‘Dar Darma, Dar Darma,’ muses the robed man with only four teeth.
‘Dar Darma, Dar Darma,’ echo two boys on battered bikes.
A long conversation in Arabic ensues.
‘Come, this way please,’ says the youngest, in perfect English.
Mr Smith and I look at each other doubtfully. We have been doing circles of the souk for nearly an hour. This is our second stop on a long weekend in Marrakech, otherwise we would have taken a taxi from the airport (only small cars can enter the city walls). Stallholders are beginning to close and it is getting dark as we follow our unlikely guides down increasingly dubious alleyways, my pull-along suitcase and gold slippers (an earlier Souk purchase) no match for the mediaeval cobblestones. Despite the Pied Piper procession that we gather along the way, it seems nobody knows how to find this enigmatically named hotel.
Down a narrow street on which I’d be less surprised to find a red telephone box than a luxury hotel, a woman weighed down with grocery bags exclaims ‘Dar Darma!’ and points us in the direction of an iron doorway in the medina wall. We ring the ancient bell.
Dar Darma really is worthy of risking a hackneyed Aladdin’s cave reference – especially as there's a touch of rock ’n’ roll to its exoticism. From the dust and commotion outside we find ourselves transported to a room of cathedral-like calm. Everything is on a dramatic scale: vast ceilings, wall-length windows, all muted shades and rich fabrics. A log fire is burning in the huge grate, the light reflected in giant silver urns, trees casting magical shapes from the courtyard.
Staff in black uniforms emerge from the shadows and they take our luggage so smoothly we hardly notice. Guided gently along another corridor and up a steep, stone staircase, we are shown to our room. We're in the Patio Suite, so called, presumably because it stretches the whole length of the riad, looking down onto the gardens below. The other ‘apartments’ are themed by colours and vary not only in tone but degrees of drama and decadence – one is almost entirely covered in mirrors. Ours, impossibly sumptuous as it is, seems to be the simplest – with the plain, restful bedroom and majestically elegant bathroom. These are just the sort of stylish, opulent rooms you might expect to find in Yves St Laurent’s own luxurious Moroccan villa; the fashion designer loved the city so much he requested his ashes be scattered here and you can still visit YSL’s gorgeous Jardin Majorelle.
After our lengthy adventures getting to the hotel, we deem it smart to head to the well-known Hôtel les Jardins de la Koutoubia. The Piano Bar is a deliciously louche combination of red-leather armchairs, gold finishes, cigarette smoke (and, yes, there’s a man tickling the ivories, playin’ it again – and again). Taking no chances, we get a taxi back to Dar Darma and discover we had missed the front entrance entirely. Our bedroom, with two impossibly high, simple wood-framed four-poster beds pushed together, is strangely monastic amid the regal flourishes elsewhere; the heavy curtains drawn, it is as dark and silent as in the days of the mediaeval medina.
Sadly, it is a too chilly for us to breakfast on the terrace, so we eat in the imposing dining room looking out onto the winter-sun-filled courtyard. A must for anyone staying at Dar Darma is a visit to the Ben Youssef Medersa, a Koranic scripture school dating back to the 14th century. With its decorative domed prayer hall, courtyard pool, zellij-tiled façades and cedar carvings, it is simply stunning (although the 100 tiny, window-less student chambers are less appealing to anyone used to a Smith hotel perhaps), and it’s just around the corner. It was still in use up until the 1960s, apparently, and Kate Winslet fans will recognise it as the school in Hideous Kinky.
A little souk-sullied after the previous day’s hard bartering, it's tempting to explore beyond the city – which in Marrakech means a trip into the mountains, the desert or possibly the coast at Essaouira. Having been recommended a restaurant just over an hour’s drive away called, enchantingly, La Pause, we opt for this oasis in the sand dunes. The proprietor – a charmant French hippy – discovered it one day while out horse riding and transformed into an eco-resort. The price of the meal isn’t cheap, though it does include a car and driver, and as a lunch destination, it doesn’t get much more remote. It’s just the two of us under a Bedouin tent on cushions at low tables in the desert, but with white-clothed sophistication. And what a view: you half expect to see Ralph Fiennes staggering over the horizon. The traditional Moroccan cuisine is the best of our visit, finished off with chocolate brownies and strawberries. A little incongruous, yet somehow perfect. Mr Smith is going to have to go to some imaginative lengths to beat this rendezvous for romance.
On our return to the city, to prolong the serene effects of our excursion, we opt for a spot of pampering – North African style. And where better than the spa at Maison Arabe? A subterranean pleasure palace of domed recesses and pools, in which thousands of tiny stars from the giant brass lanterns play across the surface: the surroundings are ethereal; our masseuse is robustly corporeal. We submit ourselves to a no-nonsense rub-down and an even more business-like, but gloriously effective, massage. Feeling scrubbed and sparkling clean and as insubstantial as the reflected stars, we can do no more than float upstairs for a light supper in one of the restaurant’s invitingly intimate coves. Eventually we feel drawn by the lure of the velvety darkness of Dar Darma. But oh, for 999 more nights! Let’s hope we mysteriously can’t find our way back…
Anonymously reviewed by Lisa Allardice (Literary-world reporter)
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