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Hide and Souk: The Magic of Marrakech

Marrakech appeals as a buzzing metropolis with plenty to explore, but it comes up trumps as a relaxation retreat too, as Luxury London discovers on a week-long tour of the Red City

In the middle of Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square, amidst the food stall sellers frantically waving menus at tourists, snake charmers coaching pythons out of wicker baskets and women brandishing books of henna designs, sits a lone man in front of a plastic fold-out table, on which an assortment of teeth are displayed. The vendor beams at us with a gappy smile as we approach, but offers no explanation, merely nodding at our befuddled expressions. He’s there the next night too, grinning with recognition, and the following two nights after that. In fact, if you hopped on a plane to Morocco now I bet he’d still be there, smiling away at confused visitors stopped short on their way to the souks. 

A quick Google back on home soil reveals the molar man to be one of Morocco’s many medicinal mavericks, offering to remove painful teeth for a price. The exhibited fangs are, of course, his success stories. It says a lot about a city when amateur tooth extraction is offered as an explanation to a problem and, instead of raising eyebrows, it makes perfect sense. This truly sums up Marrakech: a city so surprising that, in the end, nothing is surprising at all. 

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the beating heart of the metropolis, a pulsing frenetic square with people and sites to see every which way you look. The souks sit in the middle, but you’ll have a job getting to them without being stopped multiple times along the way, whether it be for the offer of food, a glass of fresh orange juice (it’s delicious), or an excursion. 

Moments of calm can be found in the hotels located just outside of the city walls – close enough to nip in for a turn around the medina, but far enough away to enjoy some quiet time, too. The Mandarin Oriental is one such place. It opened in October 2015, but there are signs that it has already become part of the furniture. One night during our stay our taxi driver stops the car as we pull into the drive and leans out to pat a passing dog’s head, later telling us that the friendly hound is a pet of a regular that frequents the hotel every month. A home from home for some, the space is surprisingly intimate despite spanning 20 hectares; in fact, its 54 private-walled villas give the air of a lavish estate, albeit one with room service, restaurants and an on-site spa. 

My guest and I stay in one of the 43 Mandarin pool villas, a one-bedroom ground-floor house with a private terrace, outdoor Jacuzzi and a swimming pool. When the concierge shuts the door behind us, we can’t help but jump for joy at the sight of our temporary home. Created by architect Pascal Desprez and interior design house Gilles & Boissier, the space marries Mandarin Oriental’s Asian heritage with Moroccan culture and a minimalist eye for design. The result is a largely monochrome space offset with mosaic tiles, embroidered upholstery and terracotta walls. The villa is surprisingly private given its busy surrounds, so much so that if you never make it outside it would be easy to forget that you were staying in a hotel at all. 

If you don’t want to venture too far from your room, I would advise you take advantage of the hotel’s two restaurants. Our meal at the signature eatery, Mes’Lalla, was particularly outstanding. Overseen by head chef Meryem Cherkaoui, the restaurant specialises in traditional Moroccan tastes with a French twist. I opt for the chiwates to start, a selection of Moroccan salads. They’re delicious, but be warned – the dish would ideally be suited to share if, like me, your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Still, I manage to find room for my main, a tender beef and potato tagine laced with lemon that sets the foodie bar high for the rest of the trip. 

For some R&R, the on-site spa has four treatment rooms, two hammams, a beauty salon and a fitness centre on offer. Each treatment room is equipped with its own private outdoor terrace, where your session can take place should you wish, although I am grateful when my therapist suggests we conduct my massage indoors where the air-con is on full-blast. My masseuse works at the knots in my shoulders – the side-effect of a desk-bound job – using the country’s famed argan oil and by the end of my hour-long treatment I fully understand the nation’s obsession with the beauty elixir: my skin feels silky smooth and my back has been relieved of its office slump. 

The Mandarin Oriental Marrakech certainly goes out of its way to make its guests feel relaxed, creating an oasis of calm in contrast to the frantic city centre. In fact, if it weren’t for the subtle design references to its homeland, it would be easy to forget that you were in Marrakech at all, a sentiment that will no doubt appeal to some. But those looking to explore the city from a closer angle should pay a visit to one of the many traditional riads that are dotted around the medina, too, where unrefined luxury can still be found in the heart of the buzzing kasbah.  

La Sultana, a converted house situated in the Golden Triangle region of the city, offers a taste of the true Marrakech lifestyle, with five separate riads offering a total of 28 individually designed rooms. Intricately detailed mosaics pepper the five spaces, each with its own colour scheme and style. One takes a minimalist approach with white tiles and a miniature Jacuzzi in the centre of the floor, while another is a suntrap that houses the hotel’s pool. My personal favourite is the green, yellow and cobalt blue designed space, which reigns as the rainbow champion of the hotel, with buttercup yellow sofas in the alcoves and a water feature filled with peach-coloured flowers. Our riad boasts an indoor garden and a library. Each room is named after an animal and we take up temporary residence in the Crocodile Suite, where little crocs adorn the mint green cupboard doors and larger models watch over the marble bath tub. 

The suite is dark but such is the nature of a riad; fortunately, La Sultana has made the most of its space and elsewhere the hotel feels light and sizeable. Like many cities that are short on room, the architects of Marrakech have mastered the art of going up, and the hotel’s rooftop terrace is no exception. The space offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city and the surrounding Atlas mountains, as well as a second pool and a restaurant. This is where my guest and I dine on our first night, opting for the traditional Moroccan tasting menu (for research purposes, of course), which comprises five courses, each featuring several dishes. Once again, my greed prevails and I am left feeling more than a little full, but incredibly satisfied with my choice. Stand-out dishes included the pigeon bastilla with cinnamon (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it) and the braised beef with toasted almonds, both of which were delicious.

One of the best things about La Sultana is without a doubt its location. Just a short walk from the hustle and bustle of the medina, it’s easy to peruse the local attractions and still have the option to nip back to the pool when the temperature gets too hot to handle (which, trust me, it does). The hotel offers privately guided tours of the nearby amenities for those who want to see the city through the eyes of a local, which may be advisable if you’re a little nervous about exploring the centre for the first time. 

The late couturier Yves Saint Laurent once said: “a visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me. This city taught me colour”. He famously moved there after his retirement in 2002, and his ashes are scattered in the city’s Majorelle Garden, where his love for brazen hues comes to the fore. I stay for a week, but by the end I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of what Marrakech has to offer. Needless to say, I will definitely be returning to uncover the rest of the colours in the Red City’s rainbow.

Mandarin Oriental Marrakech, from approx. £570 a night, including breakfast and transfers, mandarinoriental.com; La Sultana Marrakech, from approx. £267 a night, based on two people sharing, lasultanahotels.com