Last November I was in Marrakech to attend Pure, an experiential travel conference. One of their speakers was the charismatic travel writer Pico Iyer. He told tales of his life and his travels, spoke about the world, of his new home in Japan and of course about Marrakech. Coming here back in the eighties as a young and, as he described himself, poor writer, he would stay in a cheap motel just opposite the road of famed La Mamounia hotel. One wonders why he didn’t rather pick a charming little riad in the medina, but apparently proximity to the Mamounia was more important than comfort. And of course, the possibility to sneak over and use their exclusive pool.
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Dubbed as the Paris of the Sahara by none other than Winston Churchill Marrakech has had an allure on people for a long time. Steeped in history, somewhat mysterious, a little exotic, but easy to reach from Europe it has long been the perfect destination for adventurous, creatives and celebrities alike. La Mamounia has been part of this appeal for the last century. Originally the 3-ha park was given by the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah to his son, Moulay Mamoun, for his wedding in the 18th century. It was green oasis behind the city’s Kasbah and became quickly known for his lavish garden parties. The hotel was built on the grounds in 1923 and Mamoun’s paradise became La Mamounia and again the place to be for the rich and famous.

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Since I’m neither rich nor famous nor the sneaking-in-to-use-the-pool type, I am especially excited when the La Mamounia invites me to spend a night on my recent trip to Marrakech. Unfortunately, the taxi driver thinks me at least rich and tries to charge me triple the price that the trip is worth. Luckily I know better, though that entails that I now have to log my suitcase out of his trunk myself. That is the last thing I have to do for the rest of the day as it is promptly taken from me and I’m whisked inside through an entrance that is best described with Ooh and Aah. While I wait on a plushy chair for check-in, I’m getting the traditional Berber greeting of sweet dates and cold orange blossom scented almond milk. Whether you have a long day’s camel ride or a two-minute taxi drive – Morocco is hot and I need nourishment.

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While I try to eat my dates elegantly (hint: not possible!) I look nonchalantly around and play celebrity I Spy. After all Yves Saint Laurent liked to hang out here as well as the Rolling Stones, the whole of Hollywood and major world leaders. I find historical legends infinitely more exciting than Hollywood starlets and luckily there is no shortage of those here either. It was after all Winston Churchill who became the first La Mamounia fan and who liked to spend his annual holiday here. So much so that not even World War II could keep him away: after the Allied Conference in Casablanca in 1943 he went here for a bit of bromance with his buddies Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle. The latter got a custom made bed to accommodate his 6.5 height and Winston Churchill got a suite named after him. And yes, it reads Winston Churchill in Arabic above the bed.

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As I lack any spy talent, I resort to playing secret celebrity myself when they show me to my Park Suite. While they didn’t write my name in Arabic over the bed, I have no complaints: eight pillows on my bed (I vow to upgrade immediately from the measly four I have at home), a marble bathroom and the most beautiful carved ceilings and doors. The air-con shuts off automatically upon opening the balcony doors, a nifty invention, and I get to enjoy a breeze and a stunning view over the famed Mamounia gardens. With the doors open I get visitors as birds keep flying in and out of the room. I now believe the legend of Hitchcock who filmed part of The Man Who Knew Too Much here; apparently he got the inspiration for The Birds as he was attacked by a pack of finches on his room’s balcony during his stay.

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I don’t wait to tempt fate and finches and decide rather to attack the pool. Obviously I don’t need to sneak in which I am quite glad about after seeing signs, making it very clear that it is for residents only and I have to trade my room number for towels. Either they didn’t have those back in the day or Pico was very good at making up room numbers. That is not to say that the pool wouldn’t be worth getting in a bit of trouble for: mermaid tiles, water that is just the right temperature and enough sun loungers that not even the Germans have to be here early in the morning to reserve one with a towel.

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Later in the afternoon golden hour is upon us, but my skin is more red than golden and I decide to retreat to my room for some pampering before dinner. And it would have been a perfect plan, but we know that I have a bit of bad luck when it comes to fancy hotel rooms. Remember the last time when I set the bathroom under water with my jacuzzi? Well, today I decide that I need to lock the door before disappearing in a cloud of foam and I manage to lock myself into my suite. As in I cannot get out anymore. Already in my robe there is no way around it and I have to call the concierge to be rescued. No easy task with one person not speaking English and the other having no French and an unmoving door in between them. Luckily language and door barriers are quickly broken down when another SWAT staff member arrives who miraculously manages to open the door with a simple click before showing me how to lock the door is properly. Dear La Mamounia, I’m sorry I was so stupid that I almost broke the lock and thank you, dear monsieur for speaking English and for not laughing at me!

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Slightly delayed I get ready for dinner and a little sunset stroll through the gardens. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who wants to enjoy the now balmy temperatures and fragrant evening air – the garden is pretty crowded. The good news is that even if you are not staying at the hotel the gardens can be visited. I highly recommend going soon as there is still ‘wildlife’ to be admired until the end of September. The hotel likes to support art and culture through a literary and a music program as well as changing exhibits. Right now the Ma…Ma…Ma… exhibit can be found all over the hotel grounds, inside and out, and with it bulldogs, panda bears, penguins and ducks painted in eclectic colors. The name stems from the name of the artist, the hotel and the city the pieces are exhibited in: Julien Marinetti, La Mamounia, Marrakech. Whether you are an art lover or a complete noob like me, his pieces seem to add some whimsy to the grandeur of the Mamounia and I like what I see. And, of course, I’m very excited to be able to use his pieces as landmarks when I try to find my way to Le Marocain for dinner – “Aah, you mean the one with the duckies, yes, I know that one!”

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Good food is my kind of art and I tend to recognize a Picasso on a plate. As the restaurant focusses on traditional Moroccan dishes with a contemporary twist, I want to try two classics I have so far been a bit disappointed by – pastilla and couscous. Here the pastilla is filled with lobster, the pea couscous is fragrant and topped with lamb meatballs and my only disappointment is my stomach – it’s simply too small for this feast. There is also a Lavender Fizz in my glass, the ducks are watching and the air smells of roses, orange blossoms and Arabian Nights. It is, all in all, the perfect last night in Marrakech.

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I take the long route back through the gardens past the gym that is pretty enough to make me at least plan a visit in the morning. That plan falls through thanks to an emergency that makes me stay in bed too long (it’s called the-pillows-are-too-fluffy emergency). That is followed by the challenge to taste all four kinds of Bircher Müsli AND the Eggs Benedict on the breakfast buffet. I complete the challenge but, unfortunately, it leads me to have a food baby. So I feel in no state to use the pool or to be scrubbed at the hammam and decide instead to spend my last hours shopping. An unfortunate mistake. As if Marrakech wants to make the goodbye easy for me I get hassled from all directions as soon as I step on the street. People are being rude and pushy today and I cannot recognize my beloved city anymore. I quickly dart through the souks and try to get my shopping done in record time. My mood is getting even bleaker when the taxi refuses to take me and my plates back to the Mamounia – too close the driver complains and waves me off.

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Since I am quite dusty and disheveled, I’m grateful the concierge doesn’t look at me twice and that I have my room a couple of hours longer to hide from the city. An oasis through and through. I take one last shower surrounded by marble, spread my purchases on the bed and manage somehow to pack it all (and get everything back to Hamburg in one piece as it turns out). I make my final way past the picture clad corridors, showing a black and white Marrakech that is long gone. They are beautiful and I can’t help but wonder if missed out if I shouldn’t have come sooner, like a 100 years ago…

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But I have no time to ponder as my car is already here and I have just enough time to wave a quick good-bye to Marinetti’s golden bulldog before I’m driving off. And, of course, while it annoyed me in the morning, now that I’m leaving I already miss Marrakech: the dusty streets and the blue pool, the red city walls and the black & white pictures, the now and the yesterday.

Back in cold Hamburg I put on my new slippers and do what I always do when I get travel-(home)sick: find books and movies that take me back to a magical place. In lieu or in preparation of Marrakech, La Mamounia and travel in general I recommend the following:

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1. The Voices of Marrakech by Elias Canetti won the Nobel Price for Literature in 1981 and has been on my reading list for a while now. He gives an account of everyday Marrakech life in the 50s and describes a city that is both fascinating and shocking in its contrasts.

2. Yves Saint Laurent: A Moroccan Passion – the perfect coffee table book for any fashion and Marrakech lover.

3. The Man Who Knew Too Much by Alfred Hitchcock. It was not only shot at La Mamounia, but also shows the iconic Jemaa El Fna and in the souks.

4. Gardens of Marrakech. One of those books that I could get lost in for hours: all things green in the red city.

5. While the title of Pico Iyer’s book Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of The World already implies that it isn’t about Marrakech (as it is not really a lonely place), I do love his travel writing so much. And of course, I am hoping for tips how to sneak into swanky hotel pools if I have to!

All pictures by Annika and La Mamounia

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!