Several years ago, when Andrea and Bernd Kolb were renovating a 300-year-old riad in Marrakechhistoric center, they discovered a small, forgotten room concealed behind a wall. Inside, they found a piece of paper upon which was written, in Arabic calligraphy, a love story. The couple have since turned the riad into a charming boutique hotel called AnaYela, but that anecdote captures the essence of Marrakech: Ita city of love stories and unexpected spaces. Countless luminaries, from Winston Churchill to Yves Saint Laurent, have lost themselves in the narrow, labyrinthine streets of this ancient, rose-hued city and come out the other side bewitched for a lifetime.
It is hard not to be. Marrakech hijacks your senses. A donkey cart jockeys for space alongside beat-up trucks and shiny SUVs; the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms mixes with smoke and cumin; electric colors like lapis lazuli and sunflower-yellow pop against the citydusk-pink-painted walls; and, throughout the day and night, the haunting call to prayer pierces the citymodern-day hum. is the door to Africa,”says Christine Alaoui, a French photographer whose inner circle included Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Willis, the eccentric decorator who arrived in the 1960s and adopted Marrakech as his own. the start of another world.”
But no matter how disoriented one might feel on a first wander through the souks, one is never truly lost. Almost all roads in Marrakech lead to the legendary Jemaa el-Fna, a sprawling, age-old market square anchored by the towering Koutoubia Mosque, the citymost prominent landmark. Its impressive, 220-foot-high minaret is one of the oldest in the world; in fact, new city buildings cannot be taller; in the old city, or medina, buildings are further limited to the height of a palm tree. Jemaa el-Fna is not only where the streets meet, but where most of Marrakechmixed population (currently about a million) circulate among a melange of tourist groups and Berbers in traditional djellabas, food-stall vendors and international jet-setters.
has become such an international hub,”says Vanessa Branson, sister of the British adventurer and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, and founder of the fledgling Marrakech Biennale art fair. meet more interesting people there than in my neighborhood in central London.”Branson, who bought a riad after her first visit in 2001 and eventually turned it into the cozy-chic boutique hotel Riad El Fenn, often evokes a popular Moroccan saying when describing her experience of Marrakech: is possible but nothing is certain.”
In fact, Marrakechstate of affairs was extremely uncertain just a few years ago. A wave of Europeans had been swooping into the medina, buying up riads and turning them into second homes or fixing them up to sell at a profit. The city was being touted as a new Costa del Sol, and big developers started building golf courses and gated communities on the cityoutskirts. Everyone held their breath as the Arab Spring went on around them. Gut, according to Branson, the dust has now settled and the city is developing into a compelling global capital of the arts, rather than a Saint-Tropez.
A major source of this seismic shift has been the zeal for Moroccotraditional arts and crafts, from zellige and encaustic tiles to ceramics and the Berber and Sufi songs of Gnawa. In the last few years the city has seen local and international taste-makers redefining old Moroccan techniques and designs in myriad ways; ita powerful trend that has gone global, picked up by companies as disparate as West Elm and Tiffany & Co.
Sandra Zwollo, a Dutch entrepreneur who has lived in Marrakech for 16 years, points out that this influx of European artistic types started to grow during the financial crisis. can afford to pursue a creative lifestyle here,”she says. British expat Nick Wilde, founder of Marrakchi Records, whose latest release is Caravane, a recording of local musical talents, concurs. is still a frontier town. Itlike living in the Wild West,”he explains. can come here without a real plan and fall into a niche. With the right attitude you can plant a flag and make a success of it.”As an example, Wilde cites his American friends Caitlin and Sam Dowe-Sandes, who started a successful encaustic-tile company called Popham Design, inspired by Moroccotradition of cement tile.
This new generation of entrepreneurs is also helping to revitalize many of the citydistricts. Half a decade ago, Marrakechsouks were a maze of much of the same: a jumble of tea glasses, lanterns, and embroidered slippers. Now you can find small pockets of upscale boutiques such as Hanout, where Moroccan designer Meriem Rawlings sells modern caftans and silky tunics; Stephanie Jewels, a tiny showroom for delicate gold jewelry; and Bloom, a chic Francophile take on traditional Moroccan slippers and bags.
Others have set up shop in Gueliz, a modern district just northwest of the medina, which was built by the architect Henri Prost in the early 20th century, during the period of the French protectorate. Its wide avenues, Art Deco architecture, and buzzing sidewalk cafes are a welcome foil to the narrow alley ways that make up the medina. Gueliz is also home to some of the citymost interesting galleries, including Galerie 127, which showcases Moroccoemerging photography talents, and David Bloch Gallery. Another gallery project, to be designed by David Chipperfield in the Hivernage neighborhood, south of GuiMiz, is expected to become the cityfirst world-class contemporary-art institution.
About 20 minutes north of Gueliz is the cobbled-together factory district of Sidi Ghanem, also called the Quartier Industriel. Driving by the battered, nondescript facades, younever guess that this is where are at work. French designer Laurence Landon, for instance, offers his one-of-a-kind Art Deco-style mirrors and lamps, while nearby, husband-and-wife team Julie Klear and Moulay Essakalli sell quirky stuffed animals and petite poufs at Zid Zid Kids.
What makes the 20-minute detour to Sidi Ghanem truly worth the trip is lunch at Le Zinc, the bistro of French-expat chef Damien Durand. When Durand —who had previously worked at the Michelin-starred Ksar Char-Bagh —opened his place three years ago, he hardly imagined that the industrial zone would develop into such a style destination. just knew I wanted a big space to experiment with French cuisine and Moroccan spices,”Durand explains.
The chicest (and smallest) emerging neighborhood is the area around the legendary Jardin Majorelle. When 33 Rue Majorelle debuted across from the famed two-acre garden, the two-story boutique was heralded as the cityfirst concept shop, featuring a compelling mix of locally produced objects and collections curated by the plugged-in stylist Monique Bresson.
Itonly fitting that such a unique area should grow up around the Jardin Majorelle.
As jewelry designer Paloma Picasso points out, French artist Jacques Majorelle is a good example of the creative types drawn to this mystical place. He came here in the early 1900s and was spellbound by Marrakech, and itreflected in the colorful landscapes he painted and, of course, in his magical blue studio and garden.”Later, in the 1980s, the property was bought and preserved by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge. Now it is-also home to the recently inaugurated Berber Museum, an intimate space filled with the Berber fabrics, clothing, and ornaments that have had such a strong influence on contemporary fashion.
Picassomore ornate designs for Tiffany, too, often reflect her own fascination with the city. love the landscape, the colors, and the art of Marrakech,”she says. Zellige jewelry collection was definitely inspired by the geometric shapes and intricate patterns that can be found throughout the medina.”
La Palmaraie, where Picasso owns a home with her husband, Eric Thevenet, was once the residential suburb of choice for those who wanted to build from scratch and be surrounded by luxurious gardens and wide-open spaces. When Christine Alaoui and her family moved there in the ’s, into an abandoned villa called Bled Roknine, they were among the first to do so. Now that the area has become more crowded, other frontier seekers have started to build in the little villages on the desert outskirts of Marrakech. This year alone marks the opening of several destination properties, from the Taj Palace Marrakech (where scenes from Sex and the City 2 were filmed) to the more laid-back Great Getaway Marrakech Hotel & Spa.
The most intriguing properties take their inspiration from Moroccan artistic traditions, such as the new Fellah Hotel in the Ourika Valley, south of the city. The 10-villa property is the passion of philanthropist Redha Moali and his wife, the Moroccan actress Houria Afoufou. On the surface, Fellah is a chic eco-hotel complete with an innovative French chef and a spa thata temple to Thai massage. But explore a bit and one will discover the true function of the property: an artistic think tank and dynamic cultural center. One of the villas houses a library that is partly funded by Libraries Without Borders and a resident scholar, a Spanish expert on Arabic poetry. Another villa is home to Dar al-Ma, a residency program for international artists working with the areatraditional craftspeople.
Marrakech, things look the same from the outside but if you open an old door you might find a palace,”says Andrea Kolb. Or, a think tank masquerading as a hotel. The more you rub away at the surface, the more magic is released.