Thousand and one delights
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The Royal Mansour, the new hotel commissioned and owned by the Moroccan royal family, is a place apart from the rest of the bustling city of Marrakech. Slipping in through the gates, set into the ancient honey-coloured city walls, the first thing that hits me is the scent of jasmine in the evening air. It is as overpowering as the silence. Staff glide over to greet guests in whispers, and offer succulent dates and cool buttermilk: this is the refreshment served to travellers in the desert.
This being the Royal Mansour, there’s no clumsy bellhop lumbering ahead with the luggage. Instead, the hotel’s impeccable manager personally escorts guests to their rooms.
Every inch of every surface here is adorned with exquisite workmanship and textures – acres of intricate zellij mosaics, hand-sculpted plasterwork, cedar ceilings, and geometric painted wood. The furnishings are equally lavish, including fabulous Suzani embroideries from Bokara, suede cushions and throws, and miles and miles of silk.
At the heart of the hotel is a central courtyard open to the sky. Bronze lamps are suspended below, each one a work of art. All around there are Andalusian cabinets crafted in Córdoba, mosaic and marble fountains, and banquettes inlaid with fragments of mother of pearl. The entire fantasy is bathed in the kind of hush that simply doesn’t exist in Marrakech.
We pass through an Andalusian courtyard to the sound of trickling water and fragrant trees, all laden with perfectly ripe fruit – pomegranates, oranges and dates. Eventually, we arrive at a model medina, a mirror of the old city in miniature.
Instead of rooms or suites, guests here have their very own riad, a three-storey building set around a colonnaded courtyard. As I approach mine, the door opens magically inward. A man steps silently from the shadows and asks permission to serve me vintage champagne.
Miraculously, my luggage has already arrived, and the genie-like steward has unpacked. But the most extraordinary thing of all is how he, and everyone else, comes and goes invisibly, without ever stepping in or out through the door.
The Royal Mansour’s secret – what makes its illusions possible – is a vast maze of underground secret tunnels. A city in itself, it houses vast kitchens and warehouses, laundries and quarters for its staff. A fleet of new golf carts speeds along these wide subterranean passages.
In Morocco there’s a long tradition of royal patronage. Its kings champion projects that will keep the ancient crafts and traditions alive. In the 1990s, the present monarch’s father, Hassan II, constructed a colossal mosque in Casablanca. The reigning King Mohammed VI conceived the Royal Mansour himself, and directly oversaw every detail of the project, which was built from scratch in three-and-a-half years, and opened in July last year.
Up to 1,400 master craftsmen worked on the hotel, every day during the first year of construction, and the challenge was all the greater because they were working for their king. It’s this detail and care that ensure the Royal Mansour isn’t just another plush place to stay in Marrakech.
Soufiane Benaddi, the hotel’s sales manager, says the Royal Mansour strives “to create a landmark of Moroccan culture” by bringing together architecture, hospitality, cuisine and art all in one place. In the cigar lounge he shows me a cabinet of rare cognacs, including an unopened bottle of 1888 Armagnac Laubade. On the wall above it hangs a fabulously intricate bronze appliqué frieze, crafted by the British-born Moroccan artist Yahya.
We step into the library. As I wonder why there is a giant telescope in the middle of the room, Benaddi presses a button set into the marquetry, and the cedarwood roof slides away.
There are 53 riads, arranged in clusters as they are in the Marrakech medina. Most have two or three bedrooms, with private salons, dining rooms, swimming pools, kitchens and roof-top terraces, from which you can glimpse the Atlas mountains.
The Riad d’Honneur is a palace in its own right, with two pools, gardens, a private spa and underground cinema. Former French president Jacques Chirac and his wife were in residence during my stay, guarded by men in black.
After two days and nights here, I found myself back on the street, waiting for a bus, with the mayhem of Marrakechi traffic frothing all around. I felt like Maruf the Cobbler from The Thousand and One Nights, whose desert palace had appeared by magic, before vanishing in the blink of an eye. After all, what would luxury be if it were not tempered by a little hardship from time to time?
Tahir Shah is the author of ‘The Caliph’s House’ and ‘In Arabian Nights’ (Doubleday)
Hotel Royal Mansour, Marrakech. Room rates from €1,500 per night. Tel: +212 0529808080, Fax: +212 0529808091, www.royalmansour.com