And Over Here’s the Harem

Ancient practice: Vendors in the medina quarter in Marrakech.

Aflame with festivity: Bright city lights and marketplace vendors’ cooking fires in the medina of the ancient city of Marrakech.

Golf with a view: Morocco has seventeen top-shelf golf clubs.

Marrakech was the ancient nexus of the trans-Saharan caravan routes, and the one-time capital of an empire that extended from Spain to Senegal. What other civilization could produce an area like the Dj’maa el F’na—the Place of the Dead? A former execution grounds, it is now a vast market square surrounded by a high mud wall and cafés, teeming with humanity of every stripe.

By day, the market is strewn with carpets and populated by snake charmers and cobras, veiled scribes kneeling beneath umbrellas, and holy men shrouded in incense. Tourists pose with trained monkeys. All around them are acrobats and belly dancers; stilt walkers and musicians; Saharan tribesmen; and slender young shop girls in Prada with henna tattoos adorning their hands and faces. By nightfall the crowds swell, and food vendors fill the square.

In the medina, the labyrinthine inner city, every doorway is a mystery; some open to slum dwellings or canals, while others, unmarked, lead to deserted palaces, known as riyads, with airy courtyards, gardens, and pools decorated with intricate mosaics.

Marrakech—known as the Red City for its rose-hued architecture—long has attracted travelers to pursue Arabian pipe dreams (literally, as hashish and other inexpensive drugs were widely available). Others—including the likes of oil heir John Paul Getty Jr. and couturier Yves St. Laurent—came to build fantasies of their own, transforming the run-down riyads into opulent, modern-day sanctuaries.

Today the old riyads are hot properties, but travelers no longer need a fortune to invest in their own; au contraire, a call to a travel agent is all it takes to book a stay in an authentic Arabian palace like the eighteenth-century Ryad el-Mezouar ( “Until 1945, it belonged to the descendants of Hammadi El Glaoui, caliph of Ouarzazate,” says Jerome Vermelin, the palace’s proprietor. “We rent [it] out as a maison d’hôte.”

At $160 a night for a double room, the riyad offers more than the ambiance of a bygone age; its guests can also enjoy breakfast and dinner prepared by a gourmet chef who once served the sister of the late King Hassan II, aqua-fitness in the pool with a personal trainer, and a massage. Or they can simply explore the side streets of the medina for meals, being careful to leave behind a path of bread crumbs.

Seen from the third floor of Riyad el-Mezouar, the Marrakech skyline flattens into a bright, sunlit landscape of contiguous rooftops. From here it seems possible to navigate all of Marrakech without once setting foot on the ground a few stories below. It’s a topography a cat burglar would love.

But Vermelin’s typical guests are more the wealthy type. “They have large estates or penthouses,” he says. “They come here looking for something they don’t have at home.”

Meet me at the casbah: The Kasbah, above, owned by Sir Richard Branson, is set in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Right, a dining terrace at the resort’s Kanoun restaurant. Bottom, one of six tented luxury suites at the Kasbah.

Some find their diversion with a visit to the Asni Valley in the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, an hour south of Marrakech by car and site of Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson’s fairytale resort (

It’s an unlikely edifice; a kasbah is, after all, a rural fort and so should appear forbidding. Kasbah Tamadot, on the other hand, appears to have been confected from gingerbread, with delicate, onion-bulbed spires rising from turrets, intricately carved arbors, and zellij—the Moorish style of kaleidoscopic mosaic tiles—covering every inch.

The drive to Kasbah Tamadot is an experience in itself. The road leads past ghostly Berber villages hanging precariously from the sides of the Atlas cliffs. Occasionally the Berbers hold bazaars by the roadside, seemingly oblivious to the sheer precipices.

Kasbah Tamadot’s previous owner was antiques dealer Luciano Tempo, a man famous for his flamboyance which, considering that this is Morocco, is like being known in the NBA for being tall. He filled his fortress with antique furniture, objets d’art, and colorful guests. Branson entered the picture in 1998 while in Morocco to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon; the expedition was a flop but not the journey to Morocco, during which Tamadot caught Branson’s eye.

Today, the Berber hideaway is part of a Branson business empire that includes music, air travel, and luxury resorts, but Tamadot remains as unique as ever. Wooden ceilings are carved and painted, and the public spaces are thickly curtained and cushioned and furnished with ancient chests, fanciful statuary, elaborate armoires, and leather armchairs. Every step from each of the 24 bedrooms (and six extra-luxurious tented suites) to the swimming pool and spa is softened by carpets, just the way its previous owner would have liked.

Rooms feature modern conveniences such as air conditioning, stocked mini bars, CD and DVD players, and even babouches (Moroccan slippers).

Breakfast is included in the room rate— accommodations start at $530 per night double occupancy—and can be had in your suite or in the Kanoun restaurant with its fireside bar and sweeping terrace views. The cuisine is a mèlange of local and international flavors prepared using herbs and vegetables from the estate’s garden. In the Berber tradition, meals are largely prepared in the oversized, charcoal-burning brazier made of baked clay.

Most Western tourists see Morocco as “another world” resonant with ancient mystery and secrets. Paradoxically, two generations of the country’s monarchs have pursued a strategy of closer alignment with the West. The key to this strategy has been golf.

One of the most popular tournaments in the world is the King Hassan II Pro-Am, which the previous ruler founded in 1971 to attract the game’s biggest names—along with planeloads of well-heeled amateurs.

Morocco boasts seventeen golf clubs and Americans will feel welcome at each; fairways and bunkers are immaculately maintained and the amenities—dining rooms, locker rooms, and nineteenth holes—are top-shelf. Further, as Hassan El Belghitti, director for the Royal Golf Course of Fez, explains, “In style of play and golfing culture, America is the norm. Our word for bogey is bogey, fairway is fairway, and birdie is birdie.”

Marrakech is home to three clubs; the oldest and most fashionable is the Marrakech Royal Golf Club, where the terrain is ablaze with bright red flowers and apricot and orange trees. Here, the fairways are drenched in tradition. Built in 1923 by the Pasha of Marrakech, the Marrakech Royal was a favorite of such avid golfers as Sir Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and Dwight Eisenhower.

The club also offers Africa’s only David Leadbetter Golf Academy, but the most distinctive feature is the ninth hole’s Brigitte Bardot, a pair of twin hillocks which, if you have a vivid imagination, appear to be heaving passionately.

Historic Marrakech

Ancient practice: Vendors in the medina quarter in Marrakech.

Ancient practice: Vendors in the medina quarter in Marrakech.

With the departure from Morocco of the French occupation forces in 1956, Marrakech became the world capital of Bohemian chic. Writers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and Allen Ginsberg were among the first to flock to the medina (or old city). Later, rock icons including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix followed in their footsteps.

For well-heeled trend-setters like John Paul Getty Jr. and his friend, American interior decorator Bill Willis, Marrakech was the place to carve personal pleasure palaces out of the old riyads. Getty chose a nineteenth-century palace with courtyards and gardens hidden behind a maze of high adobe walls. Willis opted for the 23-room harem quarters of a large eighteenth-century riyad.

In keeping with tradition, the most elaborately decorated surfaces were the palace’s ceilings rather than the walls, the better to be enjoyed while reclining on pillowed settees or the floor. Britain’s Prince Charles, an art and architecture buff, is rumored to have stopped by Willis’s riyad for cocktails—he gave the place a thumbs up.

Couturiers Pierre Balmain, Adolfo de Velasco, Hermès, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Pierre Berge also created their own pieds à terre in Marrakech. Yves St. Laurent’s digs became one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions—the Majorelle Gardens, a botanical garden where, following his death in 2008, the designer’s ashes were scattered.

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