Marrakech: Summer Vacation in the Red City

Monday, July 13, 2009 | Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakech's Koutoubia Mosque looms large over the old city.
After a grueling and nearly sleepless week, my last five minutes in Rabat were a whirlwind: toss reports on boss's desk, shut down computer, sprint three blocks home, dump fridge contents into trash bag and give to building caretaker, shoulder backpack, cut power, fumble door lock, sprint four blocks to train station, board train and collapse.

My latest contract finished, I was finally, unbelievably heading out for two much-needed weeks of relaxation. First destination: Marrakech, surely one of Earth's least relaxing cities.

I taxied up to the Villa des Orangers in mid-evening and ducked through the thick wooden door, hidden amidst a grease-blackened strip of mechanic shops.

Jacqueline and her family were inside the hotel's opulent central courtyard. Her father and stepmother, and her ten-year-old twin brothers Jack and William, were visiting for several days
from New York. Throughout their visit to Marrakech and southern Spain, Jacqueline and I were along for the ride.

* * *

When your hotel is nicer than all the palaces in a town full of palaces, it can be hard to leave, and the Villa's opulence certainly surpassed many of the historical sites in Marrakech. Live 'oud music on arrival, exquisite Moroccan meals, pool-side service, fountains, gardens and libraries—the place had it all.

But the Powers family was curious to see the city, and hired a local tour guide to show them around during their first morning. Jacqueline and I tagged along as Mustapha dragged her family in a slow-motion tour of the obligatory sites: the Koutoubia Mosque (جامع الكتبية), Place Jemaa El Fna (ساحة جامع الفنا), Medersa Ben Youssef (مدرسة بن يوسف), Musée de Marrakech (متحف مراكش), and Koubba Baadiyin (قبّة الباديين).

On the walk through the square, Jack and William got to see the snake charmers, have their pictures taken with a barbary ape (to their mother's horror), and meet a local "dentist" who brandished his pliers over a table full of teeth. The square received a rare unanimous verdict from the twins: "That was SO cool!"

* * *

After lunch and a swim back at Villa des Orangers, Jacqueline took Eilis shopping, while I hailed a horse-drawn calèche to take me, Jeff, and the twins across the medina to visit the tanneries. For half an hour, we trundled wildly through the city's narrow streets and markets, leaving behind the well kept central tourist district.

At the entrance to the tannery, I introduced myself to a guide, who issued us each a mint sprig to hold to our nose. Jeff and the boys soon learned why—the smell of thousands of rotting hides was stomach-curdling. Our guide led us along, and I translated: "The Arabs cure the larger hides like the camels' and cows', while the Berbers handle the smaller goats' and sheeps' skins... the hides sit in a lyme bath for a few weeks to remove the hair... then they're in a pigeon crap solution a few more weeks for softening... then they're moved to those vats over there for dying... and it reeks so let's get out of here."

Our visit to the tanneries was quick but—true ten-year-olds—William and Jack seemed to appreciate the "disgusting factor" if nothing else.

* * *

Dinner at Dar Marjana that night capped the family's Moroccan adventure. We began with green fruit juice cocktails, the adults' spiked with mahia (ماحيا), a fig liqueur traditionally made by local Jews. When the first course—a round of tapas-style plates—arrived, William and I dared each other into trying the sheep's brain and goat liver. Tagine, pigeon pastilla, heaps of couscous, and more followed. By the time the bellydancer and musicians arrived a few hours in, most (but not all) of us were far too stuffed to dance, and sprawled on the restaurant's couches, contentedly rubbing our newly expanded bellies.

Jacqueline and I did our best to explain that the evening's lavish experience—especially the entertainment—was hardly the norm in Morocco's highly conservative society. At the same time, I silently lamented the fact that outside of such tourist situations (in which large amounts of cash exchange hands), Moroccans are so reticent to open up and let themselves have fun in the company of strangers. But here in Marrakech, a true Moroccan Disney World, you might never guess it.

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