There are scores of reasons to visit Marrakech and mine was clearly the worst: I went looking for a museum that didn’t exist. According to a publicity campaign three years in the making, the new Marrakech Museum of Photography and Visual Arts (MMPVA) was due to open. A stunning modern building designed by high-profile architect Sir David Chipperfield, it is a combination of high design and regional pride set in the Menora Gardens and hailed as the largest freestanding museum in the world dedicated to photography and a significant part of Africa’s cultural landscape. I’d seen the plans and the model but I met a weird wall of silence. A temporary museum of that name does actually exist but not in the new streamlined form envisaged by the owners (and me). A small collection of lens-based art is “camping” in the old El Badii palace with its continuous renovation programme and storks roosting picturesquely on the crumbling parapet.
When I met him, the Director, Mostafa Aghrib, was charm itself and enthusiastic about the evolving programme of shows but he carefully avoided questions about the future and redevelopment plans. He was not especially concerned about when the new museum would open, (due at some point in 2016) airily saying it was “more important to get it right than worry about an opening date”. Instead he talked about a recent exhibition of “selfies”(the future of photography he claimed!), and the importance of “outreach”, inclusiveness and other on-trend jargon of the curatorial mafia.
I discovered a cloak of secrecy around the whole project
Curiously, back in London some weeks later, I discovered a cloak of secrecy around the whole project including (from the David Chipperfield practice) the sound of doors closing very firmly in my face.
So, back to first principles. Here I am in fabulous Marrakech and keen to do it justice while avoiding the clichés of haggling in the souks or Place Jemaa El Fna, the busy main square with exotic street food and snake charmers. Nor am I drawn to the super deluxe hotels that opened in the past few years, creating gated communities where sunbathing and poolside cocktails seem to be the traveller’s sole ambition.
Instead, I’ll use the expertise of the Villa Dinari, an enchanting hotel du charme where I’m staying having been tipped off by an astute friend. The owners are Heather and Abdellatif Benhrima. Heather is pure English Home Counties but she’s lived here for years and she is totally in touch with the latest restaurants, galleries and trends that make this inspirational city tick. She’s a successful dress designer as well as chatelaine and it’s her taste and flair for colour that make the hotel interiors so appealing.
Her husband Abdellatif is quietly intellectual, a brilliant guide who introduces me to fascinating historical monuments including the Saadian Tombs, the ornate Bahia palace once the home of the Grand Vizier and the atmospheric Jewish quarter. He also knows how to avoid the souks’ endless tat and unerringly goes to places for authentic and beautiful antiques including trousseau kelims decorated with gold and silver thread and 14th century pots, sadly the price of a car.
My hotel, Villa Dinari is set in the rural outskirts of the city but very easy to reach by cab. It’s more like a private house than a hotel with just nine rooms and suites – some in the main building and some scattered as cottages throughout the lush gardens. The focal point is a comfortable villa that holds a restaurant, bar and tables on the terrace outside overlooking the pool and sun loungers. There are also two new ‘glamping’ air-conditioned tent suites, with their own bathrooms. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and to my delight, Heather’s two dogs, Don Corleone a handsome mastiff and Bella, an elegant black lurcher are a constant presence.
Nearby are the Majorelle Gardens, forever imbued with the memory and taste of Yves Saint-Laurent
Confident that I won’t get lost and a reliable driver is always a phone call away, I explore on my own. In the cramped streets of the Medina I find the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech which is a fascinating record of the city and its people from 1870 – 1950. These powerful, memorable and beautiful pictures are infinitely superior to the selfie dross on show at the MMPVA I had originally come to see.
In another tiny street close by is Médersa Ben Youssef, a disused madrassa school with much ornate decoration, carved and pierced screens and small rooms on the upper floors for the students.
I head into Gueliz, the so-called ‘new town’ with its wide streets, cool boutiques and modern art galleries that recall Colette in Paris or Shoreditch in London. There are chic rooftop cocktail bars and quirky restaurants – one irresistibly housed on the upper floor of a bookshop where young people just hanging around reading or chatting makes it feel like a Junior Common Room.
Nearby are the Majorelle Gardens (pictured top), forever imbued with the memory and taste of Yves Saint-Laurent and kept gloriously intact by the influential businessman and YSL’s partner, Pierre Bergé who has been in love with Marrakech since first going there in 1966. In recent years he has installed a museum devoted to the Berber culture with artefacts, textiles and jewellery from the past 200 years along with films, photographs, audio and music tapes which capture the world of this ancient Moroccan people.
After a busy day, there’s nothing nicer than dinner back at the Villa Dinari where Heather hosts an impromptu cocktail party in the bar before supper of cheese briquettes, lamb with pears and chocolate pudding. And I feel justified in spending the next day chilling by the pool and sleeping in the sun.
I’m tempted by the hammam and beauty treatments at Villa Dinari but I’m keen to see the Ourika valley and an authentic Berber market so I order a car and driver and set off early. As you drive out of Marrakech through lush farmland, the Atlas mountains rise up urgently out of the plain, a great arc of snowy peaks and the road slowly climbs with exaggerated switchbacks to the Berber village which takes its name, El Itnehn (meaning Monday), from the day the market is held.
Only young men with bloodied aprons give any hint of what happened earlier
The Berbers come from all over the valley for a weekly shopping trip and to trade their animals. There’s a chaotic stream of people, carts, bikes and small trucks. The market spreads over any spare flattish space and right down to the river. One section is the ‘donkey park’ where a host of pack animals are tethered before the journey home. Blacksmiths are busy trimming overgrown hooves and the air is filled with loud braying. There are cages of new baby chickens for sale and proud farmers showing off prize specimen rams and ewes for breeding.
The gruesome butchery process takes place at dawn and many animals (goats, sheep and cows) have already been sold and slaughtered before I arrive. The fresh meat market is an anatomy lesson with everything from joints of prime cuts to tripe, lights and offal with heads and bundles of feet neatly bound together. The abattoir area has been hosed down and everything is crisp and clean with no flies in the chilly air. Only young men with bloodied aprons give any hint of what happened earlier.
The market holds endless stalls of secondhand clothes, musical instruments and household essentials, plus the inevitable counterfeit Barcelona football shirts. There’s a refreshing absence of luxury goods but men are having their heads shaved among huge sacks of flour and farm implements while cooks in the camp kitchens serve soup, bread and stews from vast tureens.
We follow the road and the river further into the mountains. There’s a women-only argan cooperative making oil for superior salads (perfect for take-home presents) and organic face-creams. A ravishing terraced garden filled with roses and herbs overlooks the rivers. I sip green tea in a farmhouse, scattering chickens under my feet and admiring the lush green velvet djelleba of my smiling hostess.
The road finally peters out at the village of Setti Fatma where families and visitors crowd into precarious restaurants lining the river banks. It’s clearly the local beauty spot and the water rushes down ferociously threatening the flimsy tables and chairs and adding high drama for the squealing children.
Fortified by chicken tagine, rosé wine and a local delicacy, trou Berbère (a salad with tiny pasta fragments shaped like gnocchi), I abandon my driver and recruit a mountain guide who leads me deep into the countryside, up the riverbed over huge granite boulders, dodgy bridges, scented forest and thrilling waterfalls. It’s scary and tiring but exhilarating. The scenery is beautiful with the earth a strong red against a dazzling blue sky and the snow-topped mountains above my head. It beats a bestseller by the pool any day.
Despite my wild goose chase of a mirage museum, the city hasn’t disappointed. C