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Destination: Morocco : An Oasis in Marrakech : Reminiscent of the film 'Enchanted April,' three American women rent a house near the Casbah and experience Morocco from the inside out

March 13, 1994|HELENE MOORE | Moore is an editor on the national desk of the Miami Herald. and

MARRAKECH, Morocco — Like the starry-eyed ladies in "Enchanted April," we've rented a house for a month in a faraway, exotic land.

It's not Italy, like the film, but Marrakech, Morocco's legendary oasis city of desert caravans, ancient palaces and luxuriant gardens--the gateway to the Sahara.

At the moment, we're savoring the enchantment.

From our courtyard, the sweet scent of orange blossoms drifts into the open windows. Beyond the iron gate, a street peddler chants as he trundles his cart down the alley. The aroma of cinnamon, ginger and beef simmering in a terra-cotta tajine floats in from the kitchen.

All that's missing from this enchanting morning is our luggage. "Pas de probleme, madame," they tell us at the airport. No problem. "Peut-etre demain."

That means "Maybe tomorrow." On the other hand, it could mean manana. Which could mean trouble.

The missing luggage, however, really does appear the next day, on the evening flight from Casablanca, accompanied by charming, profuse apologies in three languages.

Two days into our stay we've already learned some basics: Morocco is a country both tantalizing and maddening, fascinating and irritating, opulent and inconvenient, seductively soothing and impossibly frustrating.

Most tourists pass through Marrakech briefly on tours but my two women friends and I had done that years ago. This time around, in February, 1993, we wanted to try living there.

We're hardly neophytes: a retired foreign service officer, a retired travel consultant and me, a writer/editor for the Miami Herald--all over 60, all living in Florida and friends for several years. The house in Marrakech belongs to an American acquaintance who is renting it to us for a month as a favor.

Short-term house rentals are somewhat rare here, though one may occasionally turn up a home or apartment through the Moroccan National Tourist Office or various international rental services (see accompanying guidebook). Our three-bedroom house is reasonable by United States standards--$1,350 for the month--and a bargain when divided by three. And it comes with a cook/housekeeper.

The location is perfect--just off Marrakech's main boulevard, Mohammed V, in the downtown section of Gueliz--the "new" part of the city built by the French during the 44-year protectorate that ended in 1956. We are within walking distance of restaurants, shops, tourist agencies and the French Market.

Our cook--Fatima--is young, olive-skinned, dark-haired and pretty, and arrives in the morning dressed in a hooded, floor-length djellaba.

She asks us to put about $12 a day for food in a bowl on the hall table. She prepares a continental breakfast of rolls, pastries or croissants, with coffee, tea and juice--and a succulent midday dinner. In the evening, when she has gone, we warm up the leftovers and add soup, rice or pasta.

Fatima's heady concoctions are coaxed from a two-burner tabletop gas stove and a pressure cooker. There's also a tiny oven-toaster and a pint-size refrigerator.

Our house isn't modern, but it has a peaceful, private courtyard shaded by lemon and orange trees and shielded from the alley by a stuccoed wall and metal gate. Indoors are three simply furnished bedrooms and a living-dining room with a low, round table and a typically Moroccan cushioned banquette extending along two walls. We have no telephone, no TV, no screens, no air-conditioning and no hot water in the kitchen.

On our first night, we realize that the only artificial light comes from single bulbs in the ceilings, too dim and high to read by. It's early March and in Marrakech, at the foot of the snow-covered High Atlas mountains, the air is still knife cold. We struggle with a gas heater that finally lights after dozens of matches and endless attempts--then flickers out minutes later. Defeated, we crawl into bed dressed in jogging suits and socks, burrowing under thick woolen blankets.

We're lured outside next day when we run out of matches to light the stove and heater. We find our way up Mohammed V to the French Market and prowl among its dozens of stalls. Each sells its own specialty: vegetables, meat, groceries, flowers, spices, souvenirs.

It takes a while to sort out the shopping puzzle. Meat comes from the butcher but sausage and cold cuts from the charcuterie . Bread at the boulangerie but sweet rolls and cakes at the patisserie . For light bulbs one makes a pilgrimage across town to the electrical supply store.

On the bright side, a loaf of French bread costs 10 cents; buttery, feather-light chocolate or almond pastries, 30 cents; a bottle of pleasant Moroccan wine, less than $3. Restaurant meals are moderately priced by U.S. standards.

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