Written by Olivia Gunning Bennani
If Morocco is the land of the setting sun, Marrakech is its emblem. For when the day closes over Marrakech, the crimson complexion of the city walls mingles with the ochre of the sun’s last rays and everything, just everything, is red.
Red as the Moroccan flag, and red as the soil on which Marrakech was built some 1,000 years ago. Ever since, it’s been an imperial dream, beloved of caliphs and pashas, and the penchant within the city for opulence and grandeur persists to this day.
This being the case, it seems only natural to check in to the Royal Mansour, a palace of palaces. The Royal Mansour is built along the same principles as a medina – a succession of riads following a series of passages leading in all directions. Each of the private riads – sizes vary – has its own courtyard, roof terrace, butler, fireplaces, and elegant designer furniture. Look out for silver thread and silk, and delight in the ornate panels, slatted painted wooden ceilings, and ubiquitous zellij, local terracotta tiles painted and enamelled with geometric designs.
The hotel is a showcase for Moroccan craftsmanship. Sculpted plasterwork is of the most elaborate detailing, while marble floors stretch throughout, shimmering like water, from the ocean-blue cigar room with mother-of-pearl embossed panelling to the hushed peace of the library, brimming with books on architecture, culture, and art. Wander through the walkways, olive branches and bougainvillea blooms burgeoning, fountains chiming, and, with any luck, you might just happen upon the spa.
There are spas and then there are spas – and this one is the latter. Evidently in Marrakech the treatment to select is the traditional hammam. The regal experience begins with a black soap rub using a special exfoliation glove. Next, a sugar, date, and honey scrub feeds and smooths the skin. Once rinsed off with buckets of warm water, it’s time for a complete shampoo plus body and hair mask. The experience is complete with a plunge into a pool of exhilarating, cool water. And when that’s over, recline in the relaxation area, accepting all offers of Medjool dates, herbal infusions, and candied ginger.
Overseen by French Chef Yannick Alléno are three restaurants, specialising in haute French cuisine and refined Moroccan cookery. Take a table (with parasol, of course) outside on the terrace beneath the generous Marrakchi sun and order oysters from Dakhla (Morocco’s best).
Once well fed and energised, yield to the call of the medina – only 10 minutes away on foot. An artisanal commercial hub, the chattering ruckus of Marrakech medina spreads its passages out behind the fabled Jemaa El Fna square. Moroccans are not the earliest of risers, so don’t expect much from anyone before 10am, and it’s best not to stay much later than 10pm, when the streets are generally empty.
Discovery of this centuries-old stream of souks should be done gradually, in a leisurely fashion, and with decided nonchalance. Take your time, and remember that while it may appear to be bedlam, the markets are actually organised into sections. For leather, head for Souk Cherratines: the particular odour of hide and polish will lead you there. It’s a profusion of bags, slippers, and jackets, and the fruit of ancient know-how. An equally important institution is the metalwork department, Souk Haddadine, where craftsmen display the most breathtakingly ornate lamps, light fittings, tables, and stools.
At Souk Zrabia, carpet weavers will lead you into large crumbly rooms where every inch of wall and floor space parades rugs made with the most skilful of handiwork. Legend has it that motifs tell secret stories, woven into the carpets in the High Atlas Mountains above. When fatigue begins setting in, follow the passages to the spice market, Souk El Attarine, where any merchant will create ras-el-hanout – the Moroccan spice mix without which no kitchen is complete. Then, take a seat at Café des Épices, order a large orange juice, and partake in the planet’s best people-watching.
For a deeper connection with the creative style of Morocco, a visit to Vanessa Branson’s riad El Fenn is requisite. This boutique hotel and art gallery has been created from a series of five traditional medina riads, a project Branson embarked on with close friend Howell James. In 2005, Branson founded the Marrakech Biennale, when the city transforms itself into a living art gallery, exhibiting the work of local artists and creators.
El Fenn is a ramble of orange-tree-lined courtyards, deep velvet sofas, diminutive stairways winding away to who-knows-where, blossom-ridden roof gardens, and mosaic pools. Each room and suite is wholly individual, yet there are running themes. Blocks of striking colour bedeck the tadelakt walls, and local fabrics are draped with comfortable copiousness throughout. Hand-woven local carpets laze across the mosaic floors, while the ceilings are of traditional zouaki – slats of decorated wood. Branson has preserved as many original features of the building as possible, from intricate carved plasterwork to distinctive tuile tiling.
And then there’s the art – Branson’s real passion. The walls and ceilings bend with the weight of it: from Antony Gormley ink drawings to an enormous chandelier created by Francis Upritchard. More poignantly, on entering the hotel you’re greeted by portraits by Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui.
To explore the panache of Marrakech further, stop off at Hassan Hajjaj’s boutique, tea room, and gallery, Riad Yima. This Moroccan-born creative grew up in the UK, but his heart never left his homeland. An acclaimed designer, stylist, photographer, and more recently, filmmaker, Hajjaj single-handedly created an idiosyncratic style of art that, in the most charming of ways, infuses a variety of pop art with deeply ensconced images of North Africa. Logos, icons, motifs, so ubiquitous here in Marrakech, are imported and reproduced in his photographs, interior design, installations, and clothing. Each creation elicits a smile from the beholder – in fact, it seems the whole world has fallen in love with Hassan’s work, from the British Museum to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to Dubai’s Farjam Collection.
At Riad Yima, each tile was hand-painted, and they are by no means few and far between. The walls bear Hajjaj’s photographic images and you can also leaf through books of his work. He is best known for his distinctively Moroccan images that are at the same time Warholesque. In the eccentric series Kech Angels, veiled, made-up women sit astride kitschy motorbikes, while the iconic My Rock Stars pictures feature Hajjaj’s best-loved figures, from stylists to singers, henna girls to boxers. Climb the thin stairway as high as you can to the rooftop, where you can settle into Hajjaj’s signature ‘Moroccan Salon’. There you’ll find sofas built from disused cola crates, retro North African fabrics, and beneath the glass tops of low tables parade nostalgic posters.
Marrakech – city of noise and movement. Birds trill and flutter through olive and palm branches, car horns bleat incessantly, heady music swirls across the main square, coals hiss beneath grilled meat. It’s a city that’s inspired epochs of kings and sultans, kin and colonisers, but also faithful visitors, who return time and again.
Distance: 5,813 km
Flight Time: 8 hours
Frequency: 3 flights a week