Ancient Morocco adds modern amenities in bid to boost tourism

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Tourists wandering through the ornately tiled rooms of the late-9th-century Bahia Palace, home to a sultan’s vizier, his four wives, 24 concubines and countless offspring, can only imagine the domestic juggling act required to get through the day.

Not far from here, in a jewel-box-like palace of similar vintage, Driss Segueni ponders a more modern problem. Namely, how to provide for the upkeep of a palace bursting with intricate mosaic tile, sculpted plasterwork and areas like slaves and harem quarters that just don’t figure into the typical 21st-century lifestyle.

Segueni’s solution: Install a retractable roof over the palace’s cavernous central courtyard and transform the space and its sumptuous salons into a high-end restaurant. Without the move, this magnificent structure, built in 1904 by a feudal lord and inherited by Segueni several years ago, “would have become a ruin,” he says.

Throughout this 900-year-old city, a blizzard of tourism-related projects is underway, even in the midst of the global recession. A who’s who of luxury openings in 2010 include hotels flying theMandarin Oriental and Beachcomber flags, plus the ultra luxe Royal Mansour, owned by King Mohammed VI. Other hotels in the pipeline include a W Marrakech, a Four Seasons, a Raffles, a Park Hyatt and an InterContinental.

The construction boom comes after an ambitious plan launched by the king almost a decade ago to increase tourism to Morocco from 4.4 million in 2002 to 10 million in 2010 by enhancing tourism infrastructure and ratcheting up promotion. Much of the growth is along the country’s Atlantic coast, with major developments, such as the 600-acre Mazagan Beach Resort, which opened Oct. 31 south of Casablanca.

PHOTO GALLERY: Modern, exotic mix in Morocco

But at present, no place is generating as much buzz as La Mamounia, one of the world’s iconic hotels, which reopened Sept. 29 after a $180 million three-year makeover. Winston Churchill declared it to be “the most lovely spot in the whole world.” (A regular guest here, he has a namesake suite, plus the Churchill Bar, with its leopard-print carpet, tufted, red-leather walls and an oversized red lacquered grand piano.) Last week’s opening bash drew Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, among other glitterati.

La Mamounia is the sort of ultra-exclusive enclave where advance notice is required just to get past the doormen. A guest services employee earnestly explains that there’s a hidden spa-within-a spa for “princesses, stars and models.” Starting rates are just shy of $800, and a trip to the poolside lunch buffet will set you back $100 or so.

A world apart, blocks away

On this day in early November, Hillary Clinton has just checked out of one of its three riads (a Moroccan-style home) tucked away on its 20 acres. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker is ensconced in a suite (she’s here filming the Sex and the Citysequel). And what appears to be an Arab sheik, his robes billowing as he strolls through the 300-year-old gardens, is in residence.

As riveting as the people-watching is in these rarified quarters, it’s surpassed by the carnival and cacophony a few blocks away at Djemaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s sprawling central square. Part bazaar, part public forum, part sideshow, it bustles by day and erupts by night with snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, fortune-tellers and others. At dusk, food sellers set up shop and locals and tourists dine side by side on skewered meats and spicy harira (chickpea and lentil soup).

The grand expanse of Djemaa el Fna dissipates into the narrow alleys of the medina, where a growing number of riads have been converted into small lodgings. Their unadorned exteriors offer no hint of the intricate interiors of mosaic tile, sculpted embellishments and fountained courtyards that lie within.

The riad-turned-lodging phenomenon is a relatively recent development here. Marrakesh’s first boutique hotel, La Maison Arabe, opened in 1998 in what had been one of the medina’s earliest restaurants. (Churchill was a regular there in the late ’40s and ’50s.) Current owner Fabrizio Ruspoli added a 10-room wing and spa last year, creating one of the few full-service small hotels within the old city.

The soul of the city

Beyond the walls of the medina lie the Gueliz and Hivernage sections, areas built by the French, who ruled the country as a protectorate from 1912 to 1956. Farther out, a more sparsely populated section called the Palmeraie sports a number of sprawling golf resorts and new hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental opening in early 2010, and a branch of the decadent Nikki Beach swimming pool club.

Flashy new developments and opulent rehabs aside, the soul of Marrakesh lies in its medina, whose walls stretch 6 miles around. Its narrow streets and alleyways defy orderly navigation. (The 220-foot-tall Koutoubia Mosque provides a welcome beacon for the perennially lost.) Thousands of small buildings are crammed into its 2.3-square-mile confines, which are chaotic and messy and utterly mesmerizing. Donkey carts and motorcycles vie for space in its claustrophobic back streets. On the broader thoroughfares, motorized traffic mixes it up with horse-drawn carriages ferrying sightseers.

In the souks, men gather outside cubbyhole-sized shops crammed with carpets, leather goods and everyday necessities to share sweetened mint tea and conversation. Tourist goods abound. (Bargaining is high art here; don’t count on ever getting the best of a Moroccan merchant.) But the medina is primarily the domain of locals and many aspects of daily life play out in the way they have for centuries.

In a rustic bakery, the proprietor receives mounds of pillowy dough from his customers to bake in a cavernous wood-fired oven. In a cave-like room next to a neighborhood hamam (public bath), a worker methodically shovels wood scraps into a fire to create steam for the baths. Nearby, craftsmen dip cloth in stone vats of colorful dye.

The scene is truly exotic. But locals like Youssef El Alaoui, a tour guide whose family has lived in the medina for seven generations, have a different perspective.

“Modern life is here,” he declares. Pausing at a real-estate office advertising a 2,500-square-foot riad priced at more than $500,000, he estimates the amount is five times what it would have fetched a decade ago. Nearby, workers are laboring in a cloud of plaster dust as they convert an old riad into a small luxury hotel.

“They’re doing magic here. It will be magnificent,” El Alaoui says. “Marrakesh is losing its heart in one way: It’s busier. There are too many cars. Still, these beautiful houses are being given another chance, and that helps save the city.”

 

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