MAR­RAKESH

TIME TO LOSE YOUR­SELF IN THIS COLOUR­FUL, BEAU­TI­FULLY CHAOTIC MOROC­CAN ME­TROP­O­LIS.

GQ (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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