with Mustapha in the guardian weekend 25.01.2014
Romola Garai ditches her mobile in Morocco
She is, the actor admits, very lazy, so she was more than happy to switch off all her gadgets in Morocco. There was serious relaxation, and eating, to be done
The problem with taking your 10-month-old baby on holiday to a luxury, five-star boutique hotel is that the magnitude of this fact leaves them cold. For ours, it’s just another room to cry in, to puke over, to spray with shit. Exactly 20 seconds after arriving in our exquisite room at the Hotel El Fenn in Marrakech, I am standing in the walk-in shower, fully clothed and covered in the contents of a nappy, holding a screaming, furious infant under a tap. The words “Get the hose!” are not ones you should hear spoken in a five-star hotel. But here we are, “en famille”.
A debilitating and severe bout of gastroenteritis had struck two days before the trip and expressed itself in chronic diarrhoea for both my daughter and her father. I, thankfully, was spared, so was able to take care of wrangling the two enormous suitcases, car seat, pram, nappy bag, baby and travel documents all the way from Shepherd’s Bush to the lemon-scented, bougainvillea-hung courtyard of El Fenn.
Like almost everywhere in Marrakech, you discover the delights of your hotel down a dusty backstreet and enter through a door half the normal height of a human being, leaving you nervous as to what you’re going to find within. But El Fenn is a wonder of design. The small doorway leads into a huge, 19th-century riad centred around a beautiful courtyard, filled with lemon trees and trickling marble fountains; the edge of the space is taken up by arches that create little nooks to drink, sit, read and stare at the blue sky above. I started clapping and giggling like a child.
In the library, discreetly located off to one side of the courtyard, we plonked ourselves down in front of the roaring, pine-scented open fire and took a long breath. As the baby crawled around us and began the first of many long-running battles with the hotel tortoises, one of the staff came by to tell us that tea and cakes were served every day for the enjoyment of the guests. I took them at their word and enjoyed. The mountain of laundry I had left behind suddenly seemed a long way away as I stuffed my face with lemon cake and mint tea, and took in the final rays of the pink-soaked afternoon sun filtering through the trees.
While I have no problem “switching off” – I am by disposition incredibly lazy – I took my instructions to unplug literally, and set about ceremonially switching off and confiscating all our gadgets. I had to have a physical fight with my daughter over the iPad, but my strength eventually won and she sat in horrified silence, contemplating the thought of listening to me talking for three days.
Our room was the size of a football pitch and decorated like an interior design guide, complete with log fire and huge, airy windows that looked out on to tree tops filled with birds. In short, it made me want to build a barricade using the double-ended bath and never leave. I put the baby in her cot, where she was instantly lulled to sleep by the sounds of the call to prayer that rang out across the old city, and took my book to the terrace to enjoy the first of what was to be many “little” glasses of wine. In fact, the wine here is served in glasses the size of chemical beakers, and I think part of my extreme wellbeing may have been down to the fact that I was almost certainly drunk most of the time. Here, a note of caution for parents: the baby-listener we brought didn’t reach through any of the hotel’s giant stone walls, so you have to be comfortable with just going up to check on them… or not checking on them and just vaguely hoping they’re OK, which, after about an hour, I decided was by far the best course. I dined like a medieval king on delicious beef carpaccio, tagine and buckets of sorbet. My partner smiled weakly and asked for a “bowl of plain rice and water, please”. This request was met with a long conversation about the “need” for seasoning of some kind. But eventually the rice was brought along with two packets of a powdered medicine called Smecta (an unfamiliar substance I can only really think of as a superior alternative to Gaviscon), which became our loyal friend throughout the holiday. After dinner, I lay underneath an awning on the roof and amused myself thinking up possible advertising slogans: “Does she want you bad after you’ve enjoyed a beef tagine the size of your face? Don’t worry guys, you’ve got Smecta.”
The next morning I rose early (not through choice) and discovered a basket of warm croissants and coffee had been left outside our door. This wasn’t a one-off “welcome to paradise” treat, but a daily occurrence. We ate breakfast on the vast roof terrace (with a pool) that looked out to the faraway, snow-capped peaks of the Atlas mountains. The weather was perfect; even though we had travelled in the last week of November, it was consistently like a beautiful sunny September back home. I chatted with the waiter about his new baby and afterwards, quite of his own volition, he picked up my daughter and took her off to make friends with the other waiters. The staff really love and welcome kids here. Not in the “we will tolerate your filthy spawn and leaky breasts in order to take your money” way, but in the utterly unforced, generous way that much of the world does and we in England almost always don’t.
We were keen to take a tour of the old city, and so the hotel helped to arrange a guide, Mustafa, an extremely friendly guy with a thorough knowledge of Marrakech. We started with a brass door, and Mustafa declaring, “This is a brass door”, but we soon scaled up to include the hidden passageways of the souk, the shadowy old metal-working quarter, the ancient leather market (much more interesting than it sounds) and, finally, the city’s 16th-century madrassa, with its walls covered in delicate carvings from the Qur’an. Mustafa was a mine of knowledge, and as I stood in the prayer room and admired the azure pleats of the carved ceiling, I wondered at the unique majesty of the architecture until my other half broke the silence by whispering, “I’ve just been a bit sick in my hand.”
I finished off the day with one of the best facials I’ve ever had, and was floating back to my room, smelling like a rose garden hosed down with baby oil, when I was horrified to see a group of very stressed (though very cool) looking people all hunched miserably over their BlackBerrys like an Apple production line. El Fenn has no phones or televisions in its rooms, and although it does have Wi-Fi, it requests, very gently, that you don’t spend your whole time on it. This “escape from the outside world” policy is especially welcome when you haven’t worked in months, and the sight of people furiously emailing made me feel rather depressed. However, after a great deal of dedicated eavesdropping by violently shushing anyone who tried to speak to me, I discovered that the trendy/unhappy people were due to be on a fashion shoot with Mos Def that day, but he had hurt his hand and failed to catch his flight. These poor people’s bad luck was my comedy gold, as I spent a very merry evening repeating the phrase, “So, what you’re saying is… Mos def-initely won’t be coming?”
The Sunday was all about the hamam, so we left our resentful-looking baby with a very experienced sitter for the day. The hotel has no problem arranging childcare, and I would strongly encourage it, even if it does mean you struggling to think of the French expression for “apocalypse in her nappy”. The hamam was a glowing jewel of candles and deep baths filled with scented oils. A hamam involves being covered in mud by a woman in Birkenstocks and then having her wash it off you. Sounds like a 1970s porno, but is actually an ancient and thoroughly respectable Arabic pastime, and the second it started, it immediately went to the top of my “Why El Fenn is better than everywhere else” list. I’d like to say the massage was amazing – I’m absolutely positive it was – but upon lying down I instantly fell asleep and was woken only by the sound of my own snoring an hour later. I sat beside the spa pool afterwards, looking up at the multicoloured hanging flowers and thinking that the only thing that could make things any better would be if someone brought me a pot of mint tea… when someone brought me a pot of mint tea.
On our last day, I ventured into El Fenn’s tiny, bustling kitchen to be given a cooking lesson by the hotel’s head chef, Hafid. Hafid is deeply passionate about food, and as he spoke wistfully of the dishes he has created, using a combination of Moroccan and Mediterranean food, I was seconds away from offering to sell up and move to Marrakech to go into the restaurant business together. We made lamb tagine with quince. When I say “we”, I mean I did some far from perfect chopping and got in the way of the kitchen staff, but I glowed with pride as we later ate the tagine together… which I followed with (yet again) another excellent three-course meal about an hour later. Did somebody say Smecta?
That night, I lay in the vast 20,000-cotton-thread-count bedsheets and thought of the places I have stayed over the years, and immediately calculated that El Fenn was most definitely the nicest. While it’s true that the only thing in my life that causes me sleepless nights and headaches came with us (slightly defeating the point of getting away from it all), even she couldn’t withstand the invincible pressure to relax and slept the most peaceful nights of her life there. As we checked out the following morning, making promises to return, I noticed Baby eyeballing the tortoises as though she were saying, “You hear that? I’m coming back. And I’ll be bigger next time.”
• Accommodation was provided by El Fenn, where a double room costs from around £130 per night, including afternoon tea and taxes. Extra beds for children under five are free, around £20 for five to 11s, and £45 for 12-17s. Breakfast is around £8. Additional services include a 45-minute hamam treatment for around £27, and a cooking masterclass, including lunch, for £47. Romola and her family were guided by Mustapha Chouquir. Flights were provided by easyJet; flights to Marrakech from Bristol, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester from £30.99 one way, including taxes