Monday, January 14, 2013

Return to Marrakech: The Dream of La Mamounia

It’s a Moroccan fantasy, the most seductive and luscious and exciting hotel in the world. 

Come with me for a visit and learn some secrets. We’ll also take a private tour of the mystical Jardin Majorelle and be invited for a privileged insider visit to Villa Oasis, the romantic private residence of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’.

You know I love Morocco.

I especially adore Marrakech, the legendary city.

I was incredibly fortunate recently to spend a week there, researching the historic architecture, rare craftsmanship, and gardens. It was my great pleasure to return to the legendary La Mamounia hotel, the favorite winter digs of Winston Churchill.

La Mamounia is a kind of paradise, ultra-private, with walls of filigreed stucco, colors Matisse loved, hand-carved and gilded cedar doors and ceilings, and slightly decadent silken aromas that waft through the air.

From each terrace and doorway are sun-struck visions of orange blossom and flickering palm trees. Is this a dream, a mirage?

The hotel has certain perfection—every moment is bliss—and one has to thank genial Didier Picquot, who has been General Manager of La Mamounia since 2008 when he arrived to overse the extensive restoration of the hotel planned by the great Jacques Garcia.

M. Picquot (he counts The Ritz and The Lyford Cay Members’ Club in The Bahamas among his previous trophy properties) and his staff have everything under so control that guests enjoy calm, unruffled moments. Classic hotel service is anticipatory. A pair of La Mamounia Havaianas sandals, a perfect fit, appears seconds after the intention of spending time at the pool is voiced. Dusty medina-meandering shoes are cleaned overnight. Baggage comes and goes invisibly. Reservations are made. Cars, drivers and expert guides are at hand. 

Imagine a hotel suite designed by the great French decorator Jacques Garcia. It’s in legendary Marrakech, with rich centuries of history, French associations, migratory cultures, virtuoso craftsmanship, and intensely authentic life.

Garcia, his dreams at their most voluptuous, looked to Orientalist paintings to find red silk velvet Empire-style chairs and odalisque-ready sofas. He layered walls with wainscots of incantatory tiles, and then turned up the volume with carved plaster so intricate and endlessly serpentine that the effect is sheer magic, a solid material turned into light and vapor.

Arches frame the bed, honed white/pale grey marble is lavished on bathroom walls and floors, the shower is a luxe temple with domed ceiling and tiny pearlescent tiles. A clawfoot tub balances an array of loofahs and toiletries, from fragrant soaps to gels and potions and creams. Why ever leave? 

“Marrakech stands on the great fertile plain of Haouz, seventeen hundred feet above sea level. Some eight miles of timeworn ramparts enclose the thronging hive of people. Dynasty after dynasty of Sultans enriched Marrakech with the finest architecture of their epoch; it became a royal city, the capital of the South. And it became the market for camel caravans from all the remote oases of North Africa, with their walnuts and oranges, gold and silk and hides, spices, dates, and precious metals. And so it has been for centuries.”—Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas 

Green tiles glimmer as a border for a hand-woven wool carpet. Ceilings of carved and gilded cedar, utterly traditional, gleam and shimmer in the soft light of evening.

I am entranced. I never want to leave.

And then there is a knock on the door—and a handsome waiter arrives with mint tea and silver trays of macaroons of infinitely lovely floral flavors. Swoon. Swoon. And swoon.

“Morocco appears to exist in its very own light, a light of preternatural purity which gives a foretaste of mirage. It’s the light in which magic becomes real, and which helps to understand how, to people living in such an atmosphere, the boundary between fact and dream perpetually fluctuates.” — Edith Wharton, ‘In Morocco’ (1920)

La Mamounia: A Design Dream Fulfilled

There is always a moment when I’ve been out all day traversing the souks (turquoise suede slippers, a great find, an antique trade bead necklace, another) and silently walking through the Saadian tombs (breath-taking), and palaces –and I return to La Mamounia.

After refreshing and dressing for evening, I wander down to the Majorelle bar to people watch, make notes, read reference books, meet a friend, observe, send over requests to the musical trio (Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin) and then perhaps wander out into the candlelit garden.

Away in the distance, there’s a dusting of snow on the Atlas Mountains.

At Le Marocain restaurant, situated in a riad in the garden, guests dine on a sheltered terrace surrounding a lily pond. I requested a vegetable tagine, and nibbled on savory pastries and little spicy salads—but it was the hauntingly beautiful Andalusian/Moroccan music by a costumed quartet that was most enthralling. Lutes! Drums thrumming! Songs in intricate patterns and harmonies and sprung rhythms captured the beauty of the beloved. The effect was so lovely, so unique to Morocco. In the aura of penumbral light, the music seemed to float to the heavens. 

“In Marrakech the sky is a Wagnerian celebration: indigo with pinpricks of starlight, deep sapphire, cerulean, its colors are funneling down through the horizon in the wake of the setting sun. The vivid sounds of the medina are borne towards me, dramatic cried, metallic clashes. The fairy-tale buildings seem to float above the feathery tops of the palm trees in stark but serene radiance.” — Anthony Gladstone-Thompson, ‘Morocco in the 1960s”.

Dining at La Mamounia: Flavor and Seduction

Menu Traditionnel 

Harira Marrakchia aux Dattes 

Traditional Moroccan Harira soup with dates 


Petite dégustation de notre sélection de fines salades marocaines 

Assortment of fine Moroccan salads 


Dorade à la méthode de Fès 

Fes style baked sea bream 


Tagine d’agneau
aux petits pois et fonds d’artichauts 

Lamb tagine
with green peas and artichoke 

Couscous aux sept légumes 

Couscous with seven vegetables 


Salade d’orange à la cannelle, fleur d’oranger et son granité 

Cinnamon scented orange salad
with orange blossom water and orange sherbet 

Menu Contemporain 

Soupe de langoustine au céleri comme une harira 

Harira style langoustine soup with celery 


Tride au foie gras de canard concassé de dattes et coing 

Duck “foie gras” tride with dates and quince 


Tagine de lotte au safran et palourdes d’Agadir fondue de fenouil, pommes grenaille et olives rouges 

Saffron scented monkfish and clams tagine, fennel fondue, potato and red olives 


Mignon de bœuf en tagine,
concassé de blé et jus de pied de veau au pois chiches 

Beef loin tagine
with wheat and veal jus with chickpeas 


Tarte sablée à l’orange, coulis d’oranges confites, chantilly à la fleur d’oranger 

Orange tart, candied orange marmalade, orange blossom whipped cream 


Pastilla Wazzania au miel 

“Wazzania” pastilla with chicken, almond and honey 

Epaule d’agneau à la vapeur, accompagnée de petits légumes 

Steamed lamb shoulder with baby vegetables 

Méchoui d’agneau 

Oven baked lamb 

Jarret de bœuf entier à la terfesse et celeri vert 

Whole braised veal shank with Moroccan truffle and celery 

Daurade royale au four 

Oven roasted sea bream 

In Praise of Enchantment: Jardin Majorelle and the Legacy of Yves Saint Laurent

Just a few minutes drive from La Mamounia, the Jardin Majorelle is one of my favorite gardens in the world, and when I’m in Marrakech a visit is first on my agenda. 

It’s an eccentric and highly focused garden. Rare specimens of cactuses, handsome bamboo varieties, cycads, palm trees, and Moroccan native trees flourish here. For those whose idea of a ‘garden’ is a riot of color and flowers, this is not the place. Tones of green—from celadon to emerald and back—force the eye to see shadows, shapes, textures and patterns.

Fluttering palm fronds, twisting pathways, and shimmering bamboo leaves create a hyper-hallucinogenic atmosphere, especially on a hot summer afternoon. 

The original private garden was founded in 1924 by the French artist/designer Jacques Majorelle, and in 1947 it opened to the public.

Over the years until 1962 Majorelle created a rare and magical landscape of mysterious force and power.

Later, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge saved the garden from destruction. Twelve years ago they handed it over to the privately funded Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent, to ensure its careful management and continued beauty.

International visitors come to the garden to pay homage to Yves Saint Laurent who is commemorated by a broken column that stands discreetly in a peaceful bamboo grove. 

I was very fortunate to spend time at Jardin Majorelle with Madison Cox, one of the world’s most influential landscape designers. Originally from California, he is now the Garden Director.

Madison recently opened the Berber Museum in the grounds of the garden to showcase the arts and culture and costumes of Berber tribes.

Cox’s plan is to maintain the gardens to the highest quality, and especially to honor the genius and personal vision of Jacques Majorelle in perpetuity.

With Madison at the helm, the garden will continue to thrill. 

Villa Oasis

Madison invited me to visit the Villa Oasis, adjacent to the Jardin Majorelle. It’s the legendary residence where Yves Saint Laurent worked on his collections, and where he and Pierre Berge hosted the likes of Loulou de la Falaise, Betty Cautroux, members of the Hermes family, and French artists and writers and bright young things too fabulous even to imagine. 

Interiors were designed in homage to Moroccan style by Bill Willis and Jacques Grange. Photographs here by Oberto Gili capture the complexity of every surface, captivating color harmonies, and the mysterious and magical Moroccan traditional crafts, arts, materials and cultural agglomeration.

I walked silently through the house with one of the sweet family dogs, with just the sound of palm trees clicking in the wind high above. There are the sofas where Saint Laurent reclined, and here are the gold-framed Orientalist paintings Berge, with his attuned and expert eye, has collected over the decades. The bustle and jangle of Marrakech is far distant as I wander from room to room, mesmerized by the hand-smoothed green plaster walls, and kaleidoscopes of tile patterns on walls, floors, columns, and tables. 

Though the locked gate once more, I circled slowly through the Jardin Majorelle.
In the pond beside the museum, two turtles carrying their carapaces aloft, paddle among the magenta and shocking pink lilies.

In the gift shop vibrant necklaces of silk cord and jade by Loulou de la Falaise are displayed in vitrines.

I lurk in the bookshop, adding to my collection of Yves Saint Laurent books (already almost a bookcase full), and poking through a selection of post cards of vintage Moroccan portraits. 

Villa Oasis gardens

Villa Oasis gardens

Villa Oasis gardens

Villa Oasis gardens

Eventually I found my driver, and we headed back to La Mamounia in the late afternoon's golden haze.

We swept through the gates, very low-key, to be greeted by the retinue of doormen and staff in handsome traditional uniforms.

Riad living room

Riad bedroom

Riad bedroom

La Mamounia: I adore the hotel and everything in it. The air is a mysterious fragrance of roses and cedar and palm leaves. Soaps and toiletries, lavish, offer scents of mint and palm and dry desert air, designed by Olivia Giacobetti, Parisian perfumeur.

Elevators, with their low light, hand-tooled leather, and prismatic mirrored walls, offer a whiff of tobacco and a tantalizing hint of Scheherazade. Closets in suites overlooking the palms and the Koutoubia mosque are furnished with Hermes orange leather boxes and cabinets.

Twenty-four acres of historic gardens allow guests to wander in perfect peace.

Nothing interrupts the reverie.

Staff are chic and charming, worldly and witty.

Here all is luxe, calme et volupte.

I can’t wait to return. 

Riad pool

Hotel La Mamounia:
Avenue Bab Jdid

Design of La Mamounia:
Décoration Jacques Garcia
212, rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris – France
Tel. 33-(0)1 42 97 48 70
Fax 33-(0)1 42 97 48 10

Jardin Majorelle 
Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Avenue Yacoub El Mansour. 


Interiors of Villa Oasis by Oberto Gili.

Photography of Jardin Majorelle and Villa Oasis gardens by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

Photography of La Mamounia by Anson Smart, used with express permission.


Karena said...

Diane I am mesmerized seeing these wondrous images of Hotel La Manounia, the gardens,the estate of Berge and Laurent. A treat to be long remembered!

2013 Artists Series

peggy braswell said...

What a wonderful post this is + your post seem to get better each time they appear. I will send this to a client who has been there. Thank you, Diane!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

How beautiful everything is. That menu just sounds delicous, now I have to go eat lunch!

katiedid said...

Another magical adventure! I can never get enough. I would love to know how one such as myself could manage a budget version of this trip! I feel that my wings are clipped from a lack of funds! But I also very much enjoy being an armchair traveler with you as the perfect guide!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Karen--yes, I was very fortunate to visit Villa Oasis. Pierre and Yves acquired it decades ago--and it still looks perfectly complete. It has a calm and elegant mood--even in the highly detailed decor.

Peggy--Your friend will be delighted to 'revisit' La Mamounia and Marrakech. Morocco has not been on the travel map for Americans for some time--and it is there, awaiting discovery.

Stefan--You will love the architecture when you go there. The King of Morocco has worked hard to preserve crafts and arts and architecture and keep it alive. He has succeeded impressively.

Katie--It's not so much a matter of 'I can't' but 'how can I make it happen?" Grant Gibson booked a private apartment in Marrakech through AIRBNB...and for the cost of a room got the whole divine house (of an architect, who was absent). Grant had a cook, a driver, an assistant. Dreamy--budgety-worthy. Then Katie you pop over to La Mamounia in the evening in one of your gloriously chic outfits and have drinks at the bar...or drinks on the terrace. It would make you very happy. In Marrakech there are hundreds of stylish and comfortable riads (private residence/hotels) and many great choices. Perhaps La Mamounia is a long-term plan...a wedding anniversary in future to look forward to. I love the idea of drinks at a hotel I can't afford to stay at...and afternoon tea with a favorite girlfriend can capture the dream just as well. Marrakech--easy to get there--SFO-JFK-Casablanca. I always want my friends to travel! Any thoughts and ideas and encouragement, I am here.

In a way, it is not only about 'price' but a mind-set...
I don't always stay at the Gritti or the Georges V or Claridge's...but a glass of Champagne with friends at the bar is a thrill. Katie-ask me for travel encouragement...I am happy to give it.

very best to all, DIANE

Anonymous said...

Mesmerizing and delicious! I am remembering my lunch and walking around the pool and gardens.
Making me miss Morocco. Can't wait for my next trip to Morocco. I think that it is place you can visit over and over for years. So many things to do and see.

Perfect inspiration.


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I've has such positive and wonderful and excited response to this story about La Mamounia.
Jane Richardson Mack, the highly talented artist in San Francisco, posted her memories of Morocco and Marrakech on FACEBOOK...she stayed at La Mamounia and then went to the coast, to Essaouira. Happy days.

Dear Grant-you were so creative on your visit to Marrakech--arranging to stay in a villa (fabulous) and hopping over to La Mamounia. You are an adventurous and bold traveler, and you always do fantastic research and planning. I am impressed.

fondest to all, DIANE