mastering the medina

mastering the medina

Before I headed to Marrakech I did my usual research. I researched on what to see, where to eat, what not to miss and of course where to stay. I pulled up my GoogleEarth map to get an overview of the medina, the old town of Marrakech. Unfortunately, the map didn’t prove very helpful and I would later learn why exactly it’s just a grey and whitish spot in the middle of Marrakech.

Marrakech has recently seen great hotel openings, from the Lucien Barriere’s Naoura Barriere to the Jacques Garcia-designed rebirth of legendary La Mamounia. For a more authentic Moroccan experience, however, I chose to stay at a riad, the traditional Moroccan garden house, usually consisting of around four rooms facing an inner courtyard, with a little garden and water feature as well as a roof top terrace.

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One element of the magic of a riad is that most of them are virtually impossible to find. Try finding a door with no sign in a maze of roads with no names. Maps? Forget it, none of the available ones are accurate. I always thought I was a pretty good navigator, someone who readily finds his way. But in the medina, I paid a price for my optimism, especially during the first days: for a small bakshish local kids will happily show you the way to your next destination. Everybody assumes that you are looking for la place or Place Jamaa el fna, the sinkhole the entire medina appears to be circulating around like water in a bathtub. You will end up there at some point, although you probably won’t understand how you got there and will hardly be able to go back the same route.

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Prices for la gentillesse (the kindness of the locals to guide you) have gone up recently, probably because of lost souls who were happy to pay any price to get out of the claustrophobic labyrinth. As with everything here, though, a little negotiation solves the problem.

I wanted to do it on my own though, blend in, know where I was going or at least pretend to, so I could avoid being asked if I needed directions. I am proud to say that I can navigate Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market without a map and I wanted to be able to say the same thing about the medina. Well, it’s not the same. I saw an American who was marching quite steadily; I thought he knew where he wanted to go, but then I noticed how he kept peeking into his baseball hat which he was holding in his hand. As I passed him I noticed a hand drawn map hidden inside the hat. The occasional peek assured him he was on track. Nice one.

There are more than 600 riads in the medina but you only need one really: Riad Farnatchi. Hidden in a small derb, a little dead end off a tiny road North of the Soukh, between the Musée de Marrakech and the Maison de la Photographie, is a heavy, bolted wooden door with no sign, only a door bell. Once this door opens, it’s like stepping into a different world, of tranquility, where the porridge of noise from mopeds, merchants, children and mules is replaced by birds chirping, water dabbling and a smooth voice asking whether you would like a thé á la menthe. You sit by the pool, taking a breather before making your way up the old staircase to your room. Your key is in the hole but the door is unlocked. You wouldn’t lock your door at home either, would you?

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I don’t like how hotels advertise as being a ‘home away from home’ when they usually aren’t. I mean, who has standardized furniture at home? Meaningless prints on the walls? A tiny fridge you have to bend down to? Q-tips wrapped individually? No offense and yes, not all hotels do that but that’s a different story. You enter your room at Riad Farnatchi and you do indeed feel at home. Fresh local pastries (including the best cornes de gazelles I found all week), a pair of traditional slippers and a djellaba await, as you dig into the Moroccon interior. I put on my djellaba, slip into my new babouches and sit down on the balcony, drinking mint tea, thinking for a moment that I am indeed a local.

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But then, it’s almost too perfect. Lynn Perez, the Canadian manager of Riad Farnatchi, has such an eye for detail that you simply won’t find a scratch on the walls, not a chip in the tadelakht, not a spot anywhere. Lynn also knows how to get things done, and most importantly, what can be done for each of her guests. So depending on the type of person you are she’ll sort you out with the matching activity. The atmosphere in the riad was in fact so lovely that with all the wonders of the medina waiting for me outside the riad’s walls I decided to spend much of the next day in my djellaba and not leave the riad at all. After a Berber breakfast with an amazing omelet and fruit salad I ventured up onto the rooftop terrace to enjoy the sun.

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In the late afternoon, the sun was starting to descend somewhere in the distance of the Atlas mountains. I ventured out into the Medina, sneaking through little alleyways, tunnels, zig zagging through the maze, passing hundreds of confident locals who all knew where they were going. So did I, or rather, I knew where I wanted to end up at some point: la place.

Through a soukh, past the butchers, a left turn after the leather shops, then past the chickens, crossing the jewelers, into a courtyard and through a car shop, I ended up somehow, miraculously in the busy center of it all, Jamaa el Fna. This is a place where everyone wants your attention: orange juice vendors, snake charmers and medicine men. The sights and sounds, all the busy hustle and bustle can make you dizzy. After a short while I longed for my quiet and peaceful oasis that is Riad Farnatchi. Too bad I couldn’t find it anymore. But that, too, is another story.

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