The ancient Moroccan city offers a sensory explosion of colour, sound, sights, and mouthwatering menus
When I first visited Marrakech 12 years ago, I stayed in a traditional riad that had undergone a magnificent renovation in the hands of its new owner, a British lawyer. It seemed to me the height of glamour. We had candle-lit dinners every night, accompanied by the drums and bugles in the Jemaa el-Fna, and drank unexpectedly good Moroccan Syrah on the roof – both things that are well worth repeating today. But the pink city has evolved considerably over the last decade, combining its ancient and mysterious exotic side with an artfully considered modernity that’s bang up to date. Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech reflects this new direction, providing an elegant and tranquil oasis just minutes from this bustling city’s centre.
The Saddian Tombs
Take a stroll through Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Jardin Majorelle, with its eye-popping licks of lapis lazuli and daffodil yellow paint, and you’ll find the star-speckled cupola of the Berber Museum, which showcases exquisite handicrafts by tribes from the Rif to the Sahara as well as a re-imagined gift shop by creative director Stephen di Renza. Across the road, 33 Rue Majorelle stocks designer goods for home and wardrobe, including candy-coloured knitted totes for carrying it all home. Head back to the Medina for a light lunch and a glass of wine within the shiny new boutique at Vanessa Branson’s artsy El Fenn. Here the focus is on local artisans – chunky Atlas wool blankets, jewel-coloured table linens and orchard-wood serving platters – as well as vintage pieces and one-of-a-kind, hand-stitched kaftans by Norya Ayron.
Maison de la Photographie
While you’re in the Medina (near Mandarin Oriental) don’t miss the opportunity to ponder the opulent Saadian Tombs, final resting place of 60 members of the Saadi dynasty that ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1659. If this is them in death, just imagine the glory in life… The Ben Youssef Madrasa (1557 to 1574) is one of the city’s many Koranic schools, but none so dazzling as this 132-room pile of gigantic cedarwood doors, Italian marble, richly carved plaster, colourful friezes, bronze fountains and a glazed-tile reflecting pool: Islamic architecture at its most glorious. Finish off at the Maison de la Photographie, where images taken all over Morocco from 1870 to 1950 reveal another place and time. Revive with a mint tea and fabulous views of the Atlas Mountains from the roof.
While the evening food market on the Jemaa el-Fna is essential for any globetrotting gourmet, lunch and dinner are no longer limited to couscous or tagine. At Nomad, Kamal Laftimi and Sebastien de Gzell have created the city’s answer to Ottolenghi, inspired by local markets, and run pop-ups three or four times a year with chefs from restaurants such as Quay in Sydney and Frenchie in Paris. In Guéliz, Bagatelle is a French bistro of the old guard, serving excellent leek vinaigrette, steak frites and veal tongue with cream and capers in a setting that whisks you back to fifties Paris. In the hands of the venerable Yannick Alléno, consulting chef at La Grand Table Française, French-Moroccan fusion becomes fine dining extraordinaire.
The best drinks in town are still served upstairs at the Grand Café de la Poste. Going strong since 1925, the first-floor salon is a sultry blend of gleaming wood panels and leather sofas, where ’Kech’s movers and shakers start and end the night. In between the ancient Medina and the increasingly sophisticated Ville Nouvelle, the Kasbah is finally growing legs thanks to the arrival of Café Clock, which hosts an extraordinary storytelling night on Thursdays. Led by the head of the Jemaa el-Fna storytellers’ association, the translated fables provide an insight, lest we forget, into the Marrakech that was.