So the great lady must run to follow. A £ 100million facelift was not completed until 2009, but this year it was closed for almost five months in another major renovation, this time at the hands of Parisian designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku.
Restaurants and public spaces have been completely transformed, an underground wine bar has been dug under the pool, and there is a new cinema. But can you keep up with the newcomers without losing the soul of the original? “In order for nothing to change, you have to change everything,” says Manku, “and if you don’t change the location, it becomes a museum.”
I first came to La Mamounia a dozen years ago, emerging from the frantic rush of the Marrakech medina to find myself led to the plush and hushed Churchill bar. My overwhelming impression then was of old money, a long history of expensive luxury and quiet.
Churchill has visited Marrakech on several occasions, spending the winter of 1935-36 on an extended painting vacation and even dragging Franklin D Roosevelt here in 1943 to see the sunset, on a hastily arranged joyous Casablanca conference. In a letter to his wife, Clemmie, on December 30, 1935, Churchill warned of Hitler’s great “peril,” but continued, “This is a wonderful place, and the hotel is one of best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom, with a large balcony twelve feet deep, overlooking a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olive trees, and the houses and ramparts of native Marrakech, and like a great wall to the west the snow-capped chain of the Atlas Mountains. The light at dawn and sunset on the snow, even at a distance of sixty miles, is as good as any snow landscape I have ever seen.
Back this month for the big relaunch, I was greeted with the traditional Moroccan greeting: almond-flavored milk and a handful of fresh dates. The magnificent marble camel statue is still in place, but beyond that there is a burst of light under a huge glass chandelier reflecting off the fountain below. This is the new Pierre Hermé tea room and it embodies the intentions of the designers with the project. He stays true to Moroccan roots – with the tea ceremony so important to this culture – while bringing exquisite French pastries from one of the world’s most famous pastry chefs. It keeps the calm of the old lobby, while flooding it with new light from a very modern chandelier.
Light and food are a constant theme. At dusk, tall, free-standing red lanterns guide you through the fragrant gardens to the various seating and restaurant areas. It is magic.
Two new restaurants, L’Assie and L’Italien are overseen by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the French chef who moved to New York in the mid-1980s and now runs restaurants from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. The Churchill Bar has been reconfigured into a smaller and more exclusive champagne and caviar space and there is a brand new ‘Sugar Temple’ – a palace only for puddings, all lined in copper to fully show the glory of the cakes. Hermé.
Outside by the pool are three new tented mini-lounges, providing a more intimate place to dine, and to the side is the entrance to the underground wine bar, which also caters for dinners up to 12. people. A third restaurant, Le Marocain, offers beautifully executed Moroccan dishes and has a new rooftop lounge with a bar and DJ.
While catering and decorating a hotel is important, La Mamounia’s key advantage over many new five-star hotels is its location – right in the heart of the city. It only takes two minutes on foot to reach the Koutoubia Gardens which overlook Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in the old town.
I left on foot to see how the city was behaving in the pandemic but barely stepped out of the door that a waiter I had chatted with the day before and who was arriving at work on his scooter, greeted me happily : “Salaam alaykum. Where are you going? Jump, I’ll give you a hand, don’t take a picture of us. My wife wouldn’t like that!
I climbed and held tight as we made our way to the streets. Shouting at me as we dodged donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages and a terribly nearby garbage truck, I discovered that Mohammed had worked for Mamounia for 20 years. “They paid us, all 600, in full, throughout the lockdown. Thank God, ”he told me,“ We are a family. La Mamounia is everything for us. He dropped me off with a wave and a toot at Riad Larouss and I plunged into the alleys.
Life is finally coming back. The lockdown has had a terrible economic impact on Marrakech, a city that relies on tourism. For months the bustling medina was dead, but now local shops – butchers, grocers, metalworkers – have opened, although foreign tourists remain scarce. Morocco’s borders were reopened to international visitors with a negative Covid-19 test on September 6, but lingering restrictions in France, the largest market, have hit arrivals considerably.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere was quietly optimistic. Most traders I spoke to said they came just in the morning to get things done and although business was slow, they were hopeful that trading would resume early next year.
My mood and appetite were both high when I returned for the launch dinner at L’Italien. The new design has given the restaurant a much airier and more modern feel, and the tables spill out into the dark gardens.
La Mamounia takes its name from its gardens: in the 18th century, the Sultan gave them to his son Mamoun who organized sumptuous festivals among the 5,000 rose bushes. Today the gardens cover 20 acres and are a defining feature of the hotel. The vegetable garden has over 30 different types of vegetables and so many fruit trees that there is an in-house citrus expert to care for them.
“It’s beautiful products in Morocco, such a range!” Vongerichten told me as he browsed the tables. “The problem with the opening of the restaurants was not the products, it was not to be there.” Travel restrictions meant he had to train all his staff on the new menus through Zoom. He had only arrived in Morocco four days before we sat down at our party.
When we finished our dessert – a Zuppa Inglese – a commotion arose from the central service station. Vongerichten broke out with his chefs and staff, trained in a conga, and, slamming their spoons against pots and pans loudly and happily, made his way around the tables, celebrating a new beginning.
Alice Morrison was a guest of La Mamounia; double rooms cost from £ 562 per night
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