Lifted by the light

Travel

30 Nov 2014

Sorry, T.S. Eliot, you got it wrong — January, not April, is the cruellest month. Post-Christmas torpor mixed with back-to-work blues bring you down, making January the calendar’s Monday morning. Add in perpetual spirit-sapping darkness and it’s no wonder that anyone with even a mild tendency towards depression can find the month a real challenge. What’s the answer? Taking your cue from Britain’s most famous depressive ever, the answer is Marrakech.

Winston Churchill arrives at La Mamounia
Winston Churchill arrives at La Mamounia

Winston Churchill called the Moroccan city ‘the most lovely spot in the world’. It became his preferred winter holiday destination, the perfect place to escape his legendary ‘black dog’, the depression so strong that he never stood near the edge of a railway platform. His favourite hotel, La Mamounia, now honours his memory with its Churchill Suite. Not only does this pass the first test of any luxury hotel suite (you’re still getting lost well into your second day), it boasts a portrait of the great man by his nephew John Spencer-Churchill and a limited-edition replica of the famous statue in Parliament Square. It also has a complete set of the statesman’s collected writings, which is how you find yourself at 3 a.m. (trust me, this is the sort of suite that makes you glad of insomnia) reading his essay entitled ‘Hobbies’. ‘Change is the master key,’ he wrote. ‘It is only when new [brain] cells are called into activity… that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.’ As if to symbolise this, painted on the wall in the suite’s master bedroom is Churchill’s name — in Arabic.

You know you’ve broken the January norm when you wake to see dust motes dancing in the bright morning sunshine. Churchill loved the warmth and light of Moroccan winters, especially as they allowed him to paint. His 1943 picture of Marrakech was the only time his easel saw action during the second world war, and he loved capturing La Mamounia’s expansive grounds. They provide one of the most calm-inducing atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. (The hotel’s name honours El Mamoun, the 18th-century prince who was given the gardens by his father as a wedding present.) The elegant wooden umpires’ chairs on the tennis courts, the swish of the palm trees (some taller than the hotel), the faint but hypnotic drone of the Muslim call to prayer coming over the walls from the Medina outside… Truly, you are using new brain cells here.

The Churchill Suite at La Mamounia with Churchill’s 1943 painting of Marrakech
The Churchill Suite at La Mamounia with Churchill’s 1943 painting of Marrakech

The suite’s third-floor balcony offers views to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. ‘I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas mountains,’ Churchill once told Franklin Roosevelt. Although when the two did visit Marrakech together they stayed in a villa owned by a staunchly Republican American. Discovering that a Democratic president had slept in her bed, she sold the villa in disgust.

La Mamounia’s lamb tagine and cous-cous helped me work on my one truly Churchillian feature (my waistline), although I managed to resist the ‘red wine with your breakfast in bed’ policy that Winston once pursued because of his ‘profound distaste’ for tea with skimmed milk.

Marrakech is expanding hugely. The terrain outside the city walls boasts ever more golf courses, meaning that you won’t have to rely, as Churchill did, on the private course owned by the Pasha of Marrakech, whose plus fours and golf shoes were often seen poking from beneath his Arab robes. Luxury hotels and resorts are springing up. Tigmiza is now into its fourth year, offering spa treatments and an incredible variety of drinking options: you can sip your G&T on the rooftop, at the beautiful Art Deco bar in the grounds (inherited, as it happens, when La Mamounia underwent a refurb — a stylish ‘M’ is worked into the walnut veneer), or inside the hotel itself at the Bar Anglais. Complete with leather sofas and upright piano, the bar is straight out of a 1950s black-and-white thriller, very possibly one starring David Niven.

Or you could head for Selman, which is themed around the owner’s impressive collection of Arabian thoroughbred horses. Never did I expect to see a horse standing contentedly in its own solarium. The beasts can get frisky: as I was being shown around the stables one of them attempted to chew through the metal bars on its door. By and large, though, serenity reigns. The horses and their handlers give regular displays which make the Badminton trials look cack-handed: the animals stand on their back legs, kneel on their front ones, and otherwise do everything short of moonwalking (but give it time). When I was at Selman, the hotel was preparing for a visit from Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman, shooting scenes for Queen of the Desert, their film about Gertrude Bell, the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’.

Dades Valley, Atlas mountains
Dades Valley, Atlas mountains

Marrakech was so relaxing that I could even cope with the presence of my young son. Moroccan people genuinely love children, from waiters to religious elders outside mosques to La Mamounia’s chauffeur (among the perks of the Churchill Suite is transport to and from the airport in the hotel’s Daimler or Range Rover). Thankfully, progress was more stately than that provided by one Moroccan driver who tried to impress Churchill by putting the pedal to the metal — he hit a sheep. Churchill stopped the car, gave the driver a piece of his mind and handed the shepherd 500 francs. Even so, I’m betting the incident didn’t ruin Winston’s enjoyment of his holiday too much. Better a dead sheep than a black dog.

See www.mamounia.com; www.selman-marrakech.com; www.hotel-tigmiza-marrakech.co.uk


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