Marrakesh: Morocco's Fabled City

Article excerpt

THE battle between old and young in a city such as Marrakesh will never be fair. After all, Marrakesh, inspite of a population of just over one million people, is rather like an old but very interesting Great Aunt, who likes to think of herself as modern but gives the game away by asking if you're 'courting' and reeking of eau de cologne. And we all know that underneath her new apparel she's wearing stockings she's had since the forties. And it is this, the city's unfailing authenticity, which has always appealed to the most discerning of travellers from Marlene Dietrich to Alfred Hitchcock, from George Orwell to Charles de Gaulle and indeed Winston Churchill. As always, as winter settles in over Western Europe and especially in Britain many people's dreams will turn toward Morocco's fabled city.

It was devastating to learn in April 2011 that a terrorist bomb had blown apart the well-known and much-frequented Argana Cafe that overlooked Djemaa-el-Fna, the city's main square and most popular tourist spot, deemed a 'Masterpiece of World Heritage' by Unesco in 2001. I've sat on its terrace more than once to enjoy a syrupy Turkish coffee and drink in the panoramic view of bustling Moroccan life. It was a sanctuary, a perch away from the hustle and bustle below, where the waiters were unfailingly friendly and the coffee always good.

The Argana Cafe's beautiful terrace was reduced to a mangled wreckage. Sixteen people lost their lives, among them Peter Moss, a British travel writer. Morocco, a country that was already struggling to recover from the effects of the global downturn, was devastated as its major source of revenue, the tourist trade, began a downward spiral. Within days beautiful works of art were respectfully placed on the tarpaulin that screened the wreckage and the orange juice sellers returned to squeeze their fruit as they had always done in front of Cafe Argana. But the square was eerily bereft of foreign visitors and business was slow.

Ironically there's probably nowhere safer to visit than a city in the wake of an attack such as this with heightened security and an increased police presence. The British Government gives no travel restrictions for Morocco and merely warns of a general threat of terrorism, similar to advice given for visiting the UK. Gradually foreign visitors began to return and the local people were grateful to see them. No more so than in the souqs of the Medina, named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985.

'Come inside. Only for looking', the shopkeepers assure the tourists with enormous toothless grins as they stroll by their shops, many not much bigger than a kitchen pantry. Don't be put off by the persistent patter. It's all good fun and the Moroccan people enjoy a good joke. My retort of 'Hello Moroccan Cous-cous' to the greeting of 'Hello English Fish and Chips' got a roar of laughter from the market traders in the perfume-sellers' souq and a sizeable discount on a bottle of apricot oil. The perfume sellers rarely wait for potential customers to stop and show interest in their wares but daub passers-by with imitations of famous scents.

Marrakesh has for centuries been synonymous with trade. From 1062, when Youssef ben Tachfine first saw its potential as a trading post, through invasions and colonisations by a succession of Berbers, Almohads, Saadians, and most recently until 1956, French, it has never lost its trading traditions. And still today its souqs remain the historical and cultural heart of the city and the confusing labyrinths of narrow alleyways, jam-packed with tiny shops, are the best place to get an introduction to life in Marrakesh and its charmingly hospitable people.

It's a joy to get lost. In fact I recommend it. There are maps of the souq but why spend your time trying to decipher them? Give in to curiosity instead. Take a look around that corner. Follow that intriguing click-clack noise and you can watch a carpet being woven on an ancient loom and laugh at the stray kitten that jumps up hoping to catch the loose threads. …