By Rory Winston
For some New Yorkers, the Arab world might seem the worst place to vacation these days. The troubled region yields a battery of images of warfare and Westerners being taken hostage or having their throats slit.
Morocco – considered the least Arab of Arab countries – is sometimes unfairly grouped in this dangerous category.
Moroccans are primarily Berbers, many of whom adopted Islam after a history of invasions. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the country was a haven for Jews, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Moors and the French—colonialist and refugee alike. All these groups deposited traces of their respective cultures between the packed red mud walls that make up the 12th-century fortress town of Marrakech.
Here, between maze-like alleyways scattered with markets (souks), lies the 70-meter minaret of Koutoubia, the Place Djemma el Fna City Square and the El Badi Palace. Each site boasts a horde of magicians, acrobats, dancers and, of course, storytellers.
The kingdom of Aman Resorts
On the outskirts of a steamy Marrakech, by glowing fields of corn and barley, we watched the Atlas Mountains - their frosty tips piercing a lemon sky. Between here and the breezy seaside town of Essaouira - with its Portugese forts, blue-daubed doors and colorful fish carts intended to distract evil spirits – stood Amanjena (amanresorts.com). Like a mirage reflecting the blushing walls of the city we had left behind, Amanjena was an oasis of emerald-clay roofs, double oak doors, hand-cut tiles and marble fountains set amidst palms and olive trees. Moorish and Berber constructions surrounded a large pool with finely groomed vines that stood like sentries.
With butlers on every side, the Al-Hambra Maison seemingly anticipated our arrival. Domed ceilings, brass lanterns and Berber carpets … our living area had an arc-cut fireplace that crackled its response to the sultry sound of a zellij wall fountain.
Though a ski excursion to nearby slopes was available, we opted for a bicycle ride, some tennis and a swim in a pool wreathed by hibiscus flowers. Now it was time for our ritual bath in the hamman (steam room) where after a quick whirlpool, my wife got a facial and manicure while I sipped refreshments in Amanjena’s well adorned library. Soon, we were eating Moroccan home-style dishes among onyx columns, wood screens, olive trees and fountains, as we gazed through a pyramid skylight at a star flooded night.
The City without Time
Roads caromed off foothills, the sun gamboling about in odd patterns as we drove. Time overtook our vehicle, a glaring light left diffracted colors in its wake. It could have been ten thousand years ago. It could just as easily have been some futuristic fantasy. Ourika Valley - somewhere between a town called Imlil and one called Asni. That was as much as we knew when entering the imposing gates of what seemed like one of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” – a city of labyrinths where an auburn Kasbah loomed in the distance. They called it Tamadot (virginlimitededition.com/kasbah), a place where eclectic pieces gathered from different time periods and places clambered for our attention. Gym, tennis courts, indoor pool, spa and Turkish bath – the sultan here was none other than Sir Richard Branson, who had expanded his dynasty to include the decadence of three continents in a pool-centric complex. Magnificently camp, a guide asked us, “Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?” Reassuring to know that hot air was not the exclusive property of loudmouthed guests.
Horse-riding, skiing and trekking were all good ways of working up an appetite for what proved to be the resort’s best kept secret, the South African chef Jean Mundell –a culinary wizard capable of piquing signature classics with local flair. I slipped into a robe and baboush slippers and took in the jarringly exotic landscape. The Hollywood-like set made it hard not to feel like Rudolph Valentino.
Crossing summits caked in snow, we fell gracelessly upon the golden sand dunes of the Sahara. The square-towered Kasbah of Kanz Erremal (kanzerremal.com) was a mud-straw enclave that stood like a viable oasis in what was thousands of miles of surrounding desert. Here, travel is either by Land Rover or camel.
Cooled by clay vases full of water, several alcoves for dining were scattered in the center of an airy atrium. This was Bedouin country – a place where mineral quarries, cave paintings and nomadic settlements ensured that all sense of time remained permanently at bay. After a breakfast of crispy crepes, flan and yogurt, we rode through the desert until we finally reached an oasis campsite.
Guest of the Royals
In the heart of the ivory city of Fès, near the monument of Fès el Jedid and Bali, is Le Maison Bleue (maisonbleue.com), the palace that today belongs to the prominent El Abbadi family. Three Moroccan salons make up this estate, forming a world of long corridors, lined with brocaded divans and highlighted with candlelight. With state-of-the-art amenities, the house is a bastion to tantalize the senses. While waiters in pantaloons and babouches serve forth a dazzling symphony of cooked salads, succulent lamb tajines, bastillah and pastries, a mesmerizing library with oil paintings, beautifully bound books and calligraphic letters form a feast for the eyes.
From the rooftop terrace, behold the glimmering city of Fès as it spreads across the horizon like a fairy tale’s white proscenium. Blue zellij mosaics, finely carved cedar-wood doors, stained glass windows with wrought iron grills all collude to make one feel like less of a hotel guest than a personal councilor to a monarch.
Like most empires, El Abbadi has extended its dominion to include the Riad La Maison Bleue, an Arab-Andalusian realm located in one of the most historic quarters of the Fès Medina. Paved with zellij mosaics and sporting cedar wood, carved stucco and Andalusian high ceilings, the estate serves up sumptuous meals on the terraces of Moorish salons while also sporting some of the most exclusive body treatments in the region.
Having been welcomed with a bowl of orange-blossom scented milk and dates stuffed with almonds, it did not take long to understand that Riad, like Maison Bleue, is a sanctuary that not only preserves traditions but involves each new comer in a lavish ritual of enduring luxury.
Back to our Non-Home
Returning to Marrakech, we slalomed our way down the parched sandal-beaten paths of old Médina. There we came upon Riad Kniza (riadkniza.com) – a recherché work of restoration evoking the 18th century. Hosting VIPs that included former US Presidents and Brad Pitt, this Moorish masterpiece boasts some of the finest cuisine to be had in the country. With magnificent fireplaces and authentic Moroccan furnishings, Riad Kniza is “homey comfort-cum-authentic local artisan museum.” In short, it is in perfect proximity to everything of interest in the city and is cloistered enough for silent reflection.
Sitting on a comfortable pillow and sipping tea in the courtyard, I realized the absurdity in both the preconceptions of tourists as well as the smug relativism of seasoned travelers. And so, that night, I took a final look at that sheltering sky of Morocco and understood that what shelters us most from the cold horror that is our universe is our own interpretations of it—those warm if meaningless tales concocted by cultures both like and unlike our own.
Morocco’s Literary Legends
Kit Moresby: We’re not tourists. We’re travelers.
Tunner: Oh. What’s the difference?
Port Moresby: A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner.
Kit Moresby: Whereas a traveler might not come back at all?
This flirtatious and ominous dialogue from Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie “Sheltering Sky” shows the trepidation which many travelers today still show upon embarking on journeys to Islamic countries. Little wonder then that Paul Bowles - the renowned author whose work inspired the film - originated from Jamaica Queens. That Bowles spent years in Morocco living in relative tranquility is a lesser known fact.
Even the more dated “Book of 1001 Nights” comes complete with a warning allegory by the teller, Scheherazade: If King Shahryar is not amused by his virgin bride’s bedtime story, she will fare no better than the 3,000 beheaded women before her. —R.W.