When in Rome I do as the Romans do, but in Marrakech I don't haggle. I eat tagines and drink mint tea. I adore the medina with its wonderful courtyard houses. I happily lose myself in the Bahia Palace and am dazzled by blue in the Yves Saint Laurent Gardens. But haggling is not in my blood. It does nothing for my general well being, besides, if I were to barter over every piece I buy, it would take me a year to accumulate the quantity and quality of rugs and ceramics I need for Jump like Alice. Some people will happily spend a morning fighting over a few dirhams for a pair of babouches, I prefer doing just about anything else. All the theatre and histrionics leave me cold and resentful. Perhaps family life has satiated any desire for unnecessary confrontation. I accept a price which seems reasonable to me and go with it. Just the thought of bargaining in any souk has the same effect as entering a department store in London - an irrepressible desire to run away. This may seem an unusual stance given I am usually in Marrakech solely for the purpose of buying for Jump like Alice. But through trial and error I have found places to buy which are straightforward and as clear as they can be in the Arab world.
For me Marrakech is more than the sum of its parts. Place Jmna El F'na is little more than a glorified car park. During the day, instead of cars there are performing monkeys, alchemists, fortune tellers, snake charmers and many many freshly squeezed oranges. If this sounds really exciting I am giving the wrong impression. At night the square is occupied by hundreds of food stalls peddling more or less the same thing. It is a spectacle but even more of a miracle that tourists survive the Fayre given there is no running water. The mosques and palaces don't hold a candle to the splendour of other monuments in the Arab world . Even the call to prayer is a bit lacklustre compared to the full throated sounds emanating from the Muslims in Istanbul. But it is the medina which has it and probably where bohemian chic invented itself. The magic all happens behind great stone walls. The labyrinth of medieval pathways and alleys lead to great wooden doors and open onto lush gardens, pools and colonnaded balconies. On my first visit nine years ago, I was amazed when the taxi stopped and we were told that he could go no further. From there, our bags were loaded onto a cart and dragged by donkey through the south of the medina to Riad Kaiss where we were staying. It was a magnificent riad but not for the faint hearted if you have an aversion to the well placed petal.
Beneath the bedclothes - petals
In the bath - petals
On the bed - petals
In the fountain - petals
My late husband described it as death by petals. I thought there were worse ways to go and made sure I told him as much. And I was right. The incredibly handsome French owner, who had painstakingly converted this palace riad, died of AIDS a few years after our visit. My last and abiding memory of him was his leaving the riad one cool, sunny winter's morning - his traditional hooded wool cassock billowing behind him.
Two years ago, I returned to the red city in search of rugs and ceramics for Jump Like Alice and have been back several times since. I always stay in the Riad Merstane near BabTaghzoute to the north of the medina. It is low key and enchanting and about a 15 minute walk through the maze of streets and alleys to the central square. The Riad was refurbished as a maison d'hôte eight years ago by an English couple. It is now run by Rachid, a young Moroccan, Rachida the cook and the night porter - also Rachid. The only person who buckles the trend on the name front is Amina, Rachida's sister who cleans the riad. She instead of Rachida now has to climb the many stairs up to the terrace to deliver breakfast. Rachida has a bad knee and an even worse son. I am sure he is weighing heavily on her heart and legs.
My bedroom, the Amber room, leads out through French doors onto the courtyard. The terrace above, is an amazing mint green which works under a strong Moroccan sun . If I stand on my toes I can see the Atlas Mountains but I prefer to sit down and enjoy my breakfast of fresh bread and Arabic coffee, fruit salad, Rachida's fig jam, yogurt and pancakes. The owners are now trying to sell the riad. Although Marrakech is perfectly safe, religious and political tensions coupled with warnings not to travel to Morocco, as well as recession in Europe, have affected the number of tourists. There are a huge number of riads on the market and apparently it is the French who are keen to invest in the medina before they feel the heavy hand of Hollande on their money.
The Englishman, poet and old Harrovian Grant Rawlings runs Chic Marrakech, a real estate agency with arguably the most beautiful riads for sale in Marrakech. He is the most un-estate agency person I have ever met. This is perhaps because he started off his working life as a poet. Not, one would imagine, the most obvious transferable skill. Since meeting and later marrying a Moroccan woman and three sons later, Marrakech has become his adopted home. Whether you want a riad in perfect condition, immediately habitable, or a riad project, he offers a hand-holding service throughout the entire process.
The Mamounia, still a magnet for the beau monde, is more an institution than a hotel. It is worth a visit if only to corroborate all those picture books of Marrakech weighing down European coffee tables for decades. The garden terrace near the swimming pool is a perfect place for for an evening drink and watching the comings and goings of one of the most famous hotels in the world. Winston Churchill visited the hotel over a number of years and liked to paint from his balcony.
The King, Mohammed VI, is a large shareholder in the Mamounia and lives much like a celebrity himself. His portrait is everywhere. As well as being a very forward looking monarch he enjoys jet skiing, Courchevel , fast cars and the palace in Marrakech, his favourite city in Morocco. In 2001, he launched Plan Azur - the idea of transforming Marrakech into a new celebrity capital and luxury destination for Europeans. In order to do this, he knew he had to expand tourist attractions throughout Morocco. Fourteen years on, the infrastructure has radically improved. There is a new airport and a great road over the Atlas Mountains linking Marrakech to Casablanca. Generous tax incentives to foreign investors have led to a string of top hotels like The Four Seasons opening up . While I was there a few weeks ago, it was rumoured that the newly married George Clooney and his wife had escaped Venice to find privacy in Marrakech. It would appear the king has achieved exactly what he wanted.
The place I buy Kilims is quite simply something else and like nowhere else I have ever shopped. It is a converted Moroccan palace - a vast space on four floors with thousands of rugs. At the top is a rooftop terrace where rugs are left out to dry and fade. It is also where we eat lunch - usually a tagine with mountains of fresh bread and always delicious.
When buying, it is Abdul in his pin striped galabeh, who holds court. It is a performance but not one where I feel disadvantaged. When I say I don't like a particular rug, he throws up one arm and declares that it should be taken away as though he is sending a man to the gallows. His other hand never wavers from his glass of mint tea. From the four corners of the tiled showroom men come removing or bearing rugs one after another. I see hundreds of rugs in a day but I choose very fast. I don't know the prices until the end. In the following few days I return and survey the rugs again. The prices I am quoted are fixed which I find easier. There is no room for bartering.
Another day I bought about twenty rugs from a much smaller outfit on my way home to the riad. As usual I had lost my way in the Moussine and by chance saw a beautiful Berber Akhnif rug hanging on the wall of a small rug shop. One thing led to another and by the end of the afternoon I was twenty rugs richer. But as they could only take cash I phoned Rachid who came and picked me up on his motorbike. Off we zoomed in convoy - the shop owner Habib, Rachid and me weaved our way through donkeys and carts, taxis and cars to the other side of the medina where Habib's friend owned a shop with a credit card machine. His very, very large friend sat cross legged on the floor of his even smaller shop. Although he had no English, his very ample body language told me he was not pleased taking payment for that was not for himself. But he was not so upset that he smudged his eyeliner.