How do you update an icon? For most of the last century La Mamounia has been the grand dame of Marrakech’s hotel scene, opened in 1923 and with a guest list that runs from Winston Churchill to Gwyneth Paltrow, via Alfred Hitchcock, the Rolling Stones, Charlie Chaplin, Omar Sharif and countless more. It was built by the national railway operator, which remains the major shareholder, alongside the city of Marrakech and other state bodies.
But Marrakech has changed. Where once La Mamounia was the only address for a visiting VIP, a building boom over the past 15 years has left the city with no fewer than 27 five-stars, including outposts of international brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Aman and Oberoi, each attempting to outdo the other with the latest in design and facilities.
So the grand dame must run to keep up. A £100m facelift was completed only in 2009, but this year the hotel closed for almost five months during another major renovation, this time at the hands of Parisian designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku.
Restaurants and public areas have been completely transformed, an underground wine bar has been dug beneath the swimming pool, and there’s a new cinema. But can you keep up with the newcomers without losing the soul of the original? “For nothing to change, you have to change everything,” says Manku, “and if you don’t change a venue, it becomes a museum.”
I first came to La Mamounia a dozen years ago, stepping inside from the frenetic scramble of the Marrakech medina to find myself ushered to the plush, hushed, Churchill Bar. My overwhelming impression then was of old money, a long history of luxury and expensive quiet.
Churchill visited Marrakech repeatedly, spending the winter of 1935-36 on an extended painting holiday and even dragging Franklin D Roosevelt here in 1943 to see the sunset, on a hastily arranged jolly from the Casablanca Conference. In a letter to his wife, Clemmie, on December 30 1935, Churchill warned of the great “peril of Hitler” but went on: “This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom, with a large balcony twelve feet deep, looking out on a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives, and the houses and ramparts of the native Marrakech, and like a great wall to the westward the snow-clad range of the Atlas Mountains. The light at dawn and sunset upon the snows, even at sixty miles distance, is as good as any snowscape I have ever seen.”
Returning this month for the grand relaunch, I was welcomed with the traditional Moroccan greeting: milk flavoured with almonds and a handful of fresh dates. The magnificent marble camel statue is still in place but beyond it there is a burst of light under an enormous glass chandelier which reflects off the fountain below. This is the new Pierre Hermé salon de thé and it epitomises the designers’ intentions with the project. It stays true to the Moroccan roots — with the tea ceremony so important to this culture — while bringing in exquisite French pastries from one of the world’s most celebrated pâtisserie 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, freestanding red lanterns guide you through the scented gardens to the different seating and restaurant areas. It’s magical.
Two new restaurants, L’Asiatique and L’Italien are overseen by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the French chef who relocated 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, more exclusive champagne and caviar space and there is a brand new “temple of sugar” — a palace solely for puddings, all lined in copper to fully show off the glory of Hermé’s cakes.
Outside by the pool are three new tented mini-salons, offering a more intimate place to dine, and to the side is the entrance to the subterranean wine bar, which also hosts dinners for up to 12. A third restaurant, Le Marocain, offers beautifully executed Moroccan dishes and has a new rooftop lounge with a bar and DJ.
Though the catering and decor of a hotel are important, La Mamounia’s key advantage over many of the newer five-stars is its location — right in the heart of the city. It takes just two minutes to walk to the Koutoubia gardens which give on to Jemaa el-Fna, the main square of the old town.
I set off on foot to have a look at how the city was faring in the pandemic but no sooner had I stepped out the door than a waiter who I’d chatted to the night before and who was arriving at work on his scooter, hailed me cheerfully: “Salaam alaykum. Where are you going? Hop on, I’ll give you a lift, just don’t take any pictures of us. My wife wouldn’t like it!”
I clambered up and held on firmly as we headed out into the streets. Yelling at each other as we dodged donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages and an alarmingly close rubbish truck, I found out that Mohammed had been working for the Mamounia for 20 years. “They paid us, all 600 of us, fully, all through lockdown. Thanks be to God,” he told me, “We are a family. The Mamounia is everything to us.” He dropped me off with a wave and a toot at Riad Larouss and I dived into the alleys.
Life is returning at last. Lockdown took a terrible economic toll on Marrakech, a city that relies on tourism. For months the bustling medina was dead but now the local shops — the butchers, grocers, metalworkers — have opened their doors, though foreign tourists remain scarce. Morocco’s borders reopened to international visitors in possession of a negative Covid-19 test on September 6, but continuing restrictions in France, the biggest market, have drastically hit arrivals.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere was quietly optimistic. Most shopkeepers I spoke to said they were just coming in the morning to keep things going and that although business was slow, they were hopeful that trade would pick up by 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, more modern feel, and the tables spill out in to the dusky gardens.
La Mamounia actually takes its name from its gardens: in the 18th century, the Sultan gave them to his son Mamoun who threw lavish parties among the 5,000 rose bushes. Today, the gardens cover 20 acres and are a defining feature of the hotel. The kitchen garden has more than 30 different types of vegetable and so many fruit trees that there is an in-house citrus expert to tend to them.
“It’s beautiful produce in Morocco, such a range!” Vongerichten told me, as he toured the tables. “The problem with opening the restaurants was not the produce, it was about not being on site.” Travel restrictions meant he had to train all his staff in the new menus via Zoom. He had only arrived in Morocco four days before we sat down to our feast.
As we finished off our dessert — a Zuppa Inglese — a commotion arose from the central serving station. Vongerichten burst out with his chefs and staff, formed up into a conga and, banging their spoons against pots and pans noisily and joyously, wound their 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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