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Marrakech, in Morroco


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#1 Rail Paul

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Posted 13 December 2009 - 08:07 PM

The WSJ has a very evocative article on the upscaling of many traditional hotels in this ancient city.

La Mamounia hotel, described by Winston Churchill as the most lovely spot in the entire world, has recently done a E 100mn update. The company which runs the casino in Monte Carlo is opening a new luxury project, and a Jack Nicklaus designed country club will have homes starting at E 2mn

The huge plaza, Djemaa el Fna, described as Africas largest public space, remains the center of the city. The article notes that the city is also a collision point between luxury residences and excruciating poverty. Many visitors fly in on cheap airline flights from Europe for the high quality drugs and low cost of living.

QUOTE
Individuals have also created comfortable hideaway hotels in the Medina, with the most renowned one being Vanessa Branson's Riad El Fenn. Ms. Branson, sister of Sir Richard, recently hosted the third Marrakech Arts Festival, with guests such as artist Julian Schnabel, film Director John Boorman and actress Kim Cattrall. Other part-time residents of the Medina and the Palmeraie now include Paloma Picasso, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and fashion entrepreneur Pierre Bergé. This new generation of expatriates and travelers has helped establish Marrakech's status as the most sought after and stylish destination in all of North Africa. The growing influx of Europeans and Americans into Marrakech and Morocco is all the more impressive given that this Islamic kingdom suffered al Qaeda inspired suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and 2007.

Apart from the mystique and excitement of the Medina, there are several other reasons that explain the growing appeal of Marrakech: It is the most accessible exotic destination for European travelers, reachable in little more than three hours by plane; it has a variety of accommodations ranging from €50 riads to luxurious hotels and private villas in the Palmeraie that can cost €15,000 a week; and it offers a carefree lifestyle with perfect winter weather, where foreigners can own property relatively easily.

A mélange of these factors enticed Meryanne Loum-Martin to come here nearly 25 years ago, when she helped her family develop a holiday home in the Palmeraie. Her father was a Senegalese lawyer and diplomat, and her mother was from the French West Indies. At that time, the Palmeraie was merely a huge green belt of scrub and palm trees in a swathe to the north and east of Marrakech with a few dirt tracks intersecting it. Before the arrival of heavy pollution it was possible to see the snow-covered High Atlas Mountains throughout the year. Some adventurous European aristocrats and bohemians had built elegant adobe villas in the Palmeraie but it was quite remote from the rest of Marrakech. "What struck me during this period, was how this legendary city merely had La Mamounia, a Club Med and a few backpacker hotels to stay in, so I convinced my parents to let me construct a second villa to rent out," Ms. Loum-Martin says. This was merely the beginning of her expansion to her present complex of five large villas on an 20-acre plot. "People thought I was out of my mind but you have to go where your heart takes you."

The complex is heavily wooded with olive trees, palms and other shrubs and herbs, which are chosen because of their suitability to the arid conditions. A conscious decision was taken not to grow lawns because of their heavy thirst -- instead the canopies of vegetation make efficient use of the well water pumped from the dwindling water table. Residents such as Ms. Loum-Martin are concerned about the unbridled development of irrigated golf courses because of the scarcity of water. "The problem is that while the vast influx of foreigners and wealthy Moroccans into the Palmeraie has brought much needed employment, it has been at the expense of natural resources, which are rapidly running down," she says. As a consequence, Ms. Loum-Martin is developing a 150-acre eco complex half an hour further out from Marrakech toward the Atlas Mountains called Jnane Ylane, which is set to open at the end of 2010.

Straddling both the resort nature of the Palmeraie and the intensity of the Medina, there is the zone called Guéliz, or the New Town, which French colonials developed in the Thirties. Despite the recent erection of rows of apartment buildings, it still has elements of French provincial charm, with its wide tree-lined avenues and a sprinkling of attractive bistros and quality retail outlets. A meeting place for Moroccans and the foreign community is Café du Livre, a pleasantly relaxed Internet café cum second-hand bookshop next to a three-star hotel that is run by Dutch born Sandra Zwollo, whose husband was headmaster of the American School in Marrakech.

Close to the Guéliz central market, Italian Lucien Viola has opened Gallerie Rê, one of the most sophisticated art galleries in Marrakech. He exhibits local artists and normally has six or seven major exhibitions a year; he also runs a Berber textiles museum on the outskirts of Marrakech. He says that on his arrival 20 years ago, Marrakech was an entirely different expatriate scene, dominated by the Rothschilds, the Hermès and the Agnellis. Foreigners tended to drive around in Rolls-Royces and had scant interest in the local culture. "Now people are interested in good art and good living -- and the gallery also has concerts, book signings, music evenings," he says. "Next year we are having a yoga performance with accompanying musicians."

Many Western artists or members of the so-called cultural crowd tend to live in the Medina, where they have purchased run-down riads for relatively cheap prices and made them into their own fantasy residences. One of the most spectacular modernist ones is owned by Dietrich Becker, the prominent London-based German banker, while nearby artist and writer Danny Moynihan and his wife, actress Katrina Boorman, have created their own local residence. "The Moroccans all want to move out of here to the leafy suburbs because they consider the Medina to be cold and damp," Mr. Moynihan says.

Next door to the Moynihans, Wasfi Kani, the British Opera impresario, has carved her house out of a section of the old pasha's palace. "I love the fact that there are still amazing craftsmen working in the souk and a feeling that the local culture is incredibly strong and vibrant," she says. "There is also the rather appealing way that store owners will only beseech you to buy their wares when you are directly in front of their shops and not otherwise."

The recent five-day Marrakech Arts Festival held a series of exhibitions, discussions and film screenings throughout the city. Apart from the screenings of participating film directors such as Mr. Schnabel and James Marsh, the literary gatherings and poetry readings had an intimate house-party feel to them. James Fenton, the former Oxford professor of poetry, read his work in the small courtyard of an ancient riad along with Moroccan and French poets. Novelists Raffaella Barker, Ahdaf Soueif and Andrew O'Hagan held literary gatherings while restaurateur Mourad Mazouz from London's Momo and Sketch cooked lunch on the roof of Riad El Fenn.

As for the future of Marrakech, some residents have voiced concern, saying that they have observed more drunkenness and bad behaviour since the advent of the ultra-budget airlines, such as Ryanair and easyJet in the past two years. On the outskirts of Marrakech, a huge nightclub disco called Pacha has been created where up to 3,000 people fly in from France and elsewhere for weekends of nonstop dancing to music played by leading European disc jockeys. There have been few specific complaints because the revelers are relatively isolated from Marrakech itself, but residents fear it could lead to the growth of more all-night events.

Ironically, the success of the budget airlines appears to have driven other carriers off the route. Currently there are no direct flights from British Airways or Air France while Royal Air Maroc only flies via Casablanca. With the coming explosion in luxury accommodation, partially inspired by the modernist King Mohammed VI, there threatens to be a shortage of flight capacity to Marrakech. One luxury-travel specialist in London says many of its clients refuse to travel on budget airlines to hotels that cost upward of €1,000 a night. "People have to make up their mind because it really comes down to either easyJet or private jet," travel consultant Alice Daunt of Earth London said.

Marrakech however, has shown impressive resilience, regardless of all the development in the past decade. Despite the thousands of expatriates who have arrived, traditional cohesive values are strong and the markets still retain their original allure. Vanessa Branson says she began the Marrakech Arts Festival as a bridge between Islamic and Western cultures -- and also as a way of paying back the city for being so generous to her. "You have to be careful not to get too nostalgic about the disappearance of the wizened old men on their donkeys or complain because a KFC opens for the Moroccan market. Infant mortality is falling and literacy is rising with a lot more women graduating as doctors and lawyers. People love to moan, but you can't stand still -- I really respect Marrakech for that."


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#2 Sneakeater

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Posted 14 December 2009 - 04:06 PM

I'm sure everybody cares, but the Djemaa el Fna remains one of the most astounding things I've seen in my life. It's very Eurocentric of me to say this, but it really is like some Eastern fairy story come to life.
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#3 Wilfrid

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Posted 14 December 2009 - 04:30 PM

I agree - right out of The Sheltering Sky, one really does feel set down in a completely "foreign" environment, especially if one arrives by way of the bewildering maze of the casbah. The great street food there, I recall, was dishes of poached snails.

I visited Marrakesh a couple of times in the '90s when I knew someone who had a place for me to stay. It was a spectacular, traditional, two-level home, rooms around a courtyard open to the night sky. It's also traditional that there's no ornamentation outside the building, so I had to learn to identify a small door in the wall in one of the winding back alleys of the old town - where there are no street signs, and few door numbers. Rarely have I concentrated so hard on not getting lost.

The city was indeed remarkably cheap. I ate multi-course meals at two restaurants in the old town - I needed a guide to find them, and also dined at the Mamounia. The main attraction there was the piano bar. I have always meant to go back. It's a fun place to speak French, as the locals will not correct you or pretend they can't understand. You haven't lived until you've cursed out a cab driver in school-level French. "Sacre bleu! Quelle scandale!"

ETA: Downsides - everyone wants to sell you something, women will be tediously pestered.

#4 Sneakeater

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Posted 14 December 2009 - 04:54 PM

To my surprise, I thought the food at the Mamounia (this was in the late 80s) was pretty great.

Among other things, calve's brains in a light tomato sauce that remains the best brain dish I've ever had.
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#5 Wilfrid

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Posted 14 December 2009 - 05:08 PM

I was a little disappointed by the Mamounia menu when I was there, simply because I'd been in town for a week and already eaten cous cous and b'stilla several times - the Mamounia was just doing fancy versions of them. I did eat brains and raw liver among the mezes at other places.

Essentially, there were two ways to eat in Marrakesh: traditional Moroccan dishes, which were great if a little repetitive, and a version of 1950s French bistro cooking with the pork replaced by other meats.

#6 Sneakeater

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Posted 14 December 2009 - 05:13 PM

QUOTE(Wilfrid @ Dec 14 2009, 05:08 PM) View Post
great if a little repetitive,


You nailed THAT.
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