Nothing can prepare you for the assault on the senses that is Marrakech but it is the intrepid journey of peeling back the layers of this ancient city, which makes travelling in Morocco such a joy.
Last week I stayed in the city, experiencing Medina life and searching for olfactory stories to add to my collection of Scent Adventures. Marrakech may not be every one’s cup of tea and at times, the city is hard work. But if you have a taste for the exotic, it easily delivers. I was initially drawn to the city by the stories Serge Lutens told through his perfumes. His creations such as Ambre Sultan and Cuir Mauresque had played on my imagination since June of last year when I visited his boutique in the Palais Royale gardens of Paris.
My adventure began when I arrived at the riad with whom I had arranged my accommodation. Traditionally a riad was a home of Moroccan aristocracy. The opulent interior could not be detected from the exterior and many examples show, even the entrances were hidden. Buildings in Marrakech are usually painted a uniform terracotta colour unless the building is a mosque. Islamic architecture in Morocco displays a modest exterior to detract feelings of envy from neighbours and flashing wealth is not a desirable quality. Inside these riads, the wealthy had the freedom to decorate as they pleased since the home was seen as a place of refuge. They are often a beautiful oasis decorated with mosaic-tiled walls, ornate courtyards and gardens of orange trees that perfume the home during their months of bloom.
Many riads now operate as guesthouses, offering tourists a more authentic stay in comparison to the large international hotel names. I decided to stay at the Riad Kniza, a beautiful riad known for their hospitality. The owner is a well-respected antiques dealer in Marrakech and each space has been decorated with pieces from his collection. The courtyards were all adorned with mosaic tiled fountains, a cultural symbol I was told signified the preciousness of water.
When I was seated in the courtyard to complete my check in, the first thing I noticed was a waft of jasmine oil being heated in a small metal burner. It was a scent I came to associate with the Riad Kniza; a smell that reassured me I was back inside the peaceful compound away from the bustling streets of the Medina.
The Medina is the old part of Marrakech. The walls that encapsulate the city were erected as early as the 12th century and at one time protected the city from invaders. Today the walls provide entrance to the city via a number of babs or gates. Beyond the Medina is the Nouvelle Ville or new town that is extending as the population grows.
The centre of the Medina is the Koutoubia Mosque and the facing square, Jamma El Fna. The square has operated for many centuries providing entertainment for locals and more recently tourists. In the day it is filled with fresh orange juice stalls, snake charmers, henna artists and ethnic musicians. As the sun goes down the square begins to pump. Food stalls fire up their kitchens and smoke fills the air. The smell of charcoal fires and cooking meats are part of Jamma El Fna’s spectacle. It becomes theatre as food vendors try to herd each passerby into their stall to eat something.
The square also marks the main entrance into Marrakech’s famous souks. The souks are a typical North African market that for centuries was a method of trading with visitors from sub-Saharan cities and the Spanish who came by sea. They are one of the highlights of every visiting tourist. The wise traveller will surrender to the experience, throw away their map and simply enjoy getting lost in this labyrinth of alleyways. Inside the souks you can find everything from fresh produce to clothing and every manner of craft appealing to the tourist eye. The souks are divided into areas. Metal workers inhabit one area, leather tanners another. It’s a wonderful place to follow your nose and the smells you encounter as each area has its specificities. The leather tanner’s quarter smells of salted animal hides, the dyers market smells of hot water and textile dyes. The metal workers area smells of soldered metal and where you find food you can smell everything from fresh green herbs to the stench of meats and freshly slaughtered poultry. As the day progresses and the temperature rises, the scent of body odour increases as vendors and shoppers press their way past each other in the narrow souk alleys, dodging donkey carts and young men on scooters.
Within the souks are a number of herbalists who sell natural remedies and perfumed oils. My hay fever had returned; an allergy I have had since I was a child and the herbalist surprised me by commenting on my sinus condition. He noted the slight swelling of my sinuses and he treated me with a poultice of crushed sanouje or black cumin said to alleviate asthma, headaches and colds. Within seconds of inhaling the crushed spice he had bundled inside a small cotton square like a teabag, all signs of hay fever were gone. It was remarkable. Here you can buy oils infused with orange flower, rose, musk or amber. Most of them are perfumed with inexpensive synthetic fragrance and they cost the same as a supermarket deodorant, so if you find something you like, why not take it home with you?
In the souks you can also find organic argan oil in abundance. In the foothills of the Altas Mountains I visited a small collective of women who make argan oil products. One of the women took me through each step of the production. Some producers collect nuts from the ground after goats climb into the trees to eat the pods. The goats reject the nut, which is collected to make the oil. At this collective, the argan nuts were gathered directly from the tree to produce higher quality oil. The pods were shelled and ground by hand and the resulting product was used to make a variety of cooking oils and cosmetic preparations for hair and skin. The prices were much higher than inside the Medina but I was happy to support this small collective of Berber women as you can see that life in this area is not easy. I visited a Berber market nearby where the nomadic Berber people travelled by donkey to gather their weekly needs. I sat with my guide in one of the food stalls to eat a local soup of broad beans with Moroccan bread. I noticed men circulating asking others if they could share their food or eat leftovers. This wasn’t a form of begging, it was simply the reality of desert life. Nothing is taken for granted and nothing is left to waste.
In Marrakech, I discovered perfume is usually reserved for special occasions. Around the Souks I saw a number of perfume stores that cater to local perfume needs. Unlike western department stores, these perfumeries display a variety of copied western perfumes. I was surprised by how current their copies were. Everything from Tom Ford to the entire catalogue of Chanel had been copied. On average the price of a copy was not much less than the price of the original. I guessed the opportunity these stores provided was that strict Muslim clients could purchase popular western perfume styles in an oil-based form. Once a buyer was ready to purchase they decided whether to have a perfume extrait in a small roll-on bottle, or the product could be diluted in alcohol. I’m not much for buying copies, but these stores also offered soliflores and oud at extremely reasonable prices. I left with an oud perfume and a fleur d’oranger soliflore, both costing around US$6.
I wanted to leave with a souvenir of fleur d’oranger because for me, this was one of the smells of my Moroccan adventure. It is commonly used in local cosmetic preparations including perfume for the body and for ambiance. When I visited Les Bains des Marrakech the entire spa was filled with the smell of opulent fleur d’oranger. This beauty spa is a relaxing way to experience a traditional Moroccan hammam and continue with their speciality, a fourhanded massage. Marrakech is filled with hammams that cater to both tourists and locals. The hammam is a part of social life in Morocco. Women meet with friends to relax and chat about local news, as do the men. There are a few rules of etiquette worth researching before you go, especially if you visit a local hammam. At Les Bain des Marrakech the baths are designed for western clientele. Unlike a local hammam, the sexes are mixed so couples can go together for spa treatments. The interior is tastefully decorated in a modern way with low lighting and stained glass lampshades that cast coloured shadows on the walls. The staff are extremely friendly and they speak Arabic, French or a few words of English. In between treatments you are taken to one of the relaxing spaces where you are served fragrant mint tea and Moroccan sweets. It is a nice place to relax and regain some energy after wandering the souks.
Another place of pampering is the hotel Mamounia near Les Bains des Marrakech. The hotel was opened in 1923 to cater to a growing number of affluent travellers. After World War II, Winston Churchill came here to paint watercolours in the hotel gardens. The guest list includes celebrities such as Yves Saint Laurent and more recently Sophia Coppola and Gwyneth Paltrow. Following a $175M refurbishment the hotel reopened in 2009 and is the premier 5-star hotel in Marrakech. I still think the riads inside the Medina offer a richer cultural experience for tourists but the Mamounia is a nice place to visit for a poolside lunch. Overlooking the pool are gardens of orange tress and olives. They were not currently in bloom so I could only imagine the intoxicating scent that must envelope the pool when 20 acres of orange trees are in bloom. After lunch I took a walk through the gardens and hotel. Inside, the decadent hallways have their own signature scent. Guests of the hotel enjoy ambient room sprays created by French perfumer, Olivia Giacobetti.
Outside the Medina walls in the Novelle Ville, the Majorelle Gardens offer visitors another garden walk. The landscape garden stretches over 12 acres and was originally created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. The gardens were revived in the 1980s under the patronage of designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. When the designer passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered here. The gardens are also home to the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech and the Gallerie Love displays collages ‘of love’ designed by Yves Saint Laurent, which the designer would habitually create and give to his friends to welcome each New Year.
With every exploration of new cities, not only do I try to find new smells to take away as memories, I also look for perfumes made by local perfumers. In Marrakech I found Les Parfums du Soleil. Botanist turned perfumer, Abderrazak Benchaabane was responsible for restoring the Majorelle Gardens with his friend, Yves Saint Laurent and later he founded a perfume house. Benchaabane has created perfumes that evoke the mood of his native city. Soir de Marrakech is his most popular perfume. It is an oriental gourmand in the mood of Guerlain’s Shalimar. Having visited the Ben Youssf Mosque and seeing the ornately carved cedarwood panels, it was Le Parfums du Soleil’s Cedre Divin that caught my attention in his boutique on Rue Tarik IBN Ziad. An overdose of cedarwood with spices around a fruit/floral accord gives Cedre Divin an uncanny likeness to Serge Lutens’ Feminite du Bois. I had also been looking at small cedarwood boxes sold in the souks as tourist trinkets. Typically, these boxes are inlayed with mother of pearl or other woods to form mosaic patterns. Cedre Divin felt like the perfect object to keep inside my cedarwood box souvenir.
Although Marrakech is filled with attractive sights and smells, the sense of taste offers visitors another way to interact with the city’s rich culture. Exotic blends of spices, pastries glazed with sugary orange blossom water and a local cuisine of targine and couscous makes eating each meal of the day an absolute pleasure.
Sometimes my Scent Adventures take the form of a city shopping guide and other times they are a collection of my personal experiences with a city based around smell. Marrakech proved to have so many opportunities to interact with that did not take the form of a perfume shopping experience, I wanted to share all these aspects of my trip that have inspired me to think about scent. This week I have been studying perfume in Grasse and the first three days of my course have been dedicated to the study of naturals. Our teacher, a graduate from the Givaudan school of perfumery made a point to say that the study of naturals is essential training for any apprentice perfumer. If you don’t understand naturals, you will not completely understand the synthetics, which make up a major part of modern perfumery. The same can be said for traveling. I think the more you travel and experience the world, the more you can appreciate those perfumes whose stories are drawn from foreign places. I’m looking forward to returning home to Australia where I will smell my bottle of Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque and see what new aspects I discover having made this visit to Marrakech.