It’s not often you get to follow a donkey to your luxury boutique hotel. But then, it's not often your partner trills 'Meet me in Marrakech!' as he leaves on a business trip. When I Googled ‘Noir D’Ivoire’, I found plenty of reassuring pictures (elegantly restored riad with traditional courtyard, romantically draped beds and a mountain-view roof terrace), but I don’t recall seeing any donkeys. And if I had read the words ‘pack mules’, I would have assumed it was an instruction and filled my suitcase with Manolos.
But, dusk falls on Marrakech, I find myself at the back of an almost biblical procession – donkey and djellaba-clad man, luggage cart, weary Mrs Smith – that wends its way into the mediaeval medina, and stops outside an undistinguished, sun-bleached door. The needle on my inner romance-ometer slumps from amber (‘hand-tied bouquet’) to red (‘carnations from the garage’), as I cannot believe this portal gives way to a weekend-away paradise. But, lo, the door opens, and – here the needle swings up to ‘long-stemmed roses’ – I see a seductively lit courtyard of cathedralesque proportions.
My eyes scan past a decorative pool, flanked by banana trees and a grand piano, into an arched recess behind a polished colonnade. Mr Smith, who has arrived here independently, is – typically – in the bar, with what seem to be old friends. These turn out to be gregarious hotel owner Jill Fechtmann and her son Oliver. Some fearsomely large G&Ts are in play, and I feel very much the Johnny-come-lately until I’ve had a few slugs of my own expertly mixed drink, and time to gaze slack-jawed at my impressive surroundings.
Two gins in and I’m itching to see our room. I throw Mr Smith a deep and meaningful look (one that means: ‘Finish your drink now’), and he points to a balcony. A few seconds later, we’re racing each other up a candlelit stairwell to the Camel suite.
I start exploring, trying not to feel miffed that ahead-of-me Mr Smith has already bounced on the massive canopy bed, riffled through the champagne-stocked minibar, and swished through the silk-tasselled curtain on the way to bagging one of the twin sinks in the bathroom. Determined that we should make at least one thrilling discovery together, I suggest a long, hot soak in the tadelakt bathtub, which, to my glee, has the diameter of a small planet, not to mention its own domed, column-supported ceiling. Even better, while we’re splashing about like tipsy mer-people, we hear the jazzy tinklings of a piano wafting up from downstairs. Nice.
Post-bath, we take up residence at a table flanking the courtyard for the final part of the pianist’s set and enjoy (yes, enjoy) a bottle of Moroccan wine with our meal. Fragrant orange and carrot soup is followed by a delicately spiced chicken tagine with sun-dried tomatoes; it’s utterly delicious. As ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ gets the jazz treatment, I give Mr Smith that look again, and he gladly acquiesces to an early night in our exotically linen-swagged boudoir.
Next day, after a lingering breakfast (shredded kiwi fruit with rose-oil dressing, fresh yoghurt, pancakes and poached eggs) on the roof terrace, Jill helps us plan our day. She reels off insider tips, and marks up a map with all the best shops and sights. She even gives us a mobile with her number on speed-dial in case we get lost.
After the tranquillity of the riad, the outside world is a frenetic blur of activity, all bright colours and unfamiliar scents. Mopeds and mules, carts and calèches, pushbikes and pedestrians weave their way through the maze of salmon-hued passageways. Everything’s within easy walking distance, and we fill a few fun hours in the souk haggling for lanterns with unexpectedly polite traders – ‘Here’s my card. Perhaps come back later?’ – admiring cacti at the Jardin Majorelle, and wandering labyrinthine streets in happy befuddlement until we find ourselves once more in the square where I’d met the donkey the previous day.
Now feeling a bit hot and dusty, I'm looking forward to the afternoon treatment I’ve booked back at Noir D’Ivoire. As I shuffle off in my robe to the hammam – where I am laid on a heated slab, enveloped in steamy warmth and swathed in astringent savon noir – Mr Smith bravely slinks out for a wet shave at the local barber’s. Occasionally I find myself wondering whether he’ll come back with the same number of ears he set off with, but my mind has more serene things to dwell on. A blissful hour of clay-mask cleansing, exfoliating and reflexology massage later, I emerge flushed, scented with orange oil and fascinated by my own deliciously strokeable skin.
Mr Smith returns from the barber’s – he was shaved by a man with one eye on a televised football match, and suffered nicks each time the local team bore down on goal – so we join the Fechtmanns and some of their guests for an aperitif. Before we know it, it’s nine o’clock. Jill whirrs into action, using her insider contacts and considerable charm to land everyone reservations at the best restaurants in Marrakech. We pass up the offer of a table at trendy Le Foundouk, however, to experience Djemaa el Fna – just a 10-minute walk from the riad.
From a distance, it appears there’s a massive bonfire party going on in the square, with hazy firelight, a rumbling of drums and the smell of sizzling food creating a carnival atmosphere. Appetites piqued, we sidle through the steam and smoke of the stalls, where cooks grill, fry and chop vegetables, skewer meats and butterfly sardines. We grab a seat at Aicha’s (stall number one) and order a selection from the menu. Seconds later, we’re mopping up harissa-hot tomato sauce with warm flatbread, and burning greedy tongues on calamari, roasted aubergine and lamb kebabs. All for less than €10.
We linger in the square, wandering among the groups of musicians, and join a particularly lively throng. Headed by a banjo-playing, storytelling singer (‘The Moroccan Billy Connolly,’ laughs Mr Smith), a traditional gnaoua band is giving their all, and the crowd is loving it. One enthusiastic fan jumps in to dance, tucks a 50-dirham note into the singer’s collar and kisses his cheek before launching himself into a foot-shuffling jig of joy. When we check out of Noir D’Ivoire the next day, it takes a good deal of restraint to stop Mr Smith from doing the same to Jill. My romance-ometer has officially hit an all-time high.