Magic behind marrakesh
The city's façade is spectacular enough, but an enticing itinerary reveals another world beyond the obvious, writes Lee Cobaj
Marrakesh is the kind of city where the best things are behind closed doors, Rosena Charmoy tells me, as we drink Champagne in a candle-lit, rose-filled courtyard.
This petite Irish lady knows her stuff. Rosena and French husband Frederic are the force behind Marrakesh's exclusive concierge service Boutique Souk, whose clients are a jet-setting lot. Organising a wedding in a thousand year-old palace or a party in the desert for 200 hipsters is all in a day's work for this dynamic duo, so my un-diva-like demands to stay in a traditional riad-style hotel where I could shop till I dropped are easily met.
My mundane request is suitably sprinkled with stardust and I find myself checking into the exquisite La Sultana, a mini-masterpiece of Moroccan craftsmanship, its narrow, polished-plaster passageways laced with hand-carved plaster reliefs, painted woods and shimmering mosaics all overarched with beautiful plants and flowers. It's hidden away behind giant carved doors an olive lob away from the King's palace.
Each of the 28 rooms is inspired by animals and precious marbles. I land within the shiny grey walls of the Elephant room with an Arabian princess bed adorned with pink silks and faux elephant tusks, a marble fireplace and a four-poster jacuzzi bath. It takes all of 10 seconds to fall in love with it.
My shopping itinerary is equally enticing. The next morning, following a poolside breakfast of Berber omelette, sesame bread and mint tea, I'm met by a man in a pewter-coloured, pointy-hatted djellaba. Hafid is to be my shopping guide for the day and turns out to be the Obi-Wan Kenobe of Marrakesh. Hollywood set-designers and fashion magazine scouts have his number on speed-dial and there's not an olive seller or master craftsman that he doesn't know about.
We start our tour in Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the walled old city - a vast space where Berber storytellers vie with musicians, fortune-tellers, snake-charmers and dentists for the attention, and dirhams, of one and all.
It's an ear-bashing assault on the senses and I quickly realise my guide is worth his weight in gold, given the relentless sales pitches that assail non-escorted shoppers. Hafid steers me through the maze of souks past metal-workers and carpenters, tile-cutters and plaster carvers, silk-spinners and cloth-dyers, offering up incredible treasures hidden down inconspicuous alleyways behind secretive carved wood doors instead.
Our first stop, Akbar Delights, is an upmarket lair of glittery things, mostly gorgeous kaftans made from Indian silks and embellished with needlework, beads and stones, but also embroidered footwear and chic evening bags. The flowing cashmere coats at traditional Moroccan clothes shop Lourika Boutique inspire an entire winter wardrobe rethink, while a whole afternoon could have been dedicated to exploring the argan oil-based beauty products at Assouss Argane.
I'm surprised to see all the prices are fixed but Hafid says: "The sellers have a lot of experience when it comes to haggling, they're very persistent and a lot of the time you will pay more than is fair. Better to go to reputable shops where the prices are fixed and correct."
Given the enchanting Berber architecture, lunch with a view is essential and the sprawling purple-tinted rooftop at Terrasse des épices (souk Cherifia) fits the bill perfectly. I fuel up on zingy tangine and spicy lamb skewers, while gazing over the ochre-coloured rooftops towards the snow-topped Atlas Mountains. I could linger all day but I have an appointment at renowned carpet sellers Chez Les Nomades to check out antique textiles. Like most Moroccan buildings, it looks nondescript. Inside its unmarked doors though, you'll find more than 10,000 carpets and kilims from some of the 220 tribes of the Atlas spread across the floor, rolled into towers. Collectors and designers have been known to spend a week here looking for that perfect piece but it only takes me five minutes to spot a feathery-soft cream and black number from the Middle Atlas region that would look perfect in my bedroom.
I start the next day amid the lily ponds, exotic plants and lemon yellow and neon-midnight blue pathways of the beautiful Majorelle Gardens, the final resting place of Yves Saint Laurent. It's best enjoyed before the crowds arrive so I soon slope off for more behind-closed-doors shopping.
It's a lot calmer than the previous day, with a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and curated list of shops to explore. First stop is Mustapha Blaoui, described by Rosena as "the Ikea of Marrakesh" - if only Ikea was this chic. Every inch of the warehouse is piled with floor-to-ceiling covetables from silver candlesticks to camel-bone cabinets, to pots and bowls and coloured-glass lanterns.
Shipping is easily arranged. But there's still space in my suitcase so I meander along to Topolina, a French-owned atelier that "upcycles" vintage pieces into a sharp Moroccan style - think shimmering blue 1960s shift dresses adorned with ornate brocade or Red Riding Hood capes trimmed with tassles.
After a stop at the new Selman Hotel for a chic Med-Moroc lunch, it is time to explore some smaller by-appointment only emporiums. I stop at Minestero del Gusto, a surrealist riad, part art gallery, part boutique, where the owners, former Italian Vogue editor Alessandra Lippini and partner Fabrizio Bizzarri, serve up vintage fashions and funky one-off furniture pieces to impossibly rich. Next up is the tiny Lalla studio, with its buttery-soft leather purses, pouches and handbags - Gwyneth Paltrow and Sarah Jessica Parker are big fans. I can see why and finger the merchandise before settling on a suede drawstring bag and neon-edged iPad cover.
My last stop is to the Donalé studio, which supplies Joyce Hong Kong and Scoop New York - and Kate Moss, Madonna and Elle Macpherson - with ultra-chic kaftans and delicately embroidered tunics. I toy with baby-soft cottons from Egypt, silks from Rajasthan and intricate brocade from Fez.
Brimming with bags and having sated my appetite for shopping, I retreat to La Sultana to immerse myself in the pool before taking in the early evening sunshine on a mountain of cushions on the roof terrace. Dinner is a glorious technicolour affair at Le Comptoir, a low-lit dining room which transforms at the stoke of 10 into a wildly fun bar-stroke-club complete with belly-dancers and a live band. The delicious fusion - French Moroccan Asian - and the spectacular show are the perfect finishing touches to my trip.
WHERE TO STAY
La Sultana, Rue de La Kasbah, Marrakesh, Morocco
Tel: +212 5243 88008
Tel: +212 6613 24475
Boutique Souk is a private travel service for Marrakesh and Morocco providing complimentary concierge services and bespoke itineraries, www.boutiquesouk.com
WHERE TO SHOP
Akbar Delights, Place Bab Ftueh, Medina, Marrakesh, www.akbardelights.com
Assouss Argane, 77 Mouassine, Marrakech, www.assoussargane.com
Chez Les Nomades, Kaat Ben Nahid, Zaouiat Lahdar, Marrakesh, +212 524 381845
Donalé, by appointment only Lalla, Souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz, Medina, Marrakesh, www.lalla.fr
Lourika Boutique, Daffa Warbaa, Semmarine, Marrakesh, +212 524 440965
Minestero del Gusto, 22 Derb Azzouz, Mouassine, Marrakesh; www.ministerodelgusto.com
Mustafa Blaoui, Bab Doukkala, Medina, Marrakesh, +212 524 385240
Topolina, 436 sidi ghanem, 134 Dar El Bacha, Marrakesh, +212 651 345795
WHERE TO EAT
Le Comptoir, Avenue Echouhada, Hivernage, Marrakesh, www.comptoirmarrakech.com
Terrasse des épices,15 Souk Cherifa, Sidi Abdelaziz, Medina, Marrakesh, www.terrassedesepices.com
The Selman Hotel, Km 5, Route dmizmiz, Marrakesh, www.selman-marrakech.com