In 1938, George Orwell and his wife made their way to a Marrakech villa for the winter to help improve the author's health. Located in the fashionable Palmeraie district, the rent was £3 a month. Even then, the high-minded Orwell thought the population has "been hopelessly debauched by tourism," though he later confessed to a friend that he had "seldom tasted such bliss" as with the young Berber girls.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Winston Churchill was also seduced by the charms of Marrakech, though in his case it was La Mamounia Hotel. He described the hotel, with its 17 acres of gardens and views over the Atlas Mountains, as "the most lovely spot in the entire world." Half a century on, the Mamounia has just undergone a €100 million refit -- and other major international hotel groups are flocking to the Moroccan city.
Last year, Prince Albert of Monaco flew in to lay the inauguration stone for the €95 million Jawhar Estate development, which will be managed by the prestigious Société des Bains de Mer, which controls the Monte Carlo Casino.
The Samanah Country Club, designed by Jack Nicklaus, also recently opened and will offer private villas starting at €2 million.
Perhaps the most lavish new hotel of all will be the Royal Mansour, owned by King Mohammed VI, with suites from €1,500 a day.
Aman Resorts was the first upmarket hotel group to open here a decade ago. The Four Seasons, Mandarin-Oriental and Raffles, plus boutique groups such as Rocco Forte and Gordon Campbell Gray, are all expecting to open over the next two years.
At the same time, the Medina, a Unesco World Heritage medieval walled city, has seen hundreds of foreigners purchase and restore riads, the traditional high-walled residences with internal courtyards or gardens.
What makes this sprawling city within a city so appealing is the complete lack of any modern buildings, the burying of all overheard electricity and other cabling, and the rigorous implementation of a law stipulating that structures can't be more than two stories high, save for the occasional traditional mosque towers. The only blight on this compelling vista are the thousands of television dishes, all obediently pointing toward their satellite transmitters in the sky.
The most vital component, though, is the existing culture to be found throughout the Medina and the vast Djemaa el Fna, Africa's largest open-air square, with its fire eaters, storytellers, snake charmers and musicians.
Individuals have also created comfortable hideaway hotels in the Medina, with the most renowned one being Vanessa Branson's Riad El Fenn. Ms. Branson, sister of Sir Richard, recently hosted the third Marrakech Arts Festival, with guests such as artist Julian Schnabel, film Director John Boorman and actress Kim Cattrall. Other part-time residents of the Medina and the Palmeraie now include Paloma Picasso, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and fashion entrepreneur Pierre Bergé. This new generation of expatriates and travelers has helped establish Marrakech's status as the most sought after and stylish destination in all of North Africa.
Apart from the mystique and excitement of the Medina, there are several other reasons that explain the growing appeal of Marrakech:
It is the most accessible exotic destination for European travelers, reachable in little more than three hours by plane; it has a variety of accommodations ranging from €50 riads to luxurious hotels and private villas in the Palmeraie that can cost €15,000 a week; and it offers a carefree lifestyle with perfect winter weather, where foreigners can own property relatively easily.
Straddling both the resort nature of the Palmeraie and the intensity of the Medina, there is the zone called Guéliz, or the New Town, which French colonials developed in the Thirties. Despite the recent erection of rows of apartment buildings, it still has elements of French provincial charm, with its wide tree-lined avenues and a sprinkling of attractive bistros and quality retail outlets. A meeting place for Moroccans and the foreign community is Café du Livre, a pleasantly relaxed Internet café cum second-hand bookshop next to a three-star hotel that is run by Dutch born Sandra Zwollo, whose husband was headmaster of the American School in Marrakech.
Close to the Guéliz central market, Italian Lucien Viola has opened Gallerie Rê, one of the most sophisticated art galleries in Marrakech. He exhibits local artists and normally has six or seven major exhibitions a year; he also runs a Berber textiles museum on the outskirts of Marrakech. He says that on his arrival 20 years ago, Marrakech was an entirely different expatriate scene, dominated by the Rothschilds, the Hermès and the Agnellis. Foreigners tended to drive around in Rolls-Royces and had scant interest in the local culture. "Now people are interested in good art and good living -- and the gallery also has concerts, book signings, music evenings," he says. "Next year we are having a yoga performance with accompanying musicians."
Many Western artists or members of the so-called cultural crowd tend to live in the Medina, where they have purchased run-down riads for relatively cheap prices and made them into their own fantasy residences. One of the most spectacular modernist ones is owned by Dietrich Becker, the prominent London-based German banker, while nearby artist and writer Danny Moynihan and his wife, actress Katrina Boorman, have created their own local residence. "The Moroccans all want to move out of here to the leafy suburbs because they consider the Medina to be cold and damp," Mr. Moynihan says.
Next door to the Moynihans, Wasfi Kani, the British Opera impresario, has carved her house out of a section of the old pasha's palace. "I love the fact that there are still amazing craftsmen working in the souk and a feeling that the local culture is incredibly strong and vibrant," she says. "There is also the rather appealing way that store owners will only beseech you to buy their wares when you are directly in front of their shops and not otherwise."
Ironically, the success of the budget airlines appears to have driven other carriers off the route. Currently there are no direct flights from British Airways or Air France while Royal Air Maroc only flies via Casablanca. With the coming explosion in luxury accommodation, partially inspired by the modernist King Mohammed VI, there threatens to be a shortage of flight capacity to Marrakech. One luxury-travel specialist in London says many of its clients refuse to travel on budget airlines to hotels that cost upward of €1,000 a night. "People have to make up their mind because it really comes down to either easyJet or private jet," travel consultant Alice Daunt of Earth London said.
Marrakech however, has shown impressive resilience, regardless of all the development in the past decade. Despite the thousands of expatriates who have arrived, traditional cohesive values are strong and the markets still retain their original allure. Vanessa Branson says she began the Marrakech Arts Festival as a bridge between Islamic and Western cultures -- and also as a way of paying back the city for being so generous to her. "You have to be careful not to get too nostalgic about the disappearance of the wizened old men on their donkeys or complain because a KFC opens for the Moroccan market. Infant mortality is falling and literacy is rising with a lot more women graduating as doctors and lawyers. People love to moan, but you can't stand still -- I really respect Marrakech for that."
by Bruce Palling a writer based in London.