Hubert Burda Media

STRADDLING THE CENTURIES IN MARRAKECH

From her base in one of the world's priciest hotels, PAYAL UTTAM explores Morocco's fabled “Red City” and its rugged environs

STRADDLING THE CENTURIES IN MARRAKECH

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Morocco was in the lush paintings of the 19th-century artist Eugene Delacroix. Filled with ornate doorways, secret courtyards and exotic landscapes, his canvases wove a seductive fantasy of North Africa that lingered in my memory for years. Arriving in Marrakech from Casablanca almost two centuries after him, it feels as if I’ve travelled back in time to his world. Passing through a grand gateway at the edge of the city’s medina, I venture deep into a maze of salmon-coloured passages fringed by lemon and olive trees. Water gurgles and spurts from large fountains and the smell of roses fills the air. I have entered the gardens of the Royal Mansour, the Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI’s hotel.
“It’s like a small city,” a voice calls out from behind me. “We don’t have rooms here, just homes which we call riads.” I turn to find a tall, tanned man gesturing at a door. Introducing himself as Yaseen, my personal butler, he flings open the towering turquoise gate of my three-storey villa. We step into an open-air courtyard covered in multi-coloured zelliges (handmade tiles). A stained-glass archway opens up into the living room decorated in rich crimsons and maroons. Past a fireplace laden with fragrant eucalyptus logs, a white spiral staircase leads to the bedroom. Adorned with silk, beaten bronze and marble, every inch of space is enveloped in carvings and intricate details.
Not unlike the palaces built by sultans of the past, the Royal Mansour looks like something out of the pages of a fairy tale. It’s a labour of love; the king’s aim was to create a hotel that resurrected Morocco’s imperial past. More than a thousand of the country’s best cabinetmakers, masons, carpenters and lamp makers toiled for three and a half years to bring to life his dream. From the coffered wooden ceilings hand-painted with flowers to the gleaming slabs of white marble on the hamam floors, everywhere one glimpses reminders of the way things used to be.
The gateway to Africa, Morocco has long been a hideaway for European painters and writers in search of inspiration. In recent years, however, cities such as Marrakech have been attracting a different type of crowd. Now a magnet for the international jet set, it attracts everyone from Russian oligarchs to the Brazilian nouveau riche. Riads across the medina are being transformed into trendy boutique hotels, and a buzzing bar and club scene has taken hold.
Although it only opened in 2010, the king’s property remains worlds apart from the glitzy nightclubs and hotels popping up across the ochre-hued city. Pressed against the busy medina, even sharing one of the old fortified city’s 12th-century walls, the grounds are serenely silent save for birdsong. Taking its cues from historic architecture, the hotel feels like a heritage site, far removed from the tourist-infested souks for which the city is known.
The privacy of home has always been sacred to the people of Morocco. Following this Islamic tradition, the king intended for the property’s 53 riads to serve as private residences for his guests. “This was inspired from the custom of Moroccans, where you can sit with your family and friends in the comfort of your own house and have tea,” explains marketing coordinator Sarra Essail. To avoid disrupting this sense of homeliness, the hotel’s housekeeping staff and butlers travel unseen through a network of underground tunnels beneath the 3.5-hectare property, appearing from hidden doorways to service the riads.
Discreetness, pedigree and old-style charm have made the Royal Mansour a favourite of A-listers. Rates run up to €35,000 a night, says General Manager Jean-Pierre Chaumard. “We decided to be expensive,” he explains unapologetically. “We cannot mix the king’s hotel with anyone.” Indeed, we only notice a handful of guests during our stay.
When we arrive at La Grande Table Marocaine restaurant the next evening, a lone musician sits in a corner of a dimly lit foyer plucking an oud, a local pear-shaped instrument. Waitresses float past latticed lanterns wearing white caftans from Fez decorated with ropes draped low onto their backs.
We’re seated by a waiter in a flowing djellaba, who soon returns bearing large baskets of batbout (flatbread) and date-infused butter. First up are Moroccan sh’hiwates (delights), a parade of colourful starters. There’s briouattes, triangular pastries filled with lamb and mint, followed by a sweet pumpkin and majhoul date dip and a fresh Mechouia-style roasted pepper and tomato salad.
Soon two large pastillas, circular pastry dishes stuffed with pigeon and almonds spiked with cinnamon, are placed in the centre of the table followed by steaming spicelaced vegetable tagine. After dinner we head to the ornate library where, at the switch of a button, the massive shuttered cedar-wood ceiling flies open as if from a Miyazaki movie, exposing the velvet night sky. We cosy up into leather armchairs gazing up at the canopy of stars.
The next morning a horse carriage arrives early to take us into the city. A friend who spent a year working with the Peace Corps in Morocco’s Draa valley had suggested that we visit the Majorelle Garden, one of her favourite spots in “Kech”. Dating back to 1924, the gardens are perhaps the most enchanting work of art produced by the French painter Jacques Majorelle. After his death, fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé famously restored the grounds.
A riot of colour, the garden is brimful of unusual plants gathered from across the globe, including rotund cacti, drooping banana trees and bright pink bougainvillea. We lose ourselves in a dense bamboo forest dotted with pools of water lilies and lotus flowers. Almost every surface in sight is blanketed in a brilliant ultramarine, cobalt blue. Coined bleu Majorelle by the artist, the colour is now synonymous with Marrakech.
Emerging from the gardens an hour later, we head into Gueliz, the city’s European quarters, for a quick lunch at Grand Café de la Poste, a buzzing brasserie housed in a 1920s post office. Walking down Avenue Mohammed VI, the main artery cutting through the district, we turn into a side street in search of Passage Ghandouri, a cluster of small alleyways filled with artist ateliers and galleries. Our first stop is Matisse Art Gallery, one of the city’s leading contemporary art spaces. Inside is an eclectic group show of outsider art. Sitting in a corner is an elderly man wearing a bohemian printed scarf deep in conversation with a sternlooking gallerist. It turns out he is Hassan Bourkia, one of the gallery’s most established artists. He’s on the way to visit Galerie 127, an art space run by a Frenchwoman round the corner, and invites me to join.
We walk towards a crumbling green artdeco building a few streets away. Upon entering, we’re plunged into the dark. As our eyes adjust, we find our way up a winding stairway past an old painting of robed horsemen hanging crookedly on the wall. Veiled women clad head-to-toe in black spill onto the steps outside a tiny doctor’s clinic on the first floor. On the second floor an elegant metal door with cut glass panels is ajar, letting out a sliver of light. Pushing it open, we enter a sleek contemporary gallery space with an exposed brick walls and tall ceilings. On display are intimate black-and-white photographs by Hicham Gardaf, a young photographer from Tangiers. From moody cafe scenes to poetic seaside moments, his images capture snatches of the open-air theatre that is Moroccan street life.
On our last morning we leave Marrakech and journey into the Atlas Mountains up to a small Berber village in an area called Agdour on Plateau Kik, about an hour away. Walking off the main road down a steep rocky slope, we’re greeted by Omar, one of the men in the village. Welcoming us into the compound, he ushers us into his home, a series of structures built into the rocks made of pisé (beaten earth), wood and stone. Inside a small, smoky room, a woman sits above a coal fire baking discs of hand-kneaded bread.
We climb up to the top of the plateau with a plunging view of the mountainous landscape. Sitting under a traditional tent on vivid red carpets, we sip sweet mint tea and tear off pieces of the steaming bread to dip in fresh olive oil (made by Omar himself). Behind us I notice the village children are giggling and drawing pictures on the walls with chalk.
Content in the mountains, Omar says he has no interest in spending time in the city. His family leads a simple existence, where selling one sheep provides enough to survive for two weeks. Gazing around me, it feels as if I’ve been whisked out of the 21st century. From the rarefied world of the Royal Mansour to this magical corner of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco is a heady mix of past and present, tradition and modernity, and grittiness. Reflecting on my journey, I now understand Delacroix’s intoxication with this land and why it left a lifelong impression on him.
 
+Prestige Hong Kong