I drop a few dirham into his outstretched palm.
“There are certain places on the surface of the earth that possess more magic than others,” said Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived in Morocco for fifty-two years. “And one of those places is Marrakech.” I agree.
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed
1. Djemaa-el-Fna Square, Marrakech
2. Shop in Djemaa el Fna Square
2a Tempting wares, Djemaa el Fna Square
2b Baubles in Djemaa el Fna Square
3 Women in the market square, Marrakech
4. Spices in the market
5. Musicians in the Square
6. Snake Charmer
7. Water seller in the Djemaa el Fna Square
8. Peddler and his donkey emerging from the Souk
9. Street scene, Marrakech
10. Stone carvers, El Bahia Palace
11. Dazzling ceiling El Bahia Palace
11a El Bahia Palace ceiling
12. Carved alcove, El Bahia Palace
12a Ornamentation, El Bahia Palace
12b Lace-like wall ornamentation in El Bahia Palace
13. Majorelle Jardin pathway
14. Memorial: Yves Saint Laurent, Majorelle Jardin
15. Cactus display, Majorelle Jardin
16. Rock-star’s hairstyle cactus, Majorelle Jardin
17. Knuckled fist cactus, Majorelle Jardin
18. Romantic restaurant courtyard.
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