27 September 2016

 
The Royal Palm Hotel, with modern luxury and traditional style
Morocco, an oasis of desert cool
Frank Barrett discovers the chic new face of this fascinating country - but still can't resist the lure of the bustling casbah
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pair of stridently coloured slippers, so loud they should have come with earplugs, is proffered by a man in a flapping robe. 'You want? You buy? Verigood, sir! Very, vairree cheap!' I didn't want, I replied, and walked on. However, in this part of the world, refusal to buy is interpreted as a cunning bargaining device. He hastened after me, slippers outstretched. 'No, really,' I insisted, 'I already have a nice pair of slippers.'

But he wouldn't be denied. 'How much you pay, sir? Best price. You say.' A circuit of Marrakech's souks, the crowded warren of retailers to the north of the famous Djemaa El Fna Square, is an exhausting experience. Mind you, the mysteries of the souk have always been overromanticised. 'Come with me to the casbah and let's make sweet music' is generally supposed to be the killer line from the 1938 movie Algiers.
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Elegant interiors of the Royal Palm
See the famous Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
The success of Algiers inspired Warner Brothers four years later to make the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca, the first Hollywood film to weigh in against the Nazis. I went to Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, about 15 years ago to see how closely it resembled the movie version. Any similarity was purely coincidental as the 1942 film was shot wholly within Burbank studio. During production, it was generally assumed Casablanca would be a turkey. Few Americans had the remotest idea where Casablanca was and little grasp of its place in a global conflict.
Charles Boyer plays jewel thief Pepe Le Moko, who uses the city's market as a hiding place and becomes entranced by the ravishing beauty of co-star Hedy Lamarr. In fact the line is actually used by French cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew in the later Looney Tunes send-up of Algiers. Where else but Hollywood could a cartoon skunk prove more memorable than Charles Boyer?
"Here is to be discovered all the mystery of the casbah along with the exotic heat of the desert."
The film focuses on Ingrid Bergman's attempts to get exit visas to fly to Lisbon with her husband. The film struck a chord and regularly tops favourite movie lists. But there's little in the real Casablanca to summon up Bogart and Bergman - it's pretty bleak. It's only when I visit Marrakech that I feel like crying: 'Play it again, Sam!' (a misquote from the film - it was actually 'Play it, Sam!')

Here is to be discovered all the mystery of the casbah along with the exotic heat of the desert and the intriguing mingling of French and Arabic cultures - with the croissant set beside the tagine. If I had time, I'm sure I'd find Rick's American Cafe with Sam at the piano still burbling: 'You must remember this…'
"There were blazing fire pits and walkways illuminated by dozens of lanterns - not so much Bogart, more Indiana Jones."
Enjoy with a pool view at The Royal Palm
While it would be odd not to visit the souk, these days the city centre has become rather an optional extra. A building boom in the outskirts has produced some plush stand- ¬alone resort hotels. Your stay doesn't necessarily have to involve a city centre visit. We were staying at the new and impressive Royal Palm, and were met off the plane and taken to a private lounge for mint tea while passport formalities were completed. We arrived at the hotel, a 15-minute drive, just after dark when it theatrically dresses up in exotic style.

There were blazing fire pits and walkways illuminated by dozens of lanterns - not so much Bogart, more Indiana Jones. The Royal Palm is set in 570 acres, much of it devoted to an 18-hole golf course lined with bougainvillea, roses and hibiscus - and shaded by some 4,000 olive trees. In daylight the Atlas Mountains provide a shimmering backdrop. The hotel has 135 suites and villas in a style combining modern and traditional and is very family-friendly. It has three pools - a connected expanse of water spreading beneath bridges and around curves of the manicured gardens.

The spa has an indoor pool, fitness centre and a heated outdoor pool. The real tour de force at the Royal Palm is the extraordinarily imaginative kids' club which features - this is the best bit - models of life-size sheep, woolly and cuddly. There is traditional local costume for dressing up, arts and crafts, mini tennis, stargazing telescopes, and a special children's pool. During the day you lunch by the main pool and in the evening choose from a traditional Moroccan restaurant offering mouth-watering local cuisine or the main restaurant with a mixture of cuisines.

The rooms are chic, stylish and spacious. For a couple of days I resisted the urge to leave the hotel, but eventually answered the siren call of the casbah, where I had my encounter with the slipper-seller. As I climbed out of the taxi in Marrakech's madcap main square, I found myself face to face with a baby goat. I had the perfect line ready. 'Here's looking at you, kid.'


Original article published in July 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
Mouthwatering Moroccan cuisine
 
 
 
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