“Perfect moment,” says the receptionist at Riad Nesma, pointing to the intricately tiled staircase. I jumped up and emerged, four stories higher, to find the immense desert sun dipping above the medina, tinting it gold.
As the many nearby muezzins issue their call to prayer, I watch the crowded neighborhood. Here and there, in similar buildings, others are doing exactly the same thing. It’s as if the medina were an archipelago – each roof an island in the sky.
With their swimming pools and potted plants, the rooftops of Marrakech are not only relaxation areas, they are also landing areas for birds. The next morning, braving the morning cold, I share an outdoor breakfast with a host of house sparrows. My table is so full of baghrir pancakes, msemen (fried flatbread) and soft khobz bread that it’s hard to know which crumbs to offer first. And as the day progresses, other birds catch my eye: doves strutting in the orchard next to the Koutoubia mosque, storks wandering on the walls of the El Badi palace and swifts spinning above our heads.
Marrakech is known as the red city, but there is also a green side. When the 11th century Muslim Amazigh Almoravid dynasty made it the capital of their African and Iberian empire, one of the first things they did was drown its fringes with date palms, watered by underground aqueducts called khettaras . Almost 1,000 years later, Marrakech still boasts plenty of palm trees – there are dozens among the olive trees in the Menara and Agdal gardens, and thousands shading the villas of La Palmeraie. Water, too, is as relevant as ever: the affluent neighborhood recently hosted the Mohammed VI Museum of Water Civilization in Morocco. Sleek and ultra-modern, it examines Morocco’s aptitude for the seemingly impossible – harnessing water in the desert – and asks pressing questions about climate change.
Since 2016, when Marrakech hosted the COP22 conference, these issues have increasingly been on the city’s agenda. However, making its historic infrastructure more environmentally friendly presents complex challenges, especially in the frenetic medina. Exploring with hiking guide and crafts expert Atika Aït Nejjar, we need to keep a cool head. The lanes are narrow and motorbikes are constantly passing. “Banning them just wouldn’t work,” she says. “For people in a hurry, there is no faster way to get from point A to point B. We have electric buses in the suburbs, but we need electric bicycles and mopeds to become more affordable. It would make a big difference.