A warm, balmy weekend away can quickly fix your spirits and lift the winter mood. Marrakech is the destination where spring and summer come to mind all year round, and knowing these prospects are under four hours’ flight from London is like knowing you are going to be given your favourite treat as a child.
Arriving in the main square of Jemaa el Fna, you realise that too much is still not enough! A fully-fledged expanse of people, animals and activities stretch out before you, and as once upon a time, it all still creates an incredible tapestry of life. The 11th century Minaret still watches over you, as you make your way through fortune-tellers, snake-charmers, orange-juice stalls, hat sellers, determined henna painters, berbers and their (undernourished yet placid) donkey-drawn carts, sword-swallowers, birds of prey, monkeys, kids, mothers and men.
We head on through this sight of living history, enjoying the colours and the sun setting beyond the roof tops, where you can just see the silhouettes of the visitors gathered to watch this live show from the top terraces, sipping an all-too-sweet mint tea made from dark leaves which have seen many a mash! Hassan, our taxi driver, pops out from one of the side streets into the square and collects us to take us to the Riad Farnatchi, which I had insisted on finding on my own without the GPS….but the prospect did not please him, and spending the next 1/2 hour circumnavigating the souk and the outskirts was far more interesting, and less stressful. His vintage 1973 Mercedes Benz, with its zealously polished dashboard with glued-on ashtray (so well-polished the corners have worn out), floats down the narrow lanes. Scooters miss us by a whisker and busy stall holders don’t bat an eyelid as they pack and wrap their customers’ figs and nuts. This is where the true treasures and experiences of Marrakech lie.
Once stopped at a local stall holder, Hassan opens the car doors. We later find out he is one of the best craftsmen around and has in fact built all the four-poster beds we have been sleeping in at Marja’s home. Our great friend and interiors designer in Marrakech, she has created many a home and elegant Zen interior for the English-owner riads dotted outside the main town.
Marja joins us to introduce us to the bearded carpenter, and we marvel that such large beds, cupboards and tables, such superb handy-work, can come from this small worktop, the size of a school desk. His tools are his wealth and they show the years of hardship and passion.
A lad on a bicycle with a cage strapped to his bike then hustles to take our suitcases and before we know it, he is off, somehow knowing where we are due to be resting our heads. If Hassan weren’t here with Marja, directing what resembles a movie set, it would be a different day!
We follow the top of the lad’s head beetling along behind him, down the orange, terracotta alleyways. Kids no more than seven years old are jumping over roaring fires in the middle of the streets, defying the lick of the huge, angry flames; Marja tells us that today is a the Festival of Children, which might appear as a good explanation for this incredibly dangerous game, accompanied by the roar of flares and rockets going off, but they are having the time of their lives.
Through one more archway, dodging a few murky puddles, and a right turn past an alluring store selling striped Hamman towels, contemporary design kilims and old silk carpets, we spot the landmark: the sentinels’ sentry post smartly painted in English gloss paint. The suitcases have been delivered and the Souk-courier tipped. The unbranded, simple front door of the Riad Farnatchi swings open, and to our surprise, we are in peace and quiet in the courtyard of the Wix’s first Raid, with its gentle trickle of water coming from the tap which keeps a green-tiled swimming pool full to the brim.
James – elegant, British and incredibly hospitable, still bearing all the impeccable traits of his career at Jonny Roxbrough’s Admirable Crichton – takes us through the cool, tranquil corridors of his properties, explaining how the family have now taken on five adjoining Riads, and have two more they plan on developing into a Hamman and a restaurant.
This cluster of compact townhouses at Farnatchi boasts individuality in every room, and the suites have their own front doors off the first floor balconies, allowing the real experience of sitting on your own private internal courtyard, dripping with scented jasmine. The Berber-inspired suite is both local and homely, with large red sofas ready to catch you after the hurdles of the Souk, and a fireplace ready to stoke if needs be, for an (unexpectedly) chillier winter visit. Local Moroccan-style doorways and filigree work in the walls and door frames have been painstakingly kept intact.
Beyond the decorative ironwork on the windows, the bright blue sky expands above the roof tops. Waking up to this colour is an instant fix first thing in the morning, accompanied by unfamiliar African birdsong. That same bird lures you up an old circular staircase to the roof top, where a most breathtaking view expands 360 degrees across the Souk, new developments with angled cranes, and beyond as far as the Atlas mountains. Cool curtains sway in the breeze up top and breakfast is served from a black Targine set, revealing local breads, fresh homemade jams and yoghurts, local fruit, and a tremendous pot of fresh coffee.
The waiting staff are on hand 24/7 but not readily visible, making you feel quite at home whether you want to sit, read, snooze or entertain. James tells us how the Riad is currently preparing for an entirely private hire for one of his guests, who has returned every year. This year though, he is bringing 30 of his nearest and dearest for a weekend birthday party, with a differently themed evening at the Farnatchi every night. James has an incredible knowledge of Morocco having spent many years here with his father and British hotelier Jonathan Wix, managing both the hotel and its international guests and celebrities such as Russell Crowe, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie….to name a few. On our second day, James steers us to the Beldi Country Club. He recommends a day is allocated to this, with the evening flight back to London at 8pm. We wander mainly in the warm, scented Hamman, a very traditional and restful space, heady with essences of rosemary, roses and lavender.
The Hamman & Beldi Gommage, lying on the warm grey polished marble, is the best ever, and afterwards we hovered out of the Hamman, floating along the lavender-lined pathways and olive groves, to the pool-side lunch table. Nature and local culture rule here. The rose gardens grow in full bloom, in wild and unkempt beauty, and the extensive “village” of Beldi now also has 27 hotel rooms dotted off the narrow olive-tree lanes running through tall grass verges. There are several splendid pools to enjoy with tables and loungers always nearby, two good restaurants and small workshops housing local craftsmen who make carpets, rugs, pottery, glassware, hand-embroidered linen and essential oils.
It’s a more distinguished Souk-style experience at Beldi, comparing the streets of the Medina leading to the Riad Farnatchi, owner and manager Géraldine tells me, walking through her blend of botanical wonderland and eco-minded retreat, and the balance between city and country could not be better matched than with these two locations. I realised, when I queued for the flight back to rainy London, that I had truly had a very exceptional weekend. I now wait for a “feasible” amount of time to pass, before needing another gommage.
Tel. + 212 (0)5 24 38 49 10
Tel. + 212 (0)5 24 38 49 12
Tel. +212 679892607