Tuesday, February 5, 2013

La Mamounia

The main entrance to La Mamounia.
La Mamounia
by Delia von Neuschatz

If you'd like to leave the cares of the world behind, even if only for just a few days, I highly recommend a stay at Marrakech's fabled La Mamounia hotel, for to pass through its portals is to surrender to a total sensory experience. The establishment strives to cater to all five senses, and in this, it succeeds spectacularly. I recently had the good fortune to spend a week there and this mid-winter break proved to be balm for the soul.
We pulled up in style having been picked up at the airport in one of the hotel’s Daimler Jaguar sedans, custom-painted in the hotel’s elegant signature shade of aubergine. There’s also a fleet of Range Rovers available for day trips to the Atlas Mountains.
Once you step inside La Mamounia's gates, you are ushered away from the intensity of Marrakech's crowded, noisy cacophony and into a veritable oasis filled with lush vegetation, colorful pavilions and soothing fountains.
The grounds immediately inside the front gates.
The hotel’s front doors.
The view from the front steps.
Doormen at the ready.
Immediately upon entering the cool, dim, cedar-scented lobby, my husband and I knew we were in for a unique experience. There’s no standing at a check-in counter while you surrender your passport and sign forms. Bah! Not at La Mamounia. Instead, a sharply-dressed “guest relations officer” quickly whisked us to a pair of plush chairs, took our details and proceeded to check us in while additional staff endeavored to refresh us after our journey by proffering fragrant, moist towelettes, sweet, cold almond milk and dates.

All the while, a musician dressed in traditional Moroccan robes was softly playing a stringed instrument and a fountain was tinkling nearby. This was just what the doctor ordered after an early-morning flight and a long day made even longer by snail-paced customs lines at Marrakech’s Menara airport. No sooner had we taken a sip of the almond milk, than the guest relations rep, having completed the formatlities, came to escort us to our room.
The lobby is centered around the “Statue of the Camel,” a stucco sculpture which dates to 1907 and depicts a fierce African warrior astride his camel about to plunge a spear into a snarling, lunging leopard.
The lobby is composed of several galleries, all with numerous intimate seating areas.
Soft lighting and flowing fountains create a serene atmosphere. Rounding out the sensory experience in the lobby is the pleasing aroma of cedar and rosewood which was custom-blended for the hotel by French perfumer, Olivia Giacobetti, one of the top “noses” in the world.
A huge platter filled with meticulously-arranged dates makes a tantalizing display in the lobby.
The guest room floors converge upon this beautiful marble basin. The passageway leading from the door to the room.
And what a room it was! With its hand-painted doors, intricately-carved plaster moldings, colorful terracotta mosaics, spacious marble bathroom and dappled lighting, every nook and cranny was a pleasure to behold. Best of all was a generously-proportioned balcony looking out over the hotel’s lush grounds and directly onto the snow-capped Atlas mountains. Dazzled by the sunlight, the views, the warm weather (70+ degree temperatures in January) and the sounds of swaying palms and chirping birds, my husband and I ordered some drinks and sank into the cushy patio chairs blissfully looking forward to being taken care of for the next few days.
The sumptuous fabrics were a delight to the eye and to the touch. There’s an abundance of taffeta, silk and velvet at La Mamounia – an incredible 80,000 yards of textiles was used to dress up the hotel. Nor were the linens left to chance. The sheets and bathrobes are from Porthault.
No detail has been overlooked. Even the air conditioning vents above the door are covered with intricately-carved plasterwork. Notice the bunch of grapes. Every day, sweet treats were brought to our room – whether a bowl of fruit or a dish of traditional Moroccan pastries.
A selection of honey, fig and almond sweets brought to our room. Vintage photos of Morocco are tasteful additions to the décor.
A mashrabiya separates the bathroom from the rest of the room. These wooden latticed screens are considered to be ornaments of the rich as they are quite labor intensive to produce. There’s a mashrabiya in each of the bedrooms at La Mamounia as well as in the public spaces.
The view from our south-facing terrace.
The Atlas mountains as seen from the hotel.
All this opulence took time and money of course. It is the result of a three-year, $140 million gut renovation which was completed in 2009 and spearheaded by internationally-acclaimed interior designer Jacques Garcia. Jacques Garcia is the design guru behind the Hôtel Costes in Paris and more recently, the NoMad in New York among many other projects, but La Mamounia has got to be the jewel in his crown. As La Mamounia is one of the world’s great hotels, the stakes were high. The glittering A-list party thrown for the hotel’s re-opening had to be a testament however, not only to the hotel’s iconic stature, but also to the success of Mr. Garcia’s resplendent refit.

Attendees of the star-studded affair included Adrien Brody, Dree Hemingway, Paloma Piccaso, Jose Carreras, Glenda Bailey, Colin Cowie and also:
Clockwise from top left: Salma Hayek; Jennifer Aniston; Gwyneth Paltrow; Juliette Binoche; Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom.
La Mamounia has a long and storied past, having welcomed a stream of illustrious visitors since it opened its doors 90 years ago in 1923. Presidents, prime ministers, royalty, film stars, rock stars and fashion designers have all enjoyed its hospitality. Yves Saint Laurent, for whom Marrakech was a second home, was a habitué of the hotel which, over the years has played host to The Rolling Stones, Charlie Chaplin, George Orwell, Omar Sharif, Charlton Heston, Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Kate Winslet, Will Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Nelson Mandela and Bill and Hillary Clinton can also boast of having patronized the place.

Moreover, like many of her guests, this grande dame has enjoyed a film career herself, making appearances in several movies including Morocco with Marlene Dietrich and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Legend has it that Hitchcock even received the inspiration for The Birds at La Mamounia when he was dive-bombed by a pack of finches on his room’s balcony one fateful day.
La Mamounia in the early part of the 20th century. The hotel originally consisted of two floors and one wing. Several floors and wings have been added on over the years.
But perhaps it is with Winston Churchill that La Mamounia resonated most. The famous statesman began staying there around 1935 and, according to the hotel’s General Manager, Didier Picquot, called it home for many winters thereafter until his death in 1965. In a letter to his wife, Clementine, Churchill described Marrakech as “a wonderful place and the hotel one of the best I have ever used.” Even World War II wasn’t enough to keep the British Prime Minister away. In 1943, after the Allied Conference in Casablanca, Churchill sojourned with Charles de Gaulle and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Marrakech where of course, they stayed at La Mamounia.
Allied leaders (from left) French General Henri Giraud, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, French General Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill at the 10-day Casablanca Conference. The manager of La Mamounia at the time went above and beyond the call of duty when he had a special bed made for Charles de Gaulle in order to accommodate the Frenchman’s towering height. The General was nicknamed “the Great Asparagus” on account of his 6’5” frame.
Churchill, for whom Marrakech had become “the most lovely spot in the whole world,” was keen to show Roosevelt one of his favorite views from atop a tower on the edge of the city.
Roosevelt was so enamored of the scene spread out before him – sunset over the Atlas mountains – that Churchill painted it as a memento of their meeting and presented it to the American president as a gift. Entitled The Tower of Koutoubia Mosque, it hung in Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home until his death, whereupon it passed on to various collectors. This was the only painting which Churchill, an avid amateur painter, executed during the war. It was put up for auction in 2011 for $2.95 million.
The 12th century Koutoubia mosque, which is closed to non-Muslims, towers above all else in Marrakesh and can be seen for miles around. In fact, no building in the city is permitted to exceed the minaret’s height. The minaret serves as a platform from which the muezzin call the faithful to prayer five times a day. As La Mamounia is only a few minutes’ walk from the mosque, light sleepers may want close the sound-canceling shutters at night so as to muffle the sounds of the pre-dawn calls.
Winston Churchill’s rooms on the hotel’s top floor are known as the Churchill Suite. This suite, like all the other rooms in the hotel, was completely gutted during the renovation – stripped down to its cement underpinnings. Lest you forget where you are, there are plenty of reminders. Notice the Churchill-style painting above the sofa ...
... along with the Prime Minister’s portrait and bronze likenes ...
... as well as his name inscribed in Arabic above the bed.
Churchill was enamored of the bright, steady light and the garden views from his suite’s balcony. The legendary 200-year-old gardens feature in several of his paintings displayed in the Churchill War Rooms museum in London.
These gardens – 17 acres in all – are an important part of the hotel’s history for they in fact, were the genesis of La Mamounia. They, along with a riad, or villa, contained therein, were an 18th century wedding gift given by the powerful Sultan of Morocco to one of his four sons, Prince Moulay Mamoun, who is said to have hosted extraordinary parties in the park. The property was still host to glamorous gatherings a century and a half later when, in 1922, spurred by the advent of a new railroad, the riad was acquired by the Protectorate-ruling French and converted into a hotel renamed La Mamounia. At its inception, La Mamounia epitomized the romantic era of early travel when well-heeled guests arrived with retinues and large trunks and settled in for long stays punctuated by leisurely breakfasts, afternoon cocktails and stately dinners for which men dressed in top hats and tails and women came bedecked in their finest gowns and jewels.
The walls encircling the property are actually the city’s 12-century ocher ramparts. Municipal regulations stipulate that buildings must be built or painted in this color in keeping with Marrakech’s nickname “the Red City”.
The gardens have an incredible variety of plants and flowers, making a stroll through them a wonderfully fragrant experience. In addition to 700-year-old olive trees, there are orange and lemon trees, roses, jasmine and almost 2,500 other varieties of flowering plants, including no less than 5,000 rose bushes. There’s also a 16,000-square-foot vegetable “patch” which supplies many of the fresh salad greens used in the hotel’s restaurants.
A staff of 30 tends daily to the grounds.
This menzeh or “place of rest and repose” is located in the middle of the park and is akin to an 18th century French “folly.” Pastries and gelato are served within, making it a lovely spot for afternoon tea.
One of the paths leading from the hotel to the grounds.
Heading back to the hotel up the main garden path.
Now, about that renovation ... "There are only three golden rules about a palace of this standing," said Jacques Garcia, "Elegance, elegance and elegance." And in the process, I would add that the designer has achieved something else which is becoming rather rare in hotels these days and that is an unmistakable sense of place. La Mamounia, with its current modern take on Arabo-Andalusian style, combined with a certain Gallic flair, could only ever exist in Morocco.
Inscribed above the entrance doors in both the Christian and Islamic calendars, is the date of La Mamounia’s construction and the years of its subsequent remodels.
Credit for the success of La Mamounia’s makeover, which wiped out the vestiges of a widely condemned 1980's art deco face lift, must also be largely attributed to the nearly one thousand local artisans and their maâlems or masters who applied their skills to myriad materials in myriad ways. The entire hotel is a testament to their considerable talents. Virtually no surface has been left untouched. Wood, mostly cedar, has been intricately carved, painted and inlaid with exotic woods and mother of pearl. Zellij, the colorful terracotta mosaics which are cut and laid by hand, adorn the walls of every room and much of the public spaces to great effect. Ditto for the delicate, hand-carved stucco on the ceilings (gebs) and for the tadelakt, a Venetian plaster type of wall treatment. Artisans also worked with marble, leather, copper, bronze, nickel and even straw to achieve a level of sophistication, comfort and visual delight which is sure to stand the test of time.
Some of the artisans’ handiwork can be seen in the hallway to our room, from the zellij mosaics to the carved and painted woodwork, to the tadelakt walls.
A close up of some of the handiwork.
A detail of the hand-carved filigree stucco that adorns much of the hotel.
One of the many lulling fountains “sprinkled” throughout the premises.
A lounge area off of the main lobby with a hand-painted ceiling.
Another polychrome ceiling.
I’ve never seen a business center like this.
The tataoui ceiling in the business center. Tataoui is a decorative Berber technique in which bay tree branches are woven in a geometrical pattern.
And that’s not all. The renovation also involved some major structural modifications. The number of keys (rooms, suites and riads) have been reduced from 242 to 210. Changes include the addition of a 27,000-square-foot spa with an indoor pool and hair salon. The main outdoor pool has been considerably enlarged as has the poolside pavilion which serves a buffet breakfast and lunch. The three riads were also expanded to include three bedrooms and a pool each. A new manager, Didier Picquot, was put in place, directing a staff of 760. Renowned chefs were hired as consultants to two of the four restaurants and Le Marocain, the dark, sensuous Moroccan restaurant, is housed in a new three-story pavilion complete with a library, smoking lounge and rooftop bar.
Didier Picquot, the Directeur Général, with his wife, Karin. Paris-born Didier has had an impressive career managing several world class hotels including the Ritz Paris and The Pierre in New York. He has also worked in Asia and the Caribbean. Consequently, he and his wife have raised their two daughters all over the world. Didier arrived at La Mamounia in 2008 in the midst of the refurbishment. The job was especially attractive to him because La Mamounia is not part of a chain. It is the only one in the world and it is completely independent. (He informed me that the hotel is owned by a conglomerate of three shareholders: the national railroad, the city of Marrakech and a Moroccan bank). Didier was also attracted to the challenge of being involved in virtually every aspect of the overhaul. He has had a hand in every imaginable decision, down to the type of pens and stationery in use. Not many hotel managers can claim the same.
The outdoor pool is huge, measuring a luxurious 2,600 square feet. It is an homage to the basin in Marrakech’s famed Menara gardens.
A view of the 12th century Menara Gardens. The pavilion was built in the 16th century.
A buffet lunch laid out in the adjoining Le Pavillon de la Piscine.
A courtyard leading to the spa.
The new indoor pool.
A reflecting pool inside the spa.
A glass-walled state-of-the-art gym is tucked into the gardens ...
... as are two clay tennis courts. (Notice the roses blooming in January.)
There’s another beautiful courtyard leading to a large function room.
The function room/ballroom with a portrait of Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI.
The two-bedroom Al Mamoun suite is pretty spectacular.
The suite is replete with French touches and abounds with artwork.
Occupying this suite will set you back about $6,700 a night.
The hotel also comprises three discreetly-placed riads, each with three bedrooms, its own pool and butler service. What’s the price for all this comfort and seclusion, you wonder? Oh, between $10,000 to $16,000 a night.
A riad’s terrace overlooking the grounds.
A sitting room in one of the riads. VIPs favor the privacy of these villas which can be accessed via a separate hotel entrance.
Each riad bedroom has an en-suite bathroom.
Enriching the aesthetics is a profusion of artwork throughout the hotel.
The Majorelle ceiling was restored during the renovation. Winston Churchill had strongly urged the hotel to commission this mural by Jacques Majorelle after the PM met the fellow French painter during one of his stays at La Mamounia in the 1940s.
The Majorelle ceiling originally hovered above a dining area. It now adorns one of the lobby’s galleries.
Several large-scale original paintings were preserved in the renovation as well. (Some holiday decorations can be glimpsed in the background.)
This bronze statue, the work of a French-Algerian sculptor, represents a Moroccan child. Its twin is on display at the French Ministry of Finance in Paris.
A photo of a doorman taken before the recent revamp.
Yves Saint Laurent imbued his collections with the colors and patterns of southern Morocco after he began visiting Marrakech.
A cozy nook is decorated with illustrations of historical Moroccan dress.
A traditional Arab kaftan and accessories are displayed nearby.
The hotel also boasts three fine dining experiences: Le Français and L’Italien restaurants accessed from the various galleries and Le Marocain situated in its own multi-storied pavilion in the garden. The French and Italian restaurants are supervised by Michelin-starred chefs, but as I love Moroccan food, it was to Le Marocain where I headed on several occasions.
My husband and I enjoyed the restaurant’s “Cuisine Marocaine Contemporaine” so much that we ate there twice during our stay.
Our wait staff at Le Marocain. The service throughout the hotel was stellar.
Live music accompanied our meal.
Sara and Kamilia, two hostesses at Le Marocain. There are more than 170 different styles of uniform at La Mamounia – one created for each position! They were designed by a French fashion designer.
In addition to its restaurants, La Mamounia also has several bars including:
Le Bar Churchill, named for its most famous patron, was left relatively unscathed by the renovation. With its red tufted-leather walls and faux leopard-print carpet, it’s a good place for late-night cocktails. As you’ll notice, smoking is permitted in Marrakech’s bars and (dismayingly for those of us non-smokers), in its restaurants too.
Le Bar Italien in the Majorelle Gallery is a popular place for pre-dinner aperitifs.
With all the bars, restaurants and amenities on hand (did I also mention there are several boutiques and an adjoining casino too?), La Mamounia is in effect, a resort — a self-sufficient one at that — for virtually nothing is contracted out. It makes its own bread, pastries and even chocolate. It does its own laundry and owns its own fleet of cars. It employs its own masseuses, hairdressers, barbers, tennis pros and even ball boys. You never actually have to leave the premises. But if you didn’t, you would miss out on the colors, sounds and smells, the disparities, the intensity that is Marrakech.
Berber water sellers. It’s best not to drink the tap water in Marrakech. Locals drink it with no problem, but tourists may find it difficult to digest. For this reason, it’s also wise to avoid ice cubes. To be on the safe side, opt for bottled water and make sure the cap seal has not been broken.
With 900 students, the Medersa Ben Youssef was once the largest Koranic learning center in North Africa. While its pupils have long gone, it remains a testament to all the fine decorative detailing that characterizes the golden age of Moroccan architecture. More recently, it has had a brush with fame when it was featured in the Kate Winslet movie, Hideous Kinky.
The Saadian Tombs are the suitably glorious burial grounds of a once-powerful 16th and 17th century dynasty which was noted by Edith Wharton for its “barbarous customs but sensuous refinements.” Walled up by a succeeding sultan from a rival sect, the tombs were all but forgotten for some 300 years until 1917 when they were “unearthed” by aerial photography.
The Majorelle Gardens are the legacy of expatriate French painter Jacques Majorelle (who was better known for this park than for his artwork). The gardens, which Majorelle began cultivating in 1924 and opened to the public in 1947, were a popular attraction until his death 15 years later. The property fell into disrepair until 1980 when it was acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé who set about restoring it. Majorelle’s cobalt-blue art deco villa can be glimpsed through the foliage. Today, the building houses a small museum with rotating exhibitions.
This cobalt blue color was inspired by the Berber homes of southern Morocco and is now named after the painter – Majorelle bleu.
Yves Saint Laurent’s simple memorial in the Majorelle Gardens. YSL first visited the Red City in 1962. He eventually bought a villa next to the property, saving the building from a developer’s plan to turn it into an apartment complex. YSL’s ashes were scattered throughout the gardens after his death in 2008.
Djemaa el-Fna is the medina’s (or old city’s) vast central square. It’s a sight to see, populated by snake charmers, monkey trainers, fortune tellers and in the evenings, a multitude of food stalls selling seemingly every dish under the sun.
It’s best to visit Djemaa el-Fna just before sunset for the “dinner theater” of watching chefs set up their stalls.
A profusion of figs, dates, dried apricots and other naturally sweet treats.
Unlike many of the tourists in Marrakech, I had absolutely no intention of buying a rug on this trip, but I’m no match against Moroccan rug merchants, aka “the wiliest salespeople on the planet,” according to my guidebook. So what did I do? Well, I ended up buying not one rug, but two – the Berber one on the right and the blue and gold one on the left, which I was told was an antique. I don’t know about that, I just know that I like the colors and will find a place for it somehow. When it comes to rug buying, or buying anything else in a souk (i.e. bazaar) for that matter, haggling is the name of the game. I spent a part of my childhood in Morocco, so I was no stranger to this dance. I ended up getting both rugs for half of the outlandish price that was first quoted to me for just one rug. Could I have done better? Judging by the alacrity with which the merchants took my credit card and packed up the rugs, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Still, I got them for what I considered to be a fair price – about what I would have paid wholesale in New York – and now I have two rugs I love and some nice memories to boot. I bought these at Chateau des Souks, 44 Souk Semmarine, + 212 (0) 524 42 64 10.
Two rug weavers. Women in rural Morocco traditionally made carpets as part of their dowries. Now, they are mostly made as a source of income.
A variety of wares for sale in the kasbah, or walled royal domain.
Marrakech is known for its leather which is treated by hand in the city’s tanneries.
A wide variety of goods in one of the kasbah shops.
Boxes inlaid with wood and mother-of-pearl.
The brightly-colored, pointy-toed leather babouches or slippers, are traditional Moroccan footwear. They are widely sold in Marrakech.
A merchant showing me his brother-in-law’s paintings.
We hired a private guide to show us the sights. Jamal Ben Kirane can be reached at benkirane_ja@yahoo.fr, + 212 6 61 20 23 68. It’s best to hire an official guide through a trusted source. We enlisted Jamal’s services upon the recommendation of a friend who had recently toured Morocco with his family. Reliable tour guides are also provided by the hotel.
We hailed Abd Sadiq Zerraa outside La Mamounia one day when we were without our guide, to drive us to a few of the sites. Finding Sadiq courteous, trustworthy and reasonably-priced, we ended up hiring him for the duration of another afternoon to take us to the shops in Guéliz, or the New City built by the French outside the walls of the medina after they took over in 1912. Sadiq can be reached at +212 06 68 96 70 55.
On one hand, it was difficult for me at times to square the lavish luxury of palatial digs like La Mamounia with the third world poverty that exists just outside its doors. On the other hand, however, hotels like this provide hundreds of jobs and also help perpetuate the traditions of consummate craftsmanship and artistry involved in their construction and decoration. Tourism is on the rise in Marrakesh after a period of decline thanks to clean-up efforts that began a decade ago. And indeed, the profusion of cranes was a testament to the building boom currently underway in Marrakech which is seeing a massive increase in the construction of hotels, apartments and villas. A staggering 19 new hotels were due to open by the end of 2012 alone, no doubt bringing King Mohammed closer to his goal of attracting 20 million tourists a year to Morocco by 2020, a doubling of the current figures. Hopefully, this surge in development will enrich the fortunes of many.
La Mamounia’s entrance at night.
As for La Mamounia, some have grumbled that too much has been stripped away during its renovation, that it’s a touch theatrical. Everybody’s a critic, right? All I know from this, my first visit to the hotel, is that pictures I’ve seen of the place pre-Jacques Garcia revealed a faded “eighties-tastic” holdout whose best days were in the rearview mirror. I also know that the sights and sounds of La Mamounia have lingered, still staying with me weeks later to the point where I’m trying to figure out when the soonest is that I can return. And when and if I do return, I would like to spend, oh, about a thousand and one nights in this enchanted oasis.