Words and images by Rosalind Milani Gallieni
As the winter months drift by, a balmy few days away is just the thing to quickly banish the winter white-outs here in the UK. At just under 4 hours’ flight from London, Marrakech offers summer – or at the very least, spring – weather all year round. So a perfect punt!
Arriving from the airport straight into the action of the main square of Jemaa el Fna, it’s like too much is still not enough! A fully-fledged expanse of people, animals and activities stretch out endlessly, creating an incredible tapestry of life. The 11th century Minaret stands guard over fortune-tellers, snake charmers, orange-juice stalls, hat sellers, sword-swallowers, birds of prey, monkeys, (very) determined henna painters, Berbers and their (undernourished yet placid) donkey-drawn carts.
I head on through this sight of living history enjoying the colours and the sun setting beyond the roof tops – a world away from the sludge and the snow of London – where you can just see the silhouettes of the visitors gathered to watch this live show from the top terraces, sipping all-too-sweet mint teas made from dark leaves which have seen many a mash.
As arranged, Hassan, the taxi driver, pops out from his wait in one of the side streets to take me to the Riad Farnatchi, which I had insisted on finding on my own with the GPS, but the prospect did not please Hassan, and in fact spending the next half an hour circumnavigating the souk and the outskirts was far more interesting than getting lost, and much less stressful. His vintage 1973 Mercedes Benz, with its zealously polished dashboard with glued-on ashtray (so well polished the corners had worn out), floats down the narrow lanes. Scooters miss us by a whisker, school kids run around the bumpers and busy stall holders don’t bat an eyelid as they pack and wrap their customers’ figs and nuts. This is where the true treasures and experiences of Marrakech lie.
En route, I have a quick stop at Maison de la Photographie, housed in a restored traditional inn called a Fondouk. The Maison serves as a living record of Berber life, now presented across a private collection of 4000 photographs capturing culture and faces in contemporary frames. This is a rugged lifestyle, which now seems to have almost become a fashion statement, with some original entries dating back to the 1870s. This contemporary haven is one of many spaces which has come from the upwardly driven designers and trend setters who keep on giving the Medina a new twist, but I hope it will never change too much.
Through one more arch-way and a right turn past an alluring store selling striped Hammam towels, contemporary design kilims and old silk carpets, and I spot the landmark for the Riad Farnatchi: a sentinels’ sentry post smartly painted in English gloss paint.
My suitcase has already been delivered and the Souk-courier tipped. The front door of Riad Farnatchi swings open and to my surprise, I am in total peace and quiet in a courtyard with just a gentle trickle of water coming from the tap which keeps a green-tiled swimming pool full to the brim.
The suites at the Riad boast individuality and have their own front doors off the first floor balconies, allowing for the experience of sitting in your own private internal courtyard, dripping with scented jasmine. My Berber-inspired suite is homely, with large red sofas ready to catch me after the hurdles of the Souk, and a fireplace ready to stoke if need be, perhaps for a chillier mid-winter visit. Local Moroccan-style doorways and filigree work on the walls and door frames have been painstakingly kept intact, and beyond the decorative ironwork on the windows, the bright blue sky expands above the roof tops. Waking up to this colour is an instant fix first thing in the morning, accompanied by unfamiliar African birdsong.
The next day, I head on out of town in the afternoon to visit the Beldi Country Club, which is ideally situated just 10 minutes away from the airport. I stopped by here 3 years ago for a memorable Beldi Hammam and scrub followed by a Rose massage that I have never forgotten, so it was a MUST to get a bit more time here to absorb their house style. I re-book the same spa treatments, and meander into the warm, scented Hammam: hand-painted corridors, warm floor tiles and overall, a very traditional and restful space, heady with essences of rosemary, roses and lavender.
Lying on the warm – actually nearly hot – grey, polished marble is the best feeling of anticipation ever. Strong buxom Moroccan ladies arrive with buckets in hand to throw warm water over you after a really energetic all-over scrub with black soap to relax, tone and release anything you have in your mind and body! The whole treatment is done with real authenticity. It’s functional and no-frills. Without much decorum, the water that’s thrown over my head gathers in the large, brown cotton, apron-like pants that they make me tie around my waist. The Rose massage that follows has me almost asleep it’s so relaxing, and I find myself turned over without remembering a thing.
I drift out of the Hammam, floating along the lavender-lined pathways and olive groves, to the pool-side terrace, with fresh garden roses on every table. Nature and local culture rule here. The rose gardens grow in full bloom almost all year round, in their wild and unkempt beauty. The “village” of Beldi Country Club now also has 27 hotel rooms dotted off the narrow lanes running through tall grass verges. There are several splendid pools to enjoy with tables and loungers always at arms’ reach, two good restaurants and small workshops housing local craftsmen who make carpets, pottery, glassware, hand-embroidered linen and essential oils. It’s a more distinguished souk-style experience at Beldi, a blend of both botanical wonderland and eco-minded retreat.
The balance between city and country could not be better matched than with these two locations. At such a short distance from London, I realised as I queued for the flight back that this had to be the most diverse short-haul escape for such a really unspoilt, and authentic escape. Next on the plan is to get myself up into the Atlas Mountains to experience the Kasbah Beldi, set on the roof-top of a hill leading up to the mountain range. I would love to take a lodge over for a while and join their yoga classes up here in their new mountain-facing studio. Next time, perhaps….
TIPS FOR THE TRIPS
Riad Farnatchi – www.riadfarnatchi.com
Beldi Country Club – www.beldicountryclub.com
Le Kasbah Beldi – www.kasbahbeldi.com
El-Fenn – www.el-fenn.com
La Maison de la Photographie (www.maisondelaphotographie.ma)
Chabi Chic – for Moroccan lifestyle décor (www.chabi-chic.com)
Boutique Rachid – for silver Berber bags and clutches
Hanout Boutique – for bespoke fashion pieces (www.hanoutboutique.com)
Habib’s Shop – head inside the Souk for the best berber carpets (104 à côté de la Mosque Mouassine in the Medina)
Migrants du Monde – for clothing and embroidery handmade by the local women (www.migrantsdumonde)
Café Jardin Majorelle – a traditional little garden restaurant inside the original Marjorelle Gardens, after which you need to head to the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent which opened in October 2017 (www.jardinmarjorelle.com)
La Maison Arabe – the epitome of Moroccan elegance (www.lamaisonarabe.com)
La Villa Canaille – friendly dining in the district of Hivernage (www.villa-canaille.com)
Ciel d’Afrique – for hot air ballooning over the desert (www.cieldafrique.info)
Aziz Grand Taxis can be contacted by WhatsApp on 00212 678 471 479