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Marrakesh's Stylish Transformation

This North African city of medieval souks and winding streets is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

By Richard Alleman

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.

A few streets away is Royal Mansour, the personal project of His Highness Mohammed VI, king of Morocco. The king has spared no expense on the hotel, which has encountered several delays but is scheduled to open this summer. Arranged around Andalusian courtyards and reflecting pools, the 53 two-story riad town houses have silk-paneled walls, tiled fireplaces, and roof terraces with bedouin tents and swimming pools. A butler is available in your riad upon request—and to make sure the staff never intrudes upon your privacy, the entire compound is serviced by a network of underground tunnels.

This summer, the Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma will open on 131 pristine acres in the Palmeraie, the palm forest northeast of the city. The fantasy of Morocco-based expat American architect Stuart Church, the hotel will bear a striking resemblance to the great Umaid Bhawan palace, in Jodhpur, India, with its 40-foot-high gilded ceilings. The bedrooms (the smallest is 750 square feet) will have gold-leafed four-poster beds, bathrooms of white and gray marble, and terraces with daybeds looking out toward the forest and the Atlas Mountains. It’s no wonder the hotel was used as a location for Sex and the City 2 (though Marrakesh masquerades as someplace in the Middle East in the story line).

Back in the medina, the riads continue to flourish. The nine-month-old riad Siwan is owned by a Dutch couple, Cees and Maryk Van den Berg, who have strong ties to the community and a track record of success with their popularriad Azzar, a 10-minute walk away. A former palace, Siwan has seven large guest rooms, all appointed with locally made furniture and one-of-a-kind handblown glass lamps.

Many medina properties are expanding, including riad Farnatchi, which was opened in 2004 by British hotelier Jonathan Wix (who launched the Scotsman, in Edinburgh, and Paris’s Hôtel de la Trémoille). Its five guest rooms—with large fireplaces, sunken bathtubs, and Modernist furniture—were so popular that Wix acquired an adjacent mansion and incorporated four more chic suites set around a maze of courtyards, terraces, and bhous (alcove seating areas). Similarly, at riad Noir d’Ivoire, in the Bab Doukkala area of the medina, co-owner Jill Fechtmann pulled out all the stops. Opulent rooms here have a mix of Moroccan, Syrian, and Indian furniture. Next door, Fechtmann created three of the largest riad suites in Marrakesh, along with a 36-foot lap pool in the courtyard. Meanwhile, over at riad El Fenn, one of the medina’s flashiest addresses, co-owner Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard) has tripled the size of the place since it opened in 2003. Favored by the British media and art-world elite, El Fenn now encompasses three adjacent palaces, with 22 extraordinary rooms—featuring leather floors, plunge pools, and modern works by British painter Bridget Riley—plus three pools, a rooftop putting green, and even a small theater.

When I was in town last fall with several houseguests in tow, I found my usual welcome-to-the-medina circuit blocked by crowds watching the filming of Sex and the City 2. Under normal circumstances, I start this tour at the northwestern edge of the famous Djemaa el-Fna and enter the souks via an archway just beyond the Place Bab Fteuh that leads to Rue Laksour. There, the tiny boutique Beldi dresses some of Marrakesh’s most fashionable residents in linen shirts, mandarin-collared cashmere jackets, and embroidered silk caftans. Rue Laksour feeds into my favorite street, Rue Mouassine, where hole-in-the-wall shops showcase artfully arranged pottery, lanterns, and Berber carpets. The latest addition to this area is KIS (Keep It Secret), a by-appointment boutique hidden on the upper story of a tiny medina house that carries more caftans, as well as jewelry and gorgeous bags.

After the hassle and haggling of the souks, Guéliz provides an antidote for low-key shoppers who like to look and not be pressured into buying (one of the downsides of the medina). Many of the best shops lie along a two-block stretch of Rue de la Liberté. Among them: Atika, which has a loyal following of travelers who come just for the latest models and colors of its Tod’s-like loafers (most less than $50 a pair). On the corner of Rue de la Liberté and Avenue Mohammed V, Intensité Nomade sells brightly colored caftans by owner Frédérique Birkemeyer, as well as soft leather pants for women, raw-silk pants for men, and Casablanca designer Karim Tassi’s jeans, slinky suits, and sweaters. On the opposite corner, Place Vendôme carries top-quality Moroccan leather goods, from $10 men’s wallets to $200 jackets. One of Guéliz’s newest boutiques, Moor, is the creation of Yann Dobry (who also owns the stylish little shop Akbar Delights, in the medina). Dobry’s new outpost, hung with distinctive lacquered lanterns, features his beautifully embroidered linen, silk, and cotton tunics.

With its booming hotels and riads, Marrakesh’s restaurant scene is keeping pace, but it helps to know where to go, as new places make their big splash, then drown just as quickly. One of my favorites is Le Tobsil, where owner Christine Rio offers a prix fixe feast of Moroccan dishes, including moist pastilla (pigeon pie), lamb or chickentagine (stew), couscous, and dessert, all served at candlelit tables in an arcaded riad, with Gnaoua musicians playing softly in the background.

On the southern edge of the medina, in the former Jewish quarter known as the Mellah, is Le Tanjia, the brainchild of Marrakshi restaurateur Nourredine Fakir. This multilevel restaurant pays homage to its location with antique menorahs and historic photographs of the area. Belly dancers perform tableside while you sample tender beeftanjia—named for the narrow earthenware pot in which it is slow-cooked. The scene is more sedate at the medina haunt Le Foundouk, where the décor—gigantic spindly chandeliers; metal sconces—outshines the menu of Moroccan, French, and Thai dishes. And every visitor to Marrakesh has to try Dar Yacout, a medina institution. Designed in the early 1990’s by American expat architect Bill Willis, this fantasy palace—shiny tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, scalloped columns, and striped turrets—has influenced Moroccan interiors ever since. The standard-issue Moroccan menu is less memorable than the theatricality of the presentation.

For a light lunch, stop at Un Déjeuner à Marrakech, a cool new restaurant with an attractive staff on the riad Zitoun Jdid street, a buzzing shopping strip I’ve loved for years. In Guéliz, head to Grand Café de la Poste, where you could almost be in Indochina, circa 1950, sitting under slow-turning ceiling fans on a vast bamboo-shaded veranda. It is popular with French expats, who treat it as their own private club.

Marrakesh offers plenty of sizzle after dark—from funky clubs like African Chic, in Guéliz, with live bands, to Hivernage’s ultracool Comptoir, a slick lounge that features belly dancers in Bollywood-style production numbers.Théâtro, the formerly sedate supper club of the Hôtel Es Saadi, where Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker performed, is now a dance-till-dawn spot.

My favorite nighttime hideaway is the roof terrace of Kosybar, in the Mellah, which plays loungy Brazilian music. Having a nightcap here and looking out on the salmon-colored walls of the ancient Badi Palace—topped with storks’ nests—you experience the essence of Marrakesh now: the ease with which this worldly desert crossroads accepts and mixes past and present, classic and cutting-edge.