Wow! Ms Raccoon has landed back on earth as inhabited by mere mortals – with a sickening thud. Mr G’s days of popping her into a camper van, parking it on some remote Portuguese hilltop and calling that a holiday are over. I have seen – and experienced – how the ‘other half’ live, and sent him out to buy a raft of lottery tickets this morning – and he’d better win, if he knows what’s good for him. We have had a fabulous time in Marrakech.
We were extraordinarily lucky – I had become overwhelmed with looking at different Riads on the Internet – they all looked wonderful, luxurious, interesting, but with no idea of how to chose between one or another, I dithered. Then I remembered from some dim recess (most of my recesses are dim, as it happens) that a designer I was once a great fan of years ago had a Riad in Marrakech, and on the off chance, I Googled her name, and sure enough, there was the Riad. No indication of whether it was available to rent, so I e-mailed her. Actually, she said, it was her home for six months of the year, and she did rent it occasionally to friends and family, and ‘since I was a fan of hers’ – she would rent it to me. For a sum of money that I couldn’t get Bed and Breakfast for in England – so a deal was struck.
‘Mr Abedhadi would meet us at the airport’, and he did, in a vehicle so opulent, that even Mr Gs eyes were wide open. This is alright we thought – obviously Mr Abedhadi was used to greeting her wealthy friends and we got the same treatment. Marrakech is nothing like the Tangiers I remembered from years ago, it is now a hugely expensive and ultra smart jet set town. We drove down wide palm lined streets, past magnificent mansions – and swung into the old walled Medina. Nothing can prepare you for the Medina, not even having taken a wrong turning in Naples years ago, and finding myself in the warren of the Naples slums.
The Riads of the Medina are all built round an open central courtyard, some 50′ square. That is where the light comes from – there are no windows looking out of the buildings, all windows overlook the courtyard; thus there is no reason not to build another house right up against the wall, and one in front, and one behind, and ones back and front – eventually they have ended up with a couple of thousand houses, to which the only entrance is a narrow tunnel way leading from a heavy door in a slightly wider tunnel way….but at the end of each tunnel is a world that you cannot imagine.
Utterly cool – so many other houses protecting you from the heat; totally silent, you can hear nothing of the chaos in the streets surrounding the Medina, just the birds which congregate on the flat roof terraces; lush with vegetation all drawn upwards towards the central light, and watered by the marble fountain – the original water supply – which is a feature of each house. Each of the houses has four identical first floor ‘apartments’ of two or three rooms, with a separate staircase to each – one for each of your wives, with a grand apartment leading onto the courtyard for the master of the household, and then separate rooms for the kitchen, and the maid, and butler. Did I mention that the deal included the maid, the cook and the butler – Mr Abedhadi? Or that their sole function in life was to attend to our every whim? No? I should have done. And that had we booked into one of the widely advertised Riads, that the other apartments would have contained a selection from a mixed bag of excitable Australian backpackers, dour late night drinking Germans, or half dressed Dutch girls. We had our Riad all to ourselves. Just us and the ever attentive Mr Abedhadi and Saida, who hovered hidden from view, just waiting for the sound of a glass being put down that might need refilling, or a cigarette being stubbed out that might necessitate a clean ashtray. Blimey!
The streets are so narrow that our limousine had to drop us some 300′ from the Riad, and Mr G looked considerably alarmed as we emerged from our air conditioned comfort into a melange of donkeys, scooters, hand pulled carts and hundreds of bustling people in strange garb. It was hot, dusty – and filthy. The Riads change hands for millions of Euros, they can be unspeakably luxurious, but no matter how much you pay, you have no choice but to enter in the same way, through the maze of tunnels, past the rotting vegetables, the beggars, the heaving mass of humanity. There are no ‘smart areas’ of the Medina. I had my foot run over by a donkey before we had gone 50′. Mr G was harrumphing like a good’un by the time we reached a door covered with graffiti, and adjoined by the requisite pile of rotting food. Ye Gods, what had I booked us into?
You cannot imagine the shock as the door swings open to reveal grandeur beyond belief. A world where every square inch is decorated with silver, hung with jewell coloured tassels, turquoise mosaics, elaborate mirrors, vast sofas packed with dozens of cushions, and cool tiled floors relieved with hand woven Berber carpets. You feel as though you have walked through Alice’s magic looking glass.
And we were ‘just slumming it’ at that point; little did we know! We were hot and tired – I do loath Ryanair with a passion! Mr Abedhadi had pointed out another filthy doorway several alleyways before our final resting point. ‘Very good French restaurant’, he said. Mr G’s ‘tether’ looked dangerously near its end point; hungry and bewildered is not a flattering state for him, so I asked if a reservation could be made for us. Recognisable food and a decent glass of wine usually brings him round. The Hell with the cost! We could go native tomorrow.
By the time we had showered and changed, and made our way downstairs, there was Mr Abedhadi, all ready and waiting to lead us back to The Foundouk. We had a superb meal – we hadn’t realised that the restaurant was owned by the previous Head Chef of the Mamounia, not that this would have meant anything to us. A wonderful candle-lit evening, fabulous food, and a bottle of excellent Moroccan Merlot and Mr G was restored to his normal equitable self. Slightly fish out of water, but coping well…
It wasn’t even an arm and a leg, as I had feared. Say £25 a head? We should have asked the restaurant to telephone Mr Abedhadi, and demand he collect us, but unused to our own personal flunkey, we thought – how hard can it be to walk a few hundred yards? Especially accompanied by my own ancient mariner/navigator/bodyguard? Huh!
The ancient mariner is used to scanning the horizon looking for landmarks, and indeed he had. Trouble was, the landmarks had all gone home for the night! The donkey cart laden with tassels where we turned right was tucked up in his stable for the night; the cobbler with the display of brightly coloured shoes where we had gone left had pulled down his rusty blind – identical to every other rusty blind – and departed to his own harem. There was much harrumphing and surreptitious shoe lace tying on identical corners before the ancient mariner let out a wail of despair and admitted that he had failed in his self appointed task as the man who knows everything, Lord protector of his woman, and was totally and irredeemably lost in the unlit Medina. He didn’t take it well. Most undignified, to tell the truth. He finally had to lower himself to that incorrigibly shameful status of ‘asking another man for directions’. Oh woe was he! ’Another man’ turned out to be a young Marrakechi who led us a mere 10 yards from where we were standing in what appeared to be a full circle, and delivered us back to Mr Abedhadi for the princely sum of 2 Euros….. I thought it was a bargain under the circumstances, and I’m sure Mr G will come to realise that it was, in the fullness of time. Just don’t mention it to him for a couple of years at least.
The next morning, after a night in the sumptuous bed, we dined on fruits and yoghourt, a variety of freshly made breads, and coffee – Mr Abedhadi even shot out and milked the local goat or something so that Mr G had milk in his coffee, and there was a flicker of pleasure on my dearly beloved’s face once more. He was so taken with the tiled wet room that he took a second shower in 12 hours without once pulling a face. Ancient Mariners don’t like getting wet – it is a sign of something having gone drastically wrong. He even agreed that the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at 4am – 4am! – was quite a charming interruption to his night’s sleep, so long as he didn’t do it every bloody night. Unfortunately, he did. Without fail.
We found our way to the Jemaa el-fna souk in the morning, and wandered for hours amongst the spices and tassels, kaftans and camel harnesses, tourists and traders, goat’s heads and mint tea wallahs, brass trays and hashish. There must be several thousand traders, and you could lose yourself for days in there. We nearly did, eventually spying a gateway to the outside world, and a cafe with a cool terrace where we sat out the afternoon sun soothed by yet more mint tea. I thought Mr G took to this sybaritic lifestyle remarkably well. I had more surprises ahead of me….
We had arranged to meet a friend of mine who was also in Marrakech for a couple of days at the same time. Rather a wealthy friend as it happens. Make that exceedingly wealthy. He had promised to take us to ‘the best Thai restaurant in town’ and drive us round to see some of the sights. I thought it would be a suitable time to give the beautiful Thai silk kaftan that another friend had given me, an airing. Not too many opportunities to don something as extravagant as that – think Liz Taylor in ‘over the top’ mode – in rural France. Oh, dearie me, just as well I did! I was about to find out how the ‘beautiful people’ lived….
We met at the Es Saadi Palace Hotel. It’s only a couple of thousand dollars a night to stay there. The Es Saadi family own the glamorous Casino next door, a mecca for Saudi Princes and their entourage letting their hair down. It’s a riot of brass and full sized ceramic elephants, extravagantly dressed flunkeys, arms dealers and excruciatingly thin blondes turned walnut coloured from hours on the roasting racks besides the triple olympic sized pool(s!) waiting for the shady oil deals to be conducted, and their ‘services’ to be required again. A family of ten could move into one of the sofas and invite all their friends round. The Thai silk kaftan just waltzed through the lobby looking born to the task, even though it was only five o’clock in the afternoon. Thank you Gloria! The usual jeans and tea-shirt probably wouldn’t have been allowed through the front door.
We all agreed that it was not quite our cup of tea, but worth seeing just for a tour of the gardens. A true oasis – but we were still ‘slumming it’. We moved onto The Mamounia – and I died and went to heaven. Out of this world decadence and glamour. The Mamounia is the polar opposite of the Es Saadi Palace. Quiet, peaceful, and unashamed old fashioned elegance. Apparently Churchill used to spend his winters there, painting in the wonderful gardens. I can understand why, and I may even buy a lottery ticket this winter. I have no idea how much they charge for one of their damson and plum velvet baroque suites of rooms, but it would be worth it. I have no idea because they don’t publish their prices – if you have to ask, you can’t afford it as they say. The staff:resident ratio must be about 20:1. If you sneezed, someone would present you with a perfectly laundered pristine white linen kerchief before you had time to say ‘Bless me’. It is the only time in my life I have ordered a Kir and been presented with the bottle of white wine for my approval before two flunkeys mixed the Kir to my exact requirements. Mind you, Mr G was sipping a fresh strawberry Bellini and he doesn’t even like champagne…
From the Mamounia we went onto an even more salubrious establishment. Yes! We were still ‘slumming it’! The Es Saadi and the Mamounia would let anyone in so long as they dressed the part, but our next port of call was really special. Hotel is not the right word for it, the Amanjena is a collection of 40 spectacular connecting villas behind gated and guarded doors. You don’t just pop in there for a quick cocktail! It was built by an American architect with an unlimited budget, and obviously designed for visiting royal families with an immense retinue. Each villa has its own swimming pool, heated naturally, and saunas, just in case you don’t want to visit one of the collection of (again!) Olympic sized swimming pools. Vast sofas piled with cushions lie under cupolas to shield you from the heat, with ’his and hers’ straw hats thoughtfully laid out in case you need to brave the sun for a moment or two. Of course there is an open fire beside your personal swimming pool – you might be there in a mere 20 degrees in the winter and still want to sit in your private garden.
The villas are built round a lake which itself is the size of several pools. Interconnecting Roman viaducts run between them. The contours of the golf course shield it from the surrounding desert. The attention to detail is astonishing; I sat by the lake in the dusk and realised that the roof height of each villa is slightly lower than its neighbour, each palm tree is slightly younger than its neighbour, and even the spotlights on the palm trees were adjusted fractionally lower as the villas blended away into the horizon- just to increase the sense of perspective.
There are four different restaurants, Thai, Italian, Moroccan and French, no need to ever leave its secure grounds in search of variety. All thoroughly over staffed, all serving exquisite food, and yes, that did prove to be the promised ‘best Thai restaurant in town’ – and it was! Of course the staff in the Thai restaurant were all Thai – and I’m sure that in the French restaurant they would all have been French – this was fantasy land for immensely wealthy people who do not feel the need to experience real life.
Which is probably why the Mamounia was my favourite by a long chalk. That was real life as you would wish (you could afford) it to be. But you know what? The next night we were so tired that we opted to have dinner in our little Riad and we discovered that Saida, the little cook that we only saw scuttling in the shadows, was a fantastic cook. She produced a fabulous five course Moroccan meal that was served on a damask cloth scattered with rose petals, in a court yard lit by dozens of candles, to the sound of the evening birds and the muezzin, in our own private world. She was clearly nervous and peered anxiously through her window as we tasted each dish, Mr Abedhari had obviously told her that we had dined at The Foundouk and then the Amenjena.
We enjoyed it so much that we opted to do the same thing again the next night, on my birthday. It was wonderful again. Saida couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. She was, Mr Abedhari told us, very, very happy.
Saida’s bill was all of 50 euros for the two nights.
Highly recommended. You just have to survive Ryanair. Mr G would like to recommend a long piece of string if you want to get home again.
Still home again – I do believe we have some fish fingers in the freezer. *Sighs*.