TIME TO LOSE YOURSELF IN THIS COLOURFUL, BEAUTIFULLY CHAOTIC MOROCCAN METROPOLIS.
This much is clear: for great thinkers, doers and explorers, Morocco has long been a subject of fascination, cultural lust and desire; a melting pot of Arab, Berber, and French-colonial infuence, hugged by the Mediterranean and the Sahara. Yet, for whatever image of Morocco most conjure in their heads, what’s so wildly wonderful about its reality is that it proves more emphatic than anything dreamt. From the moment the plane touches down in these arid, yet unrelentingly vibrant surrounds, you’ll fnd yourself culture-drunk. And the nucleus of that enthralling inebriation? Marrakesh’s ancient red-walled city, the medina quarter, the kind of place you withstand many hours, many airports and many transits to experience. Each evening, set against the towering Koutoubia mosque, the old city’s central square, Jamaa el-fna, is on show. It’s been this way for centuries, displaying everything from hash-stoned snake charmers, plucky fre eaters and boisterous musicians. The biggest risk encountered today will be bartering for a keepsake or a freshly prepared take on the ubiquitous local tagine. Amid this mess of people and colour, Dar Darma hotel is an appealing pocket of seclusion – a regal retreat. More private, staffed holiday home than hotel and a luxe take on the traditional Moroccan abode known as a riad – it houses fve suites, though a stay here feels like it services just one. Upsettingly handsome 18th-century detailing – think hand-painted ceilings and ornate carvings – give the space a generous, imperial feel, while at Dar Darma, wishes aren’t merely attended to – they’re the foundation of the experience. Let the staff know when and where you’d like to take meals: your room or the sun-kissed rooftop terrace? The choices are there. Want a guided tour of the medina or Atlas Mountains? Shall be done. The riad is little more than a leisurely stroll to Jamaa el-fna and this daily ritual of winding through souks, dodging donkeys, brash motorcyclists and the occasional pre-pubescent pickpocket is an apt way to meet Marrakesh. As your body acclimatises to the heat and rhythm of the city, it soon becomes apparent why so many famed men
fell for this place. Yves Saint Laurent’s connection to Marrakesh is ornate and permanent: a garden where his ashes were scattered, Le Jardin Majorelle. To wander through it is to amble amid a man’s love letter to Morocco. “A visit to Marrakesh was a great shock to me,” said the late designer. “This city taught me colour.” The Majorelle isn’t wanting for that. Drenched in bold tones of ultramarine blue – the trademark of the garden’s original creator, Jacques Majorelle – the space is dotted with psychedelic desert greenery and tokens from local Berber villages. It’s quintessentially Moroccan: where else would you fnd a high-fashion take on botany and tribal culture, all within earshot of a call to prayer? Equally enamoured of Marrakesh was Winston Churchill – a frequent visitor to the stately La Mamounia Hotel after World War II. And stately is no understatement – the hotel’s gardens stretch across eight hectares, every inch immaculate. An estate-like occupier of the medina, La Mamounia is a requisite Marrekesh destination unto itself. Two men, heads bowed, fing the doors open to reveal an intimately-lit grand lobby, the foundations of which were set almost a century ago. Take a seat in one of innumerable dark, seductive corners and sink in as the almond milk and dates arrive. Somehow, this is check-in. Mamounia continually surpasses expectations with four restaurants (two of them house Michelin-starred chefs) and four bars to match. Then there’s an ice creamery and pristine clay tennis courts that, naturally, French champion Henri Leconte regularly rallies on. Mamounia has paid due reverence to Churchill, naming a suite, a bar, and even a drink after him. The latter is appropriately punchy. To be heady on the Winston Churchill cocktail – lounging late night in the gardens of bar L’italien, a sky sticky with stars, waiters invisibly present, the night air crisp for a moment – is to be heady on life. But to set out to Marrakesh for nonstop opulence would be a momentous mistake. Instead, venture into the maelstrom for a half day, allow Marrakesh to get the senses tipsy with colour, life and energy, and use an abode like Mamounia as an oasis. Think of it as dipping into a crisp, clear pool after a lazy session of cultural sunbathing. Should there come a time when the clay-toned medina walls feel more suffocating than intoxicating, take your cue to hit the road. Hire a driver and wander through the hills of the Atlas Mountains, the largest mountains of Africa’s north – a forever-undulating kaleidoscope of colour and adobe villages. Head further towards the Atlantic and meet the sickeningly photogenic town of Essaouira, where not even a surprising infux of British tourists can spoil the mix of Santorini-esque blues and whites, ocean breeze and just-caught seafood offerings. These, of course, are merely suggestions. There’s no wrong move to make in this city, no spoon-fed version of this enriching pilgrimage. Here’s the rub: whether high-end – Mamounia’s artisan lobster tagine or a humble street grill in the medina – Marrakesh is a place you’ll depart in a deep haze. Becasue it’s that certain genre of travel – the kind that requires recalibration upon return. That’s to say, the only travel that’s truly worthwhile. n
FROM TOP: THE POOL AT LA MAMOUNIA; SUNSET OVER THE OLD CITY’S CENTRAL SQUARE, JAMAA EL-FNA.
FROM TOP: AN ART EXHIBITION IN THE COURTYARD AT LA MAMOUNIA; UBIQUITOUS RED WALLS OF THE MEDINA.