Time stopped for me when I visited the Maghreb, especially when I landed in Morocco – known and once feared as part of the treacherous Barbara Coast. You see, Morocco can play havoc with your imagination; a mirage can appear in front of you at any moment.
One day I found myself in the Atlas Mountains on my way from Fez to Marrakech, via a shortcut through the mountains, a drive which would save several hours of travel. The shortcut is well worth the trip, not only because it saves time, but also because the views are magnificent. I would observe great cedar forces, caves and gorges, my guide told me.
A cold morning greeted me, a little too cold even for Morocco, which supports a cultivated country of fields, farms, orchards and gardens, along with deserts, oases and even sandstorms. So we set off, accompanied by our guide, El Kerchi Abdullatif of Heritage Tours Private Travel.
Surprise, surprise – snow began to fall! Not heavy, but enough to blanket the road up ahead. A thin, wooden barrier pole came down at the checkpoint. We stopped.
The snow kept falling. We sat on the road for over an hour, the heater barely warming us on the backseat.
There was no letup; the snowflakes didn’t stop, and officials at the checkpoint prevented us from proceeding onto the mountain road to Marrakech. We detoured to the coastal road, and reached our destination many hours later.
When I returned to the US and met up with some of my colleagues, my first words were: “I got caught in a snowstorm!” They were astonished.
Why not? It’s the unusual, the exotic, that makes a good story of a travel vacation. Obviously, I could have done without the snow.
Finally, entering Marrakech, I recalled a line from Paul Bowles novel, Let It Come Down. “Do you know Marrakech? Ah, you must go.
In the winter it is beautiful.”
I checked into La Mamounia, the grand dame hotel in Marrakech.
The establishment takes its name from the surrounding gardens which were once called the “Arste El Mamoun.” The park covers nearly 20 acres.
Hotel La Mamounia is located on Avenue Bab Jdid, in the heart of Marrakech, within an idyllic 17-acre garden surrounded by 12th-century ramparts. Described as a palace, the hotel has 136 rooms and 71 suites. The hotel stands as a legend, a fable unfolding timeless Marrakech. An ambitious renovation by French designer Jacques Garcia, unveiled in 2009, has turned the original deco complex into a lavish, distinctly Moroccan landmark, decked out with a spa, a fitness center and a quartet of restaurants.
Marrakech has served as one of the greatest trading centers of the Sahara, and is described as the last large outpost this side of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains and the desert beyond.
Some believe you don’t need a guide in Marrakech. The only itinerary to follow is to find the next great meal, museum, outdoor market, or cafe in this adventurous and exotic destination. Still, you should have a guide in the souk.
As I sat in the hotel I thought of the illustrious names of those who had stayed here before me.
Shall I start with Winston S. Churchill? Mirage again! There he is! Winnie – a photo of Churchill standing in the garden of La Mamounia. The great statesman’s left hand is in his suit jacket pocket, his right hand holding a long cigar.
Another photo with no hat on; but next to it, the famous shot of Churchill sitting in a patch of desert, painting the landscape. He is wearing a white suit and a brown hat, a cigar held tight in his mouth, with paintbrush in hand.
Historic La Mamounia Hotel has been visited by hundreds of dignitaries.
Churchill himself took US president Franklin D. Roosevelt to the hotel after the Casablanca conference in 1943. Churchill, the consummate artist, stayed at this wonderful establishment and is reported to have said that the view from the roof was paintaceous.
Other stars, artists and government officials who have stopped at La Mamounia include Isaac Stern, Yoko Ono, Sharon Stone, Tom Cruise, Elton John, Joan Collins, and Catherine Deneuve, as well as Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan. Also, Enrico Macias, the famous French-Jewish international singer and musician, who hailed from Constantine, Algeria.
Churchill had his own suite at La Mamounia, and this writer was privileged to see it. Brightly colored furniture fills the room. I stand by his desk, which remains untouched, and even spy one of his old hats hanging from a coat rack. The suite is preserved exactly as it was when he last stayed there. I went up to the rooftop of La Mamounia at dusk and watched the sun set. Churchill was right; it is paintaceous.
“Wait until five o’clock,” El Kherchi Abdellatif, our guide says. “I have something magnificent to show you.”
I’m standing in the huge Djemaa el-Fna Square, the cultural and entertainment crossroads for all of Morocco. No wonder the tour buses were lined up around the square.
The city’s main square comes to life each evening with acrobats and storytellers and food stalls. Djemaa el-Fna means “Square of Execution.”
A century ago, the heads of people executed for conspiracy against the sultan were publicly exhibited in this square. But today, it is a huge stage for performers, outdoor stalls and cafes. This frenetic square – said to be the greatest in all of Africa—is a sight not to be missed.
Here, you can observe the spectacle below: costumed musicians, acrobats, snakecharmers, fortunetellers – all practicing their crafts.
And in the square itself, for a few coins, you can take a photo of these exhibitions. Brassware, jewelry, carpets, leather goods and pottery can be obtained here, in and around the square.
If you miss these items in Marrakech, you’ll have opportunities to buy similar goods in other cities. As dusk fell on the square, the mystique of North Africa enveloped me.
“The city itself is expanding,” said Jacky Kadoch, president of the Jewish Community of Marrakech, a small Jewish group – actually 148 persons – with two synagogues. The newer, modern house of worship is located in the New Town at Boulevard Zerktouni (Gueliz) and is visited by most Jewish tourists on Friday night and Saturday morning and holidays, when services are held.
Men and women sit separately in this Orthodox synagogue, which contains 200 seats. Another synagogue is located in the Old Town, (the mellah) at rue Talmud Torah and is open mornings.
Jacky Kadoch indicated that tourism is expanding, and many Europeans, including Jewish businesspeople, are investing in this commercial city, After all, it is a former capital, a tourist center, and a metropolis for the High Atlas Mountains and the northwest Sahara. You can observe mountain and desert people visiting the city markets to exchange skins, hides, dates and animals for cereals and imported goods.
As far as the Moroccan law to outlaw contacts with Israel, Kadoch told JTA and this writer at the end of November that the bills have no chance of passing since King Mohammed VI “will never allow it.”
The king is considered friendly to Israel. In a phone interview he added that a number of Israeli groups were coming for the holiday.
Once the capital of Morocco, Marrakech has always retained its economic importance. Indeed, it is said that from 1745, Jews lived in Marrakech in better conditions than anywhere else in Morocco.
Since yeshivot flourished in the city, many Jews from throughout North Africa came to study with the kabbalists.
The guides and Jewish leaders taught me that when a vast Jewish population existed here, many of Morocco’s educated Jewish elite inclined toward mysticism and studied kabbala. The souks (markets) in Marrakech are picturesque, though not quite as crowded or medieval as those in Fez. I found bargains galore. In these markets, one is obliged to bargain. Indeed, it seems bargaining is the most popular sport in the country. Whether in busy old markets, boutiques, hotels, or airports, the reduce-the-price discourse comes into play.
Before Israel’s independence in 1948, about 30,000 Jews lived in Marrakech. In 1951, the Jewish population dropped to just 17,000, and by 1960, to only 10,000. Most went to Israel. By 1970, only a few hundred Jews remained. As I departed this “oasis city,” I realized why many Moroccan Jews have a special place in their hearts for Marrakech.
Ben G. Frank, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfrank