>La Mamounia – Morocco’s grand dame

Posted on February 2, 2011


>My friend Abdelmalek sells second-hand spoons on a side-street in Marrakesh. He squats on the ground all day with them laid out before him on a tired old quilt, whisking away the dust with a rag.

From time to time I crouch there with him, sip sweet mint tea, and catch up on conversation. Nobody understands Marrakesh like Abdelmalek. He has seen it all — the ups and the downs, the floods of tourists, and the drought.

Last week he cocked his head at a column in the local newspaper. “It’s happened, at last,” he said.

What has?”

Marrakesh’s most famous hotel La Mamounia was the grande dame of the city – and she’s back, with a £100m face-lift

The grande dame of Marrakesh is reopening.”

I frowned. “La Mamounia, the finest hotel in the world, a butterfly woken from her cocoon. Once, in the Sixties, I peered over the wall . . .”

How was it?”

A fragment of paradise.”

Hotels are a preoccupation in Marrakesh. In the ancient medina alone there are well over 800, mostly small riads, with dozens more in the new town, and in the ritzy suburbs of La Palmeraie and beyond. Some are nice. Others are even better than nice. But few, if any, reach the heights of perfection of which over-indulged travel writers dream.

Things were different when La Mamounia opened in the 1920s. It was one of the world’s great hotels, like Raffles, The Peninsula, and the Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay, a hideaway for celebrities, heads of state and royalty.

Over the years the gem lost its sparkle, through botched renovations and a series of eye-watering colour schemes and styles. The last time I visited, only a few days before the hotel closed for renovation, I was propositioned by a gaudily dressed hooker in an equally garish salon near reception.

When I refused her advance, she scowled, halved her price, and said: “Monsieur, do not think you will have a better bargain than that. This is La Mamounia, after all.”

Now, after three years of work costing more than £100 million, the grande dame of Marrakesh is back. This time the buzzword is exclusivity. The first hint of this comes with the hotel’s sign or, rather, the lack of it. Anyone who can’t find La Mamounia might be best off staying elsewhere, along with those who have to check the price.

Jacques Garcia, the French designer responsible for the overhaul, studied old photos to see the hotel in its glory days. He improved the symmetry, opening up the reception areas, creating an Andalucian-style colonnaded courtyard, with mosaic, marble and crisp pools of water. He added an underground spa, a large pool and an equally large pavilion, as well as three exclusive riads for VIPs.

Garcia’s ambition was to restore the hotel to a state that would have been familiar to its best-known champion, Winston Churchill.

Over the decades, Churchill visited repeatedly to paint the Atlas mountains, moving along the balconies with his easel. He even coaxed Franklin D. Roosevelt to join him at La Mamounia after the 1943 Anglo-US Anfa summit, calling it “the most lovely spot in the whole world”. (Churchill’s 1948 painting Marrakesh, presented to President Truman, fetched £468,500 at auction in 2007.)

The visitor’s book at the hotel is a roll-call of 20th-century celebrity, including Charlie Chaplin, Omar Sharif, Nelson Mandela and the Rolling Stones. Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of The Man Who Knew Too Much in the hotel lobby in the 1950s. When Charles de Gaulle spent a night there a special bed was commissioned to accommodate his 6ft 5in (1.9m) frame.

La Mamounia was named after Prince Moulay Mamoun, who was given the garden area as a wedding gift in the 18th century. Strolling around the plantings is still an indulgence — there are 400-year-old olive trees and flowerbeds planted with aloe vera and banana, hibiscus, datura, cacti and acacia trees. In the middle is a menzah, a little pavilion in which to take tea or simply admire the view.

The renovation’s real achievement has been to bring a sense of gravity back to the hotel, plus a warmth that makes you yearn for it when you have left. There is a delicious feeling that nobody is watching you. But, of course, they are. Drop your napkin in the Michelin two-star French restaurant and a waiter will hurry over with a fresh one. As with all the staff, he will address you by name.

A few streets away, Abdelmalek jabbed a finger in my direction. “How was it?” he shouted out.

Closing my eyes, I sighed: “A fragment of paradise.”

Did you ever doubt my lips spoke the truth?” he said with a smile.
written by Tahir Shah for The Times