A Marrakesh marvel

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iol travel dec 31 Marrakesh Reuters Spices for sale in Marrakesh.

Marrakesh - First impressions matter. And when the heavy wooden doors of the gatehouse swing open to reveal the 600m driveway to the Taj Palace, a low whistle seems the appropriate response. The extravagant avenue leads the eye to the white domes of the main building and on to the snow-capped Atlas mountains beyond – the impact of the hotel is scarcely less imposing than its namesake in Agra.

The Taj Palace is the long overdue addition to the ranks of Marrakesh’s smartest addresses. Followers of the Sex and the City franchise got a tantalising glimpse of it in the 2010 movie sequel. Sprinkled with stardust, the scene was set for a suitably sparkly launch. But the hotel remained a Hollywood fantasy. Years passed and it still did not open.

As part of my homework for this assignment I endured Sex and the City 2 on the flight from London. I watched it, dear reader (as Carrie Bradshaw’s toe-curling voice-over might have put it), so that you don’t have to. When the credits finally roll, the location is credited as the Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma. Interestingly in the movie itself the fictional hotel is identified as the “Taj al Saharaa”. Life indeed has imitated art.

Despite having partnered with the Mandarin Oriental group at the outset of his project some six years ago, the owner, Tangier-born entrepreneur Jaouad Kadiri decided the deal was not working out and went looking for new partners. The falling-out added a three-year delay to what was already a long time horizon on his investment. The Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma became The Hotel That Never Was and has emerged now as the Taj Palace Marrakesh. It is the first “palace” category hotel from the Taj group outside India; all but one of the other six were originally built as bona fide maharajahs’ residences.

Though it formally opens in January, the design theme is clear: India comes to Marrakesh. Just three hours from the UK – and in the same time zone – a maharajah’s palace has been conjured up for our convenience. The subcontinent’s vivid colours and shameless luxury will soon be available as a weekend break.

The Arabian Nights glamour trailered in SATC2 is still evident, but the faux-rococo style of the set dressing has been replaced by more elegant lines and large blocks of saturated colour. Minimalists, however, may still feel dizzy.

iol travel dec 31 marrakesh2 A camel rests at a palm forest. REUTERS

The designer of the complex – responsible for everything from the overall site plan down to the delicate floral patterns in the coffered ceilings – is neither Moroccan nor Indian. American artist Stuart Church came to Morocco in the 1960s and never went home. Soon he found himself looking further east. “Everything was attractive to me about India.”

The octogenarian designer found architectural inspiration for the layout of his main block in the galleried courtyards of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. And now Stuart’s creation has come home – as the youngest sibling in the Taj family.

The hotel is located in the Palmeraie district about 25 minutes from the medina and is completely insulated from the magnificent anarchy of the most famous square in the country – the Jemaa el Fna. Despite being the principal tourist attraction of Marrakesh, the square and the adjoining souks retain an air of mystery and even menace. The mix of storytellers, musicians, tumblers, hucksters, sword swallowers, fortune tellers and food vendors feels unchanged in centuries.

Attitudes to animals also seem medieval. The snake charmers are here. And others, with less obvious fairground credentials too. One man sprawled on the floor is carelessly prodding a small menagerie around. He has a falcon, a guinea pig, a hedgehog, a pigeon and a puppy. They are all tethered with twine. For a modest fee you can be snapped with a sad hedgehog or a miserable pigeon.

A woman wanders past, in an eye-popping floral-printed djellaba, her face obscured by a flowing black chiffon veil. In her right hand she is brandishing a hypodermic needle loaded with what looks like blood. It is a sinister image. But there is an innocent explanation – she is just a henna lady.

The biggest crowd, though, is for a group of five Berber men. Between them they aren’t doing anything that can be obviously interpreted as a performance. One of them is holding a laptop open and refers to it constantly as he addresses the circle that has formed. Due to language and cultural barriers I have no idea what he is selling to the rapt crowd. Fibre-optic broadband? Electronic snake oil?

The drummers strike up a throbbing rhythm; thick blue smoke blows across the square from the food stands; another stand is piled high with brightly coloured Beats headsets by Dr Dre; the snake-charmers’ instruments wail; a gleaming red Ferrari pushes its way through the crowds and the muezzin’s call to prayer crackles from the loudspeakers of dozens of minarets. All life is here and all the centuries of the past thousand years.

The next morning I have breakfast with a billionaire. I ask Jaouad Kadiri how much his project has cost so far. He shrugs, “Nearly E100m (R1 134m).” I try to look nonchalant.

His passion for India is no fad. He spent years touring the subcontinent. His wife is the Indian hotelier, Priti Paul, and he is the honorary consul general for India – the crest of office is proudly displayed at the entrance to his property.

Jaouad explains that Moroccans have a well-established affinity with India. “Our cultures are very close – family, weddings and movies.” Bollywood in particular is huge. “When Brad Pitt goes out in the street here no one knows who he is. But when Shahrukh Khan comes, it’s like he’s God. There were 200 000 people in the square to welcome him just last week.”

I jump continents again to take a drive up into the High Atlas mountains, 90 minutes away. The road rises gently to Tahanaout and then takes a more dramatic turn up the Ghighia valley. The gorge carved by the river is steep and twisty. The valley opens up and small terraces are carved into the hillsides to support orchards of almond, olive, apple and walnut trees. The valley ends ahead in a snow-capped horseshoe ridge. Mount Toubkal, at 4 167m the highest peak in North Africa, is in this range.

I reach the trekking centre of Imlil. There is a cold bite to the air, but the sun is streaming down. I set off for a walk with Hassan, a local guide, who has an impressive command of English learnt entirely from tourists. “Lovely jubbly,” he announces cheerfully apropos nothing. He is a mountain Berber, tasked with showing me how local families live. We loop up through a forest and bear down on a cluster of simple homes. He knocks but no one is home.

We try another but are not invited in. Hassan is not discouraged. “Easy peasy lemon squeezy,” he says reassuringly. Eventually Hassan persuades a housewife to serve us tea on the flat roof of her home. We are joined by two little boys: Abdul Rahman, who says he is 10, and his friend, Hamza. They are fascinated by my iPhone and entertain themselves by taking pictures. Washing is laid out on the concrete. We sip mint tea and take in the panoramic view of Imlil cradled by stark brown mountains. As I leave, I get a glimpse of the lightless cramped interior of their home. It looks like a cave.

When I return to the Taj Palace I am told that, because there will be two noisy parties in the hotel’s ballrooms that night, I have been upgraded to the Royal Suite on the top floor – camper than a row of pink tents in the desert and more fabulous than the movies. To paraphrase Carrie Bradshaw’s Wizard of Oz exclamation when she first arrives at the hotel: “Oh Toto, I don’t think we are in Hollywood any more.” – The Independent

If You Go...

Sankha Guha travelled as a guest of Mosaic Holidays (020-8574 4000; mosaicholidays.co.uk), which offers five nights in a Riad Garden room at the Taj Palace Marrakesh (tajhotels.com) for £1 199 (R16 635) a person, including return flights from Gatwick with easyJet, breakfast, private transfers and lounge access at Marrakesh airport. (Based on departure January 23, 2013.)

Guha also took the following excursions:

l A full-day private tour of the Imperial City including the medina, available from £79 a person;

l A full-day excursion to the Atlas Mountains, from £119 a person;

l and a cookery class at La Maison Arabe, from £69 a person.

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