The Smooth Guide to Marrakech (Financial Times How to Spend it)

The house lights dim and the tambourines shake. Two women in billowing sequinned robes glide down the polished black plaster central staircase, a dozen lit-up church candles melted into silver trays balanced effortlessly on their heads. At the snap of a cymbalist’s finger thousands of rose petals rain down and the room is a whirl of chiffon and hips. It’s 10.30pm in Marrakech… time for the nightly belly dancing extravaganza at Comptoir Darna.

comptoir darna marrakech

Marrakech nightlife has more than a touch of the Technicolor Baz Luhrmann spectacular about it. It’s a visually delirious culture, from the mopeds that career around the Medina and weave through the Souks at dizzying speed during the muezzin’s evening call to prayer, to the exuberant dancing on tables and chairs around the artful bonfires in the well groomed gardens of Bo-Zin on a Friday night. It all looks so terribly enchanting as well as fun of course – even if you’ve never been to North Africa, you can’t help but have been switched on by the sensual interior-porn coffee table tome spreads of boldly coloured zillij fractal-style mosaics and decorative metalwork, delicately punctured and etched like lace, all so synonymous with Moroccan style.

Friday night in Marrakech takes you from one sensory overload to another: Sunset drinks on the roof terrace of the Kosybar, overlooking the Place des Ferblantiers and its buildings with huge nesting storks crowning them like gargoyles or winged silhouetted Antony Gormley sculptures, to Comptoir or Bo-Zin, both dressed-up, low-lit, sexy and mod dining spaces that have an essence of the global-city private members club about them.

Chic Marrakech doesn’t sleep off its Friday night hedonism, it slips into a bikini and slumbers on a sunlounger until its time for the poolside DJ to spin the Balearic classics and for the bar to start serving the Laurent Perrier with brunch. This brash second city is also the ultimate chilled-out urban beach. You make your own Marrakech, and you have to go out of your way – into the more tourist sodden areas of the Souks – to stress yourself out. Far better to lounge away an afternoon by the red tiled pool of the Murano Resort, an outpost of the designed-to-the-nth-degree Marais, Paris, original that’s big on flash and style, and isn’t afraid to compromise a practicality or two in favour of a visual flourish. The Murano has excellent service and a fantastic Sunday brunch scene, though the lunch at Nikki Beach, with its self conscious tangerine-on-white-on-white amphitheatre design and more attractive pool, rivals it for pose appeal. Nikki Beach does, however, become a little too loud and exuberant as the afternoon progresses for some tastes, so decamp to your pavilion suite at the Amanjena resort and spend the rest of the afternoon around its pool, rounding the day off with mint and gin cocktails while you lounge on huge cushions on the lawn, serenaded by strings and Fez-wearing musicians.

The hammam is as much a part of Marrakech culture as the five times a day amplified wail of the muezzin. You’re steamed and scrubbed, covered in clay and cleansed, essentially by having pails of water hurled over you. It’s profoundly relaxing, and leaves you feeling cleaner than you ever thought possible. The spa at La Sultana hotel is wonderfully theatrical, with a plunge pool that’s as Bram Stoker gothic as it is Moorish. Even the most jaded wrap and steam afficienado will agree that La Sultana’s masseurs are nothing short of incredible. After your hammam, ask them to turn off the mind numbing spa-muzak and enjoy the remarkable sensation of feeling like the one person pummelling and caressing your back has sprouted several spare sets of hands to work with. If you don’t stay on at La Sultana to dine on its spectacular roof, with a bird’s eye view into the Saddian Tombs – the resting place of 18th century royalty – move on to Dar Moha, still the most adventurous and haute tagines-with-a-twist dining experience in the city. The petal-strewn tables in the walled garden of Pierre Balmain’s old house, between the trees and beside the ravishing mosaic-bottomed swimming pool, make for the most romantic dining experience you could possibly imagine, while Moha Fedal’s elaborate and sprawling tasting menu will make you hanker after onion in orange flower water forever more. Sated to bursting, find room for a nightcap at Villa Rosa, a well-executed homage to, nay carbon copy of, the dark velvet and tassled lounge of the Rue Saint Honore branch of Costes in Paris, and where clued-up Marrakech comes for the perfect steak, or merely an apple martini.

Before your next long lazy afternoon of parasols and poolside service, get to the Majorelle Gardens for opening time to enjoy the elaborate cacti, lily ponds and vividly coloured canary yellow and flouro-midnight blue pathways, urns and buildings. This was Yves Saint Laurent’s haven in the city he loved as much as his hometown of Paris, and where his ashes were scattered and a pillar erected in commemoration of his genius right after his recent death. It’s a quirky, magical and inspirational place and, like so many spots in a city that conjure up images of the opposite, the nadir of tranquility.

There’s an abundance of heat-hazed hassle and haggle to be had in Marrakech, but it’s easily held at arm length and you haven’t got time for a palaver – you’re here for the modern-day Talitha and Paul Getty tour, not trial by a misguided search of the ‘real’ Morocco. It would still be churlish not to dip your toe into the eye assault and ear battery of the Jemaa El Fna, the crowd, monkey and barbecue-smoke filled central square of the Medina for five minutes, but stay away from the tourists for the rest of your time in town and stick with the locals: Employ a concierge service for driving and guide services. Boutique Souk is the best operation in town. A ride in a petit taxi may be make for a 50p adventure and a pearl-clutching dinner party story, but a full time driver and an air conditioned Mercedes for the weekend are worth their weight in gold, particularly given the 20 minute drive between the pools and hotels of the Palermaie – where the Murano, Nikki Beach and Amanjena are – and the Medina. Driver aside, you can’t realistically shop in the Souks without a guide. Base yourself in one of the finest riads in the Medina for the rest of your stay, either at the tiny pop-boutique chic Maison MK or the sophisticated fine art filled and rambling Riad El Fenn, and call on Haffid to take you shopping. He’ll steer you away from the tat and down the most inconspicuous looking dead end alleyways that offer up incredible treasures behind secretive carved wood doorways. The architectural salvage wonderlands of Tresor de Milles et Une Nuit and Dar Bou Ziane are just the place to be inspired to redecorate your whole life in Moorish chic, whether it’s a camel bone, mother of pearl and marble chest of drawers, or a six foot multicoloured glass lantern. Watch rugs being woven by hand in the fabric district of the Souk and then head to Chez des Nomades for some serious antique textiles from some of the 224 tribes of the Atlas. If you’re on the market for the perfect piece, you’ll need to devote the rest of your day to ploughing through the catalogues and artefacts, from ceiling-high stacks of saffron-yellow Berber throws to a £17,000 rug from the elusive Oulad Chinnane tribe. Whatever you choose, when shopping is at this level, you aren’t going to be expected to stretch the limits of hand luggage – dependable shipping is offered at every reputable antique store.

Shopping in the ‘new city’ of Gueliz, once the exclusively French area of Marrakech and just a two minute ride beyond the Medina walls, is a much calmer affair. Pick up every colour of suede driving loafer at Atika, enjoy a leisurely lunch on the terrace of the the stately and authentically European Grand Café de la Poste while you are periodically sprayed with cooling jet bursts of misted water, and then stroll to 212.Marrakech, a leftfield luxe boutique and concept store that blends all of the most appealing elements of Moroccan style: brocades, cuts etc. with European twists, whether it be a man’s round collared shirt with a flourish along the button holes, or a candy pink satin Hubert de Givenchy inspired ladies coat with native trims.

Have your driver take you back to your riad, immerse yourself in the pool – preferably your private one on the terrace of your suite at the El Fenn – and then take in the early evening sunshine with some rose essence and champagne cocktails while semi-horizontal with a good book on a mountain of cushions. Stay on the roof tonight and dine early, watching the ‘red city’ glow in all its terracotta glory as the sun sets and the muezzins wail through loudspeakers from the temple turrets, and set your alarm clock for an early morning start. There’s one more unmissable thing to do before you head home: After a pre-dawn 4×4 drive to the desert outside the city, take your own exclusively-hired EIP (‘Extremely Important Person’) hot air balloon ride with Ciel D’Afrique. The ascent is gentle, imperceptible almost, and the smooth glide through airspace over maze-like Beber villages and farms below as the sun rises over the Atlas is as humbling as it is hypnotic. The in-flight champagne is the perfect finishing touch. And as you descend, and ready yourself to leave, you’ll realise that you’re missing Marrakech already. And how could you not? After all, life is so much more relaxing lived in babouche slippers, and so much prettier when every surface around you is covered in rose petals.

HOTELS

Prices are for two people sharing, room only. Amanjena, Route de Ouarzazate, km 12 (00212-24403553; www.amanresorts.com) from £450. Maison MK, 14 Derb Sebaai, Quartier Ksour (00212-24376173; www.maisonmk.com), from £240. Murano Resort Marrakech, Douar Abiad (00212-2440327000; www.muranoresort.com), from £243. Riad El Fenn, Bab El Ksour (00212-024441210; www.riadelfenn.com), from £250.

RESTAURANTS AND BARS

Prices are for a three course meal for one with half a bottle of wine. Dar Moha, 81 rue Dar el Bacha (00212-24386400), £95. Nikki Beach, Royal Golf Palace, Circuit de la Palmeraie (002121-24368727), £35. Villa Rosa, 65 Avenue Hassan II (00212-24449635), £40. Kosybar, 47 Place des Ferblantiers (002121-24380324), £40. Bo-Zin, Route de l’Ourika, km 3.5 (00212-243880 12), £45. Comptoir Darna, Avenue Echchouada (00212-24437702), £50. Le Grand Café de la Poste, Place du 16 Novembre (00212-2 433038), £35

SHOPS

212.Marrakech, 2 Rue Oum Rabii (00212-24421200). Atika, 35 Rue de la Liberté (00212-24436554). Chez Les Nomades, 32-34 Bradia El Kadima

(00212-24442259). Dar Bou Ziane, 20-21 Rue Sidi El Yamani Ksour

(00212-24443349). Tresor de Milles et Une Nuit, 8 Leksour Derb Sania (00212-24440931).

SIGHTS

Boutique Souk (00212-61324475; www.boutiquesouk.com). Ciel D’Afrique (00212-24432843; www.cieldafrique.info). Jardin Majorelle, Avenue Yacoub El-Mansour, Guéliz (00212-24301894). Daily 8am-5pm October-May; 8am-6pm June-September. Jemaa El Fna. Le Sultana Spa, Rue de la Kasbah (00212-24388008; www.lasultanamarrakech.com). Daily 10am-8pm

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY

You don’t have to unpack at Kasbah Tamadot, the most elegant and exquisite hotel in all of North Afric,a to enjoy its opulent Indian and Moorish interiors and dramatic mountainside fairy tale setting overlooking Berber villages. Come to Richard Branson’s villa for the Old Testament, picturesque, drive through the foothills of the High Atlas followed by a hammam, a facial and a long leisurely lunch with some Maroc rosé in the garden flanked by poplar trees, listening to the faint sound of braying donkeys from the valley. It’s the ideal afternoon cure-all for Medina fatigue. Kasbah Tamadot, BP 67 (00212-24368200; www.kasbahtamadot.com).

WHEN TO GO

Even at its most punishing, when it can hit fifty degrees and feel like you’re being followed by a giant hair dryer on its hottest setting, Marrakech roasts with a more bearable dry heat than you’ll find in the tropics, so it’s still do-able. If you want to do more than merely bake by a pool, autumn and spring (parallel with Europe) are the most amicable seasons in which to visit and tour, while winter is the time to enjoy warm days and roaring fires after dark.

HOW TO GET THERE

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled to Marrakech as a guest of EXSUS who offer a long weekend in Marrakech, with three nights at the Amanjena, return economy flights, transfers and breakfast from £1285 per person. T: 020 7292 5050; www.exsus.com. Easyjet fly direct between London Gatwick and Marrakech from £124 return. http://www.easyjet.com

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