The captain informed us that the stopover would be short, and so it transpired. A mere 25 minutes later, and several drug dealers and white slave traders lighter (I mean, what sort of person gets off at Casablanca?), our plane left the yellow lines of the runway for the mystique and allure of ancient Marrakech.
We arrived at night, greeted at the airport by a quiet, polite Moroccan whose main source of income was a battered yellow Merc with more previous owners than a Seventies school textbook. As our delicate European buttocks bumped along unmade roads and then deserted wastelands, the possibility of abduction did briefly pass Mr Smith’s mind, but any fears of ‘sleeping with the dromedaries’ passed as the hotel came into view.
Welcome to Marrakech, where the first thing you learn is that strange fungal smells, unlit passages and unmarked doors are the city’s prelude to its most wonderful places, of which Jnane Tamsna is one. The big picture first: this hotel is not set in the old town; it’s a 20-minute drive northwest, in an area called La Palmeraie, notable for its numerous, government-protected palm-trees and some seriously large private houses. Being ‘out of it’ in this case proved a blessing; the hotel offers an escape from the overwhelming humanity of the souks and alleys in which you are likely to spend the majority of your time getting lost.
This Mr & Mrs Smith visited the hotel for New Year. In summer, when temperatures soar to just beyond the melting point of your typical Anglo-Saxon, I imagine the relief that comes from swapping hoi polloi for the pool is even greater. (Did I mention that Jnane Tamsna has two secluded swimming pools for its ten rooms?)
The hotel benefits from a wonderful sense of space and light. Even the walk from our room to reception took a minute or two, and passed pools, covered pathways, a wonderful garden, and a discreetly located tennis court. It’s an extremely photogenic location, and as you walk around it’s easy to imagine yourself posed artfully in some shot accompanying an article entitled ‘The Wonder of Marrakech’. Only this is the real thing, and you’re standing in it.
The gentle sound of running fountains and arabesque tiling seduce the ear and eye, and contribute enormously to the sense of calm. And these pockets of charm aren’t just add-ons, but areas you can really enjoy. We spent several nights plonked in front of a fire in the evening room, helping ourselves to ice-cold vodka tonics and reading holiday books whose spines had been broken by the sun and pages warped by swimming-pool water.
Our ‘plus one’ was equally charmed by the place, spending her mornings walking in the grounds and asking her botanically challenged parents difficult questions, before retiring to one of the beautiful shaded areas around the pool to do some colouring in. Our favourite spot was the area just to the rear of the main house, where we took lunch. Fresh food, perfectly spiced and served under a quiet shade, set us up perfectly for the day. It soothed our minds and breathed some gentle warmth into our winter bones.
In common with many of its taxis, service in Marrakech has only one gear, and a low one at that. Jnane Tamsna approaches this endemic problem in an unusual, possibly unconscious, surprisingly effective way. Their secret is to offer service only where they know they can provide it. For example, you won’t get annoyed here with room service turning up late or arriving with the wrong order, because there is no room service. And you won’t become irritated that reception takes an age to answer the phone, because there isn’t a phone in the room.
It all makes for a stress-free stay: you help yourself to drinks in the evening, and laundry is free and on demand. And ours came back so quickly, we found ourselves checking it had been done properly. Most pleasant of all, though guests are told that breakfast is usually before 9.30, we, like all the other guests, usually turned up well after 10, only to be greeted by helpful smiles from the staff.
Our trip to the souk proved problematic, if only because we had to get our bearings at every step, but at least we entertained the traders with our captivating impression of a family of meerkats. As a reward for purchasing a customs-baiting quantity of carpets and ceramics, we took ourselves off for what I had hoped to be gentle pampering in a hammam. Of course, anyone who has had a hammam or taken the care to investigate what it entails will know to expect nothing of the kind.
If I may give some advice, let me point out that there are only two ways to deal with a hammam. The first, and the simplest, is not to have one. The second is to submit entirely and accept that you are nothing more than a meaningless assembly of flesh and bone. Muscular resistance and confused existential thoughts only make things worse. Rashid, who, I helplessly observed, was practising sailing knots on my body, had extraordinarily soft hands for a strapping six foot seven Moroccan wrestler. Once he had finished with me, I was doused repeatedly with water which was cunningly kept a fraction below the temperature that evaporates skin. I loved it. Have one. You’ll free great. But don’t expect Rashid to return your letters when you get back home.
In all, we spent a week melting into the somewhat softer embrace of Jnane Tamsna, and we left thinking that it’s probably what most people envisage when they imagine Marrakech: a boutique hotel with enough cultural distance from Europe to feed our need for exotica, but European enough to be manageable. It is an effortless oasis: sensual, relaxed and endlessly welcoming.