Nina Reschovsky discovers the quaint post-colonial charm of the North African city.
“What does Morocco mean to an Englishman?” asked George Orwell in his 1939 essay about the country’s dazzling imperial capital, Marrakech. “Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits,” he concluded. Although almost 75 years have passed since Orwell described the myriad wonders of this enigmatic city, westerners are still flocking to Marrakech to experience the city’s vibrant culture, tantalising souks, hedonistic nightlife, opulent spas and temperate weather.
Lured by the thought of such appealing attractions, my mother and I decided to celebrate her recent retirement with a weekend escape from London to this intriguing North African destination.
In little over three hours and a glass of wine later, we found ourselves in the heart of a city whose rose-coloured walls preserve a picturesque, traditional livelihood. A place where the bustling roads sound of honking horns, of people shouting, singing, and haggling, and where the mazes of narrow streets and alleyways are crammed with livestock, donkey-drawn carts, men in long gowns, and merchants selling exotic goods.
Within Riad El Mansour, our charming home for the weekend, however, we could all but forget the hectic ruckus of the city. Riads, which are traditional Moroccan homes that have been transformed into guesthouses, are scattered throughout the city and are a more authentic alternative to staying in a large hotel.
Out on the busy streets, we spent our first morning in the heart of the red city at the magnificent Jardin Majorelle. Designed in 1923 by French painter Jacques Majorelle and restored by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in the early 1960s, Jardin Majorelle is a mesmerising 12 acres of exotic plants, well-groomed pathways and bright blue and yellow coloured buildings.
After an afternoon of walking around, we stopped for tea in the garden’s gorgeous café and had a delightful conversation with a retired English couple whose trip revolved entirely around retracing Winston Churchill’s steps within the country.
They gave us the idea to go for dinner at what is famously known as Churchill’s favourite Moroccan hangout, the lavishly renovated art deco hotel La Mamounia.
We took their suggestion, and spent thenight feasting on delicious platters of local delicacies including lamb tagine and vegetable couscous, while listening to live Moroccan music at the poolside restaurant, Le Marocain. We ended our night with a drink at the 1930s-style bar, La Bar Churchill, named after the famous patron himself.
The following morning we mustered our courage to wade through the chaos of Djemaa el Fna, the bustling market, or “souk,” situated on the main square of the Medina. Not only is Djemaa el Fna the largest market in Morocco, but it is also considered one of the busiest market squares in the world. Here, bargain-hunters make their way through street performers, snake charmers, storytellers and belly dancers to stalls of livestock, spices, and exotic handmade goods.
After a long day of haggling, we were thankful that Marrakech has plenty of hammams – traditional Morrocan spas – on offer. We headed to Les Palais Rhoul Hammam for an afternoon of (what we thought would be) pampering. I opted for the gommage rhassoul treatment, which turned out to be a rather vigorous scrub-down and wash in orange flower water. It wasn’t quite the soothing bath I’d had in mind, so I was thankful for the much less aggressive massage that followed.
And with that, our trip was over. But as we left this sunny and exotic city, we began making our must-see list for next time.