Janie’s Morocco Travel Diary

In researching our Marrakech hotel, El-Fenn, I’d heard it offered some excellent eye candy for decorator-types. It did not disappoint. Located within the walls of the medina, the hotel is made up of a series of connected riads with tucked-away courtyards, pools, and a rooftop garden with lounge dining, more courtyards, another plunge pool, and an amazing view of the Koutoubia Mosque.  The melodic calls to prayer echoing from the Mosque became a comforting and centering reminder of where I was.

El-Fenn’s interiors are a feast for the senses with saturated wall colors treated in “tadelakt”, the Moroccan version of Venetian plaster. Furnishings combine the rich heritage of Moroccan crafts with a modern edge. When I entered our 3-bedroom riad with a glowing pair of fuchsia sofas, I knew I had found a soulmate in manager/designer Willem Smit, who cautioned that on a return visit, things may be different as he continually moves things around, edits, and perfects.

Our knowledgeable guide Youssef guided us through our first day in the Medina.  A guide is strongly recommended on a first visit. A day in the souks will leave your senses in overload. There is vibrant color and craft, overwhelming chaos, aggressive vendors, motorbikes lurching through the crowded alleys, errant snake charmers, and a treasure trove of some of the most beautiful carpets, lighting, and textiles I have ever seen. When you open a map, many willing guides appear from nowhere to convince you to hire them. I learned to let myself be lost.

We established a rhythm of wandering the souks for half the day and then retreating back to the hotel to enjoy the laid-back El Fenn vibe. As your energy for souk bartering wanes, head to the fabulous on-premise gift shop. They offer a curated collection of Moroccan gifts and accessories that include pottery, textiles, and clothing.  Most conveniently, it is adjacent to the charming red cocktail lounge, home of the signature El Fenn Fizz (gin, cucumber, mint, lime, & soda).

Mid-week we departed for a 2-day stay in the Atlas Mountains. Arriving in the small village of Imrill our bags were loaded onto burros for the hike to Kasbah de Toubkhal, a mountain lodge accessible only by foot. Simple, charming, and with panoramic views of the Atlas range, we enjoyed a welcoming Hammam (steam and massage with olive-oil based black soap), and a candlelit dinner of Moroccan salads and vegetable tagine. Our hikes were arduous but worth the effort as we trekked up, down, and through the mountains, often on goat trails and weaving through small villages.

Ready for pampering after our rigorous trekking, we headed back to Marrakech and checked into the luxe environs of La Mamounia. Behind their pink walls, gorgeous gardens, pools, restaurants, lounges and luxurious guest rooms awaited us.

Taking an afternoon away from the fray, we visited the Rue de Marjorelle, a picturesque street that runs along the La Marjorelle gardens, which were gifted to the city by Yves St. Laurent. His former electric blue home on the property is open for tours; and don’t miss the on-site chic gift shop and the trendy lifestyle store across the street, 33 Rue de Marjorelle.

Refueled and energized, I was back in the souks, and though still often lost in the maze of alleyways, I learned that somehow I always ended up at an exit and a taxi stand.  I gradually honed my bartering skills, learned how to knot a Beni Ourhain carpet, drank buckets of mint tea during negotiations, and found a wonderful treasure trove of rugs, embroidered pillows, slippers, and woven blankets to bring home.

With every kind of tagine in my new staples list, mint tea a new part of my daily ritual, and DHL dispatched to pick up my treasures, I said goodbye to La Mamounia and 2 of the best dressed guys in Marrakech —- be back very soon.