Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Marrakesh Express, Children Welcome

IT was cocktail hour, and what better place to spend it than on the rooftop terrace of Café Arabe, watching the sun set over Marrakesh. With my two companions, Charles and Florence, I settled into one of the plump white sofas decorated with silky orange throw pillows, as above us a patchwork of cream-colored cloth squares, each bordered by the darkening blue sky, fluttered like a hundred sailing kites.
Below us lay a sea of terra-cotta and ruby roofs, interrupted only by the gap of a courtyard, a towering palm tree or a glistening mosque, with the outline of the Atlas Mountains framing the horizon. All of us were mesmerized by the scene in front of us. “Pretty,” Florence said. “Wow,” Charles chimed in.

Time for a drink,” I declared, thirsty after an afternoon of shopping in the medina below.

Moments later, my husband, Daniel, arrived, fresh from carpet bargaining and more than ready to try the minty mojitos I’d just ordered. “Cheers,” Florence said, lifting a concoction of orange, lemon and peach juice. “To more trips like this one,” Charles added, taking a sip of his frothy strawberry and plum drink. “To your first mocktail hour,” I added, clinking glasses with my 12-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

Though friends had urged us to take a “couple’s” trip to Marrakesh and leave the children behind (it is one of the world’s most romantic places, combining the best of African and European design), we had a different plan in mind — discovering whether the kids were finally old enough to enjoy a non-childcentric vacation (that is, no Disneyland, aqua hotels, beach resorts or kids’ clubs allowed). Instead, we wanted a weeklong break in an urban location where the only itinerary would be finding the next great meal, museum, outdoor market or cafe.
Marrakesh was an easy choice, not just because Daniel and I had been wanting to visit what I’d heard called the jet set capital of North Africa for a long time (many American celebrities have homes here), but also because it has an ancient walled city, souks and palaces and a nearby desert and mountain range for day trips.

My worries that the kids were too young for such an exotic trip evaporated the moment we entered the city. Driving past donkeys laden with food baskets and camels saddled for rides, they asked questions about everything from the djellabas, the traditional long, loose-hooded robes worn by the men, to the history of the Seven Saints — seven large, three-story-high towers on the edge of the city that bear the tombs of different saliheen, or righteous men, from the 12th to 16th century. Up one street they noticed a man in a turban carrying a snake, down another a monkey in a fez. All that was missing was a genie flying past on a Berber rug.

Wanting no overt emphasis on the “educational” aspects of this trip (another recurring theme of many of our past family vacations), we allowed our days to develop organically, visiting just one major cultural site each day and allowing plenty of free time for eating, shopping and poolside lounging at our hotel, which was located in the Palmaraie, a palm grove 15 minutes by taxi from the city center.
Day 1 started slowly, as we ambled through the Jardin Majorelle, a renowned botanical garden created in the 1920s by a French painter, Jacques Majorelle, and later owned by Yves Saint-Laurent (the designer’s ashes are now scattered there). After a morning wandering the tiled walkways, admiring the fragrant flowers, frog ponds and chirping birds, we lingered in the garden cafe over warm plates of Moroccan pancakes with honey and small cups of sweet tea before spending an hour in the garden’s intimate Islamic art museum, filled with pottery, paintings, jewelry and carpets, many of which were part of Saint Laurent’s personal collection.

At the Bahia (which means brilliant) Palace, a complex of ornately decorated reception rooms, apartments and gardens built by a grand vizier at the end of the 19th century, we admired the architecture: mosaic ceilings, tiled courtyards and carved wooden columns. Free from the narrated tour taking place near us, the kids explored the palace on their own eagerly, though no doubt the promise of an afternoon of quad biking in the desert provided some incentive. The tour, while somewhat “child-oriented,” proved to be amazingly fun for us adults too.
By design, even our most active day — an excursion with a driver into the high Atlas Mountains, with their deep canyons, rocky plains and cumin-colored hills — was not overly taxing. After a bit of hiking, as well as a donkey ride in the small hill village of Imlil — the starting point for climbing Jabal Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa — we ended our outing with a civilized meal on a terrace at Sir Richard Branson’s nearby luxury retreat, Kasbah Tamadot.

Still, nothing measures up to a day in the old city, where we headed with a guide, having been warned that tourists often get wildly lost in the pedestrians-only maze of the medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The children loved the labyrinth of small, winding streets leading to the souks selling spices, carpets, jewelry, leatherwork and, most fascinating to them, “magic boxes,” with secret compartments. They learned a quick lesson in austerity visiting the Ben Youssef Madrasa, a Koranic school founded in the 14th century, where some 800 students lived, studied and even ate in the tiniest of rooms. And, not surprisingly, did not want to leave the Place Djemaa el Fna, the town square, which comes to life each night with acrobats and storytellers, magicians, jugglers, healers and food stalls.

While in the medina (where we discovered that a good map is better than a guide, most of whom drag you to their friends’ shops) I lamented that we had not decided to stay for at least two nights in a riad in the old city. Though not all riads allow children, one in particular, Noir D’Ivoire, would have been perfect. It welcomes children and has a plunge pool, a rooftop terrace and even a rescued donkey named Couscous that helps ferry guests’ bags. What’s more, the bar and lounge areas are stunningly decorated in natural hues (black, beige, white and brown), filled with antiques and accented with palm plants. In good weather, guests dine next to the pool in the courtyard.

Our one complete concession to the children was a visit to Chez Ali — a giant Arabian palace with dining tents set up around a horse ring in the desert, which could easily be renamed “Aladdin land,” though it was populated more by package-tour adults than families. Known for its traditional six-course banquet dinner (spicy vegetable soup, chicken couscous with vegetables, and huge slabs of grilled lamb to name a few dishes) and “Fantasia” show, which includes cavaliers, mounted acrobats, belly dancing, traditional music, a camel-led parade and even fireworks, I had been told it was both “seriously touristy” and an “unforgettable night out.” Both of which turned out to be true.

A few nights later, we discovered a more sophisticated, albeit less spectacular, version of the Chez Ali dinner, at Dar Marjana, an elegant restaurant in the medina, reached by walking through a long lantern-illuminated tunnel, with better food and a much more sedate, yet elegant floor show. But one of our favorite meals of the week was at Le Foundouk, a riad converted into a restaurant around a courtyard with a roof terrace. To the children it seemed magical, from the dark interior, lit only by lanterns and candelabra, to the doorman, dressed all in black, who led us out of the medina by candlelight to a waiting taxi.

Lingering on our final night at Café Arabe, the terrace now bathed in a tangerine glow from the setting sun, we suddenly heard the call to prayer in all its glory. Emanating from at least five mosques, the voices of the muezzins rose up over the city, overlapping before us like a dissonant song sung in the round.

Cool,” Florence whispered. “Awesome,” Charles said. Two words from my kids that told me this trip had been an unequivocal success.

by Jennifer Conlin for the New York Times

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