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An Englishman in Morocco: Part One

Geoffrey Weill

Oct 17, 2022

Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill walks us through his time in Morocco.

As my TAP Embraer jet descended to the runway at Marrakech’s Menara airport, we flew over the Royal Palace of His Majesty Mohammed VI, King of Morocco. Gorgeous gardens, beautiful buildings, acres of orange trees. And seeing the home of the king whisked me instantly back to a moment 48 hours earlier when I was driving to my office in downtown Manhattan. Suddenly, the customary blah-blah on CNN satellite radio had been interrupted by a report from Scotland that the Queen was “now under medical supervision.”  


In all the cars tooling down 12th Avenue that morning, I've a hunch it was only in my car that the driver knew what that benign-sounding message portended. For while I’ve been an American citizen for 42 years, I have, for 72 years, also been a British citizen, or “subject.” And not only a “subject,” but one ludicrously obsessed with the monarchy and the travails of the Windsors, one with a nutty and maniacal, tear-prone allegiance to the Crown. I mean, I subscribe to the monthly “Majesty” magazine, whose masthead self-describes it as “The Quality Royal Magazine.” Need I say more? 


“Oh please don’t tell me she’s going to die while I’m in deepest Morocco,” I muttered to myself as I drove up the narrow, spiraling driveways of the Battery parking garage. By the time I reached my office and rushed to turn on the TV’s BBC-World, Princes Andrew and Edward (the Queen’s two youngest children, also known as the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex) were being hastily rushed to Balmoral, built 150 years ago for Queen Victoria by her adoring husband, Albert, the Prince Consort.  


I worked absentmindedly, feverishly, one ear tuned to the TV. My officemates exchanged furtive glances and eyerolls as they contemplated the enormity of their boss’s royalty-obsessed dementia. To me, the BBC’s body language of the royals arriving in haste in Scotland said it all. At around 3PM, a New York Post alert slid into my iPhone: Queen Elizabeth was dead. The passing of the only British monarch I have ever known (I was two when she acceded to the throne) was like losing the constant presence of a beloved grandmother. And while I wanted to remain glued to every inch of the endlessly repetitive video, I also had a press release to write, and to clean up my desk before leaving the next day for another kingdom: Morocco.  


The formality of the ceremony surrounding the Queen’s death: the slow marches, the parade of black, the somber faces, seemed, to me, a bit forced. Her inevitable passing was vastly sad, but by no means tragic. At 96, Queen Elizabeth II had worked up to the day she died. What’s more, she possessed a complete set of marbles. And she left us without an indication of harrowing illness. Let’s face it: offered such a “departure” scenario, we'd all rush to sign on the dotted line.  

  No, to me, the moment’s enormity was not that the queen had died, but that the microsecond the last breath had left her body, my buddy Charles was now King Charles III. You see, Charles is just thirteen months older than I, and as a kid, I saw him as my pal, my contemporary. I fantasized about his coming to my birthday parties, and even to my going to his. And to seal the deal of our obvious camaraderie, was the peculiar knowledge that it was London’s most eminent mohel, Dr Jacob Snowman, who had circumcised us both. I mean, we’re blood brothers, no?  


What does all this royal hoopla have to do with my trip to Morocco? Absolutely nothing. And everything. Had I not been going to a travel convention in Africa, I would have been spending the next ten days eating takeout chow mein, glued to the BBC. Instead, I would now have to orchestrate squeezing my royal watching into gaps between parties, meetings, not to mention vastly important trips to the medina in search of an acacia wood holder for three TV remotes. 


But there’s more to the weird fabric of this particular week. For next Friday I would be bound from Marrakech for Essaouira (once known as Mogador) from which, in 1860, my great-grandfather emigrated to London, married my Tangier-born great-grandmother, and made a fortune. And so, weirdly, just as I have chosen to maintain an insane blood relationship with King Charles III, there is also a whole part of me that considers Morocco home.  


The vaulted arrival hall of Marrakech’s new airport terminal is akin to New York City’s Javits Convention Center experiencing an Arabian Nights orgasm. (Actually, it’s mighty impressive that the Moroccans chose to build a terminal ready for 2040, unlike most U.S. and European airports whose smashing new terminals are already out-of-date when the ribbons are cut.) There was the endless walk to a hall with 35 immigration counters at which three bored and dashingly uniformed nosepickers were seated. Then onward past a dozen static luggage carousels to mine that, actually, was already silently moving.  


One of my bags – the one I really didn’t need - was first off. Twenty minutes later, a grumpy clerk announced to the ten or twelve of us still waiting: “C’est tout. Vos bagages arriveront demain” (That’s it; your bags will come tomorrow.) And off she stomped back to her lair. Of course, we, the indignant dozen, tramped after her and before we had time to remonstrate, she swiveled on her kitten heels and thrust a mounted poster in our faces. “Là,” (there!), she pronounced, and pointed a crimson-varnished fingernail at the QR code for TAP’s lost luggage service. (Parenthetically, the QR code led to some unreachable website in the bowels of Lisbon; but that’s another story.) 


I first visited Marrakech in 1980. It was much smaller then and seemed pretty much like a one-hotel town. And it was in that one hotel that my family and I were billeted. It was called La Mamounia. And what a hotel. Forty years ago, it became, and remains, one of my top five favorites on the planet. It was, of course, Winston Churchill who transformed La Mamounia into a legend. He would come winter after winter and sit in its massive two-centuries-old private park and paint. And in January 1943, after World War 2’s Casablanca summit, he schlepped FDR here, wheelchair and all, seducing the president with the promise that Marrakech “is the most lovely spot in the whole world.”  


In the late 1980’s La Mamounia was metamorphosed into a palace of exquisite French art deco. Everything, from the teaspoons to the chairs to the bed knobs and the broomsticks, was obsessively art-decoïzed in shades of peach, mint and bronze. A decade later, the obsessive art-deco-ness had become a tired pastiche. The hotel was shut down in 2000 for another giant renovation, followed by yet another in 2010-2012, this time one wrought by French designer, Jacques Garcia. Garcia junked every hint of art deco and redrew La Mamounia as a temple of exquisite Moroccan hand-hewn artisanship – complete with a zillion tiles, acres of hand-carved stucco, a trillion yards of somber fabrics, and a lot of darkness. Some consider the darkness romantic. Others consider it gloomy. But whatever is periodically done to the décor of La Mamounia, nothing can harm its glorious bones. It has lurched from the 1950’s setting for Doris Day’s singing “Que sera sera” in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” to today’s platform-heeled, Euro-chic over-the-topness. The one element that manages to survive the cyclical turmoil is the exquisite art nouveau grand piano that sits untuned and unplayed in the hotel’s rarely used second lobby. Indeed, I've a hunch that barely anyone at today’s La Mamounia knows or cares that this was the very piano on which Maurice Ravel composed “Bolero.” 


In any event, I wasn’t even staying this time at La Mamounia. I was bound for a 33-room hotel, about a ten-minute walk away, in the posh Gueliz quarter. I call this hotel “my mini-mounia,” because it has everything La Mamounia has, yet on an intimately and dramatically reduced scale. Instead of a lavish park, it has a lavish garden. Instead of a panoply of restaurants, it has one: grandly indoors and at artfully lit tables beneath the garden’s trees - offering a range of superb cuisines. Instead of an Olympic-size pool, it has a manageable one. The furniture combines art deco with Moorish antiques and post-modern Moroccan treasures. Plus, it has breathtakingly friendly and sophisticated service, making you feel like family. It feels like a very large and very gracious aristocratic private home.  


I always plump for this hotel’s “suite blanche” a 2,000-square-feet jewel, furnished in white leather, white carpets, white Moroccan stucco, white everything. The living room is vast, and I love rearranging the hundred or so two-pound coffee-table art books that sit on its shelves. There is a 1,000-square-foot private roof-top terrace, with chaises longues, tables and chairs, all shaded by spindly palm trees, and bowers of peach and purple bougainvillea. The bedroom is also done in tranquility-inducing white and leads to a glass enclosed bathroom with double sinks, white tub, and a shower for eight. And this “suite blanche” clocks in at a rate 30% lower than an entry-level, broom-closet-facing-the-kitchen-exhausts double at La Mamounia. What’s more, the “suite blanche” has two vast flat-screen TV’s, ideal for ensuring I would miss nary a moment of the tearful royal comings and goings in grief-stricken London. 


Oh and, by the way, the suitcase containing my 107 changes of clothes did eventually arrive, a mere 48 hours late. By which time I had realized for the umpteenth time that I am addicted to overpacking, and it’s time I considered carry-on.  Particularly as the maids at this gem of a hotel pick up one’s laundry as you descend to breakfast, and it reappears, starched, folded and fragrant in time for lunch. 


Rereading this report before sending it in for publication, it seems that I omitted to name my treasured “mini-mounia.” Well, it’s called Dar Rhizlane. But I implore you. Let’s just keep it as our little secret. We wouldn’t want it to get too popular, now, would we? 

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