Snapshots of sights, sounds and the biennale, from my first trip to Marrakech. I got the chance to stay in a palatial 19th century suite at Angsana Riads Collection in the heart of the Médina. The three-day trip was a whirlwind, but I managed to capture some initial impressions of the fantastical North African city whose crimson and ochre hues and purple haze inspired the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, The Rolling Stones and, more recently, Sofia Coppola.
Archive for North Africa
By Shana Ting Lipton
I’m lounging in my spacious, three-room Bahia royal suite at the Angsana Riads Collection in Marrakech. My private confines are so serene that only the beatifically haunting call to prayer punctuates the quiet. Still, raucous reveries fill my head…
There, in my vibrantly-hued salon, through a haze of orange blossom incense, Keith Richards strums a guitar beside Anita Pallenberg, surrounded by cushions on a low sofa. Yves Saint Laurent pours a glass of Château Lafite Rothschild for Lord Patrick Lichfield in a reception room punctuated by 19th century objéts. Mick Jagger and David Bowie have unfortunately taken a liking to the four-poster bed in the master quarters; time to break up this fête.
It’s tempting to engage in such offbeat daydreams in Marrakech. The colourful, fantastical Moroccan city dates back to the 11th century but was re-imagined and reinvigorated in the ‘60s and ‘70s by rock stars, fashion arbiters and rich hippies. Post-millennial Marrakech has continued to draw the bling and branché – everyone from Colin Farrell to P. Diddy, Daman Albarn to Vanessa Branson.
The latter founded the Marrakech Biennale in 2005. Its 2012 edition (the fourth to date), pulled together local and international authors like Ben Okri, filmmakers like Gabriel Range and artists like Luca Pozzi for citywide exhibits and talks. The 2012 Biennale’s central Higher Atlas exhibition continues through June 3rd. From the looks of its opening soirée at the dimly lit La Salama (a trendy new restaurant / lounge just off the Place Jemaa el Fna), attendees are continuing to carry the torch first lit by the bobo jet-set of the Morroc’n Roll era.
It’s easy to understand why such artistic torches continue to burn brightly here in Marrakech, a city whose namesake is believed to emanate from a Berber phrase meaning ‘land of God’. The air is rife with a piquant kind of divine inspiration. Mysterious creative catalysts operate via different senses here: sweet oil infusions wafting through the air, equally aromatic and rich-tasting chicken tagine; and woven fabrics, rugs and building materials brought to life by bleeding shades of ochre.
Similarly enlivened by crimson tones is the Si Said riad that houses my suite. The restored 19th century structure is the oldest of Angsana’s collection of six riads (lavish courtyard homes once owned by wealthy families). The 5 star Angsana Riads Collection consists of 41 rooms and suites, located in the Riad Zitoun district of Marrakech’s fortified historic city centre of the Médina. Five of the hotel’s riads are clustered together near the La Bahia palace and Dar Si Said museum. The sixth is located a short walk away in Kasbah, by the most famous of the 19 gates that lead into the Médina: Bab Agnaou.
I could have easily spent all of my Marrakech sojourn in the Angsana Riads – with my famous eccentric imaginary friends to entertain me, of course. A stay offers access to facilities in all six riads: a Thai restaurant, a Moroccan restaurant, a library, plunge pools, and rooftop terraces with views of the city. You can even take an al fresco cooking class atop one of the latter.
However, perhaps the most tantalizing sybaritic in-house pleasure is the Oriental Spa managed by the world renowned Banyan Tree. It is located in the Riad Bab Firdaus (which appropriately translates into ‘gateway to heaven’). Perhaps inspiration for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant who first visited Marrakech in the ‘70s? In this paradisiacal spot, such indulgences as aromatherapy treatments and Thai fusion massage await. Angsana’s hammams – perfume-scented steam rooms – transport guests even further back in time, centuries past.
Although the thought of sequestering myself in the beautiful hospice with its tadelakt plasterwork, giant palm plants and lavish rugs, was tempting, a footnote from my highly informative tour guide Youssef Rharrab helped motivate my extracurricular explorations. He explained that the reason riads are open-air is that, in the past, women in Morocco were rarely permitted to leave their residences; so it gave them the illusion of being outside.
That was the perfect excuse for this princess to go beyond the riad’s confines and northbound to the souks where tranquility was replaced by a lively scene of beeping mopeds, donkey drawn carts and entrepreneurial marketeers eagerly hocking their wares.
This at times overwhelming uber-market atmosphere is the central, pulsating force that drives many retail-inclined visitors to Marrakech in the first place. This is where the art of haggling is practiced and perfected. Admittedly, this isn’t one of my areas of expertise and excellence. So I just sit back and watch the more worthy players do their verbal dance in the name of inexpensive throws, rugs, dishes, jewellery, artwork and musical instruments.
Respite from this labyrinthine land of wares can be found beyond the Médina’s high terra cotta walls, around the modern quarter of Guéliz where the Jardin Majorelle is situated. In 1980, the lush and chic 12-acre garden was acquired and restored by Marrakech residents Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. It not only offers a verdant respite from the ‘souk and the city’ hustle-bustle but also plenty of fashion shoot worthy backdrops punctuated by walls and pots in eye-catching yellow and Yves Klein blue.
I can just see a young Veruschka flexing and posing in the jardin for some avant garde shutterbug. Or quite recently, Sofia Coppola using the evocative and mysterious backdrop of Marrakech as the location for her Marni commercial. The city always has and always will be like a living lab for Bohemian creatives around the globe.
My first few moments in Marrakech were like a tidal wave of sweet, exotic fragrances, manic sounds, colourful hues everywhere and a mazelike architecture of nooks, stairs and back entrances. All of this contributed to the mystery that already surrounded the North African city even before I arrived.
A musician friend of mine from LA who was proud of her Berber heritage had set the tone for me with her eccentric tales and the magical aura that surrounded her (she won the lottery, twice!)
But, as they say, you had to be there…in situ, that is, to really take in the nuances of this special place and to even sense–if in hushed undertones–its Ash’ Ari Sufi (regional spiritual form of Islam) influences.
I was in Marrakech on a media trip hosted and organised by the travel company Kuoni, and Angsana Riads Collection/Banyon Tree Hotels. It was short but sweet, yet just enough time to amass inspiration for some broad strokes to come (in the form of an article for The Arbuturian and a video which will be posted here and on Huffington Post | Travel).
The finer strokes–those sweet and bizarre moments–make up my own quirky take on the Red City. My journal of random thoughts…
The culturally mashed up locale (you’ll find mixtures of Berbers, Jews, Arabs from Jordan, Egyptians and French there) is home to the free-roaming feral cat. Like in Greece, these beautiful but wild felines roam the streets in search of food–not affection. I happened upon one that was quintessentially Marrakechi–dipped in henna and trying desperately to lick off the terra cotta hue from its fur.
Everything in Marrakech is dipped in colour–lips, cheeks, textiles, fabrics… The friendlier traders will warn, before selling you a beautiful striped throw, that its dye will wreak havoc on your sofa.
Beeping mopeds navigated by old women in burqas and young men in modern dress zoom through narrow streets, leaving trails of smoke as they nearly scathe distracted passers-by whose heads are always inevitably turned skyward to capture details like the intricate metalwork of windows.
Marrakech is the perfect blend of chic and earthiness. For every branché francophone visitor marvelling at Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens, hip new lounges like La Salama, and design details worthy of Maison Coté Sud magazine, there are earthy local bonds to be formed down ends of dusty roads over mint tea and marzipan pastries.
We got to experience a bit of both–at first cavorting with the Biennale crowd at hot spots like the aforementioned La Salama (where Vanessa Branson and her mum hosted a lovely fete that drew art luminaries and American-Euro comedienne Ruby Wax), then wandering the less touristy streets of the Casbah with our charming and knowledgable guide Youssef Rharrab.
I could have stayed at our hotel the entire time and been content, so thrilling and diverse were the architecture and decor (and so sybaritic were the spa/hammam treatments). The property consisted of several riads (courtyard homes once resided in by wealthy families) each decorated in its own style.
Two of my colleagues were in Riad Blanc which had a very fashionable, pristine white feel to it as the name implies. My other colleague and I found ourselves in the crimson and orange-hued Riad Si Said. And I lucked out as I had one of the two massive multi-roomed royal suites all to myself.
As I drifted off to sleep to the sound of the late night/early morning call to prayer, I imagined being a princess relaxing in my manor. Of course, excluded from that reverie was the not-so-dreamy real life historic notion that riads were built ‘open-air’ with their ladies of the manor in mind (the women weren’t permitted to leave the premises except on rare occasions).
Conversely, my wonderful suite could also have been the site of a fabulous circa 1970 rock n’ roll bash thrown by The Rolling Stones and filled with Warhols, Bowies, Monaco monarchs, and obscure psychedelic scenesters. Or better yet, a vast yet–thanks to its nooks–intimate love nest for a poetic and mesmerising romance à-la 1001 Nights.