Marrakesh: How to make like an A-lister in Morocco
Jillian Bolger stakes out the celebs in one of Morocco's most glamorous villas. Tough work, but someone's gotta do it...
I may have come to Marrakesh in search of celebrities and glamour, but it's an old wall that stops me in my tracks.
Despite being fashioned from mud and lime almost 900 years ago, the rose-coloured structure seems in perfect condition. It's six metres high, insulating the old world of the medina from modern, motorised Marrakesh. We follow its line heading north, away from the city bustle towards the Palmeraie, a true oasis comprising over 100,000 date palms, olive and citrus trees. Home to the crème of the city's society - not to mention boutique hotels and royal hideaways - it seems like a smart address to live like an A-lister.
That's my mission. I may be several decades too late to hop aboard the Marrakesh Express, but I'm pleased to be travelling in the footsteps of the many hedonists who helped put Morocco's Ochre City on the tourist trail.
Given a culture layered with Berber, Oriental, Moorish, Mediterranean and French influences, it was only a matter of time before the hippies would come. Regular visitor Winston Churchill declared this the 'most lovely spot in the whole world' in 1943, but it took a group of long-haired hedonists to kick-start the imperial city's global reputation as somewhere truly exotic and spectacular. The labyrinthine medina, buzzing souks and cool mountain air that proved such a draw for The Rolling Stones, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol may have lost their crown to St Tropez, Capri, Aspen and The Hamptons for a spell, but the revamp of Marrakesh's most famous hotel, La Mamounia, played no small part in luring back the stars in 2009.
Since then, the southern city has been back in the spotlight with its constant string of high-profile holidaymakers. David Beckham celebrated his 40th birthday here this year with a star-studded bash, as did Katie Perry when she turned 30 in 2014. Top model Poppy Delevingne, sister to Cara, held her starry wedding reception in La Mamounia last summer. Madonna, Kate Moss and Jean Paul Gaultier are all reported to own villas here, as are Richard Branson and the Hermès family.
Given that Islamic architecture favours private and inward-looking spaces, it's easy to see the appeal of Marrakesh for paparazzi-hounded celebrities. Here, they can slip invisibly through the crowded streets of the medina to sand-coloured riads and palm-cloaked villas where heavy wooden doors, enclosed courtyards and mashrabiya - intricate latticework windows - keep prying eyes and lenses at bay.
As luck would have it, I'm staying in a hideaway so unbelievably A-list that Tatler magazine (high society's bible in Britain) called it 'one of the most glamorous villas in Morocco'. Any suspicion that the Tatler folk were being overzealous will be removed the minute you check out Ezzahra's website (see 'where to stay', below). If the photos had me drooling with excitement before I arrived, it was nothing compared to the thrill that washed over me when I stepped into this luxurious hideaway.
Despite the proliferation of deluxe hotels in Marrakesh, seasoned insiders know the appeal of renting a private villa. The Palmeraie is full of them, hidden behind high walls and imposing gates. My new home, Ezzahra - named for the heady scent of orange blossoms that fills the air - is a sublime family-owned villa set in elegant gardens that comes with an army of 17 staff, including two full-time beauty therapists. Did I mention Daniel Craig was a recent guest?
Ezzahra: dining like an A-lister
In a world where luxury often equates to bling, Ezzahra's owners have demonstrated impeccable restraint, creating an elegant and understated hideaway that is impossibly glamorous and comfortable. Recruiting an army of skilled craftsmen, every piece in this seven-bedroom villa, from the hand-carved furniture to the traditional metalwork lanterns, has been individually chosen to create a luxurious Moroccan experience.
The cool green-tiled pool quickly becomes my favourite spot, offering soothing views of the rose-coloured house and burgeoning jacaranda trees with electric purple flowers. On waking from sun-induced slumber, I pinch myself to see if I'm still in the real world. The views from my lounger seem too perfect to be true.
The ultimate indulgence, Ezzahra puts the mmm in memorable. Fancy a morning back massage, a pedi by the pool or a quick blow-dry before dinner? No problem. Looking for an impromptu mojito, afternoon tea on the terrace or a traditional gommage (exfoliation ritual) in the in-house hammam? Just say the word.
It's hard to venture outside my serene hideaway, but I manage - popping into La Mamounia (mamounia.com) for lunch in the medina. It's still the place to see and be seen, and the al fresco poolside buffet is a sumptuous feast, as befits a building that was once the palace of a Moroccan prince. The lavish property sits neatly inside the medina's ochre walls, and its guestbook reads like a Who's Who of Vanity Fair cover stars.
So this is how the other half lives, I purr, joining friends over aperitifs at Ezzahra. Having come here to understand Marrakesh's enduring appeal as a celebrity bolthole, it seems auspicious that my next-door neighbour is a Saudi prince.
Now, I wonder if I can get past his guards to borrow a cup of sugar…
What to pack
Wallpaper magazine's City Guides (and apps) are essential reading for style lovers and fans of great design and architecture. With a steer on the hippest restaurants, boutiques, bars, hotels, galleries and nightclubs you can swot up on the hottest places to visit (de.phaidon.com, €9.95/€4.99).
Where to stay
Ezzahra (ezzahra-morocco.com) can be hired exclusively by 8 or 14 guests. Prices include full staff, all meals, non-alcoholic drinks, laundry, treatments, one return airport transfer for the group and a 7-seater vehicle with chauffeur from 10am to 8pm. Prices from €2,917pp approx (i.e. 14 guests for 7 nights at €41,065).
Go clubbing to Nikki Beach (nikkibeach.com) or Pacha (pachamarrakech.com) in search of the jet set who’ve outgrown Ibiza’s party scene. Stake out Namazake, the swanky rooftop bar at The Pearl, (thepearlmarrakech.com) or The El Fenn, a chic hotel bar that’s popular with the Hollywood set (el-fenn.com).
After a visit to the Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com), the magnificent gardens of Yves Saint Laurent, cross over to 33 Rue Majorelle. A far cry from the souks, this minimalist boutique and gallery (with hipster-worthy coffeeshop) offers a covetable collection of clothes, art and ornaments from Morocco’s hottest talents (33ruemajorelle.com).
Dine like a local
By night head to Jemaa el-Fna, the city’s famous old square, which comes to life with smoky stalls, snake-charmers, drummers and dancers, musicians and Mosque-goers. Join local families and pick a lantern-lit stall to sample the local delicacies. From spicy sausages to stewed snails, fried fish to chicken skewers there’s even lambs’ brains for the intrepid diner.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Marrakesh in around 3 hours 45 minutes. The airport is just 10km from the city. Fares from €59.99 one-way. Spring and autumn are the best times to travel. For more info on things to do and see in the city, check visitmorocco.com.