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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Marrakesh: New Year 2017

After a quiet Christmas in London, Judith and I were off to Marrakesh for a fortnight. Friends Philip and John had moved here about a year and a half ago; we were going to spend New Year’s Eve together.
Last here in 1998 for a multi-day wedding anniversary party for friends Regine and François, lots had changed. In a mere 18 years, Morocco’s population grew by 20 percent, to over 33 million; Marrakesh to almost 900,000.  This city has a new airport and an impressive road network expanding outward from the Medina.
Place Jemma el-Fna

SOME HISTORY:
Like most of the Middle East and North Africa, the present state of things masks the rich, sophisticated and multicultural history of its past. Little is known about Morocco’s earliest years, the first Berbers appeared, probably from the east. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Vandals each took their turn at domination. In 681 the Arabs and Islam arrived, and by the 700s the Umayyad Damascus caliphate was in charge. Berbers became the leading force in the Moslem conquest of southern Spain.
Fast forward a half dozen dynasties to the European colonial period, the French eventually taking power in the form of a Protectorate beginning in 1912 and continuing until 1956. Most of the former North African colonies reverted to authoritarian strongmen, but Morocco unified around the long standing and established monarchy of the Alaouites under Mohammed V. In 1961, after his father’s death, Hassan II took power and successfully moved Morocco forward until his death in 1999. Currently King Mohammed VI is in power, pushing an agenda of tourism, modernization and relative tolerance. Citizens seem to revere him; many of those we spoke to were genuinely supportive, even if a brave few quietly spoke against the extreme inequality of opportunities and incomes.

OUR HOTEL:
It is strange to report, but the number-one star attraction on this trip was by far the Royal Mansour, our hotel. Over our years of travel, we have stayed in many luxurious places, but this spot makes most of the others look like budget accommodation. It is the project of the king; no budget has ever been revealed about its cost. Some articles about the place suggest that more than 1,200 craftsmen spent over three years toiling to complete this masterpiece.
Reception - Royal Mansour

The complex spreads over about ten acres on the edge of the Medina and consists of 53 private riads (homes) of from one to four bedrooms, ranging from 1,400 square feet to an astounding royal palace of 21,520 square feet. We ended up in a larger one bedroom, #14. Each home is three floors: the ground floor has its own interior courtyard and fountain, with two sitting rooms and a guest bath. The second floor is a spacious bedroom suite and luxurious bath; the third is a private terrace with plunge pool, lounge area and a Bedouin style tent to retreat to from the sun.
The design and décor are exquisite; adorned with the finest zellij, carved cedarwood, stained glass, dripping stuccowork, beaten bronze and inlaid marquetry. As if that wasn’t enough, each room is strewn with suede and silk carpets, velvet brocade sofas and crystal do-dads from Lalique, Baccarat or Murano.
Winding paths open to idyllic squares of palms, bougainvillea and bountiful fruit trees, it seems impossible to believe you are in such a central location because all of the city’s hustle and bustle is somehow lost. It is a paradise dreamscape of the Medina itself; you are surrounded by the tranquil sound of running water from the fountains, the occasional bird song and distant call to prayer.
The public areas are even more opulent; a massive entry gate and marbled grand reception complex. There are three restaurants, all excellent, and a world-renowned spa. About two months ago, another headed outdoor pool was added, along with an outdoor restaurant and bar.
All services are invisible since each riad is serviced from an extensive complex of tunnels to manage housekeeping, room service and turn-downs – quite amazing actually.  
I could keep spouting off, but rather than that I’ll just share the link to the hotel’s website:


NEW YEAR’S EVE:
We last brought in the new year with Philip and John in Monaco in December 2010. This year, the Royal Mansour had a wonderful party, combining their two gourmet restaurants and central courtyard into a cabaret themed venue. Philip secured a wonderful table for us, and the set menu was superb. The decibel level left little space for conversation; but John was in fine form and danced with all takers as the disco music pounded away.  After the final evening toasts and on our way back to the riad Judith and I silently had the same thought: “Are we getting to old for this?” Probably yes, but who cares.
Philip, Judit, John and me
Too Loud!

THE BALANCE OF OUR VISIT:
Another happy surprise was the weather. The hotel had just finished another large outdoor heated pool (20 x 30 meters) surrounded by a nice, minimalist sun deck. The plantings were all new; the palms still wrapped at their tops to protect from the wind. Although the morning and evening were chilly, from about 10:30 until 4:00 the sun shone and temperatures reached 70°F. The majority of our days were spent here; reading, swimming and enjoying the rays. On these days we took lunch at the pool’s casual restaurant which had a nice combination of small plates: Asian, fusion and classical Moroccan – all wonderfully prepared.

We did wonder out so as not to be complete sloths. On our first jaunt, we bumped into an affable, multilingual guide that immediately said not to pay him: “The government provides for me very well” he said. Soon we were off with him into the Medina and the maze of its souk. Our first (and only) stop was to the Palais Vizier. As soon as we entered I knew we had been had – a carpet store with a palace façade. Our helpful guide immediately disappeared and it took several minutes for the rug hawker to realize that there would be no sale today, no Berber masterpiece was going to be shipped to London. Afterward, we meandered our way through the narrow alleys and colorful shops for a bit more; then I pulled out my phone and the 21st century Google Maps app guided us out of this 10th century labyrinth and back to the hotel.

We had another pleasant day and lunch at Philip and John’s new home in La Palmeraie, a little north of central Marrakesh. It is light and airy with a lovely garden, all watched over by their many
After Lunch
dogs and cats – each with his or her own personality. La Palmeraie, as the name implies, is a large palm grove covering 120 square kilometers. Legend supposes the grove sprang up as 11th century soldiers, on their way back from the Sahara, spit out date pits as they sat around their encampments; thus, germinating the palms here. It is now a very desirable residential area.

We took another day to explore the Medina’s cultural sights; this time with a reputable guide recommended by some of Philip’s friends. The old city’s perimeter is surrounded by 12 miles of ancient walls and pierced only by some monumental gates. Our first stop was to the Koutoubia
Koutoubia Mosque
Mosque, built in 1147. It is one of the largest mosques in the Western Muslim world; and is the model for Seville’s Giralda. It was then to the Kasbah section to the south, passing through the Bab Agnaou, the somber yet majestic gate into the former Almohad palace.
Bab Agnaou Gate
We visited the Saadian Tombs. These were closed off by the Alaouite dynasty, but resurrected in 1917, restored and opened to the public.
Saadian Tombs
It is some of the finest Islamic architecture in Morocco, with a wonderfully lavish and ostentatious funerary. It was then to the 19th century Palais Bahia and its luxurious apartments; and the Palais el-Badi. This extensive complex, started in 1578, was for a time a wonder of the Muslim world, but it was looted and ruined in 1683. Today only the base structure remains – still impressive. Our final stop of the day was to Dar Si Sa
ïd Museum, a 19th century palace built by Si said ben Moussa, vizier of Moulay Abdel Aziz. The rooms are exquisite as is the central Andalusian garden. In all, it was a good afternoon tour.
Palais el-Badi
Dar Si Said


And we had one day into the Atlas Mountains, the highest range in Africa, just a short drive to the south of Marrakesh – and the heart of Berber country. As you rise out of the arid plain, the vegetation becomes more luxuriant in the well-watered environment. Snow remains on the sheltered northern exposures – cedar, cork oak and Moroccan pine populate the slopes. Further up, and onto the plateau the landscape becomes more steppe; but still there are areas of rich farmland. Hundreds of tiny villages dot the hills, goats graze unfazed, wide eyed, stunningly handsome children play at the roadsides.
Atlas Mountains 
Our guide drove the winding narrow roads, one panorama more breathtaking than the next. We stopped in Ouirgane for a pleasant lunch at Domaine de la Roseraie; and were back to the hotel by about five.

Not all our meals were at the Royal Mansour. We had a relaxing lunch by the pool with Philip
Amanjena Hotel
at the Amanjena, another beautiful property to the south. There were two excellent dinners at the Mandarin Oriental’s Ling-Ling, and an early evening outing for drinks at the iconic Mamounia Hotel.





SUMMING UP:
Everywhere we went, we were greeted with a smile, hospitality was at its highest. Badr and Youness were most kind and caring. Julian, pool restaurant manager, was professional and warm and could not have been better. Head concierge Touria and her entire team made each request look easy.
Also, some nice wines of note: a lovely Chardonnay, Thalvin’s “CB Initiales,” from the coastal region of Zenata near Casablanca; and a wonderful red blend, “Chateau Roslane,” from Meknes in the north – halfway between Rabat and Fes.


It was wonderful to see our friends and we had an unexpected restful and sun filled break. Philip’s 60th birthday is in mid-June and we plan to be back for his celebration, again staying at the Royal Mansour. Inshallah.