Location: Marrakech, Morocco
An adventure searching for the perfect derelict Riad, through the constuction itself, to the end result (insha'Allah!)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Marrakesh Mystique

I happened upon Esther Freud's lovely article from Harpers Bazaar earlier this year, with a focus on holidays in Marrakech and in particular the extraordinary Royal Mansour hotel commissioned by King Mohammad VI.  Its worth sharing so I've copied parts of the text over as its too small to read on the pictures.
"Way of Light.  Enter the opulently crafted world of high luxe Marrakech-a city that never fails to seduce. Bazaar picks the Moroccan destinations chicest retreats.  Morocco has transformed from a hippie hangout to a jet-set destination but the city's authentic appeal is as beguiling as ever and its charm heightened by exquisite hotels."
"After lying on hot tiles in the hammam of the brand new Royal Mansour hotel while jugs of steaming water are poured over me.  It is one of the numerous spa treatments available at this exquisitely designed Marrakech hotel.  As the therapist takes my limbs and rubs in soft black soap, I am assailed by such a wave of memory that I could be six years old again, in the public hammam in the Medina with my mother and sister.  Back then, a large naked lady with overlapping stomachs would rub us down with a ridged round stone until the dirt rolled out in grubs.  Our hair was washed and rinsed and our bodies doused with cold water so that an hour later we were in the street, our skin so clean it squeaked.  Now, my body is exfoliated with a glove, a mask of avocado is smoothed on to my face and the water in the plunge pool has been tempered, so I am spared the ice-cold shock I remember from childhood.  Its more than 40 years since I lived in this city and 20 since I first came back.  In 1990 I was nervous of returning, afraid that the Marrakech I'd dreampt of since leaving would have altered unrecognisably and that my closely held memories might evaporate as soon as I arrived.  But I needn't have worried.  Everything was just as I'd remembered it.  Ancient, dazzling, a step into the past.  Then, I stayed in a small hotel not far from the Djemaa el-Fna.  Rooms arranged around a courtyard - one toilet, one cold shower and a tap on the roof where you could wash your clothes.  I was woken at dawn by the call to prayer from the Koutoubia Minaret and all over the city, cocks crowed the start of the day.  But in the years since, change has been fast and furious.  Morocco is now firmly on
the jet-set map.  It is no longer just a destination for the intrepid traveller looking for exotic adventure on hours ferry ride from Spain.  Now there are flights from all over Europe, including a recently announced route with British Airways, to the newly rebuilt airport.  The choice of lodgings has multiplied too, with resorts in the Palmeraie, upmarket riads in the Medina and modern hotels in the new city.  Much of this development has been spearheaded by King Mohammad IV, the young successor to his father Hassan II, who was the longest serving ruler in the Arab world and to whom the country owes its years of stability.  And it is the new king who is behind the extraordinary Royal Mansour.  It is not just a hotel, but a showcase fo Moroccan artistry - every floor, wall and ceiling is decorated in exquisite style.  Over the three years it took to build, up to 15,000 craftsmen were hired from all over the country.  They set to work creating panels of cedar inlaid with mother of pearl, acres of soft grey and beige tiles and arches fo plaster fretwork in the most intricate design.  There are walls covered in tadelakt, a subtle, beautiful cream on white pattern that takes months of work to achieve and mosaics of marble that sparkle like jewels.  In the private dining room, there's an entire
wall of onyx, changing colour as the light travels across it from the terrace beyond, and a cigar bar of such opulent and imaginative splendour, it's hard to imagine any room to rival it.  Matched with touch-screen light panels and carefully concealed plasma TVs, this hotel has transformed Marrakech into one of the super-luxurious destinations of the world.  And it is not alone.  The famous La Mamounia hotel has recently undergone a three year refurbishment, redoubling its atmosphere of grace and comfort and there are other new five star resorts: Four Seasons, W Hotel and Mandarin Oriental.  So who are all the visitors? And what effect are they having on this ancient city?  I walk towards the Djemaa el-Fna - the main square at the heart of the Medina - and I am taken aback, as I have been on my last few trips, to find the dust red playground of my childhood has been paved over, that there is a cash machine outside the entrance to Club Med and that the young men who would once assail you and insist on being your guide for an unspecified amount of dirhams now hang politely back (not long ago, a survey revealed that being 'hassled' was the one reason tourists failed to return to Morocco and a widespread campaign has attemped to stamp out this practice).
Today, unimpeded, I wander through the lanes of souk with only the odd friendly invitation to look at babouches, or test a herbal remedy to enhance libido.  And although I miss the challenge and accomplishment of shopping without being press ganged into someone's cousin's carpet shop, there's no doubt that it is more relaxing now.  And its not just me who seems more relaxed.  The extra tourists mean the market traders know that even if I don't buy anything there and then, before long there'll be another shopper less able to resist.  But even today, I don't have to walk far before I get lost, literally in another world.  There are men up to their knees in vats of dye, others in a welter of sparks as they hammer and weld and craftsmen sit out on the street, mounding soft wood into ornaments with their hands and feet.  Boys pull carts heaped with nougat and pastries oozing orange syrup and women sell bread at the entrance to the square.  As darkness falls, the Djemaa el-Fna comes alive.  Religious entertainers begin their age-old custom of story and joke telling, snake charmers fill the air with mournful flutes and the Gnaoua rattle the cowrie shells on their hats as they sing and dance.  Strings of bulbs are lit, tables set up and tourists and locals alike sit at the makeshift restaurants, some garlanded with pig's trotters, others with the heads of goats where they are served anything from soup to tagine to boiled egg.  The earth floor may be paved and the city's outskirts may be under extensive construction, but there beneath the stars, surrounded by the shadowy snow tipped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech still feels much as it always did."  Links: Royal Mansour, La Mamounia, Ezzahra, Riad El Fenn, Es Saadi, Dar Moulouya.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Miracles do happen

Today, less than 7 days after waving goodbye to the well wrapped cardboard parcel at the Poste Maroc office on Jma el Fna Square, Marrakech, there was a loud knock at our front door.  Upon opening the door there stood a Royal Mail post man with, yes, our cardboard parcel on our doorstep in Glasgow!  It took a while to upwrap, but eventually the two antique Moroccan tables were revealed.  With much excitement and after a quick clean and polish, the two tables were placed in their new home, our Moroccan (what else!) style sitting room.  The trusty tape measure I carried around the Medina did the job and both tables fit perfectly, exactly where we envisaged them.

 We have certainly learned that its easy to post lovely Moroccan items back to the UK for not much money and in a short time.  Miracles do happen!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Another week in the magical red city

The anticipation of furnishing Riad Romm'an was getting the better of us, but we must be patient as we still have a long way to go.  Planning permission may have been granted, but that really is just the start of the construction project and many decisions still need to be made.  On Friday we spent a long, hot day (35 degrees) on the roof terrace of Riad Bel Haj with Grant Rawlings of Chic Marrakech discussing the designs and agreeing detailed finishes for Riad Romm'an. We talked Mashrabiya, zellij, bijmat and telissa, what type of tiles for the floor and what style of ceiling decorations, fountains, fireplaces, cornicing and plasterwork.  There's a lot to decide, but as tempting as it is to have it all as there are so many beautiful morocccan design features, it is important not to make a mish-mash of the interior design and to not overwhelm the senses.

With a whole week in Marrakech, in order to satisfy our appetite for all things moroccan, it was therefore necessary to search out some bargains by wandering around the souks within the walls of the ancient medina of the magical red city.  After many enjoyable hours practicing Arabic with shop keepers with many "assalamu alaykum", "wa alaykum assalam", "la shukran's" and "maa salaama's" we happened upon a small doorway on Rue des Ksours where we spied some beautiful antique moroccan doors.  Our curiosity grew as we turned down the narrow corridor which turned left and then right and ended in another ancient doorway.  Without having to say 'open sesame', we slowly opened the door and peeked inside to find an Aladdin's cave of treasures.  The sight which greeted us was like something out of the tales of the Arabian Nights, stacked floor to ceiling with antique furniture, tables, doors, windows, chests, carpets, tureens, jars, plates, boxes, mirrors, vases, etc.  Dar Essalam is one of many such shops in the medina, stacked full of arabian delights.  Visit the old city of Marrakech and it's impossible not to be struck by a sense of living antiquity and by the gems that fill the emporia hidden within its shadows.  Explore the teeming souqs and you decend down through layer upon layer, onion skins of life, stretching back centuries and more.

Mr Jiddi, the shopkeeper appeared 'as if by magic' and after a brief discussion in which we outlined our moroccan table requirements, he led us into another room, then another, then upstairs to another, then another, then upstairs again to more rooms, all as full of antiquties as the previous one.  It was as if history was being stored here in secret.  After considering many different pieces, we eventually found two similar tables we liked, one large and one small.  So the haggling began, eventually reducing Mr Jiddi down to a third of his starting price.  We shook hands and thought about how we would get them home, expecting an additional cost for shipping.  However, the shopkeeper had taken a shine to us given our efforts at speaking Arabic.  He suggested the cheapest way to ship the tables would be to take them to the post office.  We therefore arranged to come back the next day and his assistant would take us to the post office to arrange posting back to the UK and as he knew the post office staff well, he would get us the best price.  We were a bit nervous about buying the tables without any idea of how much it would cost us to send them home, but having sent a carpet back previously we took a chance.  Next morning at 9am we went back to the shop and the two tables were neatly packaged up, one inside the other.  We picked up the rather large and heavy package and followed the shopkeeper's assistant off down the derbs and narrow passageways to the post office which is on the southern side of Jma el Fna Square.  We were struggling with the size and weight of the package and as we passed some men hanging around their hand pulled carts, one of them offered to carry the package for us on his cart.  We agreed and this made the rest of the journey much easier.

The very helpful Mr Handcart man with our tables
We gave Mr Jiddi's assistant a 100 dirham note and told him to give Mr Handcart man 20 dirham and to keep the rest, which was well received.  When we arrived at the post office there was a lot of negotiating between the shopkeeper's assistant and the Post Office man.  Between them they weighed the package a number of times until they were happy that it had somehow cheated the scales and reduced from 29 to 21 kilos, just by turning it around a few times.  We filled out the forms, paid our money and left the tables with the Post Office man.  If we ever see the tables again, it will be a miracle...but then the magical city and its friendly people will make you believe anything is possible!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Planning Permission Granted!

I am just about to leave a rainy west of Scotland for the 34 degree heat of Marrakech so here's a quick update on another milestone on the Marrakech Riad adventure.  This week planning permission was granted for the new improved Riad Romm'an!  It was nice to be the client on this one, as usually its me pushing applications through the system.  Thanks to Grant Stoner Rawlings at  Chic Marrakech and to Muhammed Ali at the Marrakech Planning Department for turning the application around so quickly and smoothly.

 So its over to Marrakech again to talk with Grant about how we make the designs on the drawings (above) into reality (below).  Should also get the chance to head for the souks and practice some Arabic!  Cafe Arabe here I come!