Long been a destination on my bucket list – and one that had taken us way too long to fulfill – we finally visited Marrakech in December 2018. I sort of did and didn’t know what to expect. A dancing mirage somewhere in between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the face of Marrakech carried mysterious, exotic and imaginative beauty in my mind, like a place only in story books, almost unreal.
But of course, in reality, Marrakech is anything but unexposed. We arrived to find an ancient city, like all the others of her kind left only with the pillars of tourism industry, whose beauty, flaws and dignity are laid bare for the world to entertain with. Her plastered skin glowing in pink and orange, her sometimes unequivocal display of chaos and neurosis, and her remedial serenity and reflective pools inside the earthen walls of her beautiful courtyard houses, all of which was once for herself, now all is but a reluctant theme park for foreign passers. This could be a difficult dilemma for any city, especially a poor one like Marrakesh, where her livelihood brings out both the best and worst she has to offer. Within the walls of Medina, it could feel like a pressure cooker of transactions. A request for directions, a photograph, a helpful hand, all of which seemed to need to become an exchange for euros, or worse, extortions. And there she stood in the backdrop, her face blushing in that beautiful gradation of earthy red hues, I wondered, if in sadness or apathy.
That sounded negative. For that I apologize, for who am I to lay judgment in my brief and shallow crossing with a city that is obviously complicated, and made our trip sound unenjoyable which it definitely wasn’t.
If you wish to enjoy Marrakech, in my experience, you have to choose a great riad to stay in. Riad is traditional Moroccan courtyard houses, but nowadays, mainly known as a synonym for Bed & Breakfast. Your riad is where you retreat from the outer disorientation and intensity, where you find conversations beyond bargainings, where it could feel like a temporary family even just for a few days. And most importantly for us, where the foods were great. When it comes to street foods, to be utterly honest with you, I wasn’t too impressed, at least inside the walls of Medina. We tried our best to avoid obvious tourist traps and focused on old establishments favored by mostly locals, but nothing stood up to the promise. On the third day, out of search-fatigue and the promising aroma lurking out of the kitchen every late afternoon that we could no longer ignore, we decided to stay in our riad for dinner at a more than reasonable pricing of 20 euros per person. What was served to us that night, had single-handedly reversed our perception of what Moroccan cuisine could and should be.
The dinner started with a few small bites of cold appetizers, each nicely balanced in texture and flavors that eased our skepticism. Then came a lightly spiced pumpkin soup that held so much more nuances of comfort than its creamed orange appearance suggested. “Is this typical in Moroccan meals?” I asked the manager. “Yes.” He smiled in amusement. “Pumpkin soup.” Of course. At this point we were sufficiently assured to not be surprised by any excellence that was not expected. But the main course, a bubbling tagine of fork-tender beef stewed in gentle spices and dried fruits with the occasional crunch of heart-shaped almonds, blew us away. It isn’t easy, I feel the need to point out, to cook foods that are unmistakably motherly and soft-spoken while standing up to all the required sophistication and depths one would expect from a paid dinning experience. Whoever cooked this meal, has a rare gift, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I decided to find out who she was.