Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: Marrakesh

Don’t you just hate name-droppers at dinner parties? Well, I have to confess that, after my last trip, I’ve turned into one of those bores. I’ve not only rubbed shoulders with Rupert Everett and slept in the very room where Oscar Wilde was arrested, I stayed at a hotel described as “the most lovely spot in the whole world” by none other than Winston Churchill.

La Mamounia hotel in Marrakesh is legendary. It’s the epitome of elegance and it is easy to imagine Churchill sipping brandy and painting his watercolours there.

In the roaring 20’s the ‘It’ crowd literally moved in. They brought their own furniture, arranged their rooms and stayed the season. More recently the Stones were guests, Yves Saint Laurent fell in love with the place and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young wrote Marrakesh Express. Sorry, more name-dropping.

Everyone who’s anyone descended upon the hotel for its recent grand reopening, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, plus SJP stayed here during the filming of Sex in the City 2.

But La Mamounia is the real star. Styled by French designer Jacques Garcia, the decor is inspired by the great dynasties that once ruled this part of the world. The lighting is subtle and atmospheric, the signature arches have been hand chiselled by artisans, intricate tile work and carved corbels capture the essence of an ancient palace with a contemporary twist. Every inch of la Mamounia suggests quality.

In the rooms the attention to detail is impressive, from the beautiful mosaics and traditional Moroccan woodwork to the plush furnishings and ornate bathrooms. The view from the balcony over the lush gardens of palms and citrus trees, straining under the weight of their fruit, to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance is simply breathtaking. We were spoilt for choice on where to eat at La Mamounia – Le Marocain serves traditional fare, both L’Italien and Le Francais restaurants boast two Michelin stars, and the buffet lunch at the poolside Pavillon is fabulous.

I had to indulge myself with an authentic Hammam Evasion at the hotel’s luxurious spa. I’d heard a few horror stories about Hammam which involves being scrubbed, pummelled and doused with buckets of ice cold water so I was a little trepidatious, but there was no need to worry, as with everything else at La Mamounia my treatment was amazing.

I ended up spotlessly clean, revived and ready for the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh. Of course, the minute you set foot outside the sanctuary that is La Mamounia, you’re into the frenetic energy of Marrakesh. We were intercepted by a friendly (dentally challenged) gentleman, who, of course, insisted on guiding us around the souks, and naturally took us to all his relatives’ carpet, spice and trinket shops. At this point you’re suddenly in the middle of a Monty Python sketch... 30 shekels for that gourd, you must be mad. This routine of friendly banter continues until you meet somewhere in the middle, but you’re never hassled or harangued - Marrakesh is very laid back.

The souks are a must-see, a mini adventure to be embraced and enjoyed. The main square, Jemaa El-Fna, translated as the place of the dead, is anything but. It’s the main hub of Marrakesh, there’s always something going on from dancers and drummers to snake charmers and there’s a fabulous array of authentic Moroccan food stalls to chose from. You can take a caleche, a horse drawn cart, there for a trip around the ancient city walls, or as we did to our chosen restaurant, DarZellij.

We were glad we did because Dar Zellij is hidden away in a maze of tiny streets, but what a find. A beautifully restored Riad with a warm welcome, the live music really added to the experience.

Both the Palais de la Bahia and the Palais El Badi are well worth a visit as are the Saadian Tombs for examples of Moroccan tile work and decoration. After experiencing all the sights, sounds and smells of Marrakesh we rounded off our trip with a romantic meal at the stylish Riad Monceau where the food, ambience and atmosphere created the perfect end to our Moroccan adventure. But I may just have chanced upon the best way to end a holiday, with a mini break. Instead of an airport hotel stopver, we decided to spend an extra day and enjoy all London has to offer.

In keeping with the name dropping theme, it had always been a dream of mine to stay in the Cadogan, not just because it’s one of the most elegant hotels in London and is where King Edward had his trysts with Lily Langtry but it’s the Oscar Wilde connection. It was here that he was arrested, and can you believe it, we were lucky enough to stay in his room, room 118.

The Cadogan is very proud of this claim to fame and even serves Oscar’s favorite nibbles and drinks in his illustrious memory (absinthe, anyone?). The famous quote about only dull people being brilliant at breakfast is even reprinted on the breakfast menu.

Visit London’s website is a great place to plan your itinerary. I was intrigued by the Enchanted Palace exhibition at Kensington Palace. Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes were just some of the famous names whose creations held centre stage, more art installations than dresses, then a stroll through Kensington Gardens revealed Anish Kapoor’s new public sculptures.

To round off our stay, we just had to take in a show. I’m not a lover of all-singing all-dancing productions but I am partial to a bit of burlesque with some twisted cabaret so La Soiree on the South Bank really fitted the bill. And during our afternoon tea at the Cadogan we found ourselves sitting next to Rupert Everett deep in discussion about his forthcoming movie about Wilde.

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