Travel: GARDENS OF PARADISE
Venetia van Kuffeler discovers why La Mamounia in Marrakech continues to enchant and captivate its guests
Christened the ‘Paris of the Sahara’ by Winston Churchill, Marrakech has long held an allure for travellers. Hot, exotic and steeped in history, the city is easy to reach from the UK, and has hundreds of hotel offerings for all budgets. The glimmering gem in the hotel crown is La Mamounia, a grand hotel that has been part of the city’s appeal for the past century. Found in a garden originally given by a Sultan to his son Prince Al Mamoun as a wedding gift in the eighteen century, La Mamounia first opened its doors as a hotel in 1923, offering a unique mix of Arabic architecture and art deco style.
Located in the heart of Marrakech, just a stone’s throw from Jemaa El-Fnaa Square, the hotel became legendary over the years, hosting the ‘who’s who’ of international royalty, politicians, celebrities and the jet set, including Charlie Chaplin, Edith Piaf, Ray Charles and Yves Saint-Laurent. Even World War II could not keep regular visitor Churchill away: after the Allied Conference in Casablanca in 1943 he enjoyed a stay at La Mamounia with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle.
Churchill described the gardens as “the loveliest spot in the whole world,” and it’s not difficult to see why. The 17-acre gardens feel close to paradise: 100-year-old olive trees are interspersed with 1,200 plant species, an abundance of fragrant flowers, immaculate lawns, orchards of orange and lemon trees, with electric blue jacaranda trees and palms towering overhead. Terrapins basking in the midday heat surround lily-clad ponds, and the sound of birdsong is enough to cheer even the weariest of souls.
An idyllic haven amidst the bustling market city, yet La Mamounia is ideally located within a few minutes’ stroll of the famous souks, twelfth century Koutoubia Mosque and the city walls.
An extensive restoration project by internationally acclaimed interior designer, Jacques Garcia, led to La Mamounia’s reinvention in 2009, when 135 stylish guest rooms and 71 suites were unveiled. Ideal for private parties, three magnificent riads – each with three bedrooms, private terrace and swimming pool – lie within the gardens.
A stay at La Mamounia is a visual experience, with a dramatic play on light between indoor and outdoor spaces. Dark and cool inside, spaces are lit with beautiful lanterns and stained glass windows. Intricately carved pillars made from natural clay mix with mosaic-clad courtyards with beautifully contrasting tilework streaming with daylight. Wherever you are, there’s the enchanting sound of running water, a symbol of life, and fragrances of jasmine, orange blossom, cedar and powerful leather offer delights for the nose.
Our suite on the seventh floor had a double terrace to enjoy the views of the gardens, the city and Atlas Mountains beyond. Eye-wateringly beautiful, a magnificent carved, arched doorway led from sitting room to sumptuous bedroom. For relaxation and pampering, there’s the hotel’s world-famous 2,500 square metre spa, and the sparkling Murano glass-bottomed pool tempts guests in for a dip.
Moroccan hospitality began the moment we arrived with a presentation of traditional Bedouin delicacies of almond milk and dates, and reached a crescendo at Le Marocain, one of the hotel’s four restaurant offerings. Sat in the candle-lit courtyard in the fragrant evening air, surrounded by 30 foot walls draped in bougainvillea, we enjoyed pigeon and lobster pastillas, followed by monkfish tagine with fennel, red olives and saffron for me, and a traditional minced beef tagine with soft egg for him. Spectacular food, paired with some excellent Moroccan wines. Although a Muslim country, the first vines are said to date back 2,500 years, but it was during the French Protectorate (1912-56), that the wine industry in the country was transformed.
A majestic example of traditional Moroccan hospitality, it is not difficult to see why La Mamounia continues to enchant and captivate its guests today. Months later, the architecture, the views, the gardens, the sound of birdsong coupled with the call to prayer and the aroma of date candles, remain vivid in my mind.
La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco T: +212 5243-88600
E: email@example.com www.mamounia.com
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