It’s hard to believe, after a short flight from London of less than 4 hours, that Marrakech is this close to home - it is exhilaratingly hot, exotic and so foreign that I fall in love with it instantly.
Marrakech is one of the North Africa’s most exciting cities, and the third largest in the country, after Casablanca and the capital, Rabat. It lies near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, and just a few hours’ drive from the Sahara Desert.
An atmospheric place, it falls into two distinct parts: the Medina (the historical city), and the newer French-era district Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. The Medina is crammed with narrow passageways, local shops and stalls that are full of character. In contrast, Gueliz features wide boulevards with modern restaurants, cafes and big brand stores.
It's a long Spring bank holiday weekend, so we packed our bags and headed to the Royal Mansour Marrakech, owned by HRH the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI. The Royal Mansour is just outside the Medina (the closest gate is only a few minutes walk) and conveniently located near Gueliz district.
Our introduction to the hospitality of the Royal Mansour began as we got off the plane - a hotel representative greeted us as we stepped on the tarmac, taking our passports and whisking us through the VIP immigration service, bypassing long queues of travellers. Only a couple of minutes later, we were away in an air-conditioned Bentley on our way to the hotel. The Royal Mansour Marrakech is a luxury five-star hotel, and part of the Leading Hotels of the World collection. Opened as recently as 2009, it took four years to construct.
It's a project that has not stood still, and after major work earlier this year it re-opened in September 2016 with an extensive new garden, a full-sized pool, and an additional bar and restaurant.
The design of the hotel is rather intriguing – there is no central building or wings, and none of the usual corridors leading to bedrooms or suites.
Rather it consists of 53 individual riads, the traditional Moroccan houses built over two or three floors with a central courtyard surrounded by the kitchen and living areas, with the bedrooms and roof terraces above.
The main reception building has a striking open-air lobby, with several private lounges, a sultry piano room with live jazz singers performing in the evening, and probably the most stunningly designed cocktail bar in the country.
No expense was spared in the construction of the hotel, after all this is the place where the King will host visiting foreign dignitaries, and where the most distinguished weddings and celebrations in the country occur.
One example of this was the construction of a maze of underground tunnels linking the riads, the housekeepers and kitchens, accessed only by staff.
This means that apart from in the main reception area and the dining rooms, guests do not see any of the behind the scenes staff at all.
Our riad was one of the ‘Privilege’ range, with a whopping 430 square metres of space, the central courtyard having a traditional water feature and an electrically retractable glass roof.
Bordering the courtyard was a spacious sitting room as well as a dining room, a bar and a kitchen with a Nespresso coffee machine of which we made ample use.
The riad was lavishly decorated with Moroccan rugs and artifacts.
Our bedroom was one of two available on the first floor. It came with a closet area, and a huge marbled bathroom.
Best of all was the rooftop terrace, with stunning views over the city’s Medina and the Atlas mountains in the distance. It featured a Moroccan tent, a plunge pool, and even a fireplace for the winter months.
Each riad has its own private butler, the charming Saed in our case, who was there to help whenever needed, and served us the most amazing Moroccan mint tea and cakes in the afternoon at the riad.
In charge of 85 chefs and all the kitchens and room service at the Royal Mansour Marrakech is Frenchman and Head Chef Jerome Videau, with whom I had a brief interview. After training in Paris at the Hotel Maurice and Sofitel Arc de Triomphe, he moved to the Royal Mansour where he has been since the hotel opened seven years ago.
Breakfast was perhaps our favourite meal of the day, and we decided to take it at La Table rather than at the riad served by the butler. With a mixture of fine French pastries and cooked Moroccan breakfast dishes that were too tempting to resist, we had a long and leisurely breakfast each morning of our stay.
I loved the Moroccan harira soup, made from tomato and lentil, minced lamb, vermicelli, and chickpeas.
Other favourite local breakfast options included fresh cheese, honey and toasts, and a delicious egg tagine with khlia al assil dried meat.
There was also a selection of Moroccan crepes – harcha and msemen, as well as semolina pancakes with butter and thyme honey.
Arriving on a Friday late morning, we sat down to lunch at the hotel’s Moroccan restaurant, the Grande Table Marocaine. The special dish of the day was a lamb and vegetable couscous (£30 per person), a traditional Friday offering served following afternoon prayers.
The couscous was light as air, the lamb meltingly tender and served with seven vegetables. Also served was homemade harrissa and ‘tefeya’, a delicious accompaniment of raisins, onions, cinnamon and sugar. To drink we were served a glass of chilled, lightly salted cow’s milk yoghurt, a traditional accompaniment to couscous.
The hotel’s wine list is extensive, mainly focused around top quality, first growth Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, with prices to match. Wines by the glass include Moroccan options such as the interesting Coteaux de l’Atlas AOC, Chateau Roslane (£21 per glass), which we thoroughly enjoyed with our lamb tagine.
We returned to La Grande Table Marocaine a couple of times for dinner during our stay. Highlights included the Royal pigeon pastille (£35) – one of the most popular of Moroccan dishes, this is a baked parcel of filo pastry filled with pigeon and almond paste, dusted with cinnamon sugar.
Another highlight was the shank of beef tangia, with potatoes and saffron (£46) was cooked for 36 hours in a traditional amphora-shaped clay pot with olive oil, then served with bone marrow, gnocchi and saffron.
Equally good was a side of vermicelli served with shredded quail, raisins and roasted almonds (£25).
But my very favourite dish was the oustanding M'Hamssa (pearl-shaped pasta) cooked in tajine with clams from Doukkala-Abda. This was delicious, fragrant yet delicate, the clam juices and pasta flavoured with parsley, chives and garlic (£25).
The grilled ravioli of dried meat and garlic (£21) were served in a delectable watercress broth seasoned with gueddid (Moroccan dried meat). This was a lovely rich dish with a concentrated, herbaceous, watercress broth, mildly peppery, with hints of cumin.
And of course we had to try the classic chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives (£32). Served with marigha salt, this was rich and aromatic and by the far the best version this popular Moroccan dish I have ever tried.
The selection of fine French patisserie available in all restaurants was also impressive!
For me, the Moroccan food at La Grande Table Marocaine was outstanding – beautifully presented, traditional yet sophisticated, and bursting with fresh and aromatic flavours. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Marrakech.
Activities In and Around The Royal Mansour
The Royal Mansour – The Hammam Treatment
The hammam is the star of the Royal Mansour Marrakech Spa and is the hotel’s signature treatment, which we were fortunate to try during our stay.
The hammam is based on a bathing ritual that stretches back millennia to at least Roman times, and combines heat, fragranced steam, warm water, and a cold plunge pool to revitalise the body.
In a gently lit pink marble hammam, we were washed and lathered with black soap from head to toe, then scrubbed shiny with a Kessa mitt to scrape away dead skin, all while lying on hot pink marble. I have never felt as clean and shiny as I did after this treatment!
After this, there was a plunge into a cold bath to re-energize, then the therapists led us to a relaxation room to drink mint tea. I left feeling refreshed, revitalized yet relaxed, and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone staying at the hotel or visiting the city.
The Royal Mansour - Relaxing by the Pool and Afternoon Tea
After a couple of hours in the heat of the souk, there is nothing better than lazing by one of the pools at The Royal Mansour. There is an outdoor pool by La Table restaurant, and a much larger indoor pool set within a massive air-conditioned glasshouse as part of the Spa complex. Access to either pool is complimentary for hotel residents, and we made full use of the one in the Spa building.
Each afternoon, complimentary afternoon tea is served by the butler in each riad – a generous selection of delicious, freshly made French pastries, Moroccan cakes and mint tea. The financiers were particularly good – of banana and cinnamon on the first day, chocolate the next.
The Medina – Meandering through the Souks
The Medina of Marrakech is an ancient, wonderfully atmospheric area in which to spend a day or two simply wandering and exploring the sights, sounds and aromas of the old town, seeking out the best bargains.
The souks of Marrakech, radiating from Djemaa El-Fna Square, are where you can buy almost anything – from spices and carpets to shoes, clothes, tagines, lamps and many other items. There are also many cafes, restaurants and hammams scattered throughout the souks.
The square of Djemaa El-Fna, in the heart of the Medina, is a buzzing place to visit at night, with street food stalls, musicians, dancers and story-tellers all vying for your attention.
Koutoubia Mosque, situated between the Hotel Royal Mansour and Djemaa El-Fna Square, is named after the booksellers’ market that used to be there, and at night, it is beautifully lit and a good place for people watching.
The Medina – Visit to Riad Yima Gallery
I first learned of Moroccan pop-artist Hassan Hajjaj a few years ago, when I bought three of his stools made from Louis-Vuitton printed faux-leather over Moroccan paint cans from his studio on Calvert Avenue in London’s Shoreditch.
I was intrigued to hear that he has a gallery within his own Riad Yima in the Medina. It is not the easiest place to find, but when we finally did, I was rewarded with seeing a display of the full range of his artwork, from painting to photography, furniture, shoes and clothes.
I love his blend of pop art with Islamic and Arabic motifs, bold colours and humour, although sadly since my first purchases his prices have gone up hugely. If you would like to learn more about Hassan Hajjaj, or just visit for tea and cake or even stay at his riad, I would recommend a visit either in the Medina or in his London studio.
Gueliz - Yahya Creation
In the heart of the modern district of Gueliz, Yahya Creation is a shop and art gallery displaying some of the incredible metalwork creations of Yahya Rouach.
A London-born man of mixed Jewish-Moroccan and Anglo-German heritage, Yahya now lives between Marrakech and London.
Completely self-taught, his work combines stunningly creative Moroccan design with the very best metalworking craftsmanship.
His most notable patron is King Mohammed VI, who displays Yahya’s pieces in his palaces, and also commissioned him to create some of the massive chandeliers and the stunning cocktail bar in The Royal Mansour. I would highly recommend a visit here.
Gueliz - Jardin Majorelle
Outside of the Medina, in Gueliz, the Jardin Majorelle is a lovely twelve-acre botanical garden, also home to the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech. Designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, it is famous for the special shade of cobalt blue used extensively throughout the gardens and its buildings.
It was owned by Yves Saint-Laurent from 1980 until his death in 2008. The park has a collection of plants from across the globe, including a huge range of exotic cactus species, and is a tranquil spot to spend an hour or two.
The London Foodie was a guest of the Royal Mansour Marrakech, it has maintained however full editorial control over all content published.
From London, EasyJet flies to Marrakech from both Stansted and Gatwick airports. Ryanair has direct flights from Luton and Stansted to Marrakech, and British Airways has direct flight from Gatwick. Prices start from around £100 return. There is a major new airport in Marrakech opening in November 2016.
The Royal Mansour Hotel
Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti
40 000 Marrakech
Riads start at £670 per night. The two-bedroomed ‘privilege’ riad we stayed at costs around £2,000 per night including breakfast.
61, Rue Yougoslavie
Passage Ghandouri, n°49
52 Derb Aajane Rahba Lakdima
Rue Yves Saint Laurent