As unlikely as it seems, Marrakech’s most luxurious hotels are intimately bound up with the raging Arab Spring. Josh Spero discerns the connection
THE ORANGES WERE overripe. Along public roads and in discreet gardens in Marrakech, there were rows of orange trees, their slender trunks supporting a bulky drum of branches. They were heavy with oranges, but if you looked closely, you could see the oranges’ skin was a little too pitted and sunken, and didn’t seem to be straining outwards under pressure from a full fruit within.
It is easy to speculate about North African oranges when there is nothing serious to worry about. Wandering through the eight-hectare garden of La Mamounia, there are dozens of well-kempt orange trees and centuries-old olive trees, plots of vegetables for the hotel’s restaurants, and other Edenic flora and fauna to calm the senses.
I say ‘nothing serious’, and within La Mamounia’s recently renovated walls, your most serious concern is which tagine to have that evening or whether you should try Moroccan wine (dubious); even within the borders of Morocco, there are few signs of anything dangerously ‘serious’; but if you look beyond the borders, across the North African landscape, everything is serious. How does a trip to visit Marrakech’s luxury hotels and spas square with Gaddafi’s inferno and the lively embers of Tunisia and Egypt?
King Mohammed VI — or M6, em-cees, as the locals call him — is how. There were violent protests in Morocco in February, but, as one hotelier encouraged me to believe, they were officially sanctioned, peaceable marches taken over by extremist thugs who broke windows and set things alight. They may have marched for democracy in February, but in March life was calm, with no sign of the external agitation disturbing its neighbours. How King Mohammed achieved this, I’ll come to, but luxury tourism (which received a boost in March when BA began flying to Marrakech from Gatwick) and Morocco’s lack of a revolt are connected.
Like a number of its guests, La Mamounia has recently undergone a facelift. In a three-year-long effort to restore its Thirties glory, which Churchill and Alfred Hitchcock appreciated, the ugly Eighties cladding and curlicues were removed and some Noughties nous with ancient craft added under Jacques Garcia’s guidance. One of the aims of the renovation — and seemingly of all regional luxury resorts — was to put the most delicate details on the grandest scale, thus when you walk into the reception, after at least four men have greeted you, you see intricate, pomegranate-like carving on the architrave stretching for metres, the skills of the craftsman repeated thousands of times.
Because of the ancient prohibition on the representation of people in some parts of the Islamic world, Islamic art developed around geometry and calligraphy and patterns, and this repetition of the minuscule, this taking pains on the intimate an infinite number of times, is everywhere. My bedroom and sitting room (pictured below) had a fine umber and pale-green mosaic across the walls, while the pale-green ceiling moved with a similar, hand-painted geometry, and daisies were painted beside the beams.
The pool at La Mamounia
There are bolder gestures. The doors to the terrace at the end of the long cocktail space, where guests on crushed red velvet take their aperitifs, are classic Art Deco: around tall, clear panes of glass sit blue, green and yellow bars and small red squares. An elegant interior fountain can be viewed from a gallery on each floor. Oversized Deco lanterns sit on the terrace to guide you back after a walk at night, perhaps from the Moroccan restaurant or the fumoir.
I tried that restaurant, which also has a gallery around a central pit where Moroccan musicians were playing, before — rather too touristic for my taste — walking about to serenade the diners at close range, then posing for photos. I kept my eyes on my New Yorker and concentrated on my pastilla, a pastry stuffed with aromatic pigeon and covered in icing sugar and cinnamon, creating that sweet-savoury hallmark of Moroccan cuisine.
The morning after the bottle of champagne before, I recovered with breakfast by the pool, built around a looming olive tree. The chatter around me was multilingual, German and French and the dialect of Californian English with a bounce under every other syllable. There I contemplated the day ahead and the prospect of a trip to the hotel’s new spa, a series of dark, relaxing caverns. After ten minutes in a purgatorial hamam, I received an exfoliation so vigorous I felt like a table being sanded by an angry carpenter. My glow afterwards could be seen for miles around.
DESPITE A KIND offer from Abercrombie & Kent, who had organised my trip, to provide a guide, I preferred to be a foolhardy self-reliant, equipped with just a map and an iPhone which couldn’t tell I was in Africa. This was before I learnt that very few streets in Marrakech have signs with their names and that most maps are impressionistic at best.
The best way to avoid the crowds of Jemaa El Fna, the central ‘square’ (more an odd semicircle), is to enter one of the labyrinths of back streets, but I had forgotten my thread, and after two hours of searching for the Riad El Fenn, Vanessa Branson’s boutique hotel, I had gone round in several circles, looping back to see the same chickens waiting for slaughter in the same market, the perpetual pink of Marrakech’s buildings (in reality, about as pink as the FT) making each scene look similar, cursing my ambition.
Riad El Fenn, when I eventually did find it, gave so much more than its location, down an unassuming alley off an unpaved road, promised. A riad (garden, in Arabic) is a house built around an interior garden or courtyard, and Vanessa Branson has knocked three together, filling the ochre and umber tadelakt (polished plaster) walls with work by Bridget Riley, Terry Frost and Contemporary artists. (Branson is a key figure in the local art scene — she started the Art in Marrakech biennale in 2005.) After walking through a red womblike corridor, I emerged into a sun-filled courtyard, the effect enhanced by the forcible contraction of the pupils which the sudden brightness demands, stunning the viewer. A fountain in the courtyard overflowed with pink and orange petals.
Much more impressive than a mere gallery was the colonnade above, green and white chequerboard zellige (glazed earthenware) overlaid with red carpets, leading to suites which were elegant and sparse enough to belong to some new breed of high-end monastery. Each of the 22 rooms is different, and if you want more privacy, a four-bedroomed riad is available five minutes from the main house.
THE ROYAL MANSOUR did not earn its name by being patronised by the King; it is not the equivalent of Bognor Regis. The King commissioned the hotel and paid for its three years of construction (it opened last autumn), and his family has stayed there regularly, explaining the Secret Service-level of security — dark-suited walkie-talkie-wielding men outside, giant brass doors weighing a couple of tons leading to the front drive.
Once you are inside, however, the atmosphere is entirely unfraught: guests, secure in their privacy, are congenial, and the service is heavy on je vous en prie. The service was so attentive that by the end of my stay I felt indolence creeping in: between reading, eating and spa-ing, a significant portion of one’s self-motivation vanishes. Returning to London it was bracing — but pleasant — to remember that I could organise my own life and pour my own tea.
Attention to detail here is not just manifested in intricate patterns. The first courtyard has a broad, shallow pool set on different levels, so in the morning ornately carved chairs sit on the higher plains while the water flows below, and in the evening the furniture is removed so the pool can flood entirely and gleam with lanterns. The green tiles which slant down from the roof above the pool conceal air conditioning streams, and there are — without exaggeration — millions of tiles in the mosaic on the white walls, pieced together on site. The bar is overhung by a skein of finely wrought metal vines and leaves, and in each square of the grid of the piano bar’s ceiling is a dome of silver scales.
A bedroom at the Royal Mansour
‘Hotel’ is an inadequate— inappropriate even — description for the 53 riads (one to four bedrooms) in the 3.5-hectare site, designed to be like a classical walled medina, within the city but protected from it. My riad had a large sitting room — returning every evening, the fire was lit — and a kitchen which contained only a Nespresso machine and champagne. (The hotel knows its guests.) The bedroom on the second floor had the traditional shapes of Morocco — the narrow doorway with a dome silhouette, a fourteen-foot-high carved wall, the painted flowers on the cupboard doors — but also a digital panel from which you could regulate your light, temperature and perhaps even mood.
One morning, I was a guest at the Mansour’s spa complex, whose atrium is filled with a delicately patterned white canopy, for a relaxing massage. Later that day, I visited the new spa at the Es Saadi Palace hotel for another relaxing massage, this time with two ladies hammering away. (The laying-on of four hands is a highly unusual, and recommended, experience.) The upshot was that because I spent several hours that day trying to relax, the massages actually resulted in an increase in tension.
That was not the fault of the spas, of course. The Es Saadi, with its Dior Institut for skin products, its hairdresser, its extensive hamam (it has steam rooms with colour therapy and sizzling aromatic flowers and twigs) and its dozens of treatment rooms, could not be more pacific. Its space is unusual, dominated by a eucalyptus tree around which the pool has been built, and there are expansive white daybeds on which guests can enjoy the downdrift of a pleasant treatment.
There is not — say it quietly — an endless supply of things to do in Marrakech. There is the distended souk, the well-regarded Museum of Photography and some mosques you can see from the outside, but beyond the shops and spas, you may need entertaining. I took a cookery class at the Jnane Tamsna, a rustic hotel in La Palmeraie, the district of villas which sit in their own acres a little outside the main city. Under Bahija’s eye, I threw about spices and herbs and vegetables like Delia Smith of the Maghreb, making a pastilla and a chicken tagine, before enjoying them by the pool.
Despite a flourishing of foreign cuisine within Marrakech, it felt wrong not to try the best Moroccan cuisine on offer. Dar Yacout is famed not for its food but for its atmosphere, a large pool dramatically lit up at night at its heart. The problem is that its rambling mansion has become so popular that you are shaken out of any thought by the flash-flash-flash of foreign diners’ cameras. Al Fassia is completely the opposite: run by a women’s collective, it is hardly chic with its rickety tables and cod-Orientalist prints, but possesses a remarkable kitchen. The preserved lemon and black olive chicken tagine I had revealed the sweet-savoury-salty contrast not as its usual jarring discordance but as a clever entwining of tastes.
AT THE MANSOUR, alleyways run between the high walls of the riads and are overlooked by wooden balconies, with streams gurgling beside your feet and palm trees filling open squares. When you walk through it, it feels like a medieval citadel, enclosed and protected, and the secret passages which allow the staff to move around the site and enter your riad only add to this. There are enough provisions to outlast any siege — but Marrakech is not under siege.
There is good reason to think that it might have been, if its people had been inspired by the Algerian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni and Bahraini popular revolts; the prerequisites to revolution there were not entirely lacking in Morocco. There has been a drought for the past five years, driving people into the cities and intensifying urban competition for land, food and jobs. This is all the more disastrous given that Morocco is remarkably fertile, producing cereals, vegetables, fruit and meat.
Unemployment was at 9.8 per cent in 2010, only slightly above Egypt’s 9.7 per cent, and GDP per capita is low: at $4,900, it is 147th in the world, worse than Egypt’s $6,200 and much worse than Tunisia’s $9,500, yet both of those countries had revolutions. There is a lot of public anger at the government, too: although the two chambers of parliament are elected, they are considered an inane talking-shop, and the King appoints the ministers.
The King, however, is not unpopular or uninvolved, and it is his active management of the state which has prevented potential problems from seething away. In 2005, he launched the National Initiative for Human Development: the programme took electricity to rural areas, demolished urban slums, increased the state housing stock and tried to tackle widespread poverty and illiteracy. He has empowered women with a new family code and investigated human-rights abuses under his father, Hassan II.
No one I spoke to was remotely as angry as any of the Cairenes I met last November, and the population seems tolerant of Morocco’s current problems, conscious of their country’s past: as one Moroccan said to me, a king who has been enthroned for little more than a decade cannot reverse two centuries of French rule, with all the economic retardation that engendered — but he can begin.
On my final day in Marrakech, the flat-screen in my bedroom at the Mansour was broadcasting a BBC World News item about new recruits in the Afghan army while I distractedly packed my bags, but the piece following caught my attention. The King, fashionable glasses perched on his nose, bracketed on the left by his son in a tiny throne and on the right by another royal, read out a speech: ‘We have decided to undertake a comprehensive constitutional reform,’ he said, creating a commission to report by June. Elections will be free and the largest party’s leader will be prime minister, he said, seemingly listening to the complaints of the February marchers. In giving up some power, the King has preserved the greater part.
It was while I was chatting to my cab driver in perfect GCSE French on the way out one evening and he was talking about how the King, on inheriting the throne, had initiated massive public works projects, that another of the reasons the Moroccans had not risen up like their neighbours became clear. As well as his social and economic reforms, the King has embarked on old-fashioned Keynesian projects to keep the populace employed: building roads and hotels and renovating the airport.
The Royal Mansour employed 1,300 Moroccans for three years in its construction, and there are now 500 staff, a ludicrous number for 50 riads but one which ensures the luxury fit for one of the best hotels in the world. In choosing to let his wealth flow through the wider population, not just bouncing it off other oligarchs like Mubarak and Ben Ali did, the King has irrigated Morocco with his own money, preferring that to the desert created by autocrats across the region, whose only fruit has been revolution.