Sunday, November 20, 2005

Marrakech's new Euro chic

It's a place that's softened around the edges, but thankfully, the air of mystery remains.

By Susan Spano, The Los Angeles Times

SOMEONE must have rubbed a brass lamp and let a genie out of a bottle. That's the only conclusion I can draw, given the changes to Marrakech since my last visit a decade ago.

In those days, the low, burnt-umber-colored city on the Haouz Plain in southern Morocco had the ambiguous charms of a Muslim imperial capital and the hurly-burly of a caravansary. Nearly everything cried out to be photographed.

But the city was dirty and difficult to navigate, with few street signs in the maze-like medina, and it had only a handful of hotels and restaurants suitable for tourists. At night, the nonexistent sidewalks of Marrakech were rolled up.

When I returned a month ago, I found the eight gates of the walled city, built in 1070, flung open wide.

With a burgeoning population of about a million, Marrakech is cleaner and more tourist-friendly. On my previous visit, I was surrounded by annoying would-be guides and touts whenever I stepped outdoors. For the most part, that's no longer the case.

An influx of Northern European snowbirds has slowed the retreat of the moneyed classes from the medina to the suburbs.

Many of the newcomers are architects and designers who have restored old townhouses as restaurants and guesthouses, helping to make Marrakech the coolest, chicest city in the Maghreb.

A European influence

THE Europeans brought their sense of style with them so that, these days, almost everywhere you turn in Marrakech you see something new: traditional djellaba robes and babouche slippers in fun, new fabrics; European-inspired gourmet twists on recipes for such old Moroccan standards as tajine, a ubiquitous stew; and a host of trendy new boutique hotels.

Best of all, people have rediscovered the elegant architecture of the hermitic medina, which blends austere Islamic abstraction with Moorish embellishment, sub-Saharan design and the colorful folk art of the Berber people of the Atlas Mountains.

The genie behind the city's transformation was the National Initiative to ready the country to receive 10 million tourists by 2010.

The program has encouraged foreign investment, especially in hotels, and new airlines, such as budget carrier Atlas Blue, to reach new Moroccan destinations such as Agadir, an Atlantic port in southwestern Morocco.

Of course, the city's transformation doesn't come without rubs. Many of Marrakech's repeat visitors rue spiraling prices for meals and accommodations.

Hot, new nightclubs, catering to the beautiful international set, have arrived, such as Le Comptoir Darna, an ersatz Garden of Eden with such un-Moroccan features as belly-dancing and martinis.

Chockablock condominiums and Wal-Mart-style discount stores are turning the suburbs into a greater Palm Springs.

Fortunately, the city's remarkable, main tourist attractions remain the same, if not in somewhat better repair than when I last visited.

Main attractions

THEY start with the Koutoubia mosque, a Marrakechi landmark, surrounded by sunstruck rose gardens and distinguished by a 230-foot, pink sandstone tower, the prototype of landmark minarets in Seville, Spain, and in Rabat, Morocco's capital.

Nearby is the Place Jamaa el-Fna, the heart of the medina and the liveliest, most un-reconstituted UNESCO World Heritage Site I've ever seen.

It yields to the city's incomparably seductive souks. Even on my last visit, no amount of self-discipline could keep me away. This time, I bought two Berber carpets and as many pairs of babouche slippers as it would take to shoe a caterpillar.

There are still no reliable tourist maps of the inner medina, which is the main reason that roaming there is fun.

If you can find your way north of the Place Jamaa el-Fna to the Ben Youssef Medersa, you can inspect one of the Muslim world's great educational centers.

Nearby is the recently restored, domed Qubba, a medieval water station, and the Museum of Marrakech, which puts contemporary art in the frame of a late 19th century Moroccan palace.

South of the Place Jamaa el-Fna, there are palaces, gardens, decorated gates and museums, such as Dar Si Said, dedicated to the arts and folk crafts of Morocco.

On twisting alleyways nearby is Dar Tiskiwin, an elegant townhouse, open to the public as a museum and full of Moroccan and sub-Saharan wonders collected by Bert Flint, a Dutch expatriate with a tall, lean frame and a shock of white hair.

As I left, he reminded me that historians study Morocco politically, as a western outpost of Dar al-Islam, even though it is geographically part of Africa.

To me, magnetic Marrakech will always be a little bit of everything: rough edges, deals to be made, djellabas and babouches, bright colors, energy, heat. I like the transformations that have come to it, but I hope the more it changes, the more it will stay the same.

1 Comments:

Blogger Jim Calio said...

Another view is here; http://travel.blogharbor.com/blog/_archives/2005/11/14/1403555.html

2:44 AM, November 23, 2005  

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