The magical palace called Ksar Char-Bagh, meaning ‘palace of precious water’ in Persian, was our first home on the Relais & Châteaux Route du Bonheur in Morocco. It was in this oasis in the quiet La Palmerie part of town, a mere 15-minute ride from the medina, that I immediately fell in love with Marrakech after stepping through the Moorish double doors glinting in the sun.
Called the Red City, Marrakech is vibrant, oozing vivid colours and exotic aromas. Gigi gave us a big smile and a welcome drink of almond milk and dates, suggesting that we eat odd numbers of dates or they would be bad for our health, before being shown to our breathtakingly beautiful suite (one of 15) with a spectacular view of the palm trees and pool. I was lucky to be experiencing the Route with my lifelong friend Michelle. I am godmother to her son and she to mine. We met when she returned from Cordon Bleu School in the UK whilst I was studying food, so we have remained united through that passion over the years, in spite of her living in Gaborone, a good reminder that true friendship is not defined by distance but by how you connect. We immediately declared our trip the annual Godmothers’ conference!
I wandered down to the pool, ordered mint tea and allowed the travel fatigue to ebb away whilst I took in my surroundings. Guests here are invited to eat where their fancy takes them – in a picturesque corner of the garden, at the pool, on their private balcony or in the world-class restaurant. Wherever it may be, they are sure to delight in every bite. Our first meal was sitting under the palm trees in the garden, where a simple salad of 10 ingredients picked in the chef’s vegetable garden that morning, introduced us to our first taste of local Argan oil. Whilst we may have been lunching al fresco, I noted the quality of the white linen and silver cutlery, and then my eyes reverted to the authentic Moroccan touches, silently adding ‘lantern’ to my shopping list.
All my senses had been awakened. The sounds of the birds tweeting, running water, the gentle punctuation of time created by the muezzin’s call to prayer. On our first night, we sampled the international menu. I rated the tiger prawn carpaccio with Moroccan organic tomato, 10/10. Michelle, a carnivore and director of a cattle business, loved her lamb with potato, phyllo croquette and spinach mousseline. Our waiter ordered her lamb ‘rosé’ not rare! Our evening concluded with mint tea and verbena on the terrace.
On day two I had the pleasure of meeting owner and art-lover Eric Rodrigues, who, based in Paris and Normandy, visits monthly. The warm and welcoming library showcases his love of art in books that he has taken more than 20 years to collect. Art and design aficionados must love this property that was built in 2003 and opened in 2004, based on the design of the Alhambra in Spain, for that and the attention to authentic detail. “We like guests to have a surprise” said Eric. There were many, and my camera clicked constantly.
The friendly concierge had organised a tour guide and driver to take us to the medina (walled city) for the afternoon. The first assault on our senses was overwhelming, we walked rather quickly past the snake charmers on the Jemaa el Fnaa Square. As a hawker approached us with a handful of leather belts and thrust them under our noses we jumped sky-high, thinking that they were snakes! We settled down and trawled the labyrinth of lanes in the souk with our helpful guide who helped me part rather quickly with some dirham for two pairs of soft leather shoes.
I proceeded on to see Medersa Ben Youssef, an ancient religious school that boasts breathtaking architecture and decorative details, the rug store and the spice shop. I noted then that every tour guide likes a detour to a friend or cousin who has a rug or spice shop!
I was welcomed back by the team at Ksar Char-Bagh and being treated to something that would etch itself into my muscle memory – a traditional hammam. If you read the guide books they will tell you that this is where you experience the best, and I would underline that…in red! Miriam gently lured me into a trance with her melodious singing and rhythmic washing and scrubbing, and I could feel the tension of travel. It was only the last dose of cold water that brought me back to reality.
I met the charming and informative Maître de Maison Kevin Ceccarelli who explained their ethos “If you do not give you cannot have”, and I then realised why many come to Ksar Char-Bagh to marry and never miss an anniversary there! Regulars stay mostly for three days, and many never leave the property. I was beginning to entertain the same thought. Bookings are often not made on the internet but in discussion, so that guests are given a plan with some ideas so that a custom-designed, memorable experience results. Approximately 60% come from Europe as the flights make it an easy break. Because the owner and management truly care for their staff, they truly care for the guests. I made a mental note to use this as an example in future brand performance sessions. Kevin as manager does not just work with numbers, he is there to greet every guest and to see them on their way. He truly cares and has a genuine sense of abundance.
After wandering around the vegetable garden with chef Aziz Haki I settled into dinner, another wonderful experience. Aziz and the kitchen crew come out after dinner to meet guests, for someone who has an insatiable curiosity about cooking and ingredients, that was bliss. Guests are catered for individually – feel like fish? They will source the best catch of the day, show it to you and then cook it. I watched a couple ooh and aah when theirs was served at the table after being cooked cased in salt, and I experienced true order envy.
The next treat in store for us after sleeping on the clouds, courtesy of the team, was a day in the Ourika Valley. Our first detour with Izak, our patient driver who accommodated our many requests for screeching stops so that I could collect the perfect pic, was to the rug co-operative supported by the local Berber community. It is here that young girls before being wed, create carpets to show their worth and tell their story. Money from sales is shared in the community. After sifting through many piles of rugs I finally made a choice governed by the fact that this one in bold hues of blue had four evil eyes woven into it (one for each member of the Handley family). Each rug is bound on one end and has a fringe at the other, depicting that life never stops, it goes on. I did not have sufficient money on me, and was told that the rug would be delivered to my hotel and the transaction made at my convenience. Our first glimpse of snow on the Atlas Mountains (the second highest mountain range in Africa) was memorable. I stopped for a quiet moment to send some positive thoughts to my husband and son who were currently climbing the highest peak, Kilimanjaro!).
Another stop was at the Argan oil co-op where we witnessed the women taking the raw argans, grinding them into pulp and finally oil, for cooking and cosmetic purposes. We stocked up and then travelled past bright and welcoming restaurants literally in the river, camels, donkeys and stalls with other eager tourists to the waterfall. We stopped to capture our first sighting of a Berber fridge – running water directed from the river over bottles and cans – to keep them cold! Bright red poppies and bright white cherry blossoms added colour to our journey. At the side of the windy road we bought dates and bananas to sustain ourselves before lunch. Izak and I walked, Michelle for 20 dirhams, took the donkey up to the Kasbah du Toubkal.
Perched at a low table on the roof terrace awaiting our traditional lunch we savoured not our surroundings, the view of the mountains and Imlil Valley below, but more importantly the knowledge that this is where more than 200 young girls are housed and educated. We also marveled that like us, everything there had been walked up or taken by mule. Not an easy feat, one that demands endurance and intense determination. Umbrellas and straw hats were offered to shade the sun, fierce at the top of the mountain.
Lunch was a selection of Moroccan salads (cucumber, orange, lentil and pea, tomato and red pepper dressed with our now-favourite Argan oil), tagines (red meat with figs, dates and tomato, the other was chicken with couscous, sultanas, courgettes and sweet potato). A plate of apples and mandarins and yet another delicious pot of mint tea, gave us hearty sustenance. After lunch I was taken to see the accommodation.
We returned ‘home’ for our final night at the palace. I had requested that Chef Aziz prepare for us what he would traditionally cook for his family, a show of genuine hospitality. It would be hard to tear ourselves away, but we knew that the other two jewels in the Relais & Châteaux crown awaited.
For more about this fabulous food, and the exotic cuisine of Morocco, you will have to read a future edition of Food & Home Entertaining magazine, or attend one of our “Magic of Morocco” cookery sessions in May. The first date coming up is 9 May, one more seat available. Contact Natalie on firstname.lastname@example.org for future dates and more details.