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Magical Morocco

Jewel of the Magreb

Djeema el-Fna, the Assembly of the Dead. What an odd name for a place that is so alive, the pulsating and noisy center of Marrakesh. One of the world’s great spectacles, it is hardly an assembly of the dead (the square was once the scene of executions) but is a grand party with a thousand milling guests. By day it is animated with crowds of merchants and their customers. At dusk it turns into a spinning kaleidoscope of tastes, smells and sights. People gather in small circles to watch non-stop performers—acrobats, monkey tamers, sword swallowers, soothsayers, snake charmers, jugglers, dancers, musicians and storytellers who act out their tales with dramatic gestures. Even an outdoor dentist, herbalists, religious prophets and tarot card readers draw attention. Berbers from the High Atlas Mountains stand out in their traditional red clothing.

Here in one magic bound you pass the frontiers of several centuries for this is no simple show for tourists. This is true living folklore of other times. In the sprawling central plaza of Morocco’s most fabled Imperial city, you discover how common people sought diversion since the Middle Ages.

Djeema el-Fna, Marrakesh
(credit: Moroccan National Tourist Office)

In one corner vendors string out their carts and sell freshly squeezed juice. In another space tables and benches rest near portable kitchens from which blue smoke curls up, scenting the air with charcoal-grilled sausages, kebabs and such.

Only six- and one-half hours from New York, Morocco, nevertheless, feels worlds away. Here you find yourself deep in another civilization where you are beset by new perceptions, sounds, sensations and flavors. Even the architecture is different. The walls are finished with zelliges, glittering mosaic tiles of many hues; tadillakt, a rich hand-rubbed polish of lime, pigment, black soap and egg yolk, which creates a soft, marble-smooth luster; and gueps, hand-carved plasterwork cut like lace.

In the narrow alleys of the old medinas you are introduced to bustle and clamor. Many of the men and women transacting business still wear djellabahs (cotton or wool hooded robes). In the winding passageways filled with open-fronted stalls, you are borne along by the flow of people and donkeys coursing through. Shopkeepers hawk fabrics, spices and foodstuffs; silversmiths, leather craftsmen and tailors are hard at work; and carpet sellers dart at you lizard-like begging you to enter just to look around.

Hoping we would feel more like discoverers than travelers, we were drawn to Morocco for the chance to step out of our Western sensibility and into a rich and diverse tableau.

With limited time at our disposal, we chose the four dazzling Imperial cities where the sun is always hot, the nights are cool, the faces are friendly and the people helpful.

Morocco is such an old country, with a long history of migrations, conquests, dynasties and social changes that each of these cities has at various times been a capital: Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh. The first three, located in the central area, are no more than 200 kilometers from each other. Marrakesh, the dominant hub of the South, is farther away.

After arriving in Casablanca, we took a one- and one-half hour train ride directly from the airport to Rabat, the present seat of the government and of the king’s main residences. Although first-class compartments are not as plush as the ones on European trains, the railroad is frequently the most efficient way to travel because of the short distances.

As early as the 8th century BC indigenous peoples settled in Rabat. Phoenicians and Romans followed. It later became a Berber kingdom and was converted to Islam with the arrival of the Arabs in the late 7th century. In the 12th century Yacoub al-Mansour declared it the Imperial city and built walls around the medina. His plan to erect the largest mosque in the Moslem West was left unfinished by his death in 1199. In 1912 the French established a protectorate over much of Morocco (the Spanish did the same in the North of the country) and made Rabat the capital of their administration. Since independence (1956) it remains the political and royal center.

French is still the major language in the Southern part; Arabic is spoken, too. Due to the French influence, there is a "ville nouvelle" in addition to the old souk-filled streets. Each royal city has one standout color and in Rabat it is white.

The sightseeing highlights include the Tour Hassan. On this site are remains of a striking incomplete minaret and parts of some reconstructed columns of the mosque begun by al-Mansour and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the present king’s father, is buried in an open chamber below ground. A large creviced wall, into which visitors slip notes, edges one part of the expanse. The Archaeology Museum, the necropolis of Chellah whose walls enclose the ruins of the Roman town and Sala Colonio are recommended stops.

On our way to Meknes, a city of green tiled roofs, the shade of Islam, one of the occupants in the compartment was a university student whose sister was meeting the train. They insisted on driving us to our hotel before going home themselves. We found this kind of cordial help to be common in Morocco. On a different occasion, a gentleman with whom we struck up a conversation accompanied us to our lodging.

Other people implore you to come with them to the casbah. In a country with unemployment as high as Morocco many young men, who often are as thick as flies and just as pesky, eke out a living as unlicensed guides. With unerring instinct they zero in on foreigners.

Meknes, a city that is identified with the color blue also has many ochre structures. It is perhaps a thousand years old, but it became important as recently as 1672 when Moulay Ismail made it his capital. He conquered most of Morocco and initiated a grand building spree. Obsessed with defense, he built 23 miles of walls with three concentric systems of ramparts. He prepared for a 20-year siege with granaries and a reservoir and maintained a standing army of 150,000 men brought from the Sudan. The Bab Mansour Gate leading into the medina is a sign of triumph for Moulay Ismail. Moulay Ismail’s Mausoleum, Dar Jamai Palace and the Bou Inania Medersa are on the tourist circuit, too.

The most compelling reason to overnight in Meknes is its proximity—17 miles from town—to the ruins of Volubilis, a Roman city that flourished 2,000 years ago. The arrangement of the streets and public buildings—capitol, basilica, baths and forum—illustrate the Roman approach to municipal planning. Some have well preserved mosaic floors depicting mythological scenes.

The ride to Fez, just east of Rabat, takes less than one hour. As you approach the city you notice that the roofs are made of green fluted tiles. But Fez’s color is a rich royal blue; pottery and tiles are painted Fez blue.

Mint Tea and Music, Medina, Fez
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

Fez was an established Berber town by 800 and soon received many Arab Muslims fleeing from Tunisia and elsewhere. It became the capital city several times, alternately losing that status to Meknes, Rabat or Marrakesh.

City walls were built, then torn down by one sultan and rebuilt by another. More bastions were constructed within and outside the walls. Two medinas were created: Fez el Bali with its miles of twisted alleys, entered by several spectacular gates, and Fez el Jedid. In the 14th century the Jewish population was removed from the old medina to the new adjacent district and the first ghetto, the mellah, was established. The Jews left for Israel in the1950s, but remnants of their culture remain. The medieval quarter still holds a population of 60,000 living not too differently than they did in the Middle Ages. Only donkeys are allowed to deliver along the 1,000 derbs (dead-end alleys).

Fez boasts the oldest university in the West and the Kairaouine Mosque built in 857. Non-Muslims may not enter this large religious shrine, but may admire it through an open door.

We saved the most exciting Imperial City—Marrakesh—for last and on our first night there rushed to the Djeema el-Fna and also explored the medina at whose rim the great square sits. The medina is different from those in the other cities. Some of its passageways are wide and are covered in parts. The city has been described as pink and alternately rose, apricot, red, peach and ochre. The great focus of Berber, Arab and African culture, it is the gateway to the High Atlas Mountains and Berber villages on the east.

The Badi Palace and Saadian Tombs reveal some of the city’s history. Marrakesh has long unusual ramparts and lovely gardens. The Menara Garden is in a large olive grove beside a peaceful lagoon and the Majorelle Garden holds giant bamboo, other luxuriant vegetation, the rarest of essences and a brilliant medley of birds. In addition to the ancient section, there is a very modern part with broad streets, upscale stores and all the semblance of a large European metropolis. It is well located for day trips. We took a private eight-hour trip from Marrakesh to the charming fortified seaside town, Essouira, formerly Mogador, whose ramparts were erected by the Portuguese.

We signed up with Mogador Tours, which offers excursions both in and out of town. For a private two-person tour you get your own car and driver. Group tours number four and up. In Marrakesh you can briefly visit the important sites in half a day or take a garden tour. Fantasia (a folkloric show) and Moroccan evenings, including dinner, are on the schedule. Seven different trips to one of the surrounding areas, including Essouria and the High Atlas Mountains, are also available.

Menara Tours, 41, Avenue Yougoslavie, Tel. 212-4-44-66-54. Vans are in excellent condition and prices are reasonable. www.menara-tours.ma




During our stay in Rabat, the city hosted games between Morocco and Jamaica and France and Japan. The Princess of Japan came to root for her country’s team. Like other foreign royalty and dignitaries, the Rabat Hotel Hilton was where she and her entourage, as well as the athletes, stayed.

Tour Hassan, Rabat
(credit: Moroccan National Tourist Office)

A sprawling hotel with bright and open spaces, the architecture is a blend of modern and Levantine. All rooms have balconies; some overlook the colorful Andalusian flower garden. Facilities include a nine-hole golf course, typical hammam (Eastern-style steam bath), well equipped health club, tennis courts and an oversized pool.

Service is outstanding; the general manager and his carefully trained staff are on top of every detail. They willingly go that extra yard, frequently inquiring whether everything is satisfactory. During breakfast in the Executive Lounge, we asked for an item that was not on the menu. The headwaiter went to the main kitchen to get it.

A delectable tray of Moroccan pastries and fruit bowl with new selections every day is standard in the guestrooms. So perhaps we have one tiny complaint. It’s hard not to nibble on those goodies.

Rabat Hotel Hilton, PO Box 450 Souissi, Rabat, MA 10000, Tel. 212-37-675656. Rates begin at $105. www.Rabat Hilton.com


Our introduction to traditional Moroccan dining took place at Dinjaret. During that first evening we discovered that the preferred choice for dinner is in the medina at restaurants that are housed in former palaces or palace-style homes. Similar in architecture, they are designed around courtyards that are usually double-height and surrounded by separate alcoves. Remodeled 10 years ago from a late 16th-century Andulsian house, guests reach Dinjaret as they do most other restaurants in the ancient section. An escort with a lantern meets you at the edge of the medina and guides you through the labyrinth alleys.

Well prepared Moroccan cuisine is little known in the West. The food at Dinjaret—refined and imaginative—represents the national table at its best. Dinner always starts with an array of salads and the spread here was especially good. Cold vegetables included beets, potatoes and carrots and eggplant prepared two ways. Before taking your order for the main course, the amiable proprietress asks whether you prefer sweet or spicy. We were served a sweet lamb tagine (casserole) with raisins. The sauce was so beguiling, it deserves a place in gustatory heaven. We skipped dessert knowing the pastries back at the hotel beckoned to us.

Dinjaret, 6, Rue Belgnaoui, Tel. 212-7-70 42 39.Reasonable.



There are not many hotels in Meknes. The best two rate only four stars. The Transatlantique, across the river and overlooking town, offers amenities—tennis courts and greenery—that the in-town and more commercial Rif does not. The outdoor pool is a plus. Accommodations vary. The rooms on the first floor (the 100 series) nearest the lobby have balconies and are decorated in cheerful Moroccan country style. Avoid the second floor, which is motel-like and shabby. Even the suite was found wanting. The clientele is European tour groups. A more than acceptable breakfast is included. Despite the absence of a top-tier hotel, a stay in Meknes is recommended because of the historic sites and the proximity to Volubilis.

Hotel Transatlantique, Rue El Merinyine, 212-5-52-50-50. Rates begin at $45.


Riad has not been open very long and, therefore, has yet to establish a solid reputation. But what an incredible find it is. The word is getting around and tour operators call frequently hoping to make arrangements for groups. To preserve the establishment’s character, owner Raouf Ismaili turns them away. Mr. Ismaili—Moulay Ismail is his forbear—still lives in the large family palace where he was born and which appears on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In addition to the dining facility, he is converting part of the riad into an eight-room inn scheduled to open in March 2001.

Gardens are an integral part of the design and some of the space, including a second story terrace, opens to the sky. The interior with its heavy original 17th-century carved doors was painstakingly restored.

Moroccan chefs are for the most part women. Mr. Ismaili put his wife and mother in charge of the kitchen. Using family recipes, the food they prepare is sublime. The traditional harira soup was thick, gutsy and redolent of turmeric, cumin and cinnamon. Mechoui, the best way to cook lamb, was, perhaps, the most delicious we’ve ever tasted. It was slowly roasted for hours, which rendered it lean and fork tender. The couscous, prepared Berber style with currants and nuts, was a perfect partner.

Riad, 79, Kdsar Chaacha-Dar Lakbira. Tel. 212-5- 53 05 42. Reasonable.



With an unsurpassed combination of tranquility and exoticism, Palais Jamai is the spot to bed down in Fez. It is so jarringly resplendent that you’ll rub your eyes in amazement when you see it. Built in Arab-Moorish style toward the end of the 19th century, it was the jewel in a collection of homes owned by the Jamai family, whose patriarch served as grand vizir (prime minister) to the sultan. Ideally located at the edge of the medina, it is surrounded by imposing park-like grounds that are lovingly landscaped on a sloping and terraced terrain. A walk through the property feels like an excursion through paradise. The color and details—Moroccan cedar painted with geometric motifs, tile, mosaics, arches, chandeliers, rich carpets and furnishings—are endless. Better make that more than one spin around to take it all in. The breakfast buffet, with a setting to match, is outstanding. Birds serenade you as you sit in the open air and enjoy a pleasant breeze with your morning repast.

Palais Jamai, El Bab Guissa Fez 30000, Morocco, Tel. 800-763-4835, 212-5-635-096. Rates start at $150.


Thanks to the grandson of astrologer and judge, Si Mohammed El Abbadi, the family palace, now Le Maison Bleue and built in 1915, was converted to an inn and restaurant a few years back. Passionate about keeping up the spirit of the house and eager to share it with visitors, dinner is presented as though you are a guest in Mehdi El Abbadi’s home. You dine like a pasha on brocaded divans in a candlelit salon while being served by costumed waiters in pantaloons and babouches (pointed slippers). Some restaurants, including Le Maison Bleue, located inside the walls of the medinas offer prix-fixe dinners only. They usually average about $50 and include alcoholic beverages and wine. There is no menu, but the dishes vary each evening and might include, in addition to appetizer salads, two main courses, such as fragrant chicken with preserved lemons and olives and tantalizing lamb tagine. Two desserts top off the meal and inevitably one is pastilla au lait, flaky pastry leaves with almonds and custard sauce. One of several musicians comes to your table and serenades you on the lute while singing a Gnaouan song. When you finish your after-dinner drink in the main courtyard, a man with a lantern guides you through a corridor, whose floor is paved with blue zellige mosaics, out into the medieval quarter. La Maison Bleue, 2, Place de l’istiqlal Batha 30000. Tel. 212 55 636052. www.maisonbleue.com

Dar Saada, a 16th-century palace that is inside of Fez’s cavernous medina, is open at lunchtime only and there is no attendant to show you the way. It’s hard not to get lost in the endless alleys, but the helpful shopkeepers will direct you and they might even escort you themselves. Tall ceilings, glorious hues, huge columns and lots of tile and brass add to the sensorial high. Order a la carte or select one of three five-course set lunches. The menu pecheur (fish in Morocco is very tasty) offers bastilla with fruits de mer and a tajine of poisson m’charmel. Entertainment—belly dancing, singing and music—during the meal is non-stop. Like other elegant riad restaurants, Dar Saada hosts large tours at noontime. Khalid Benamour, the owner, has just opened Riad Arabesque, a small inn inside the medina.Dar Saada, 21, Souk Attairine. Tel. 212-5-63 73 70/71. Reasonable. http://www.arabesquehotel.com



Think Taj Mahal meets Sheherazade’s Palace and you might get a glimmer of Amanjena, the newest addition to the Aman collection. But not quite. The astounding resort defies description and is, in our opinion, at the top of the world’s greats. Ed Tuttle, an architect, who planned seven of the 11 Aman hotels, is faultless in his taste, imagination, attention to detail and exquisite eye. Regardless of location, you know instantly that the resort has the stamp of an Aman for there is a unity in the entire group, but there is also a sense of place. The walls are pink, the color of Marrakesh, and the design draws on mosque architecture. Amanjena was built and decorated with native materials—leather, tulya wood, cedar, pise (earth mixed with straw) and green fluted roof tiles. Local forms were also used—high columns, arches arranged in series, small pools and a large central basin, which traditionally collects rainwater.

Each of 41 separate pavilions is surrounded by half walls and encompasses a gazebo with lounging and dining areas. The piece de resistance in the private quarters is the 26-foot high domed ceiling with small windows that open to the morning light. Bathing and dressing areas are gigantic.

There are two restaurants, a spa and hammam, heated pool and a boutique whose well edited merchandise puts it on a par with a museum shop. A library with a full-time librarian and designed like a medarsa (Koranic school) is housed in its own building,

Amanjena, Route de Quarzazate, Km 12, Marrakech (four miles outside the city in The Palmerie). Tel. 800-637-7200, 212-4-40 33 53. Rates begin at $550. www.amanjena.com

In the middle of July 2000 a press release arrived with a bold statement covering an entire page, "The world-famous Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech closed its doors on June 30."

What, we wondered? We had been there a few weeks earlier and it seemed as popular as it had been in its nearly 80 years of existence. False alarm. I turned the page and read that "Celebrated French designer (Alberto Pinto) reinterprets La Mamounia." The renovation is now complete and the hotel is ready to receive the same well known royalty, socialites, celebrities and politicos.

"The lobby, restaurants and public spaces are too beautiful to consider altering," said Robert Berge, managing director. The last renovation, which took place in 1986, married Art Deco with Moroccan. New guests will have a choice as to which style room they prefer. When we return we’d like to stay in the same wing we occupied before with its Art Deco mirrors and painted Moroccan doors. We’re glad to learn that they’re not taking down the rotagravure and sepia photos from the ‘20s through the ‘50s that line the hallways or removing the piano that does double duty as a bar in Le Churchill Piano Bar, so named because this was the prime minister’s favorite hotel.

La Mamounia is smack in the center of the city, but is nevertheless a resort, because of its 20-acre park, mammoth swimming pool, spa and gallery of shops and restaurants.

La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Djedid, 40.000, Marrakech. Tel. 212 44 38 86 00. Rates begin at $300. www.mamounia.com


An elderly gentleman dressed in a flowing white djellabah and a red fez walks you from your cab to Le Yacout’s entrance. Like other medina restaurants that are housed in renovated private palaces the anonymous door offers no hint of the elaborate and many-roomed interior. No wonder it took 12 years to complete the makeover. The results are straight out of a "Thousand and One Nights." Dinner here is a two- and one-half-hour production. You are led to the roof, seated at a small table, served a drink and can wander to the four sides to look at the medina, the moon and the minarets while listening to the rhythms of a drum and stringed instruments. A waiter then helps you down the winding staircase to one of several settings, a vaulted second floor chamber, the central area surrounding the turquoise pool, an intimate glassed-in salon or one of the alcoves. The fixed price, $50 with all drinks, started with the best assortment of appetizers that we had in Morocco: sweet mashed as well as mildly spiced carrots, two kinds of eggplant, tomato confit, chunks of sheep’s liver and briouttes filled with beef and other delights. There are no menus, but you may choose two out of four entrees. We ordered bastilla, the Moroccan standout of flaky parchment pastry filled with pigeon, nuts and eggs and flavored with cinnamon, which is often an appetizer, and beef with fava beans, which was kept warm with an embroidered velvet cover. Dessert was tiny cookies presented on a four-tiered stand and fresh fruit. Service is unhurried, courteous and efficient.

Le Yacout, 79, Sidi Ahmed Soussi, Tel. 212-4-38-29-29. Reservations essential.

Frenchwoman Christine Rio, owner of Le Tobsil (meaning dish in Arabic) is the consummate hostess. She joins guests to drink, chat and make them feel at home. Dinner in this small riad is a succession of exciting courses. The kitchen turns out Moroccan favorites that are prepared with creative variations. Olives, the equivalent of butter in a Moroccan meal, arrived with house-baked flat, round, focaccia-like Arab bread. Salads included tangy stewed spinach in a spicy dressing. Next came a moist chicken dish, falling off the bones and seasoned with onions and parsley and Morocco’s most popular herb, coriander. The lamb tagine with spices, honey and figs was an example of the way cooks season with sweet and savory and combine meat, fish or poultry and fruit. Next came an outstanding couscous topped with vegetables, raisins and chickpeas. Every grain of this light semolina was moist and tender, yet firm. The meal ended with beautifully poached fruit.

Like all restaurants of the genre, the courtyard—you can eat on the balcony or downstairs—opens to the sky and lanterns and candles provide the lighting. The rose petals that were strewn on the tablecloths are a way of saying welcome. One of the musicians gets up from the floor from time to time, moves to the beat and swirls the tassel on top of his hat.

Le Tobsil, 22 Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, R’mila Bab Ksour. Tel 212-44-44 40 52 / 212-44-44 45 35. Dinner is $50, drinks included.

When you’ve had your fill of fancy food and palatial settings, try Le Marrakchi, located two flights up on the edge of the Djeema el-Fna. Ask for a seat near the front windows so that you can look down on the square below and at the illuminated Koutoubia Mosque. The tented ceiling adds to the authentic atmosphere. The simple food—harira soup and couscous—is good. But why the popcorn? Olives and bread alone work as appropriate pre-dinner snacks. The entertainment is pleasant. A musician sits in the corner and a belly dancer wiggles from table to table while carrying a tray of lighted candles on her head.

Restaurant Le Marrakchi, 52 Rue des Banques. Tel. 4-44 33 77. Dinners are $25, $35 or $45.



Planes from overseas land in and take off from Casablanca, the country’s commercial center. Conducting business and staying over between planes are the major reasons people pause here. There’s not much to see; golf and going to the beach are major pastimes. Le Royal Mansour Meridian, located downtown and close to the medina, is considered one of the city’s best hotels. The other three top hotels also belong to chains. Our room needed a bit of sprucing up. The service and attention to guests could not be faulted, despite the large tour groups checking in and out. A generous breakfast buffet is served in the central jardin d’hiver. There is an excellent fitness center.

Le Royal Mansour Meridien, 27, Avenue de l’Armee Royale. Tel. 800-543-4300, 212-2-31 48 18. Rates begin at $132. www.lemeridien.com/morocco/casablanca/hotel_ma1273.shtml


The best French food in Morocco is found way out on the corniche at A Ma Bretagne, which caters almost exclusively to natives. To enjoy the changing sky, go before nightfall. As the light fades, orange, pink, mauve and blue stripes rimimng the ocean recede into darkness. The setting is modern and the restaurant sits squarely on the beach. Andre Halbert, chef-owner, prepared a tasting dinner centered largely on fish and seafood, his specialties. He bakes the best rolls in all Morocco. Monsieur Halbert could be cooking in any five-star restaurant in New York or Paris.

First came a tempura of shredded calamari with two lip smacking sauces. Next was oysters mille-feuille with zucchini and another divine sauce. Rabbit surrounded by pureed vegetables followed salmon stuffed with spinach. A light and fruity Chardonnay bottled in Morocco accompanied the meal that ended with warm chocolate cake with a runny interior.

A Ma Bretagne, Sidi Abderrahman, Bd. de la Corniche, Casablanca. Tel. 212-2-36 21 12. Expensive. www.amabretagne.com

Winter 2000-01