Nina in Paris/Morocco, Part II of II

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Samburu warriors checking us out.

Happily, after a smooth three-hour flight, we landed in Marrakesh and I proceeded through immigration and customs in a breeze. NO sense of impending/recent terrorism here. This airport appeared relaxed and free of all concerns.

My step-brother had sent a driver from the house and I happily settled into the SUV and enjoyed the perfect weather and cool breeze on the way to the Medina.

The Marrakesh Menara Airport is modern and open and clean.

I have visited Marrakesh several times and love this city. I was delighted to be returning here again for a few days of relaxation and camaraderie.

The six-bedroom riad was fully restored and designed in a contemporary style using local materials. And, happily it was fully staffed! After a leisurely breakfast with the gang, I went to my room for a long nap. Lunch was served on the rooftop terrace where we made plans for afternoon shopping. The regular call to prayer by the Muezzin sounded sonorous rather than ominous.

The riad in the evening hours.

My first stop is always Beldi, located at 9 and 11 Rue Laksour/Bab Ftouh in the medina (main souk),

Beldi was Yves Saint Laurent’s favorite shop to buy caftans and tunics and to have things copied.  Imagine the finest linens and luxurious velvets. Alterations can be done in a day or two and ready within your departure date. This is why I always make it my first stop.

Yves Saint Laurent in the medina.

David and Ken bought some plaid cashmere scarves and I snapped up an eggplant colored silk velvet tunic that seemed out of the 1920s.

I also re-stocked my supply of Beldi’s hallmark tunics, made of the finest pure white linen, accented by a row of tiny threaded round buttons in alternating primary colors.
Simple and perfect. A great gift too.

To round out my purchases, I bought a finely woven cashmere scarf for my daughter Lily, in a shade of cream of clam. Beldi is not a place where I bargain, unlike everywhere else in the souk.

A booth in the souk. Most of the souk is divided by specific category of products; Jewelry, spices, Berber handcrafts, home goods, clothes, etc. That tradition is easing up a bit, sadly.
A rug merchant at the souk.

In my past visits to the souk  there was always a swarm of humanity around me; off-duty guides looking to take on clients, merchants beseeching, cajoling and following you for blocks to make a sale. Virtually everyone had a hand out or a voice in your ear.

A cacophonous hive of activity, it took all your energy to wade through them and continue on down the alleyways in pursuit of whatever it was you were searching for.

This year I was elated to find that I could walk alone in the souk without being verbally, and mentally assaulted every minute. It was an unexpected and very welcome surprise. I highly suggest flat, comfortable shoes and a small cross body bag (from of course!)

More offerings from the souk.

This doesn’t mean that the souk is a place of tranquility. No. Quite the opposite.

Motorbikes have replaced hawkers as instruments of terror and speed down the narrow dirt lanes of the souk unchallenged by pedestrians and vendors. Usually they’re piloted by young men, occasionally with girls on the back.

It took a few days to learn how to negotiate crossing the roads on foot, without being mashed by one velocipede or another. Eventually you sort it out. But I never stopped looking over my shoulder for fear of being flattened by a motorbike!

I had visions of dismantling any bike that was left unattended.
Carriages outside the souk.

I adore the souk and know my way around to a certain extent, but the boys found it overwhelming and redundant, and opted to return home.

So we headed back to the riad, but made a stop along the way at a co-operative selling beautiful old and modern carpets — many of them Berbers. Kasr Ben Hayoune, to be precise, located at 13, Derb Tijara Rue des Domaines, 

Frankly, I was worn out and muttered not so discreetly, that this stop would entail countless cups of mint tea and hours of carpets being rolled out for us to see. In other words: agony!

To my delight, a charming man by the name of Hassan took very good care of us, and one cup of mint tea and only one hour later, the three of us had all purchased rugs and seemed happy with the negotiations. Furthermore, I was delighted that a large percentage of the proceeds would be going to a local women’s co-operative.

A carpet I bought.

Dinner in Marrakesh is never before 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. This evening we all elected to remain in the riad and enjoy the cuisine of the chef.

Tagine of lamb was on the menu this evening and as always in Morocco, it was served in generous portions! One of the secrets to producing a good tagine lies in the broth.

The indoors dining room at the riad.
A delicious tagine, made by the cook at the riad.

Monday in Morocco is Sunday to the US. Stores were open, but many restaurants were closed and the staff in the riad was reduced.

This morning’s cultural activity involved a long walk to the Saadian Tombs (Rue de la Kasbah). The Saadian dynasty ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1669, with Marrakesh serving as their capital.

On our walk to the Tombs we encountered lots of street vendors selling fresh herbs. This one had mint. The smell wafted a block ahead, beckoning us to the cart.

The tombs were sealed up for centuries and then rediscovered in 1917. Inside of the mausoleum, 60 members of the royal family are buried, denoted by small elevated tiled markers. Elegant and discreet.

The adjacent oriental garden, informed by mature rosemary hedges, fragrant climbing roses and beautiful tile work was a cool shady oasis to meander about, and shake off the specter of death.

The Saddian Tombs.

Of course EVERYONE knows that exposure to culture results in the need for retail therapy … And I was intent upon visiting one of my favorite emporiums in town; that of the famous Mustapha Blaoui. 

Arset Aouzal 144
Bab Doukkala

Mustapha is the Go-To place for sophisticates in the Design Industry. When I had a design shop, I always ordered things from Mustapha. I think buyers from Ralph Lauren rent beds there …

24/7 you will see buyers lounging on the long, low sofas that are draped with colorful textiles, sipping mint tea. If you could see their order sheets, you would know the home design trends for the coming year.

Mustapha Blaoui is a multi-floor ware house disguised as Aladdin’s Cave.

The small galley kitchen is always in full swing, strategically wafting the scent of cumin and turmeric throughout the showroom, enticing guests like me, who will never be invited to lunch. Perhaps when I place a $100,000 order, that may happen.

This is a multi-floor ware house disguised as Aladdin’s Cave. You will find every Moroccan carpet of your dreams, perforated brass hanging lanterns, African masks, side chairs covered in hair-calf stenciled zebra, shelves upon shelves of vintage textiles from Africa, Morocco, and Asia, tableware, glassware, vintage photographs, vintage furniture from Morocco and Africa, vintage objects, Moroccan wedding blankets, and on and on and on. A great profusion of fantastic merchandise; all beautifully staged. It is retail pageantry at its best, and I adore shopping and dropping ($$$) here.

I couldn’t resist buying two of these side chairs at Mustapha Blaoui. I could spend days wandering around this emporium. So much eye candy here.

I did buy two hair-calf arm chairs stenciled in zebra, an antique wedding blanket for Lily, two vintage textiles, and several small items …

But more than that, I had such a wonderful time being in the store again.

So, men being men, I realized that I had pretty much worn out the welcome wagon with my friends and that it was TIME FOR LUNCH.

Waiting for lunch with David Hundley, wearing my newly purchased necklace!

Enough with the shopping.

We walked to a somewhat popular lunch spot named Terrace des Epices, 15, Souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz.

Located on a rooftop near to the medina, the cafe has a European vibe but it doesn’t serve alcohol. Salads, pizzas and pastas. All quite decent. Nothing remarkable.

I walked home and imagined that I would take a nap or read, but the lure of the souk called me like Circe from the rocks. So I left everyone else at home to rest and ventured out again into the alleyways that I love …

The late afternoon, I brought a relaxing massage in my room at the riad. Top professional masseuse, who didn’t chat me up.

Dinner was out of the riad as it was Monday.

Pierre selected a restaurant named Al Fassia, owned and operated exclusively by women, which is rather unique in Marrakesh. It operates as a co-operative and donates a percentage of its profits to battered and abused women.

Though Pierre is very caring and evolved, I suspect that the seven-hour lamb was what attracted him.

Restaurant Al Fassia from the outside.
Al Fassia on the inside.

He pre-ordered the lamb by phone that morning and then gently informed the rest of us at cocktails. There weren’t any vegetarians amongst us, but there WERE some independent minds in this group … just sayin’ that some may have wanted chicken.

The lamb was tender, and definitely cooked for seven hours. It may have been nine. At the end of the day, it was delicious and could have easily fed three families. Moroccan hospitality is legendary.

The seven-hour lamb at Restaurant Al Fassia.

Cats are ubiquitous in Marrakesh and can be found in every color, shape, and size. Blind ones, licking their missing eyes, adorable kittens running about aimlessly without mothers, thousands of homeless cats that scratch out an existence in the alleyways of the medina, where all manner of scraps are to found.

But nary a dog to be seen! I assume that mousing is of paramount importance, whereas feeding and maintaining a dog is beyond the resources of many inhabitants.

But this must go beyond economic measures, into the cultural realm. I literally did not see more than three dogs during my entire stay. Am I missing something? Please fill me in if any of you dear readers have knowledge on this topic.

Sadly, there are literally thousands of homeless cats in the alleyways of the medina.

Tuesday, my last full day in this beautiful, magical place with perfect weather.

Lest you peg me as a complete philistine, with a retail problem, please keep in mind that I have visited Marrakesh several times, and have seen and enjoyed a great number of the local monuments and gardens.

The gents and I grabbed a taxi and headed off to the Industrial Park, Sidi Ghanem, which is a home design district located 15 minutes outside the center of town. You need to establish a price with your driver upfront, for the roundtrip drive as well as waiting time. Shouldn’t be more than 200 Dirhams with tip (roughly $20) unless you’re are staying for hours. Cash! Taxis don’t take credit cards.

One could spend several hours going up and down the blocks of showrooms selling bed and bath linens, tabletop, furniture, scented candles, and all manner of related products. Though they sell To The Trade most showrooms do sell small quantities to non-trade shoppers.

Some of my favorite places were Peau d’áne, selling top quality reproduction mid century furniture, Atelier Nihal specializing in traditional and bespoke handwoven fabrics in the forms of pillows, bags, carpets etc. and Asabeldi, located next door, that has a chic curated home collection of blankets, pillows, linens and slippers.

There were also lots of great mirrors at Peau d’áne.
Atelier Nihal specializes in traditional and bespoke handwoven fabrics.

I bought a number of things which I tossed into the trunk of the taxi. I am a decisive and quick shopper, and was done within an hour. Back to the riad for lunch on the rooftop oasis.

Lunch under the shade of a large umbrella mostly comprised mixed salads and grilled meats. The local white wines were superior to the reds that I tasted. The temperature was perfect! Dry, sunny and roughly 75 F.

After a raucous lunch, we all sprawled out on the numerous sun beds and spent a few hours reading and napping, while copious numbers of cranes and storks swooped and glided above our heads. Were they bringing omens?

Pierre had the need to go to La Mamounia Hotel for drinks that evening before our dinner at the iconic Yacout. I felt no such need, as I had seen its downfall and the blasphemous transformation from a world class aging beauty, into a vulgar iteration of a Middle Eastern Pleasure Palace on steroids.

Cocktails at one of the countless bars at La Mamounia Hotel.

Nevertheless, we all piled into the minivan, and proceeded to La Mamounia. It was as vulgar as ever, and our visit to one of the eight bars was short lived. It always breaks my heart to see the destruction of what was once a beautiful emblem of a more gracious and discreet era.

We continued on to Yacout, 79 Rue Sidi Ahmed Soussi, Bab Doukkala, Medina, where I had invited everyone for dinner on our last night.

Yacout is part fantasy, part serious cuisine. Located in a large stone town house, guests are welcomed inside the somewhat mysterious entrance and directed up a winding staircase to the rooftop terrace, where cocktails are served along with a romantic view of the city in twilight. Well, that is if you dine there in the spring.

A vintage view of the rooftop at Yacout. It hasn’t changed much at all.

In November, twilight is not on the menu at 8:30 p.m. After a quick tour of the rooftop and a sense of what might have been in April, we were ushered down the stairs to the next level and through a fabulous small tiled bar, lit by amber kerosene lamps.

It belonged on the set of “Casablanca” and I suspect that was not accidental. All that was missing were Bogey and Bacall. I was ready to throw a cot under the bar and spend the night.

In the next room, which was palatial in size, three musicians were seated on the floor dressed in long robes, intently playing their instruments. I sensed that they were “perhaps under the influence of some herbal properties …”

My favorite bar in Marrakesh, at Yacout.

After appropriate words of appreciation, we were led to an alcove in an adjacent room where we were seated in banquettes covered in old fashioned crimson velvet. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine several portly, prosperous merchants entertaining belly dancers at this same banquette, circa 1952.

After quite a long cocktail hour, informed solely by peanuts and a few glasses of warm white wine, we were again escorted down the staircase (past the three musicians) to the main level of the house, where the dining area was located.

I had forgotten that Yacout is a FIVE-course proposition! If I had remembered that, it would have been taken off the table. At this stage of my life, I’m not really into multiple hours spent at the table.

The sexy dining room in Yacout, a restaurant that is as much a visual treat as a culinary experience. A five-course dinner is part of the deal … so be prepared.

Although dinner at Yacout went on and on and on … my group was really sweet about it and we had a lot of fun. But, I came to see that Yacout at this stage is an expensive exercise that entails hours and hours of your time. Without question, it IS a beautiful Moroccan house, and an elegant evening well spent.

Wednesday was departure day and though I was sad to leave this beautiful city, and my dear friends, I was ready to get home to my family.

I still had once last leg to go … and that entailed a direct flight to Paris … before heading on to New York.

The quiet scene at Orly airport.

Landed at Orly around 7:30 p.m. and grabbed a taxi to meet my dear friend at L’Eplanade, 52 Rue Fabert + 33 1 47 05 38 80, which is popular, but not trendy. Good looking, elegant 30/50-year-olds. If you’re feeling rich, order the pomme purée with caviar. I did not, but I regret it!

Given the new travel guidelines, I needed to get to bed early. My flight on La Concierge, was departing at 1:20 p.m. the next day and I was required to be there three hours in advance. THIS was the flight that gave me the most concern regarding terrorist activity. A flight traveling to New York!

9:30 a.m. was the designated time of my departure from the Rue Gabriel to the airport.

On the way to Charles de Gaulle, my taxi passed the suburb of Saint-Denis, the site of the recent shoot out between the terrorists and law enforcement. I saw and heard several police vehicles speeding down the opposite lanes of the highway, and realized they were still bringing material to the forensic labs.

The flight home was smooth and without incident.

I am very grateful to have arrived safely back home, to the USA, where we often take many things for granted. Security has been one of them. Those days are OVER.

Home sweet home!

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