A long weekend in Marrakech with Jasper Conran

The interiors wizard, womenswear designer and avocational hotelier divulges favourite souk haunts, top Sunday brunches and cultural gems to Charlotte Sinclair

Jasper Conran at the Caidal palace he turned into L’Hôtel Marrakech
Jasper Conran at the Caidal palace he turned into L’Hôtel Marrakech

“I first visited Marrakech in 1984. It was a place so utterly unfamiliar it was as if I’d been transported on a magic carpet back to the 12th century. In the intervening years, little has altered; the colourful street life, the richness of the medina, the people in traditional dress – it’s just as beguiling as it was then. After my initial visit I kept coming back year after year, because it’s a place to come back to – not least when it’s grey in London

I always wanted to have a house here, but when I thought about how much work it might take to run it, I decided I’d buy one and turn it into a hotel. We looked at around 70 riads, tramping around the medina until we found a place that was formerly a Caidal palace. Being a palace it had much larger dimensions than a normal riad, particularly in the five bedrooms, which gave it a very spacious, peaceful feeling. I decorated L’Hôtel in an elegant, vaguely 1930s style – there are striped chairs, inlaid mirrors, a jewel box of a hammam and a small cocktail bar – and filled it with furniture, mostly antiques, hunted out in the exhausting heat of a Moroccan summer or bought at auction; some pieces were acquired from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve created. 

The Berber Museum in the Jardin Majorelle
The Berber Museum in the Jardin Majorelle

I also like everything about Berber Lodge, a hotel in a remarkable setting 20 minutes outside Marrakech, on the edge of the ancient village of Oumes. You bump along a track for a mile, thinking, ‘Where the hell are we going?’, before suddenly emerging into an oasis of green. It’s the work of a very entertaining French-Swiss architect called Romain Michel-Menière, who also created Kasbah Bab Ourika in the Atlas Mountains. There are nine little cottages with pink clay walls and rush thatch roofs, very simply but exquisitely done, and set in a garden of olive trees. It’s very civilised, the food is traditional – tagines and the like – but utterly delicious, and it’s a real respite from the city.

I’ve never actually stayed at the Royal Mansour, but for luxury it is beyond compare. The rooms are not rooms but private riads within the hotel grounds, which are extensive, with a swimming pool and lovely, shaded gardens. Worth doing is the traditional hamman experience in the spa; my sister and a friend of mine tried it and came back utterly glowing and looking 30 years younger. That alone is surely enough reason to go.

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We eat out a lot in Marrakech. A good place is The Grand Café de la Poste, a spot of French loveliness in Guéliz, an area just outside the medina. People think it’s all just modern high-rises, but Guéliz has a lot to commend it, including some very refined 1930s architecture. We go there for traditional French bistro food such as steak frites. Every now and again you want a chip and a glass of house red. 

It’s always worth sitting somewhere with a view in Marrakech and the Café de France, overlooking the wonderful square of Jemaa el-Fnaa in the heart of the medina, is the place to have a glass of mint tea. Go in the late afternoon to watch all the beehive activity that goes on in the square: the stallholders setting up their food stations at extraordinary speed, the amazing street theatre of the snake charmers and storytellers. From here you’re part of it, but not in the midst of it. 

Le Jardin Secret was restored by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith
Le Jardin Secret was restored by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith

I love eating at these food stalls. Each is numbered and it’s worth wandering among them as night falls, through the smoke and noise and atmosphere of the square. It’s a very intimate experience, sitting shoulder to shoulder with locals on plastic stools or trestle tables. I suggest stall number 98, which has the best fish and chips in town. I’ve never asked what kind of fish it is, but it’s delicious. At number 47 they serve excellent tanjia. Not to be confused with tagine, this is real working men’s food and a speciality of Marrakech. It’s a simple lamb or beef stew made with preserved lemon, cumin and saffron, slow-cooked in clay pots that have been placed in the ashes of the furnaces that heat the city’s hammams. It is wonderful. Then you should finish your meal with a spiced tea – it’s sold everywhere on the food stalls and is a great digestif.

By contrast, another delicious thing to do is to go and have the Sunday brunch buffet by the pool at La Mamounia. If you’ve spent the morning in the busyness of the souk, it’s a relaxed place to escape to, and the spread is excellent, comprising north African classics – aubergine salads, hummus, couscous, etc – along with lobster, seafood and oysters. The international dishes are especially welcome if you’ve got to that inevitable point when you’ve had enough tagines.

The Grand Café de la Poste serves traditional French bistro food such as steak frites
The Grand Café de la Poste serves traditional French bistro food such as steak frites

In outfitting my hotel, I found wonderful things in The Khalid Art Gallery, an institution of good taste and treasures run by the antiques collector, Khalid Moin. Shopping there is quite a costly experience, but to see good things it’s the best place. They have marvellous Berber costumes, Moroccan artefacts, inlaid mirrors, antique busts, tables, colonial sofas, fountains, paintings – you name it.

The Jardin Majorelle bookstore has an extremely good selection of art and interiors titles, books about Moroccan places and history, Maghreb culture and cooking. It’s a very well-curated collection – and, of course, you’re in the Jardin Majorelle, which is a lovely spot to sit and read. For very fine, very plain cotton kaftans and shirts and velvet jackets there’s a place called Beldi in the medina. The kaftans are great to wear in the heat. My favourite shop in all Morocco is also in the souk here; it has no name, but it’s a stall selling wooden spoons made of lemon and olive wood, in all different sizes and shapes and very inexpensively priced. They’re such gorgeous objects and this place is really special. But here’s a tip for shopping in the souk: whatever price the seller first offers, you should actually pay about half of it. I don’t want anyone writing to me saying it didn’t work, but it’s good to go armed with a rule of thumb – and always just walk away if the price isn’t right. There’s a real art to bargaining and stall owners will think you’re mad if you don’t do it. 

The Khalid Art Gallery is an emporium of Moroccan treasures
The Khalid Art Gallery is an emporium of Moroccan treasures

And I think if you’re going to Morocco, you want to buy Moroccan things in the souk: dried rosebuds, spices, olives. It’s worth getting a proper guide so you don’t get lost. We use Mustapha Chouquir for our guests – he is a brilliant source of information and very friendly. 

For culture, I recommend the Berber Museum in the Jardin Majorelle, the museum that houses over 600 objects from Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent’s tribal collection. Costume always imparts insights into a culture and the decorated Berber clothing here is really fascinating. Marrakech, and the Jardin Majorelle, are obviously intimately connected to Yves Saint Laurent. The brand new Musée Yves Saint Laurent, dedicated to his life and work, is brilliantly done – a piece of sensitive modern architecture cleverly executed by Studio KO. As well as a permanent exhibition featuring Saint Laurent’s classic designs, there are rotating shows by north African and international artists, and there’s a great auditorium where they have music and poetry performances.

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You can’t visit Marrakech without seeing a palace, and the 19th-century Palais Bahia is a showcase of exquisite Maghreb decorative arts, including marble sculptures, woodcarvings, zellige and stained-glass windows. Gardens are fundamental to Islamic culture, so I would also head to Le Jardin Secret, a 16th-century palace garden in the centre of the medina that has recently been restored in orientalist fashion by British landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. He’s done a superb job: the gardens are geometrically ordered with tiled paths leading through squares of soft grasses, olive trees and cacti.

I always suggest a visit to the Maison de la Photographie at the beginning of anyone’s trip to Marrakech. There are some 10,000 photographs in the collection, each a portrait of the country and culture from 1870-1960, and it really gives visitors a unique sense of context. What’s remarkable is that you might look at a photograph from the 1870s, then walk outside into the street and observe the same ways of life and characters – albeit with a few German tourists thrown into the mix.

And, of course, there are wonderful, evocative pleasures to be had simply wandering with no real agenda through the winding streets of the medina, or sitting on a rooftop with a view of the Atlas Mountains in the distance. It is still the most magical city.”

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