Sightseeing and relaxing in Marrakech

Michelle Lewis enjoys the sights of Marrakech and the luxury of La Mamounia

Michelle Lewis enjoys the sights of Marrakech and the luxury of La Mamounia

If you ask someone who has visited Marrakech what they think of the city, their answer will most likely be like the old Marmite clich�: people either love it or hate it. And in a way, the polarised responses tend to reflect the nature of Marrakech’s old city: it’s either crazy and overwhelming, or peaceful and charming. But there is one thing that this city is not, and that is dull.

Marrakech’s medina is a complete assault on the senses: the endless dark winding alleys are bustling with vendors selling everything from leather shoes to towers of fruit and nuts to exquisitely stitched kaftans (but you need an insider’s tips to be able to distinguish the craftsmanship from the tat). The chaotic crowd that squeezes through the souk consists of tourists, business owners touting their wares, young men on motor scooters (watch your toes), and Moroccan women tightly gripping the hands of small children.

On the edge of the souk is the largest square in Africa, if not the world, which teems with food stalls selling orange juice and sheeps’ brains, performing musicians, snake charmers and tourists gawking at the whole spectacle. Indeed, it feels like the entire world is there. Marrakech made me feel as though I was experiencing life in its full technicolour glory, but there is only so long one can take that kind of intensity. So it makes perfect sense that between the 17th and 19th centuries, wealthy Moroccans constructed private retreats within the medina known as riads. These retreats were hidden behind mud walls, and contained quiet courtyards full of flowers and fruit trees. They were, and still are, escapes from the buzz of the souk.

One of the greatest retreats of all was the 18th century riad built by Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah for his son, Prince Mamoun, on the edge of the medina. The occupying French transformed the riad into a hotel in 1923, and renamed it La Mamounia. It’s one of the world’s great classic grand hotels, hosting everyone from Winston Churchill to Princess Caroline of Monaco, and after a major renovation three years ago by French interior designer Jacques Garcia, it’s truly fit for a king.

La Mamounia is a shrine to Moroccan craftsmanship. Every detail of the hotel, from the sumptuous velvets to the wooden carvings, has been carefully chosen. And the quality of service matches the quality of the building, as staff, who wear stunning uniforms specially created by French designers Terre & Ciel Conseil, go out of their way to be friendly and helpful.

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Rooms are equipped with every amenity a guest could need, down to satin hair bands and Moroccan-style slippers. Gleaming silver and beautifully tooled orange leather boxes sit next to plates of fresh dates stuffed with marzipan and rosewater biscuits, and the marble bathrooms feature a bath so deep you could lose a small child in it.

And the food – sigh. Let’s just say that the food is one of La Mamounia’s crowning glories. The hotel boasts four restaurants, including Le Fran�ais and L’Italien, which are run in consultation with two Michelin star chefs, and Le Pavillon de la Piscine, which serves up a sumptuous breakfast buffet with so many choices of pastries, eggs, meats, fruit and cheeses that I didn’t know where to start – or stop. But my favourite was Le Marocain, with its private dining nooks, romantic lighting and spicy and exciting local cuisine. My companions and I dined on crayfish soup, prepared in the manner of a traditional Harira, and sea bass tagine with mallow, olives, crispy fennel and dried garlic. The Moroccan sweet and spicy flavours were compelling and exotic.

If you need to walk off a big meal, one of the most outstanding features of the hotel is the meticulously manicured garden.  Palms tower over orchards of citrus trees, lush rose beds, lily ponds and cactus gardens. Winston Churchill described the orange gardens as “the most lovely spot in the whole world,” and he used to enjoy painting there. There is also a pavilion with a fitness studio, weight room, sauna and tennis courts. But the unmissable way to spend an afternoon at La Mamounia is at the 27,000 square foot spa. I was lucky enough to have my first hammam experience, where I relaxed in a steam room, was scrubbed on a slab of warmed marble with black soap, slathered with a eucalyptus body masque and then caressed with orange moisturiser. I felt like a new woman with new skin.The hotel doesn’t just limit its reach to within its gorgeous walls, however. It is a recognised patron of Moroccan arts and culture. On 29 September, La Mamounia held its third annual literary awards, which encourages and promotes the global spread of francophone Moroccan literature. An international jury of eight selected a winner out of seven books published over the previous year by Moroccan authors. The 2012 winner was Mohamed Nedali for his novel, “Triste Jeunesse”, which explores underprivileged Marrakech graduates trying to forge better lives for themselves in Moroccan society. So if you want to brush up on your French, check out this exciting new novel. Whether you’ve never been to Marrakech, or whether you want to relive a great visit, or even if you want to enjoy this frenetic city at arm’s length, the novel will be as mesmerising as the city in which the story takes place.



Room rates at La Mamounia start from 6,000 MAD (�456) in a Hivernage Classic Room, per room per night, excluding daily tax 50 MAD (�4). / 00212 524 388 600/