Marrakech is just a few hours from London, but it seems a thousand years away as you step into an ancient world. Now I understand why so many writers, designers, and those searching for themselves have fallen in love with the place. Writer Paul Bowles, Yves Saint Laurent and Talitha Getty (remember the iconic 60s photograph of fabulous flower child Talitha and her husband, on a Marrakech roof terrace), have all been spellbound by the evocative beauty of Morocco. It is magic. It is like finding yourself an extra in some exotic movie set, be it Casablanca or Hideous Kinky or the Sheltering Sky.
After all the imaginings, I finally got to go there for the first time recently with a photographic crew to do a couple of fashion stories. We stayed in the magical Riad Edward, which is in the heart of the medina. Our luggage was taken from the car and dragged through the laneways on a trolley past donkey carts and smoking streetside grills. The Riad meanders over many levels, built around a breathtaking central courtyard replete with a cool swimming pool open to the sky. Wonderful old tiles line the walls, Bougainvillea climbs the sides of the building and on the roof terrace you can see over the rooftops of Marrakech.
The bedrooms are uniquely decorated, with old rugs and antique furniture, all wonderfully atmospheric and somewhat shabby. Not the perfect modern amenities of an homogenised hotel chain, it is quirky, endearingly old and utterly charming. Yes, the hot water is erratic and the facilities a little rundown but it was once the private home of the Englishman who still owns it, and there is something very personal and mysterious about the place. You are awakened very early just before dawn by the extraordinary chanting call to prayer that echoes across the city from the mosques. Apparently, some people complain about this, which makes you wonder why they bother to travel in the first place.
Here in the midst of the old medina, you can wander in a thousand tiny lanes and streets full of people wearing traditional hooded djellabas. Battered taxis drive alongside donkeys carts and you may need a guide to find your way through all the tiny alleyways of the souk, the fascinating markets that spread from the central square Jemma Al Fnaa, famed for its musicians and snake charmers, which evoke both charm and an underlying sense of menace.
The same owner has just completed a new luxury country property in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, about an hour out of Marrakech, and it is an equally magical experience. Called Kasbah Bab Ourika, it is made of rammed earth along the traditional lines of the Berber villages that surround it. In an amazing setting overlooking an unusually green valley (due to recent rains), it’s truly picturesque with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains looking like a painted backdrop in the distance.
We arrived on a fresh March day, the sky a shiny clear blue the sun dazzling and warm while in the distance the snow gleamed on the Mountain tops. Having just been built, there were some heating and plumbing problems. Yet the location evokes the garden of Eden and the food is really excellent. After dinner in the chill night air, it is a delight to find a fire crackling in your fireplace. It shimmers on in your memory beckoning you back.