Hot, hectic and heaving with people – what is it about Marrakech that makes it so bewitching? For decades, writers, artists and musicians – along with tourists in their millions – have been drawn to this ancient city with its labyrinthine medina and extraordinary main square. I’ll happily admit to being one of them; the city overawed me with its exoticism and sense of ‘otherness’, when I first visited fifteen years ago, and every time I return I love the sense of being plunged into a society - and culture - so different from our own.
My love of Marrakech is the reason I chose it as the location for my second novel, What Lies Within. The story explores what happens to an English couple, Paul and Freya, who relocate to the city after a job offer from their wealthy university friend, Hamad. The move proves to be challenging, as they try to navigate the dual worlds of Moroccan and expat life, and understand the culture they have moved to.
Expat life is very much a part of Marrakech these days; hundreds of ‘riads’ – old townhouses – in the medina have been bought by foreigners in recent years, and converted into small hotels or private homes. But the draw of Marrakech goes back decades; in 1943, Winston Churchill – who used to spend winters at the elegant La Mamounia hotel – called it ‘the most lovely spot in the whole world’, in a conversation with Franklin D Roosevelt. In the 1960’s, Yves Saint Laurent famously bought a home there and welcomed everyone from Andy Warhol to Paul and Talitha Getty. More recently, celebrities from David Beckham to Jennifer Aniston have sung the praises of this extraordinary city.
To really experience Marrakech, it’s essential to stay in a riad. These are only found in the medina, the tangle of streets and alleyways enclosed behind the 12th century walls, and range from simple to five-star luxury. It’s impossible to tell which is which from the street; in accordance with Muslim teachings, houses have no external displays of wealth, each riad is hidden behind a simple door in the medina wall. Step across the threshold, however, and it’s a different story; all have beautiful courtyards, some with lush gardens and fountains, many with roof terraces that offer wonderful views across the city.
It’s this, I think, the sense of a city that keeps its secrets well, that makes Marrakech so beguiling. However many times I visit, I can never find the same route through the medina; if I try to re-discover a riad I stayed in on a previous visit, it’s never quite where I thought it was. Even now, the sight of hooded figures (many Moroccans wear the burnous, a headed cloak) disappearing into alleys and darkened passageways still makes me shiver a little; a glimpse of a world I will never be able to access.
In What Lies Within, Paul – an architect – works on restoring a trio of riads in the medina that belong to Hamad, while Freya conducts a series of interviews with Hamad’s grandmother, Dame Edith Simpson, a famous travel writer who now lives in retirement at La Mamounia. But while Freya is fascinated by the Moroccan friends Dame Edith introduces her to, Paul struggles with those he encounters, particularly Yusuf, the elderly guardian of the houses he is trying to restore. Their different reactions to the city mirror many of those who visit; you either fall in love with the mad exoticism, or vow never to visit again.
Marrakech is hot and hectic and the streets do heave with people – as well as mopeds and carts and donkeys and bicycles – but this is part of what makes it so intoxicating. It is the most different, the most ‘other’ city you can reach in the shortest amount of time from the UK; a place where storytellers and drummers and snake-charmers come to the main square, the Jemaa el Fna, each night, just as they have for centuries. Somehow, Marrakech manages to be totally in-your face, while at the same time remaining completely enigmatic. It is, quite simply, extraordinary.
What Lies Within is published by Quercus on April 5 (#12.99)