Just Back From

The Good and the Sad: Visiting Marrakech During Coronavirus

by Jillian Dara
Marrakech It's stop and go in Marrakech right now. Photo by Jillian Dara.

How has Marrakech changed as a result of the pandemic? Frequent visitor Jillian Dara finds her beloved city changed in ways good and sad.

MARRAKECH — Just before Thanksgiving, as the world relapsed into second, third, and fourth waves of COVID-19, I took my first transatlantic trip in nine months.

I decided to take this trip for many reasons. Selfishly, I longed to return to one of my favorite countries. (I longed to travel, period.) Journalistically, I wanted to see how the pandemic was being handled outside the United States.

Morocco officially reopened its borders in early September, having been closed to international tourists since March. At first glance, Marrakech was nowhere near its usual babel of chaotic vigor. The traffic on the highway from Casablanca was even lighter than usual, and I heard few motorcycle horns blaring their way through the medina, and even fewer donkeys clattering their carts in tow along the cobblestones. The beloved medina had been transformed from a bustling hub of color and energy into a vacant and shuttered expanse that mirrored the country’s desert landscape.

Checking into La Mamounia, however, was another story: a flurry of energy and excitement and entertainment. The iconic, palatial hotel’s reopening would have been thrilling in its own right, as it signaled 600 locals returning to work. But the hotel, which had used its seven months in lockdown to complete a series of renovations, was more than ready for the international guests and journalists trickling back to Morocco’s Red City. (Full disclosure: La Mamounia hosted my trip.)

Welcome to La Mamounia. All hotel photo courtesy of La Mamounia.
Le Spa.
Le Salon de Thé par Pierre Hermé.

According to general manager Pierre Jochem, the renovations were completed to ensure the legendary property continues to appeal to the insatiable glitterati it’s attracted since 1923. “You have to adapt to new trends and adapt your concepts to offer a younger and more international clientele a refined palette of experiences,” Jochem shared in a press conference during my visit.

For La Mamounia’s team, this meant reimagining new spaces throughout the property. And enlisting designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku to bring this vision to life and transform outdated dining and common areas. “The best gift to give a guest who has been coming here for years is a surprise new space,” shared Jouin and Manku.

Refurbished spaces include a reconceived Le Churchill champagne and caviar bar, a new pool bar, Le Bar de La Piscine (the hotel favors obvious names for their spaces), new Asian and Italian restaurants, the swanky and suave lounges Le Bar Italien and Le Bar Marocain, and an underground wine cellar for private dining. Because private and semi-private spaces were at the forefront of the renovations, guests will discover even more intimate nooks throughout the property than before.

Like Le Salon de Thé par Pierre Hermé, which serves breakfast, afternoon tea, and pastries throughout the day. Or the two secluded pavilions surrounded by lush greenery that separate the pool from the main hotel — formerly empty spaces now enlivened by tent-like structures that can be reserved for private meals or cocktails. Le Churchill, a long-standing staple of the hotel, was converted from red and leopard outfittings to a chic jade and gold alcove with recessed lighting to better suit Jochem’s vision of a caviar and champagne bar. It’s here where you can taste caviar created exclusively for the hotel by Kaviari. A new cinema has been connected to Le Churchill, another option for private events or screenings.

Le Churchill.
Le Salon de Thé par Pierre Hermé.
L’Asiatique par Jean-Georges.
L’Italien par Jean-Georges
L’Italien par Jean-Georges.

While the traditional restaurant Le Marocain remained, with a menu of regional favorite tagines and Moroccan salads, the two other Asian and Italian restaurants were completely remodeled and reimagined by globetrotting chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Upscale trattoria L’Italien par Jean-Georges serves a balance of carbs and crustaceans (black truffle pizza with lobster, shrimp ravioli) and has a wood-fired oven for optimal pizza-making and pizza-watching. L’Asiatique par Jean-Georges presents a variety of Asian cuisines, from Thai spice to Japanese sashimi.

More fun surprises from French superchefs: Pierre Hermè’s famed pastries are delivered at turndown. A sweet end to the day indeed. Most unexpectedly, I would gladly fly across the pond again for the burger at the Salon de Thé. Really. It took Hermè 300 attempts to arrive at his final truffle-y, cheesy, bacon burger on the fluffiest bun (hello, pastry chef). A variation on a classic dish you wouldn’t expect to find in northern Africa.

Eventually, guests will leave the beautiful public spaces and retreat to their rooms. Jouin and Manku revamped the three detached riads that can accommodate six people in spaces up to 7,000 square feet. They offer the utmost privacy, with their own terrace and pool. The ornate craftwork and artistry found in traditional Marrakech riads — hand-carved and hand painted doors, hand-laid tiles — is on view not only in the private villas but throughout all the guest rooms and suites, which are easily among the most stunning rooms I’ve ever laid eyes on.

A refurbished guest room.
A refurbished guest room.
Obligatory hotel selfies. Photos by Jillian Dara.
The gardens at La Mamounia.

My suite overlooked the enormous pool and gardens of citrus and olive trees, the view stretching all the way to the Atlas Mountains in the distance. A palette of emerald tiles complemented regal furnishings in scarlet and mahogany. The ornate lamps seamlessly transitioned night to day in that famous Moroccan glow.

Speaking of famous, the spa at La Mamounia is one of the most recognized in the world. From the heated pool and tiled jacuzzi to the sumptuous treatment menu and renowned hammam, it’s a must. The serenity here is like none other. As tempting as it was to confine myself to the spa and the 37 acres within the walls of La Mamounia, I yearned for the sensory experience of the souk.

The souk, in all my visits here, was the pulsing heart of the city. But what I found in the main square Jemaa el-Fna was far from what I was used to — a cacophony of merchants and snake charmers, of donkey carts and sizzling street meats, of herds of tourists blocking traffic and posing for selfies with monkeys and birds.

It was disorienting to see how empty it was. A handful of brave stalls arranged here, a stray juicer for pomegranates and oranges there. We purchased a bottle of water from a nut and dried fruits vendor; his smile grew even wider when we didn’t ask for change. As we continued into the endless and empty maze of souk, my heart began to ache. Of course it made sense: We were among the few tourists in the country, but it still hurt to see. I felt naive remembering that the night before I had envisioned rummaging my way through crowded alleys and scouring overflowing shops to haggle with merchants over rugs and teapots and tiles and lamps.

There would be no treasure hunting this time. What were once disinterested attempts to sell a caftan or belgha were replaced by pleas to purchase more than we came for, even if that meant accepting credit cards, which vendors typically shun. I spent a half hour following a shopkeeper around the souk as he desperately searched for a wireless connection to process a charge for four pillowcases on my Visa.

An empty medina. Photo by Jillian Dara.
The red city is quiet. Photo by Jillian Dara.

We embraced the opportunity to extend our positive imprint during this visit by accepting guidance from a local, tipping him generously as he not only whizzed us through the souk and introduced us to shops and vendors (who, okay, were probably his friends) but also carried our bags for us and kept us on track. Our new friend engaged us in a great conversation about the souk’s reopening from his perspective. Although he spoke in broken English, the emotions of despair were clearly conveyed.

This pulled at the heartstrings. I tried to do my part by purchasing as much as I could fit in my small carry-on. I went into the market thinking I’d buy a couple of caftans for friends back home and ended the day laden with caftans and bags of artisanal pillowcases and silver teapots. The rest of our group bought spices, textiles, and faux-designer shoes. I wouldn’t call them guilt purchases, though I left with more than I imagined and paid more than I had expected. I didn’t feel the need to haggle with vendors who had seen such hardship in the past seven months.

This was our only outing during the three-day trip. Although my previous souk visits were exhausting, the markets still drew me back, multiple days in a row. This time, however, my visit was exhausting in a different way: The frustration and injustice of the pandemic’s effects had me weary. As much as I wanted to stimulate the local economy, there was only so much I could do.

The journey to recovery that lies ahead for us all is the same all over. Morocco, like many tourism-reliant countries, is waiting for travel to resume for the sake of the local economy and so many livelihoods — much the same way the restaurants, boutiques, and bars in my home neighborhood of Boston are clamoring for the same.

But even when shops and venues, cities and countries reopen, there are still hurdles to overcome. Witnessing the effects of the pandemic outside my home city, across the ocean, was sharp evidence that this pandemic truly is global in its reach and its impact. We’re all in this together.