From sumptuous riads to Michelin-starred menus, Vanessa Branson on why she loves Marrakech. By Vanessa Branson. Originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 7 October 2019
When, back in 2002, my good friend – and business partner – Howell James and I decided to go pony-trekking in the Atlas Mountains, we imagined we would simply be embarking on an exciting holiday. Little did we realise that this was just the beginning of what was to evolve into the biggest adventure of our lives.
We both loved being in Morocco. I’d stayed in Marrakech a number of times in the 1990s while waiting for the perfect weather conditions (breathless at ground level, fast jet streams up high) for my brother Richard’s launch of his attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate the world by balloon. His heroic efforts were thwarted, but I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity they gave me to discover the country that was to play such a significant role in my life for decades to come.
“Oh, don’t be so namby-pamby,” said my mother when Howell and I explained that we were thinking of buying a small house in the Medina, but were concerned about investing in such an exotic environment. My parents had joined us for lunch: very good Moroccan gris was flowing all too readily.
“Go on, have courage, just do it,” Mum said, before adding, “this could be such fun, for all of us.”
And so we dived in and bought the most majestic building I’d ever laid my eyes on. Early on during the refurbishment of the crumbling ruin that would one day become our riad, El Fenn, we asked the agent if it would be possible to knock a particular wall through.
“You have to remember one thing,” he said with a twinkling smile, “in Morocco anything is possible… but nothing, nothing is certain.” Words that we’ve carried with us until this day.
We’ve witnessed many changes over the past 16 years but the essence of the city’s sensual beauty remains intact. Marrakech has long been a magnet for creative people, and that force is still as strong as ever. A short walk through any of the narrow derbs, or alleyways, explains why.
For Marrakech is a city of contrasts, the very lifeblood of creativity. It is where contemporary ideas build on ancient customs, where Africa meets Europe, and where the deepest of blue skies edge glowing terracotta walls.
The carnival nature of the town, traditionally where Moroccans go to celebrate and take holidays, encourages you to experiment with the flamboyant side of your character. No one bats an eyelid about someone wearing a headdress made of tassels, or a hand-painted silk suit. Anything goes – you are never over-, or under-, dressed.
Food is becoming an art form, too, with restaurants opening that are building on traditional Moroccan food – focused on fresh local vegetables and herbs and spices – and adding a contemporary twist. The newest kid on the block is +61 in Gueliz (plus61.com). Co-owners Cassandra Karinsky, Sebastian de Gzell and the chef Andrew Cibej have raised the bar for all of us.
I founded the Marrakech Biennale in 2005 and over the following six editions of this cultural festival, have worked with hundreds of film-makers, writers, musicians and artists. It is thrilling to see how the legacy of this celebration of the arts still lives on in the lives of so many.
There are five must-see museums, each one a jewel. Within the walls of the Majorelle Gardens, in Gueliz, is the Berber Museum housing a collection of the best of craft from the Amazigh tribes of the Atlas. Next door is the exquisite Yves Saint Laurent Museum, an artwork in itself.
Macaal, the Museum of African Contemporary Art, is a 15-minute taxi ride from the centre of town but well worth the trip. Othman Lazraq, the inspiration behind the collection, revolves the works every few months.
The Musée de la Palmeraie is home to the best collection of the Casablanca School of Art – and don’t miss the hidden cactus garden. A five-minute walk further up the track is the Foundation Farid Belkahia, the studio of the celebrated Moroccan artist Belkahia, set in yet another sumptuous garden.
Did I mention shopping? Here I have to guide you first to our own El Fenn store, expertly curated by Willem Smit and Madeline Weinrib, with its collections of clothes and homeware by emerging Moroccan designers. And then on to Kenza Melehi, our neighbour and my favourite designer, who makes bespoke gowns, each one a masterpiece. Appointments only at Kssour Agafay (+212-661-160709).
With 300 days of sunshine every year, Moroccan gardens grow at an astonishing rate. A twig stuck in the ground one minute seems to become a mature tree the next. I rarely visit Marrakech without a day at either Jnane Tamsna or The Beldi Country Club.
Both are gorgeous country hotels in their own right, situated roughly 20 minutes from the town centre, and both have generous owners who kindly allow a few non-resident guests to spend the day lying by their shady poolsides.
Gary Martin, the ethnobotanist and expert in biodiversity, created the garden at Jnane Tamsna. When he and his wife, the hotelier and designer Meryanne Loum-Martin, arrived at their barren Palmeraie plot a mere 15 years ago, it boasted only five different plant species. Now there are more than 500, attracting an abundance of native animals and birds.
Thank you, Mum, for encouraging us to take the plunge. And thank you, Marrakech, for making everything seem so very possible – even if there were times along the way that we couldn’t be absolutely certain! The city never disappoints.