Mark Nicholls discovers the secrets of Marrakech and it historic medina before retreating to the five star luxury of the Es Saadi Palace.
It is a secret world, bound by ancient red walls; this is the historic medina of Marrakech.
The approach is dominated by the square minaret of the Koutoubia mosque before you disappear into the labyrinth of alleys and passages of the medina, created by 11th century Berber dynasties at a time that Marrakech was the country’s capital and Africa’s key trading hub.
Pale red sandstone is the hue of the souk which is home, shop, hamman, mosque, market and community for those who live and work within it. These are the cornerstones of the medina, not just practical institutions but social pillars where people meet, chat and while away the time over a glass of mint tea.
The alleys are often narrow, but behind ornate doors or down darkened passages lay hidden treasures.
Wander down one and it leads to a community oven – fired by the oven keeper deep in the walls of the medina, it is where locals bring their dough to be raised into bread or have sunflower seeds roasted for a few dirhams.
“Every single neighbourhood has a community oven,” explains my guide Youssef Kharroubi.
Around another corner the souk opens into a small square, a foundouk, which was a hotel for travellers and used by the people of the caravanserai who had travelled up through Africa to trade in Marrakech.
All around are the wares of the medina: pots and pans, spices, ironwork, leather goods, fruit and vegetables, small birds, fabrics and scarves and tucked away in another square a flea market – stalls manned only by women – selling second hand clothes in what we’d happily describe as a jumble sale.
Walk deeper into the network and you come across a 16th century medrese – an Islamic school – with prayer halls and cell-like accommodation for the students.
From the community oven, you don’t have to look far for that other great institution, the hammam, or public bath. We may be familiar with the steam and the cleansing slabs but rarely see what goes into keeping the water hot 24 hours a day.
That task falls to a two-man team, constantly stoking the fires with discarded wood shavings to heat the water and pump it into the hammam.
But in the medina; where there is fire, there is food and the hammam stokers are also experts at slow-cooking the tangia.
Not to be confused with tagines, tangia is a pot similar to a Roman wine vat in shape and the dish – with ingredients of lamb, garlic, cumin, salty butter, citron, olive oil, saffron and a cup of water – is a specialty of Marrakech.
“People bring their tangia to the hammam fire where it is cooked slowly for several hours and then taken home to eat,” explains Youssef. “It is delicious.”
Around every corner, merchants sit in groups, chatting over tea, passing the day, meeting, greeting and socialising whilst about their work. Peer into one shop and a cloth trader sits alone with a pot and an empty glass, awaiting an as yet unknown visitor to drink mint tea, passing the time.
“A lot of these people may not have a watch, but what they do have is time; time to spend socialising and talking while they work and that is the great spirit of the medina,” he adds.
Food and drink underpin life in the medina.
Every so often, there will be tea shops or small openings where the flat, flavoured khobz bread is baked, its savory ingredients hinting of mild spices and herbs, onion and tomato.
Another shop has a different specialty – grilled sardines stuffed with parsley, garlic, coriander and other spices- while a butcher prepares lamb on a slab and another stallholder proffers snails. All is here to taste, to eat, to enjoy.
The medina is not just about sights and smells, but of taste too.
The ‘street food’ is exquisite but there are good restaurants if you know where to look. A black door in the ochre wall gives little away as to what lies beyond. Only a discreet signs suggests it is Le Jardin restaurant and a peep within reveals vivid green floor tiles, neat tables and menus in what is a hidden garden within the medina walls.
Moments later, we are in Marrakech’s vibrant main square, the Jama al Fan’aa, famed for delicious cuisines, musicians, dancers and snake charmers.
And from there, it is a short journey back to the serenity of our hotel, the Es Saadi, a palatial oasis of calm.
As a five-star hotel, the Es Saadi Palace is blissfully peaceful, discreet, romantic and secluded with its pools and restaurants, innovative artwork, and a world-class spa.
Despite being built as recently as 2008, it has the ambience of a much older structure with glazed tile floors, marble halls and a Saharan aura.
A favourite with the Hollywood A-list when they are in town – usually for the International Film Festival every December – people such as Sir Ben Kingsley, Leonardo di Caprio, Martin Scorsese, Sigourney Weaver and Jason Statham have all checked in.
And it has new fame as a setting in the BBC thriller The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman and based on the 1993 bestseller of the same name by John le Carré.
The Es Saadi Gardens & Resort has been passed down through three generations of the Bauchet family with the 84-suite Es Saadi Palace located close to the 152-room Es Saadi Hotel (built in 1966) and the nearby casino.
The Palace’s restaurants offer a diverse dining experience: the Lagon & Jardin Brasserie has al fresco appeal, with the Island Bar in the centre of the expansive lagoon pool (the largest in Marrakech), while the premier restaurant, the Cour des Lion, champions Morocco’s finest dishes with tagines, couscous and seven-hour lamb in oriental spices.
We enjoyed the harira marrakchia soup followed by tagines – the “Sardi” lamb was succulent and fruity with peppers and prunes, with a couscous of sultanas and almonds.
Within the landscaped grounds are also 10 themed villas and eight traditional Ksars, Berber-influenced private duplex villas.
Yet a real gem is the Es Saadi Palace Spa with a Dior Institute – one of only two in the world – and offering treatments ranging from facials and massages through to specific, innovative and invigorating therapies that rejuvenate, revive or simply pamper.
Situated over three floors, it was winner of the World Luxury Spa Awards in 2014.
Marrakech is a magical city to visit for a romantic getaway with gardens such as the Jardin Majorelle – gifted to the city by Yves St Laurent – museums, mosques and monuments.
But only a short distance away is the serenity Es Saadi Palace, a luxurious serene hotel whose name translates as “the blissful one.”
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