Travel: Into the (he)art of Marrakech
With its artistic initiatives and fortuitous location as a bridge between the rest of the continent and Europe, this bona fide cultural capital is shifting and surprising
If there were such a thing as travelling away from home and yet arriving there, that riddle can be solved at Jnane Tamsna, a sprawling nine-acre boutique hotel situated amongst palm trees and camels on red desert sand in the Palmeraie area of downtown Marrakech.
Since there is no place like home, arguably, there is no place like Jnane, ‘the big garden’ in Arabic. Start your holiday here. You might be welcomed by the owner of the hotel, Meryanne Loum-Martin, an entrepreneur, interior designer and matriarch of these grounds who takes care of every guest, the way a legacy hotel brand cannot.
An impeccably curated room awaits. Decadent and Moorish in design, every amenity invites a smile and an appreciative nod for its intricate beauty: the chandelier, the illuminated mirrors, the graceful archways. Just outside, in your personal backyard, birds are chirping.
You may even have a deck and stairway to climb to overlook the sprawling garden built and tended to by Gary Martin, an ethnobotanist and Meryanne’s husband. These gardens provide for breakfast, lunch and dinner: carrots, oranges, cabbages for salads and sauces.
Do not be alarmed if your skin becomes clearer after only a few days. If you are able to tear yourself away from the Jnane after your first night (or two), your next stop is a double dose of treasures: the Musée Yves Saint Laurent and the Jardin Majorelle.
The museum, a glamorously designed space, is a homage to the legacy of the French fashion designer. The pièce de résistance of the museum is a pitch-black room brought to life by the colourful clothing and accessories he created. The light design in the room allows each piece to twinkle, glisten or blind. A gold bust cased in glass is a particular thing of wonder.
It is a shame you are not allowed pictures, but you could well be tempted to sneak one or two to marvel at later. Next to the museum is the botanical and landscape garden built by French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and his business partner Pierre Bergé in the 1980s.
The garden here is rich, both in plant species – bamboo, cactus – transplanted from all over the world, and in history: the garden houses the Berber museum, a visual celebration of the original peoples of North Africa.
Couscous, contemporary art
It might now be time for a lunch and tea break. Look no further than the smoky hallways of La Mamounia. Here, you can sip rich, memorable-to-the-tongue tea, to which an addition of sugar might be an insult. It is perfect without any additions.
And for lunch? Naturally, couscous or a chicken tagine. At the time of writing La Mamounia was host to 1–54, a leading fair on contemporary art by African artists. Works included Omar Victor Diop’s arresting portraits of high-achieving and overlooked Africans and Joana Choumali’s affecting photographs [pictured] and collages interrogating gender and identity.
Can’t get enough of the art? Pace yourself. The next day head to Guliz, Marrakech’s gallery district that houses work by some of Morocco’s most accomplished artists. At Galerie Siniya 28 are Abdelmalek Berhiss’s paintings of his childhood growing up in the port city of Essaouira. Fun fact: some major Daenerys Targaryen scenes in the hit show Game of Thrones were shot there.
At the time of writing a three-floor exhibition curated by British-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj was on show at the Comptoir des Mines gallery. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden, a 20-minute drive or so out of central Marrakech, the city’s crossroads with the rest of the continent comes into full bloom with an exhibition of over 30 artists from all over Africa. Now that you are fully soaked in the he(art) of Marrakech, it is time to explore its belly.
Look to Nomad, a restaurant in the UNESCO Heritage Site-listed Jemaa el-Fna square and expansive market. Before food, get lost and work up an appetite – inhale or buy spices from the stalls, consider Berber-style rugs and carpets, try a spicy brochette and dance with snake charmers.
Resist the temptation to whip out your phone and use Google Maps to find the restaurant. Just wander. You may want to start with the delicious juice of avocado, dates, orange and cinnamon. Then perhaps, the calamari from Agadir? Finish lavishly with a saffron-scented date cake. Then yet again, return home.