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.

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