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Morocco bound

Issue 2 · Summer 2015
Words by Damon Syson · Illustration Miguel Gallardo

Adil Mferrek, Scott Dunn's man in Marrakech, shares his inside track on this intoxicating city

Born and raised in Marrakech’s medina, Adil Mferrek is passionate about curating authentic Moroccan experiences for visitors to his city. In Marrakech, having a personal guide like Adil at your disposal is invaluable, not just for his 16 years’ experience of providing exclusive and off-the-beaten track tours, but simply to get around. Marrakech’s medina – the ancient city centre – is a labyrinth of tiny, car-free streets. Even armed with maps and detailed instructions, it can be tricky to reach your destination.

In addition to must-visit sites in the city like the Jardin Majorelle (formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent) and the Medersa Ben Youssef, Adil introduces guests to the more recherché experiences, places where you get a taste of the authentic Marrakech. “As well as the markets and museums, I always recommend seeing the places used by local people, like the communal bakeries, fondouks [inns] and hammams [bathhouses].”

For a fully rounded introduction to this fascinating region, Adil strongly recommends venturing outside the city. “In the centre of Marrakech it’s noisy and busy: there are donkeys, motorbikes, street vendors – that’s all part of the charm. But in the countryside around Marrakech everything is calmer and more relaxed. Our most popular tour is a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. The landscape there is very beautiful and it’s a great way to discover how the local people really live.”

Here, Adil outlines for us his top 10 experiences to be enjoyed in and around the city of Marrakech…

The local tradition

Communal ovens

If you’re visiting Marrakech, I think it’s important to see one of the many communal woodfired ovens. These ovens are used to heat the water for the city’s traditional hammams or bathhouses, but they also double as bakeries where people bring dough and the bakers cook it for them. A perfect example of communal co-operation, these bakeries can’t be found in guide books – in fact, you probably wouldn’t even notice one if you walked right by. That’s because they are strictly for the use of local people. In the evening, people also bring ceramic urns called tangias to the ovens. These are filled with beef or lamb, water, cumin, olive oil and salt, then buried in the slowly cooling ash of the oven. This slow cooking creates a beautiful and delicately flavoured dish, which is eaten with steamed couscous.

the link to the past

The Berber Museum

If you’re interested in learning more about Berber culture, head out of the city to Ourika and the Berber Eco-museum. Housed in an old village Kasbah, the museum contains a fascinating collection of Berber artefacts, an exhibition of antique photos of the High Atlas mountains, and magnificent views over the Ourika valley. You’ll also learn about the history of Berber carpets, which describe the cycle of marriage and birth.

the lantern shop

Twizra and Mustapha Blaoui

Marrakech is famous for its lamps and lanterns, usually made from beaten metal and coloured glass. There are lots of places to buy these in the souks but I usually take visitors to two shops in quieter locations. The first is called Twizra, l’Excellence de l’Artisanat. Unlike in the souks, the prices here are fixed, so you don’t have to haggle. Next, I take people to Rue Dar el Bacha, which has a number of antique emporiums and homeware shops. One of the most famous is Mustapha Blaoui, a warehouse stuffed with all kinds of Moroccan treasures, from lamps and tea-chests to pottery and candlesticks.

the traditional carpet shop

Chateau des Souks

British homes and design magazines are full of traditional Beni Ouarain carpets, and visitors to Marrakech often want to buy them. These carpets and others are made by Berber people in the Atlas Mountains, and I would recommend going there to buy them. But if you don’t have time to leave the city there are also a number of places in central Marrakech that sell beautiful carpets at reasonable prices. My own favourite, the one I always take people to, is Chateau des Souks. It has a good choice of vintage and modern carpets and they can arrange to have your purchases shipped home for you.

the cultural destination

Maison de la Photographie

With photographs from 1870 to 1950, which tell the story of Marrakech and the surrounding area, this small but atmospheric gallery in the medina is always very popular with the people I take there. After checking out the photographs, you can head up to the rooftop café where you’ll enjoy amazing views of the city and great food. You can also buy photographic prints from the collection in the museum shop.

The Morning cookery course

Maison MK

The city of Marrakech is famed for its spices. Guests who love food always enjoy doing a half-day cooking course at one of Marrakech’s most luxurious riads, Maison MK. You arrive at 9am, go to the market to buy ingredients, then cook your dishes under the guidance of the chef in small groups of two to four people, after which you sit down together for lunch and eat the food you’ve made. It’s a great way to get a better picture of the city’s culinary heritage, and maybe learn some food preparation skills to take home.

The secluded lunch spot

Terrasse des épices

Located in Marrakech’s medina, the Terrasse des épices restaurant is a great place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the souks, located down a small side street not far from the main square. I often take people there for a coffee or a relaxed lunch. The food is simple but good and the terrasse has amazing views across the medina, as well as offering a stunning panorama of the Atlas Mountains and Koutoubia. At night it’s an atmospheric place to enjoy dinner under the stars.

The one-day excursion

Atlas Mountains tour

Most of the inhabitants of the villages in the Atlas Mountains are of Berber descent. They were the original settlers in Morocco and their way of life is still very traditional. This one-day tour is a great way to see their way of life first-hand. It includes visits to a Berber family home (where you’ll enjoy a mint tea), a women’s argan oil co-operative, and a Berber village market where the locals gather for their weekly shop. Lunch is homemade organic food: tomato salad, chicken tagine, couscous and fruits. After lunch we head for the Asni valley where orchards line the route and you can admire the 4,167m Mount Toubkal, the tallest peak in Northern Africa, which is often topped with snow.

the handicraft market

The fondouks

A fondouk is a caravanserai or travellers’ inn, usually a courtyard, which provided food and lodging for travelling merchants and their animals. Historically, Marrakech has always been a busy trading centre, so fondouks have traditionally played an important part in the life of the city. Today, these courtyards are often used by local artisans as workshops for making pottery, mirrors, saddles and so on. Visiting an authentic fondouk is a fascinating experience that gives you a true sense of what the city was like in the past. These days the lower courtyard isn’t full of donkeys or camels – produce arrives by car and truck – but you can still buy authentic goods that people from the surrounding countryside have made or grown.

the hands-on craft class

An artisanal workshop

One way of getting under the skin of a country and learning more about its culture is to try your hand at local crafts in an artisanal workshop. We work with a number of different workshops including ones where you can have a go at working with tiles (“Zelij”) and leather. Zelij is terracotta tilework covered with enamel and set into plaster. In this workshop you learn the skills to create a mosaic-like decoration on a table or a fountain. In the leather workshop you get fully treated leather from a local tannery to work with, and you learn to make a small purse.

To book a private tour with Adil Mferrek or for more information, call Scott Dunn’s Morocco Consultants on 020 8682 5080.

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