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Marrakesh's Stylish Transformation

Medina vendors selling their wares.

Photo: John Kernick

Marrakesh and I go back almost 40 years, when I was assigned by the Peace Corps to teach English at the Lycée Mohammed V, deep in the medina. At the time, the city was an exotic North African backwater with only a handful of decent places to stay and eat, most of them holdovers from the French-colonial era. And the visitors were mostly hippies in search of good hash and cheap crash pads in the medina, which in those days was an unpaved, tumbledown collection of souks and town houses. Still, I loved the place: the snake charmers and acrobats on the Djemaa el-Fna, the orange-tree-edged Avenue Mohammed V, the Parisian-style Café Renaissance, in Guéliz, the sweet-smelling rose gardens, the exhilarating views of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains, and, above all, the warmth and wit of the Marrakshis.

Over the next decades, I returned regularly and witnessed Marrakesh’s transformation, as stylish travelers like Jackie Onassis and Talitha Getty replaced the hippies, and ramshackle palaces and riads in the medina were turned into chic boutique hotels. In 2002, I wound up buying and restoring a small house there and have called it my second home ever since. There are now several hundred riad hotels, each trying to out-design the next, and the big international brands—Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons—are building resorts beyond the medina. Some insiders worry that Marrakesh is perilously close to being “over,” while others say this is the mark of a bold new era.

Marrakesh is essentially two cities: the medina, as the ancient walled Arab metropolis is called, and Guéliz, the name given to the part of town created by the French in 1913. South of Guéliz lies the residential neighborhood of Hivernage. While Guéliz has been somewhat overshadowed in the past decade by the rise of the medina, it is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance itself. With its aging Art Deco villas, broad streets, and roundabouts, Guéliz is Morocco at its most Western. A symbol of the area’s revival is the year-old Bab Hotel, a mini-Delanoesque homage to the Philippe Starck aesthetic: oversize flowerpots, billowy curtains, cool white public spaces. Its pebbled half-indoor/half-outdoor garden by the pool is a perfect spot for lunch, and the top-floor Skybab Bar, set with lounging mattresses, draws the cocktail crowd in the evenings.

The legendary La Mamounia, the city’s oldest hotel, lies on the border of the medina and Hivernage. The 1923 landmark recently reopened after a three-year closure, during which French designer Jacques Garcia reconsidered, reimagined, and rebuilt every square inch of the place. With its dark lobby niches, mauve velvet chairs, and hanging silk-shaded lamps, the new La Mamounia feels a little reminiscent of Costes (the hip Paris hotel Garcia designed in the 1990’s). But beyond the lobby, the classic La Mamounia remains—only better. The gardens have been enlarged, as has the pool, now the size of a small lake. And the suites show off the best of Moroccan craftsmanship—marble floors, mosaic-tiled walls, carved doors, and meticulously painted ceilings.

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