72 hip & healthy hours in Marrakech,words and photography by Lee Osborne
If you hanker for a touch of the exotic in a short break, there is nowhere better, or closer than the red city, a place that intrinsically blends elements of the indigenous Berber with a pop of French joie de vivre. What’s more, there is no time difference. In just over 3 hours, you’ll trade dull grey for rich ochre.
Do as John Paul Getty and his model wife Talitha did back in the swinging 60s (gloriously captured in Patrick Lichfield’s iconic shot at the bottom of this post), come here, pull on a cooling cotton djeballa (Morocco’s answer to the onesie, preferably from Mustapha Blaoui, 142-144 Bab Doukkala, to shield you from the relenting heat, slip in to a pair of baby soft babouche slippers, de-rigeur in these parts, and escape your everyday distractions.
You will of course feel impassioned to plunder the souks and hoover up everything from an embellished brass Arabian horse to a miniature hubble-bubble pipe to accessorise your home, and it would be rude not to. But once you’ve ticked that particular box, be safe in the knowledge that you can seek sanctuary back at your hotel and recharge the batteries. Do as we did, and you will leave the personification of adroitness.
12:00 Arrive Marrakech-Menara airport, architecturally, one of the most beautiful, natural light-infused terminals around. Your private limousine will whisk you to Mosaic Palais Aziza & Spa, Mejjat 3/38, Cercle Ennakhil, Commune J’Nanate, Marrakech, BP 7212, Sidi Abbad, www.mosaicpalaisaziza.com, in the northerly suburb of La Palmeraie, best described as one giant homage to the palm tree and playground of Arab princes, in under 20-minutes. The airport is one of the closest to any city centre you are likely to encounter anywhere, so you don’t have to needlessly leave hours before you depart, allowing more pool time.
Lunch: Lunch at Mosaic Palais Aziza is taken al fresco under the pergola, barring the odd snowflake or two in winter, all year round (rather cleverly everything at Mosaic is designed specifically to always be in eye shot of the pool).
Mosaic is the brainchild of the charming and ever hospitable CEO Karim El Ghazzawi, who wasted little time in installing Daniele Turco, whom he had worked with in Italy, as Executive Chef in his new property. The Italian has devised a scrumptious menu of light bites that will not lie heavy once you return to the horizontal position by the pool. Feast on delicious salade niçoise, quite possibly the tastiest I’ve had outside France. The mint gazpacho is an explosion of flavour in the mouth that’s both cooling and thirst quenching at the same time. The grilled red snapper and daurade (gilt-head bream) were exquisite, accompanied by lovingly tendered salads dotted with simple olive oil vinaigrette made from olives freshly picked from the estate. Domaine de Sahari is the house white, and was an inexpensive, light and fruity personal favourite to wash it all down.
15:00 It’s advisable not to go full pelt in to the souks as soon as you arrive. Take a deep breath and at the very least allow time for the delicious welcome drink to settle. The souk is not going anywhere. While away the afternoon by the pool and acclimatise yourself with the surroundings. Another Karim, the charming perma-smiled bartender with a glint in his eye will ensure your water levels are regularly replenished. Mosaic is an adjunct to the frenetic pace of the souk, 20 minutes away from the Medina, and it feels like it. If the Slow Food movement did hotels, they would be just like this. As if to remind you of the need to take your foot off the gas, a proliferation of delightful tortoises roam the property.
19:00 For the most authentic dining experience in town, ask the hotel concierge to ring ahead and reserve you a table at a true Moroccan institution: Al Fassia Guéliz, 55 Boulevard Zerktouni, Guéliz, Marrakech +212 2443 4060, beloved of locals, always a good sign, and now so successful they have opened another branch – run by an all women team that consistently tops the city’s best restaurant lists. You are seated on plush burgundy velour, cushion-strewn banquettes which face inwards towards the action, so great for people watching and the white robed waitresses masterfully juggling tagines. Opt as we did for the legendary chicken or pigeon pastilla, and the succulent roast lamb tagine. Moroccan winemaking has come on leaps and bounds since those dark days of undrinkable tannic reds, so be unafraid to go native with your wine selection – a refined Médaillon by Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, whose winemaker perfected his skills in Bordeaux no less, is a perfect match for the lamb.
09:00 After a reviving breakfast of granola with poppy seeds, plentiful dates and fresh raspberries washed down with delicious freshly squeezed orange juice (far less sweet than we are accustomed to back home), your private air-conditioned Range Rover is ready and waiting to whisk you straight to the Souk. The term Souk simply refers to the commercial quarters of any Arabic city, specifically the weekly markets which began centuries ago when merchants in caravans would travel through towns displaying their wares.
Arm yourself with a bottle of Evian and if you stick to the principle of short bursts in the souk then you won’t run the risk of undoing all the poolside r&r you’ve already enjoyed. The secret to, pardon the pun, ‘soukcess’ is not to let the hucksters in the medina intimidate you. Don’t be afraid to be firm and tell them you are just browsing and they should refrain. You want to be aiming for at least half of the initial price they quote you. They will of course give you the impression you have almost bankrupted them in the process, but it’s all part of their vast sales patter.
The souk can be draining, but beautiful in equal measure and is particularly photogenic when sunlight filters through its slatted roof, rendering a beautiful striped dappled light on everything beneath. So make sure you have your instamatic to hand to capture some fab street scenes.
Great rest stops along the way include Café des Epices, 75 Rahba Lakdima, Marrakech Medina 40000,
+212 524 391 770, www.cafedespices.ma whose shady roof terrace you can sit with a mint tea and gaze down at punters haggling for elaborately coloured carpets below. Alternatively, watch the resident storks come home to roost from the terrace of the Kosy Bar, 47, Place des Ferblantiersa, a cool, Ibiza-esque chillout bar that has a very welcome cooling water mist sprinkling system installed.
15:00 A visit to a traditional Berber Pharmacy is a welcome distraction from the frenetic pace of the souk and should not be missed (it is usually included as part of the itinerary if you have hired a local guide). It’s a real insight in to what big business the pharmaceutical companies have made out of traditional remedies as they are just branded versions of what’s available here. These pharmacies, embedded into back streets of the souk, are equivocal to walking in to a ‘Ye Olde’ sweet shop back home, with row upon row of glass jars containing an eclectic manner of remedies from birds claws to semi precious rocks, any of which will happily be opened for you to sample. The knowledge of the staff is impressive, you name it, they have the natural remedy for it, be it for the common cold (a small muslin bag of cumin seeds inhaled in to each nostril), argan oil to erase wrinkles and a Berber version of deep heat which is massaged in to the shoulders of anyone willing to volunteer. We left clutching a handful of a small dried plant, known locally as the Berber toothbrush, which applied to your teeth is a natural version of Colgate.
But don’t just leave it that. H&H recommends stocking up on Argan oil. Argan is a rare, UNESCO-protected Moroccan fruit that has been used by Berber women for centuries and has now found fame in Hollywood with sirens Eva Mendes and Katy Perry labelling it their secret to radiant skin. The vitamin-E rich oil extracted from the fruit relieves the effects of patchy skin and can be also applied to hair to boost lacklustre locks. It is crammed full of fatty acids making it one of nature’s most effective moisturisers. And foodies should not miss the opportunity of buying jasmine in bulk here as it is much cheaper than back home, and so light it will not even tip the scales of your easyjet baggage allowance.
Marrakech perhaps doesn’t strike you as a healthy foodie location, but nutrient-rich food abounds on every corner. Whether it’s a pop up stall in the souk serving up refreshing cinnamon-sprinkled orange segments, or a beautifully ornate Safi bowl brimming with lemon-infused wild rice in the opulent La Mamounia. Couscous, pomegranate, apricots, almonds, pistachios, fresh herbs and spices are all staples in here.
20:00 Ditch the djeballa in favour of a LBD, and have pre-dinner gin and tonics on the roof terrace of Dar Fakir,16 Derb Abou El Fadail, Kennaria, Medina +212 5 24 44 11 00, www.darfakir.co.uk; a swanky boutique riad whose dandy fez-bedecked waiters whizz about dispensing drinks with aplomb. The term ‘Riad’, to those unaccustomed, is simply a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard, always accessed via a largely unassuming front door, designed specifically not to externally reveal the disposition of the occupants as rich and poor live side by side in the Medina.
Take in the view across the illuminated rooftops of the Kennaria neighbourhood and absorb the cacophony and smoke emanating from the medina, then ask a member of staff to escort you to Restaurant Le Salama, 40 Rue Des Banques, Jemaa El Fna , +212 524 391 300, lesalama.com. The walk back is three minutes at most, but beware, the maze of sinuous alleys can easily disorientate. This opulent Moroccan den of iniquity, its walls awash with intrinsic shadows cast from its stunning collection of Moroccan lanterns, is a mere hop and a jump from Place Jemâa El Fna. It serves traditional Moroccan cuisine in surrounds that leave you feeling as though you’ve been transported in to a scene of Casablanca. It’s all very starry starry night and if you’re lucky you’ll make out the Atlas Mountains twinkling on the horizon. The restaurant staff will even escort you back across the square to locate a taxi back to The Palmeraie and not linger for a tip.
10:00 If you haven’t already had a spa treatment, what were you thinking? The cavernous basement of the Mosaic Palais Aziza plays host to a divine spa, which is accessed via a rhapsody of muslin drapery and colourful Moroccan cube lamps that beautifully shadow cast your footsteps. First of all, indulge in a hammam, a concept that dates back to early Roman times. Hamams functioned as places of entertainment, arguably a precursor to the modern day café or bar, in a closed society where Islamic rules dictated social life. Groups of women and men would congregate in the hamam for pre-marital pampering and celebration.
The modern day ritual commences by relaxing in the warm room where a continuous flow of hot, dry air allows you to perspire freely. After a while you move to the hot room before splashing cold water all over your body to promote good circulation. This is followed by a full body wash and scrub, culminating in a relaxing mandarin oil massage using local ‘Les Sens de Marrakech’ products. Finally, fluffy robed and slippered, you retire to the cooling-room where you’re serenaded by the Lute player or temporarily tattooed by a henna artist as you sip a celebratory glass of bubbles.
12:00 To round off your trip, hop in a cab and head to the new town distrct of Guéliz, an area far removed from the souks and much like any commercial district in any large European city, where branches of Zara and La Senza rub shoulders with pavement cafes and multiplex cinemas. More authentic however, and sedate is Rue de la Liberté, where, unlike the souk, fixed-price boutiques neighbour chic art galleries, hip cafés and restaurants.
Grand Café de la Poste, Blvd el-Mansour Eddahbi, has long been the go to place for lunch in this neighbourhood, but newly-opened Kechmara, 3 rue de la Liberté, +212 524 42 25 32, is a cool Gallo-Maroc hangout well worth checking out. Its menu is laid out in a tapas style, brimming with delicious lamb burgers, pasta dishes and green salads if you’ve OD’d on the tagines.
Check out Studio Lalla next door, 5 rue de la Liberté, +212 661 477 228, brainchild of Laetitia Trouillet who transferred her fashion business here from Bordeaux. Trouillet’s services for personal shopping are also highly sought after, having navigated the likes of Gwynnie and SJP around the souk. Lalla is a treasure trove of beautiful handbags and stylish vintage finds. By appointment
15:00 A homage to Jardin Majorelle, Rue Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh, +212 5243-13047, www.jardinmajorelle.com, a delightful 12-acre botanical, landscaped garden, is an absolute must while you’re in this part of town. To miss it would be sacrosanct. In 1924 the French painter Jacques Majorelle constructed this, his largest art work, before filling it with a lifetimes collection of exotic trees, went about painting large swathes of the garden walls, fountains, features and villa a very intense shade of cobalt blue which he’d discovered in use in Moroccan tiles and in Berber homes. So eye catching was the result that he trademarked the name ‘Majorelle Blue’, and it remains on many peoples’ shopping lists when they are in the city to try and recreate the effect back home, although the light just does not compare. Saint Laurent have even produced a No.18 Bleu Majorelle shade of nail varnish in his honour.
When Majorelle passed away, the site was due to be replaced by a hotel complex, but was saved from the bulldozers for the good of the world by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980.
Wander at leisure under lofty palms and spikey cacti that rise with haute couture elegance, past myriad exotic plants and flashes of brilliant blue and shimmering yellow ceramic (which have to be seen to be believed) dazzle through giant swathes of bamboo. Feint trickles of water and bird song permeate a water lily scene reminiscent of Monet’s garden at Giverny
Indeed, the gardens’ official website sums it all up rather well when it says “offering a magic stroll near, and yet so far from the bustling city, sheltered from time by high earthen walls”.
St Laurent’s ashes were scattered here after his death in 2008; he is remembered, some might say rather unmemorably by a monolith of Carrera marble in a quiet corner of the garden. Other artefacts of his are housed inside the Musée Berbère and a fascinating assembly of his graphic art posters, all depicting New Year declarations of Love, are unforgettable.
As you make your way out, you will notice a row of funky shops just across the road, highlight of which is a great little concept store called Majorelle 33, 33 rue Yves Saint Laurent, +212 5243-14195, www.33ruemajorelle.com which is perfect for last minute gifts before you board your flight back home. Just one word of advice. Make sure you don’t visit Guéliz on a Sunday, it’s like a ghost town and nigh on everything is closed.
Easyjet flies London Gatwick to Marrakech, www.easyjet.com