As the pianist sang, I watched a couple sitting at the table opposite in evening gown and white DJ sipping cocktails. It could quite easily have been 1934 instead of 2004 and yet outside La Mamounia’s art deco walls lay a city that appeared to be stuck in quite a different time warp.
A trip to Marrakech would not be the same without staying at La Mamounia. Not only is the infamous hotel located right inside the 12th century ramparts, but the ancient walls form one of the boundaries to the hotel’s picturesque orange tree garden, tennis courts and idyllic pool. The main square – Djemmaa el Fna – and the souks are a pleasant 15 minute walk away but you need never worry about sleeping in and missing the sights as even closer is the Koutoubia mosque. Every morning at sunrise the mystical chants float from its 203 feet minaret to your room and if that doesn’t wake you then the birds will, as they swoop from balcony to orange tree and back again.
Despite the early awakening the hotel is an oasis of calm and tranquillity. Cool marble covered by large rumpled rugs and pink rose petals floating in fountains greet you as you walk through its doors and into the glamour of the 1930’s. It’s hard to imagine that you are in Morocco as it feels so very French. Even the guests hanging out in the lobby look like they have walked out of the pages of Vogue. Although it is extremely tempting to stay surrounded by art deco opulence, there is a tangible force that pulls you time and time again out into the streets of Marrakech.
Unless you enjoy getting completely lost in a strange city, you really need a guide to help you explore the real medina away from the tourist areas next to the Djemmaa el Fna. Finding a guide is easy as they lie in wait across the road from the hotel ready to offer their services. Don’t worry if you miss them when you leave the hotel as they will find you in the nearby park whose paths leads you to the Koutoubia mosque and the city behind. If you decide to accept the assistance of any local always negotiate a fixed price in advance which will avoid any unpleasant scenes later.
We spent a pleasant hour roaming the streets of the old medina before being taken to Ali Baba’s cave in the hope we would buy souveniers. The architecture was fascinating and crammed with so many treasures, it felt like we had stepped into a scene from the Arabian Nights. We also visited a local herbalist selling natural remedies for all kind of ailments such as cold sores and orange oil that you rubbed into your temples to relieve stress as well as cooking spices, green teas, natural eyeliners and perfumes.
Having spent enough time indoors, we decided to be brave and explore the rest of the medina on our own but it didn’t take long before we were totally lost and missing the re-assuring presence of our friendly guide. At every junction we made a haphazard decision which way to turn based purely on which direction had the most shops. With more items hanging on the front of the shops than inside we lost count of how many we passed selling Moroccan lamps, jewellery and leather slippers and despite not encountering many fellow tourists we felt totally safe.
It was by pure luck that we found our way back to the hotel but after a few hours re-charging our batteries by the pool the urge to explore hit once again and we ventured out to experience the sunset from Djemmaa el Fna. At this time of night the main square is easy to find as you just follow the crowds as absolutely everyone is heading to the same place. Djemmaa el Fna is not really a square or a rectangle but a large open space teeming with activity.
Next to the food stalls were huddles of people listening to storytellers or musicians. Old ladies, with worn out henna tattoo books, targeted female tourists as tattooed hands and feet, which traditionally showed that a woman was married. We watched as several people tried their luck at a game of Hoopla made from giant glass bottles of Coca-Cola and fishing rods and nearby an extremely old dentist was proudly displaying a tray of even older teeth.
For hundreds of years this has been where the city comes for its entertainment, its supper, to get their teeth looked at or pick up a remedy for a cold, and what is wonderful is it still exists and time and technology hasn’t made it redundant. The city’s tanneries on the far side of the medina are yet another example of old fashioned skills and tradition. Not for the faint-hearted a daytime visit is probably best avoided unless you feel you really must witness and smell the very worst job in the world.
At the far side of Djemmaa el Fna are the famous coffee shops. Located on the rooftop terraces of five story buildings finding the corresponding stairway looked a bit hit and miss. Although the views must have been wonderful, it was much more fun to weave in and out of the crowds, peeking over shoulders and, although not understanding a word, listening for a few minutes to a story or a few bars of music.
Back at the hotel, totally invigorated, we showered and changed into our smartest clothes before heading down to the Piano Bar for a night cap. As three out of the hotel’s five restaurants require a jacket and tie, this is not the kind of bar one wears jeans. Even the poolside restaurant for lunch required a reservation and a certain amount of dressing up. Who would have thought you could feel so underdressed in Marrakech but the next time I will know better.
La Mamounia and Marrakech both compliment and contradict each other. One minute you can be watching a snake charmer whilst drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and the next you are sipping champagne cocktails in the same bar frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill. If being able to experience two different eras and two different worlds in the same place isn’t magic – what is?