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TRAVELING IN STYLE : THE RHYTHMS OF MARRAKECH : At Morocco's Ancient Crossroads, a Swirl of Ferocious Energy and Fierce Color

June 02, 1991|MICHAEL MEWSHAW | Michael Mewshaw is the author of 12 books. His new novel, "True Crime," will be published this month.

Several years ago, at the apex of the spring tourist season, Presidents Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Francois Mitterrand of France moved into the villas with their advisers, wives and bodyguards for a series of conferences. This made for some extraordinary scenes of cultural dissonance around the swimming pool, where people from wildly dissimilar backgrounds gathered each day for a buffet lunch at Les Trois Palmiers. While the Europeans gloried in the sun, and most of the white women wore bikinis or went topless, Moroccan security men with walkie-talkies prowled the area wearing penitentially starched shirts, dark suits and ties. Deep in the shade of umbrellas, black women with the Senegalese and Cameroonian entourages sat swathed in yards of bright fabric shot through with gold thread, their faces veiled, with only their eyes and hands exposed.

ATTRACTED AS MUCH BY MARRAkech's street life as by its social high life, some visitors to the city jump ship and go native. Yves St. Laurent keeps a house here, as does French actor Alain Delon, who bought a place that once belonged to Paul Getty.

In a corner of the palm grove, a gate of corrugated tin opens onto a Xanadu-like pleasure dome that Kubla Khan might have decreed. In fact, Freckie Vreeland, son of the late Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, built this villa and has, for years, been adding eccentric touches that incorporate ideas and objects he has collected during his travels. The entrance is a replica of the famous Borromini trompe l'oeil perspective at the Villa Spada in Rome. The 17th-Century columns in the courtyard come from Spain. Many of the carved wooden doors are Balinese. One bedroom resembles an ornate Chinese box. In another, the bed swings from the ceiling by chains. When Vreeland is away in Italy or the Far East, he has, on occasion, rented the villa to those who are curious to see these wonders.

Marrakech supports a multitude of French and Moroccan restaurants, but foreign residents and regular visitors favor one of the town's few alternatives to traditional fare--Giancarlo Terzaroli's La Trattoria. Before his death, the deposed Shah of Iran often ate here, but he was far from La Trattoria's lone illustrious customer. Members of the Moroccan royal family, Guy and Helene de Rothschild, the Count and Countess de Beaumont and French fashion designer Jacqueline de Ribes all seem to love Giancarlo's pasta. As he says, not immodestly, "Some winter evenings, there are so many fur coats in my cloakroom, the hangers collapse."

Deep in the medina, Bert Flint lives on the far side of the city and at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Terzaroli. A Dutch scholar, he has been in Morocco for 30 years, studying the country's Andalusian heritage. His special interest is in rural art forms, and his goal is to "promote the creative continuity of Moroccan textiles." He has collected samples of the best work from the past. Pointing to his favorite Berber carpet, he remarks, "Aesthetically, it is the equal of a Paul Klee painting"--and he pays women in remote villages to produce weavings that express the full range of their talents, without regard for what will sell to tourists.

Flint is also concerned about the preservation of the medina. Recently Marrakech has experienced a population shift away from the center, out toward the fringes of town, where the middle class is settling into new apartments and villas. Eventually, people may want to return to the heart of the city, but Flint fears there will be nothing left. The houses, constructed of hand-molded mud, deteriorate quickly unless they are replastered and painted.

The notion is as intriguing as it is troubling--the idea that Marrakech might crumble like a sandcastle and dissolve into the earth from which it was constructed, that for all its ferocious energy and fierce color, it is as fragile as a desert flower.


Getting there: Royal Air Maroc flies direct from New York to Marrakech, also direct to Marrakech from Paris, as does Air France. Other carriers connect to Marrakech through Casablanca. A U.S. passport is necessary, but no visa is required.

Where to stay: Hotel La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Djedid, Marrakech, Morocco, $145-$380 per night for standard rooms, $455-$700 for suites; from the United States, telephone 011-212-4448981, or fax 011-212-444660. Other recommended hotels include Hotel Tichka, about $80 per night; Hotel Semiramis, $60-$80, and Hotel Atlas, $55.

Safety: A State Department travel advisory, issued during the Persian Gulf crisis after a pro-Iraq demonstration in the capital of Rabat, was canceled when the war ended.

For more information: Moroccan National Tourist Office, 421 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills 90210; (213) 271-8939.

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