Marrakesh: 'Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts'

Ruspoli, 58, has an aristocratic nose and is wearing a brown leather jacket cum breast-pocket handkerchief and leather loafers with no socks. He has lived in Marrakesh for the past 17 years. His sentences tend to start in French, slide into Italian and eventually end in English. He was born in Paris, his father was Italian and his grandparents lived in Tangier when literary figures from around the globe settled there to pass their days debating over coffee. Now he runs a small hotel named the Maison Arabe.

The prince sits on a leather ottoman in the living room of his house in Marrakesh's Old Town. An oil painting of his grandfather Alessandro hangs on the wall. Ruspoli is shocked by what is happening to his adopted home, by the posters for spa treatments he sees everywhere -- and which invariably feature a woman's naked back and pebbles. "What has that got to do with Marrakesh?" he asks. "Nothing! The same goes for golf courses. This is the Orient! We're in Africa! It makes me cry."

Losing Its Charm … and Water

Elias Canetti wrote about Marrakesh in magical terms. Keith Richards and Andy Warhol came in the '70s, did lots of drugs and wandered through the medieval medina. Krupp heiress Hetty von Bohlen und Halbach threw lavish parties in a former royal villa. Later, Yves Saint Laurent bought the Villa Majorelle and turned it into his second home. His ashes are now buried in the rose garden. A photo shows the fashion designer at the villa together with French Countess de Breteuil. Both are wearing white slacks and shirts and lying on a kilim under lemon trees, cups of peppermint tea at their sides. They look like rich kids from the West in search of African adventure.

Still, the prince views them as at least having been somewhat sophisticated. As he sees it, they're not like the young French starlets that donned Berber hats for photographers at the recent Dior jamboree and raved about the city's ancient culture, though they knew absolutely nothing about it.

Ruspoli doesn't want his city to become a Disneyland for the well-heeled, a theme park for the rich and famous, who will eventually draw hordes of tourists on package deals in their wake. Last year, McDonald's reportedly tried -- but failed -- to buy the old Café de France on Jemâa el-Fna Square. With its snake charmers, food stands, storytellers and henna artists, the square is the magical heart of the city and continues to be its focal point. Many years ago, UNESCO designated it as a World Cultural Heritage Site. But now many wonder just how long that title will be able to protect it from the forces of commercialism.

Already, the city is slowly expanding in size. With every new golf course that is built, annual water consumption rises by 1 million cubic meters (35 million cubic feet). Ten are under construction; five have already been completed. As a result, the water table is falling dramatically. As recently as 12 years ago, it was 10 meters (33 feet) underground. To reach it now, you have to dig 45 meters down in the Palmeraie, an oasis of palm trees on the outskirts of the city.

Indeed, the global financial crisis may have slowed the local construction boom, but it hasn't stopped it altogether. Fortunately for the country, it is illegal to export its currency, the dirham. And since the country's banks haven't been allowed to speculate on global financial markets, they were largely shielded from the recent economic turbulence.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...