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Parisian pink, Arabic spice

In Morocco, things shimmer with variety, taste beautiful, and with only a slight French accent

Fishing dories and wheeling gulls dot the coastal town of Essaouira. Fishing dories and wheeling gulls dot the coastal town of Essaouira. (Peter Mandel for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2009
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MARRAKECH, Morocco -- On our first night there is a moon. It floats from turret to turret, mosque to mosque. My wife and I are lost. We need its glow to find our way.

The beacon moon colors a cafe awning. It lights up Moorish tile around a wooden door. It reveals "Casa Lalla" etched in script on a plaque. Finally, we are at our tiny hotel, deep in the medina.

Marrakech is a mystery in the dark, but in the maze of twisty streets and market souks, we are hunting a kind of familiarity. More than a decade ago, Kathy and I lived in Paris, on rue Saint-Didier. We miss a lot about those days but especially the careful pace, the craft and style of small-scale neighborhood things: pharmacies as sleekly beautiful as spas, artistic cakes arrayed in bakery windows, prams being pushed and poodles petted in elegant parks.

Morocco, we've heard, has glimmers of this French attempt to make life's little things look good. From 1912 until 1956 (when France and Spain recognized its independence), France had made the Berber- and Arab-settled country a protectorate, imposing laws and language along with wave after wave of French aesthetics. Ordinances came straight from Paris, like the decree that in Marrakech all buildings must be painted pink.

When we heard about that rule, Kathy and I - and our friends Kevin and Martha, who lived in France when we did and are here with us - laughed ruefully. We remembered that sort of bureaucracy well.

Undeterred, we wake up hoping to discover reminders of rue Saint-Didier among Morocco's sights, sounds, and smells. For starters, we find that our hotel has French roots. Owners Annabel and Pierre Olivier grew up near Grenoble. After making a fire, Pierre brings out a bowl of olives and a bottle of beer with palm trees on the label, a cold Casablanca lager.

"This is a traditional riad," Pierre Olivier says, "the style of house that looks within toward its courtyard. It took years to restore."

Casa Lalla's guest rooms are all different. Surprising spiral staircases lead to sculptural lofts. Rooms have romantic French names. Kathy and I pick "Songe d'une nuit d'été," Dream of a summer night.

As the four of us venture out, Martha says, "If I'm an inspector from Paris, I'm issuing citations to the architects around here. That building's not really pink, it's kind of purple. And that one is sort of pinkish orange."

Chains we patronized in Paris are here along the larger avenues: Société Général bank, Elf gas. All have Arabic wording next to the French. Pharmacies sell French toothpaste and fizzy aspirin that you dissolve in a glass, but the green neon lights outside are shaped like Islamic crescents, not crosses.

The aroma of spices wafts us into Herboristerie La Cigogne, on rue Berrima near the ruins of the Palais el-Badi. The store's bins and scoops remind us of displays in Paris's outdoor markets but here the handwritten signs are in Arabic - with decorative swoops and points that look like stars. The owner, Mohammed Fekkak, motions across the street at a lineup of enormous nests along the palace ramparts. "Cigogne," he says, "means stork."

"What you are smelling is this," Fekkak says, twisting open a jar. "Special 35-Spice Barbecue Blend."

"Thirty-five in one?" I ask, skeptically.

"Maybe more," Fekkak says.

Late in the afternoon, after a double-round of minted tea, we pass through the gardens by Koutoubia Mosque that are almost French in their symmetry. If it weren't for orange trees, the rosemary ranging wild, and the roses reaching this way and that, we could be at the Tuileries or Jardin des Plantes.

Something is rumbling just ahead as we get near Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech's central square. Thunder, I think. But the sun is out. Maybe we are hearing an ancient army on the march. Then we see them: dancers jumping and jingling, acrobats somersaulting, singers singing, drums being pounded to chants and squeaky horns that wheedle out an Arabic tune. At first glance it's like the street performer-packed plaza next to Paris's Pompidou Centre. But Jemaa el-Fna is edgier, more fluid. Its bass notes are deeper by far.

Donkeys haul to the beat. Locals in hooded cloaks push carts and wave their hands and shout offers of fruit and tea. There is so much being grilled and sauteed and steamed that, at first, I think some of the snack carts are on fire. I forget about this as soon as Kevin notices the snakes. Cobras coiled up in circular baskets. Cobras unfurling. Cobras rearing higher and higher, rising to the high notes from the Arabic horns.

We stand and stare and toss down most of our coins.

After staying in another magical hotel - a luxury riad, La Sultana - it's time to visit other cities. Our driver, Mohammed Lafkir, arrives.

On the highway to Essaouira I am dozing when we squeal to a stop. Police? A roadblock? "No," says Lafkir, "look."

We see a grove of scrubby trees, a shepherd, and a herd of goats. What's strange is that the goats are not on the ground. They're climbing and scrambling in the branches. "They look like they're eating olives," says Martha. "Or something." We grab our cameras and go.

"Argan tree," says Lafkir. "It grows the kernel to make an oil for cooking."

Essaouira is white-and-blue and catches the light of the sea. Like the French village of Honfleur, it has wind-scoured streets and craft shops around every corner. We happen to look into a store called La Rencontre. Products containing argan oil are stacked high on the shelves. "Not just for cooking," says Kathy. There is "Sérum de Beauté de Argan," "Argan Anti-Wrinkle," and "Crème de Argan" for your hands.

"Yes," confirms the shop owner proudly. "This is all for export to France. Like the cosmetics of Laura Mercier. Do you know them?" Kathy and Martha do. They buy a bar of argan beauty soap for the road.

In Fes, Lafkir says, "This is not Manhattan. You will not go into the medina and come out alone." He hires a local guide, Moustafa, to help us carve a path into the warren of souks.

Moustafa knows the curbs and corners well. And he knows what's going on - or not. "This is not the square where they cut the heads," he tells us. "The palace where there was a polygamy? Not here."

"In this direction," he says, "there is nothing."

We come to a place where all of the vehicles are stopped: horse and rider, mule with a load of blankets, bicycle pulling potted plants in a cart. Everyone is shouting. Nothing is moving. Somehow we are able to squeeze past, although I trip over a table at a stall set up with petrified wood.

I try to help the owner put things back. "Why are there so many fossils in Fes?" I ask. "So many rocks and shells?"

"People like to buy these," he says gravely.

I see his point. I pick up a fossil of a pink crustacean that's a curly shape and I reach for my wallet. About four dollars - it's a deal.

That night we're eating couscous with lamb and figs in a restaurant. We are drinking our Cuvée du President Moroccan wine. Through the arch-shaped window I can see the moon and it is almost full.

It is the moon of our first night here, the yellow moon that moved from turret to turret. It is the same, but larger. We are different too. Storks and cobras, mules in souks, and goats in trees have made us feel like locals. We're not as Moroccan as the Special Barbecue Spice, but more so than before.

"I have a sense that we're not on rue Saint-Didier anymore," says Martha.

I pull out my swirly fossil souvenir and turn it over in my hand. It is as pink as Marrakech. I pass it around.

The waiter brings us tea. He sees it.

"Ah," he says. "My favorite. Just like Paris."

"What do you mean," we say.

He smiles. "It is an escargot."

Peter Mandel can be reached at pbmandel@cox.net.

If You Go

What to do

Koutoubia Mosque

Place de la Koutoubia

Avenue Mohammed V

You can't enter this landmark 12th-century building unless you're a Muslim, but it's beautiful from all angles and visible from much of the city because of its towering minaret topped off by four decorative orbs. Check out the plaza surrounding it and the gardens next door.

Bahia Palace

Riad Zitoun El Jedid

011-00-212-24-38-95-64

The interior of this 19th-century palace showcases the beauty of Moorish tiling and detail. Admission $1.25.

Medina of Fes el Bali

Central Fes

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this warren of markets and tiny, twisting streets will get you lost unless you hire a local guide.

Where to stay

La Sultana Marrakech

403 rue de la Kasbah

011-00-212-5-24-38-80-08

www.lasultanamarrakech.com

Luxurious and magical riad. Doubles from about $285.

Casa Lalla

Riad Zitoun Lakdime

16 Derb Jamaa, Marrakech Medina

011-00-212-24-42-97-57

www.casalalla.com

Creatively restored and decorated in the middle of the Medina. Doubles from about $145.

Where to eat

Le Tanjia

14 Derb J'Did - Hay Essalam

Mellah, Medina, Marrakech

011-00-212-24-38-38-36

www.letanjia-marrakech.blogspot.com

A chic interior, plus some of the freshest tasting Moroccan specialties in Marrakech. Entrees from about $15.

Casa Lalla Table d'Hotes

Riad Zitoun Lakdime

16 Derb Jamaa, Marrakech Medina

011-00-212-24-42-97-57

www.casalalla.com

French cuisine with a twist. Full-course dinner $47 per person.