At this hour, the Medina is serene, a stark contrast to the previous night. The shops have rolled up their metal gates to reveal beautiful windows and artisanal crafts. Children and women are strolling, people are smiling, motorbikes are weaving through crowds, and the vibe is fantastic. We wander around all morning, happily half lost.
By lunch, the Medina starts to heave, and we come across Dar Essalam: a restaurant decorated like a palace. Every inch of space is covered in intricate tiles, Moroccan lamps and ornate textiles. We share a selection of vegetarian appetisers and a Bastilla, a traditional, stuffed puff pastry. Our server tells us it looks just as it did in an Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.
I’m getting into the flow of the city. It seems a quick jump through a doorway, or a turn into a quiet street reveals something beautiful. The El Badi Palace and Saadian Tombs are great examples, as are the Photography Museum and Ben Youssef Madrasa.
One afternoon, we set up by the Riad’s pool to recharge our batteries. We get chatting to another guest, Diane, an artist from San Francisco. She asks us if any of men in the Medina have propositioned us yet. I chuckle and shake my head; although I did question that experience with the young loiterer. “Proposition us with what, exactly?” we ask.
“Sex!” Diane blurts out in laughter. “You know man-on-man action is fine here, as long as it is kept behind closed doors. It has been like that here for centuries,” she whispers as we part ways.
By now we’ve become quite familiar with the ways of the red city: haggling with playful vendors for argan oil, handwoven camel hair rugs and Moroccan lamps. I’m ready for some time away from the hustle (oh, it’s one big hustle) and bustle so we head for the Jardin Majorelle, once Yves Saint Laurent’s private residence. The spacious botanical garden with giant succulents and palms is arranged around a vibrant blue house, that reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul in Mexico City.
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After a few hours in the garden and the Berber Museum, we make our way to the YSL Museum. I am unprepared for how much this place will move and inspire me – unapologetic and candid about the gay fashion designer’s life. Galleries are filled with mannequins dressed in YSL haute couture and each exhibit serves charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. I am transfixed by documentary footage of Saint Laurent’s life, including jaw-dropping archival runways and unedited footage of his lovers. No one bats an eyelid, in fact, other visitors are seemingly queening out alongside me. Diane’s voice plays in my head, “behind closed doors.” Back at the Riad, I ask her to recommend a hammam experience.
“Private or public?” she asks. I’m confused by the question, but I discover that a private hammam is a spa and a public one, where locals go. Obviously, I choose the latter for an authentic experience. That evening at the 16th-century Hammam Mouassine I strip down to my undies and a muscular masseur escorts me to a shower where he lays me down on a mat and washes me with black soap before bringing me to a massage room. He massages me with rhassoul clay – which feels amazing – before rinsing me off with cold water. I sleep like a baby that night.
I return to Hammam Mouassine every day thereafter, not just for its healing properties, but for the ritual. On the last day, I realise I was stood outside this very hammam on the first night, searching for the Riad. I can’t help but laugh. What a difference there is between the edginess I felt then and now, where I’m voluntarily feeling my oats behind the doors of this ancient building.
This contrast encapsulates my visit to Marrakech, and it transpires, the experience of so many others I’ve spoken to about it since, not to mention ol’ YSL himself. At first, it’s an absolute culture shock; you’ll wonder what on earth you’re doing there. But soon, that feeling of uncertaintly will wear off and before long you’ll fall deeply and madly in love with the place, its culture, its stories, its people; so much so you won’t be able to bring yourself to leave.
Photography by Martin Perry, Art for Stock and courtesy of Riad Al Moussika