Heady delights of Marrakech

(January 2011) Marrakech, the unofficial capital and beating heart of Morocco is a short trip on Easy Jet from London, but a long stretch into the exotic.

Over many trips, I have grown to love its tonic of French colonialism and North African unfamiliarity. The merger of the two creates today a dizzying destination of sophistication, cool and intangibility. Divided into the old and new town, the city has almost two identities but the universal focal point of both is the main square, Jamaa El Fna. This is a place you will find yourself coming upon time and again as you try to negotiate your way around. Jamaa El Fna is almost like the greatest show on earth. The activity is frenetic with water sellers, snake charmers, medicine men and probably the largest open-air restaurant in the world, all vying for your attention. At night it really comes alive; it almost pounds with life, and so a retreat from all this is necessary in the form of a riad (Morroccan town house).

Like all trips, your most important starting point is to stay somewhere exquisite and that is what we did. Long since spoken of in almost hushed tones, we had heard lots about Riad El Fenn (Fenn meaning hip in the local dialect ) and it couldn’t have been hipper. This impeccable Riad is owned by Vanessa Branson, Richard’s sister. Her exceptional style with ad-hoc 1950’s furniture and commitment to contemporary European and Moorish art is a delight to experience. In addition to all that, there is an in-house Hammam, a personal cinema with an eclectic collection of films including Lars von Tier, which adds its edge, three pools for lounging, organically produced food from their gardens in the Atlas Mountains and 20,000 sq foot of breathtaking aesthetic. The personality of the place was everywhere to be seen and the exceptional staff, headed up by the manager Adrian, looked after ever element of our stay, from booking us into all the best restaurants to hot tips for the Souk, the renowned open air markets. This was a magical base from which to elate and retreat into the wilds of the Marrakech Souk.

The Souk itself can be a formidable place in which you need to be decisive, single minded and open to experiences. Everyone is out to rip you off but the point is you can get what you want and have fun doing it, and a sprinkling of French helps move things along. I’d suggest knowing what you want and negotiating hard. Riad el Fenn’s guide to the Souk meant we could, to a degree, know we were going to the best places for pottery, wooden boards, spices, tapestry and so on. Over time, the Souk became warmly familiar and we often retreated to the Café des Epices in the centre of the spice market for time away from the hustle and bustle. This was a busy cool cafe and my defining memory of Marrakech. It had a simple menu of fresh juices, Moroccan coffees, sandwiches and salads, but it was the heart of the Souk, it got the most gorgeous sunlight throughout the day and was the perfect place to people watch.

Our days were peppered with breakfast on the terrace of El Fenn followed by time in the Souk, lunch and then time by the pool. Our nights were spent in one or other of the restaurants Adrian had booked for us. I cannot describe how almost unimaginably cool Marrakech is and how it exists as almost an expat enclave in the wilds of Africa. To confirm this, the iconic La Mamounia hotel has been refurbished and re-launched and is the defining hotel of the region. I personally preferred it in its earlier incarnation and less flashy self. Today, you feel the money whereas before, you felt the style and history. Churchill, it’s reported, liked to paint in the gardens. That said, it is a great place for a pre-dinner drink and is certainly worth a look. Another great place for a drink is La Grand Cafe De La Poste, which dates back to 1925. We found the food disappointing but delighted in the colonial interior with swirling fans and rattan chairs. La Poste is an easy walk to our most favored restaurant in Marrakech, El Fassisa.

Let the white tablecloths and red roses not put you off – this was actually local food at its best. Run entirely by women, this stands out as my best meal of the year. We ordered a starter of mezze and were presented with 15 different small plates – a feast for both the eyes and mouth. The main was a slow cooked lamb with olives and cumin – the most tender meat I have ever had, which we enjoyed with a dry Moroccan wine. We finished with simple rose petal ice cream with honey, almonds and fresh mint tea. Service was impeccable as was the atmosphere and we were given warm orange flower blossom hand towels at the end of this perfect meal.

Another fantastic dinning experience was in the Beldi Country Club on the outskirts of the city, a short half an hour by taxi and a wonderful chance to see what lay beyond the imposing ramparts. Beldi has a unique style of faded Bedouin elegance. We were in very new terrain here with things a lot more quiet and slower. Lunch was a feast of sole on the bone, crisp Moroccan rose and bracing espressos. We spent the afternoon by the pool and then to the hamam for some exerting steams and massages. This is a great escape from the city.

Marrakech is diverse; you can live it up or be just as enriched by time in a simple riad off the main square of the ever-crazed Djemaa el Fna. Here you can absorb the atmosphere, have freshly squeezed orange juice and ripe dates with almonds from the stall sellers and just meander through the Souk stopping to write your black and white postcards. It almost feels like another time. It is a place like no other – intimidating and exhilarating – and a perfect few days away where all senses will be stimulated. If it all gets too much, which it can, and if that guy won’t sell you the pottery at the price you want, then you can easily escape. Rent a jeep just before sunset and head out as the sun is setting to the Atlas Mountains and into the true peace, beauty and vastness that is the essence of the richly memorable country.

Aoibheann xx