Marrakech: Exotic, alluring and mysterious

La  Mamounia, Marrakech's most famous and luxurious hotel, is set amid centuries-old gardens.
La Mamounia, Marrakech's most famous and luxurious hotel, is set amid centuries-old gardens.

MARRAKECH, Morocco — It might be the greatest show on earth. On the stage — Djemaa el Fna, the city's main square — the players assemble.

The snake charmer squats on his haunches, coaxing a silvery tune from his flute, while just a few hair-raising inches from his face, a wicked-looking cobra rises from its basket in a sensuous dance. Across from the snake and his Svengali, a dentist plies his trade. With a bottle of Moroccan beer the closest thing to an anesthetic, he performs on-the-spot surgery on a patient whose nervous smile reveals he's a few teeth short of a mouthful. On a nearby table, mocking him, lies a grinning set of dentures.

At the periphery of the stage, the supporting cast wanders about: jugglers, fire-swallowers, fortune tellers, potion sellers. The public scribe is here with his signature black umbrella, as is the veiled woman creating lacy designs in henna dye on the skin of anyone willing to sit still long enough (she is an artist and will not be rushed).

I am mesmerized. The Djemaa el Fna has the makings of a romance novel in real time, or better yet, a swashbuckling film — Indiana Jones brandishing his bullwhip; James Bond evading her majesty's enemies; Rick and Louie strolling off together to celebrate the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Anything seems possible.

Welcome to Marrakech. If this 11th-century walled city is the most exotic place in Morocco, then Djemaa el Fna is the most exotic place in Marrakech. If you wish to enjoy the spectacle from a comfortable vantage point, seek out a table on the terrace of Café de France, but be sure to leave it occasionally to claim your own role in this continuous drama.

Of all the cities I've visited, Marrakech is the one that told me most that I wasn't in Kentucky. It might have been the red-ochre buildings (Marrakech is known as the Red City) or the intermingling of Arab and Berber cultures. It could have been the smells of the market (delicate verbena, cloves and orange blossoms clashing with tangy saffron, cumin and black pepper).

It might have been the visual clash of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains high above the parched desert floor, as if a baker had scorched a custard and tried to salvage it by lavishing mounds of whipped cream on its burned surface.

Colorful in many ways

Marrakech is a city of shifting shapes and colors, some defined, some as ephemeral as the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert, which begins just to the south. A first-time visitor is immediately struck by the vibrant colors, some softly diffused, others in their full intensity. The early morning sunlight gives a rosy tint to pink marble fountains and warmly reflects the turquoise, green and white of courtyard mosaics, while the midday sun emphasizes the stark red of the walled city's ramparts.

One of Morocco's five imperial cities (along with Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Tangier), Marrakech was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids from the Almeria province in southern Spain, although later, Marrakech and the southern part of Morocco fell under French control. It quickly became one of Islam's greatest cities. Today, as it has done every day for more than 900 years, dawn breaks with the call of the muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer from the city's spiritual beacon, the spiraling Koutoubia Mosque.

The medina, an Old Town area in many North African cities, springs to life with jostling crowds, the spiels in the souks (the open-air markets), and the multilingual oration of tour guides shepherding their charges through the Casbah to see the splendid Saadian Tombs, where medieval sultans were buried with their consorts, concubines and slaves.

If you are looking for other glimpses into the lavish world of the sultans, pay a visit to Bahia Palace, with its five gardens and the romantic ruins of El Badii Palace, the site every June of the National Folklore Festival. Also worth a visit is the exquisite Majorelle Garden, where tropical bamboo, palms and banana trees stand in sharp contrast to cacti and yucca, and where flame-colored bougainvillea is juxtaposed against the cobalt-blue façade of the villa. French fashion designer Pierre Balmain once lived in the tower set in the middle of the garden, and another designer, Yves St. Laurent, had a home next to it (when he died, his ashes were scattered in the garden.)

Souks: a must-see

Going a bit farther afield, you can take a horse-drawn carriage (known as a barouche, and a common way of getting around in Marrakech) outside the city walls to Palmeraie (Palm Grove), an area of beautiful private villas. Or take a day trip to Essaouira, known as the White City, where gleaming stucco buildings are silhouetted against the deep sapphire of the Atlantic Ocean.

At one time, Essaouira was Morocco's busiest port, gateway to the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali and the rest of Africa. Visit the ruins of the 16th-century Portuguese fort, from whose ramparts you can see the old Jewish Quarter; the medina for a look at the artisans' shops (Essaouira is noted for its wood carving), and photograph the doors and window shutters in various shades of blue, thought to ward off evil spirits. Afterward, seek a leisurely lunch at one of the seafood restaurants that line the beach.

Back in Marrakech, save ample time to prowl the souks. Here, in labyrinthine alleys and curtained bazaars, you'll feel as if you're in an Arabian Nights tale. The gold souks are the most popular, but the copper souks, where the metal is twisted and tortured by craftsmen who follow age-old traditions, also are worth a visit.

So are the Laghzal Souk, home of the wool merchants, and Zarbia Souk, where magic carpets — at least in the intricacy of their designs — are sold to the highest bidders. Speaking of the highest bidder: Don't let it be you. Bargaining is not one of my talents, but I was assured by everyone in Marrakech that it was the way to go. If the merchant asks for $100, offer $25. You'll eventually meet somewhere in the middle, and both of you will be happy.

A lavish oasis

Few hotels in the world can be considered destinations themselves, but La Mamounia is one of them. "The loveliest spot in the world" is how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Marrakech to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill made that assertion as the two, grappling with how to end World War II, gazed from the hotel's roof terrace and watched a sunset turn the ochre walls of the Old City a burned umber.

After the war, Churchill, armed with paint, canvas and brushes, would return annually to the hotel, thus inspiring the Churchill Suite. The English country-style suite contains original Churchill memorabilia, including his hat, umbrella and one of his an unfinished paintings.

La Mamounia was built in 1922 in the midst of lavish gardens that had been given centuries earlier as a wedding gift to the son of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah by his father, who ruled Marrakech in the 18th century. The 20-acre gardens, with their perfume of bougainvillea, orange blossoms, roses and mimosa, provide a peaceful oasis for guests.

As if the hotel needed anything else to add to its mystique, it has long been a favorite setting for French and American filmmakers. Classic-movie buffs will recognize it as a locale for the 1930 film Morocco with Marlene Dietrich and the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day.

La Mamounia is a fitting metaphor for Marrakech itself: exotic, alluring and mysterious.