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The rooftop lounge at El Fenn

Beneath a Desert Sky

Art, adventure and romance: the exotic allure of North Africa’s fabled Red City makes it the ultimate lovers’ bolthole.

Marrakech

Art, adventure and romance: the exotic allure of North Africa’s fabled Red City makes it the ultimate lovers’ bolthole.

On a night much blacker than this, a night before electricity had pierced the recesses of the souk, and ten years before Talitha Getty and Yves Saint Laurent made Marrakech their playground, Mustapha Chouqoir was born in the medina.
Now silver-haired and bespectacled, dressed in a stone-coloured djellaba, Mustapha is as much a part of the snaking red alleyways as the donkeys and the spice sellers themselves. Today, for one day only, he is my guide.

A peaceful riad pool
A peaceful riad pool

Little has changed, he tells me, in his beloved souk. With the exception of electricity and the motor scooter – “too many Chinese horses,” he laments – the medina has lost none of its soul. It is a seething, visceral playground, the home of paupers and princes, craftsmen, and pickpockets, where all manner of earthly delights play out behind heavy studded doors.

Grande Cafe de la Poste
Grande Cafe de la Poste

The donkeys are still here, dragging carts laden with rubble, laden with oranges. My husband and I buy fresh pomegranate juice from a weather-beaten street-seller and interlock our fingers as we slide further into the recesses of the souk. I’m thirsty for the ‘real’ Marrakech, intrigued by the city’s artistic heritage, and I want to find the craftsmen who’ve plied their trade here for centuries. With Mustapha at my side, I feel them drawing closer. At a juncture in the souk’s backstreets, we lose the tourist hordes and plunge deep into an age-old covered market. This is the blacksmith’s quartier, where deeply lined men in leather aprons are welding and hammering blackened metal into trays, mirror frames, and intricately decorated Moorish lanterns. They glance up as we pass by, sparks of molten iron falling unnoticed upon their leathery hands. The noise and heat are intense, clattering, and we are quietly relieved to slip out of the darkened workshops into the colourful beauty of ‘slipper street’. Pretty raffia mules, backless and gently frayed, hang like sweeties from the myriad storefronts. In dusky pink, teal and a vivid chartreuse that steals my heart, they are woven in their thousands by old women hunched over baskets of straw.

The staircase at the Grande Cafe de la Poste
The staircase at the Grande Cafe de la Poste

At Mustapha’s behest, we visit Aziz, where a wizened Marrakchi cobbler carves the softest white leather into sandals that fit me just so. They are effortless, contemporary, and cost me less than a glass of wine.  To read the full article, subscribe to our magazine now by clicking here. ◼

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© This article was first published in Dec-Jan 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.
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