Rock the Kasbah

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 37, Winter 2013

Page 65

Marrakech has color, heat and a feeling that anything is possible, says Vanessa Branson

I first passed through Marrakech more than 30 years ago, but I only really got to know it in the mid-1990s, when my brother Richard was based here on his venture to circumnavigate the world in a balloon. What made that so memorable was a combination of being scared because it was quite dangerous and then having so much fun and being spoiled rotten by the people we mixed with.

My lasting links with Marrakech began more than a decade ago when Howell James and I decided to buy a riad in the Medina, the city's historic center. The property I bought, El Fenn, was a complete ruin, but we bought it the day we saw it and sealed the deal with a shake of the hand. But it was only when we went to the lawyer to finalize everything that we realized how huge it was. Inevitably, we decided to turn it into a hotel.

Marrakech was founded nearly 1,000 years ago and has long been the most influential city of the kingdom. It has a strong French presence even though they only ruled the country for less than 50 years, but in the past 20 years or so, large numbers of other Europeans, including the British, have come here because of its elegant architecture and tolerant lifestyle. For the past decade, Marrakech has been my entire creative and artistic focus, especially since I started the first arts festival here in 2004, which is now the largest in North Africa. My inspiration for starting the festival was that I had had such a positive experience working with Moroccans when creating El Fenn. As a counter-balance to some anti-Islamic sentiments in the West, I wanted to use the arts as a platform to initiate a dialog.

It is hard to put my finger on what it is about Marrakech that is so alluring. I find the aesthetic here very beautiful – the colors, the light, the dry heat and especially the graciousness of society – everybody is very polite. There is a lack of cynicism that you don't find in the West. There is also a feeling that anything is possible. If I mounted an arts festival in London it would just be swallowed up. Here it is a real event.

I love walking around the Medina. You could take a photograph of every view you encounter. It is the contrast between the very stylish contemporary things and the traditional structures. The Jemaa el-Fnaa is the most famous open square in all of Africa.

My favorite area of the Medina is the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, where they sell beads and handicrafts. The architecture is also slightly different from the rest of the Medina, although most of the Jewish inhabitants have long left for Europe or Israel.

One of the great things about the city is you don't have to feel guilty about not focusing entirely on cultural pursuits. Of course, you must do the Saadian tombs, visit the ancient foundations of the Koubba El-Badiyin, the Dar Si Said Museum and the brand new MMP+, which is temporarily housed at El Badi Palace. Then you can indulge yourself.

Another aspect of Marrakech that I adore is the way that gardens have been cultivated, despite the generally arid conditions. One of the best places to wander about is the Majorelle Gardens, created in the 1920s by French expatriates and now owned by the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation (the designer's ashes are scattered here). There are 12 acres of botanical gardens to explore – and it is also the home of the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, which has a fine collection of North African textiles, plus ceramics and paintings by the founders. The Agdal Garden, on the other hand, was founded 800 years ago and is referred to by some as the Islamic Versailles. It is dominated by a large reservoir, full of carp, which people feed on their visits. The Palmeraie is best thought of as the lungs of Marrakech, with its tens of thousands of palm trees dotted with amazing private villas owned by French expatriates and wealthy Moroccans. There is something unimaginably pleasurable about being in a swimming pool attached to a villa with views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains on the horizon.

Where to stay

Marrakech has a vast range of places to stay, including scores of simple but elegant riads – Moroccan townhouses arranged around a courtyard – such as Vanessa Branson's El Fenn, which now has three swimming pools, a hammam and an exquisite roof terrace for dining. Others worth visiting are El Cadi, Al Moussika and Dar Seven. There is also a core of grand hotels, the most famous being La Mamounia. Only a few minutes from the Jemaa el-Fnaa, this grand dame recently had a complete facelift, thanks to French designer Jacques Garcia. Despite its central location, La Mamounia has acres of private gardens, including 100-year-old olive, palm and fruit trees, which is perhaps why Churchill made it his winter destination. Much of the fruit and vegetables on offer in the hotel's restaurants are grown in the grounds. Covering 27,000 sq ft, the hotel's spa is considered one of the best in the world. The latest addition to the luxury scene in Marrakech is Palais Namaskar, which opened last year. Set in 12 acres of grounds – four acres of which comprise water – the 41 suites are decorated in Moorish style, while the overall setting has Chinese and Balinese influences. Located on the edge of the Palmeraie, a 20-minute drive from Marrakech, Palais Namaskar offers a contrast to the riad experience, which is perhaps why some guests combine both destinations.

Where to eat

Marrakech has become the center for the best dining in Morocco, not to mention North Africa. There has long been a tradition of fine dining, with the style mostly being Franco-Moroccan, although some like Grand Café de la Poste in the New Town, emphasize colonial French cuisine more than tagine-inspired dishes. By contrast, the Café de France overlooks the Jemaa el-Fnaa and while the food would never win culinary awards, it is an essential stopover to savor the style and mood of Marrakech.

The most renowned of the old-style establishments is Le Tobsil, a local mansion with a spectacular courtyard. The copious amounts of food are all Moroccan classics, but the atmosphere more than makes up for the lack of innovation. This is the place where Cary Grant or Gregory Peck would feel – and look – at home. The Terrace des Espices offers a complete alternative, hidden on a rooftop in an obscure part of the Medina. It is popular with expatriates for its elegant decor and the simple lunches of grilled meat or fish.

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