Following in the tyre tracks of legendary rock bands and in search of accommodation fit for A-listers, Adam Hay-Nicholls travels through Morocco in a Bentley Bentayga.
As I steer off the ferry from Spain and burble through the customs gate, I catch sight of the Grand Mosque’s rectangular minaret that greeted Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg in 1967. I’m in Tangier, exactly 50 years later, on a mission to Marrakech and, like Keith and Anita, my girlfriend and I have arrived in Morocco by Bentley.
We weave our way up through the medina, our brand-new alpine green Bentayga just millimetres from grazing the tight whitewashed walls, colourful stalls, and the throng of tourists, street traders, stray cats, and occasional donkeys loaded with wares. The horn will be well-used by the end of this trip, and my nerves frayed from threading a £195,000 car through third-world chaos. “[The Bentley] required some art and knowledge of its contours in tight situations,” writes Keith. His classic saloon and my 2017 SUV clearly have more than just the badge in common.
We reach a crest in the road where we find steps lined with pot plants up to the Café Baba, which overlooks the medina. The café probably hasn’t seen a duster since The Rolling Stones last walked upon its chipped tiles and leant against the peeling aquamarine walls. For three quarters of a century, it has been a haunt for Parchis-playing locals who no-doubt never recognized the famous western barflies. A photo of ‘Keef’, taken at the café, hangs wonkily on the wall. He is seen with a sheepskin jacket over his shoulders, smoking a foot-long sesbi cannabis pipe with one hand while preserving a regular cigarette in the other.
The Café Baba is, like the millennia-old market in which we find it, a trip back in time. It is to retrace the roots of jet-set rebellion and embrace the latest in rock star luxury that we have come to Morocco, in a four-wheel-drive reimagining of the Bentley S3 Continental Flying Spur in which the Stones’ guitarist and his muse arrived. They’d actually only been an item for a matter of hours.
Nineteen-sixty-seven was, to quote Richards, “a watershed year. There was a feeling that trouble was coming”. That February, there was a police drug bust at his home, Redlands, and an upcoming court date. “We decided to get out of England,” Richards writes in his autobiography, Life. “It was one of those sudden things, ‘Let’s jump in the Bentley and go to Morocco.’”
Keith christened his car ‘Blue Lena’ after the American singer Lena Horne. “I sent her a picture of it; an automobile of some rarity, one of a limited edition of 87. Having this car was already heading for trouble, breaking the rules of the establishment, driving a car I was definitely not born into.”
Chauffeur Tom Keylock met Keith, Anita and Brian Jones at the George V in Paris and south they went in search of the sun. The founding member of The Rolling Stones, Brian was, due to his addictions, becoming insufferable. Anita was, at this stage, Brian’s girlfriend. The day after leaving Paris, Jones had a freak-out and was checked into a hospital in Toulouse. The others continued on their road trip and, somewhere between Barcelona and Valencia, Pallenberg switched her affections from one guitarist to the other. On the Bentley’s back seat.
“I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid by Anita Pallenberg for the first time you remember things.”
Once they got to Tarifa, Keylock loaded the Bentley onto the car ferry and the lovers headed to the deck to catch their first sight of Africa. When they arrived in Tangier and checked into the El Minzah hotel they were greeted with a bundle of telegrams from Brian ordering Anita to come back.
The El Minzah is still the most prestigious hotel in Tangier. Photos of scores of celebrities line the walls, but most date from the 1950s and through to the 80s. Recent years seem a little less starry, as evidenced by the musty Caid’s Bar; once the epicenter of the ex-pat society scene here, now a rather forlorn sight.
Instead, during our week travelling through Morocco, we would seek out lodgings fit for decadent, artistic multi-millionaires of the 21st century; hotels that promise up-to-date luxury, discretion and verve, where one might find members of The Rolling Stones today. Our route would take us south from Tangier to Chefchaouen, then Fez, and on to Marrakech – Keith and Anita’s destination – before heading back to Spain. It would be a 1,000 mile journey, scything across the Rif and Atlas mountain ranges, navigating pot-hole-strewn dusty lanes and modern highways.
The El Minzah and the Café Baba offer a peephole into what Tangier was like five decades ago, and what enticed the Stones. Morocco was to them what India was to the Beatles; a place of spirituality, of powerful drugs and, particularly upon the seedy streets of Tangier, hustlers, spies, smugglers, writers-in-exile, and eccentric aristocrats. Its literary inspirations were of transcendental appeal to the 23-year-old Keith Richards.
What charm Tangier may have held post-war and in the swinging 60s is now some way in the rear-view mirror, while other towns and cities in Morocco are reenergized and promise the kind of exotic VIP hideaways that continue to draw the world’s biggest rock bands inland. So, we set course for Chefchaouen, the ‘Blue Pearl’.
Our Bentayga doesn’t have the Sat Nav disc for Africa, so we are reliant on a real and none-too-detailed physical map. After a three-hour drive with a couple of wrong turns we reach Chefchaouen after nightfall; the streets around the walled city are rammed, the Bentley earns some unwanted attention, and I’m in danger of a full-scale Brain Jones-style freak-out. We’re in urgent need of a restorative which, after discovering secure parking just outside the medina, we find in the smoky bar of the Hotel Parador. Dragging our luggage behind us, we then cross the Place Outa el Hammam into the heart of Chefchaouen and make our way through an uphill warren to the Lina Ryad, a welcome haven of tranquility. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few doors down is closing when we knock on the door, but reopens to serve us tagine for which we’re eternally grateful.
From outside, the Lina Ryad looks like it’s been here forever, but actually it’s a modern hotel and, inside, most opulent, with an oriental bath in the internal courtyard. It also boasts sensational views which we only fully appreciate when throwing open the curtains in the morning. Chefchaouen is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever travelled to. The Andalusian-style houses are painted soothing shades of blue, mirroring the sky, and this gorgeous hilltop enclave is surrounded by taller peaks. With no cars within the city’s fortifications it is calm, relaxed, and incredibly friendly. It feels like another country compared to Tangier.
The Stones didn’t visit Chefchaouen – their loss – but a big part of what brought them to Morocco in the first place is grown at the base of the Rif Mountains that surround us; cannabis, known here as Kif. On the Rue de Commerce, a short walk from the El Minzah, Keith discovered a colourful character named Achmed who, in addition to selling carpets and jewelry, had what the guitarist was after concealed in the heels of his shoes. Keith, sensing a kindred spirit and perhaps potential one-upmanship, directed Achmed to the Bentley, which came equipped with a custom-made secret compartment for his illegal stash.
My Bentley’s £67k-worth of optional extras include 21in twin-spoke rims, sports-tuned suspension, TVs in the headrests, veneered picnic tables, the biggest sunroof you’ve ever seen, and an ‘event seat’ in the boot designed for polo spectators. Some would call it ‘dope’, though there’s definitely none in the car I can assure you.
We hit the road again, taking the N13 road that runs due south through dense vegetation, crossing an intersecting road for the unmarked town of Jajouka. Brian Jones would return to Morocco in 1968 to visit this hamlet and befriend the ‘Master Musicians of Joujouka’, craftsmen of Sufi trance. Released after his death, he recorded the Pipes of Pan album here. Mick Jagger himself went on pilgrimage to Jajouka two decades later to meet the band leader Bachir Attar, and brought the Master Musicians onto the band’s 1989 single Continental Drift, recorded in Tangier.
Much more recently, Jagger was spotted with his family at the Riad Fes, our chic destination. Other repeat guests of this Moorish and Baroque jewel include Sigourney Weaver and Scarlett Johansson. Hollywood royalty meets Fassi nobility, the grand piano in the courtyard seems in just the right energy space to produce a Grammy-winning hit. Jagger, I’m told, was particularly fond of the panoramic terrace, overlooking the vast expanse of this most ancient of medinas across to the Middle Atlas Mountains. To that range, several bands – including the Stones – are documented to have day-tripped while under the influence of mind-altering substances. I have it on very good authority that, these days, Mick’s only into San Pellegrino and jogging.
U2 have imbibed cocktails by the Fes’ pool, but they rented a riad of their own just around the corner. The Riad Yacout was taken over by the band for several weeks while laying down tracks for their 2009 album No Line On The Horizon, the band jamming upon Zaiane rugs in the courtyard, surrounded by Marshall stacks. A photo of Bono, seemingly wearing angel wings, sits proudly next to the hotel’s guestbook. The locals were oblivious to the sounds of future hits emanating behind the riad’s weighty door and photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn shooting the Irishmen around the medieval streets.
The narrow and winding alleyways that comprise the Kasbah are organized craft by craft; caftans, carpets, beautiful lanterns. Workers sit in small, dimly lit rooms beating metal and weaving rugs. One side of the street is covered with colourful slippers and poufs, the other is a glinting avenue of brass. Smells of incense and oil permeate. The most overpowering odor, though, is to be experienced when we climb up to a terrace and glimpse the millennia-old tannery where the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels are turned into high quality bags, coats and shoes; all processed manually, just as they were in the Middle Ages. On the way up the stairs I am handed a sprig of mint by an elderly man and, seconds later, I’m hit by the stench of the animal skins that are being dyed in huge fats below. These stone vessels are filled with cow urine and guano. I stuff the mint up both nostrils. The tannery is so horrendously pungent I can still taste it.
“Six o’clock on the autoroute, burning rubber burning chrome, Bay of Cadiz and ferry home,” sang U2 on their song Fez-Being Born. I, too, am making time as we motor out of Fez and blast past the vineyards of Meknes. Despite the warnings of speed cameras writ large by the side of the highway, I let the Bentayga cruise at 100mph and fail to spot any devices of the law. Clearly, they are out there, because when I arrive at the toll booth on the outskirts of Casablanca there’s an amiable policeman waiting to relieve me of £40. It brings to memory another special feature of Keith’s Bentley. Apparently, Anita later installed a pair of loudspeakers behind the front grille, which she would use to issue bogus instructions to other motorists by impersonating a policewoman.
We stick to the left fork for Marrakech; to the right lies the Atlantic resort of Essaouira where Jimi Hendrix was said to have stayed in every single abode, and fathered a large part of the population. The terrain flattens out and becomes desert-like, rust-red badlands giving way to an ochre scree lunar landscape. The Sahara is beyond.
“All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground, and my eyes fill with sand as I scan this wasted land”. These sights inspired Robert Plant to pen Kashmir as the Led Zeppelin singer journeyed through southern Morocco in the back of a taxi cab. “The whole inspiration came from the fact that the road went on and on and on,” recalls Plant. “It was a single-track road which neatly cut through the desert. Two miles to the east and west were ridges of sandrock. Driving down a channel, there was seemingly no end to it.”
I can attest to that, but the Bentley is as effortless a cruiser as one is ever likely to experience. After seven hours at the wheel, and with massage seats working overtime, we finally reach Marrakech and check into the legendary La Mamounia; a frequent vacation spot of both Led Zep and the Stones. The cavernous interior is filled with art deco and rattan furniture, ceiling fans turning lazily overhead; Winston Churchill adored sitting on the veranda with his watercolours. The 200-year-old gardens attract so many pigeons and crows that it’s thought it inspired another guest, Alfred Hitchcock, to make The Birds.
After being discharged from hospital in France, Brian Jones made his way to Tangier along with Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, and they, Keith and Anita headed down to Marrakech to rendez-vous with the Stones’ singer. As you can imagine, in spite of the S3’s antique air conditioning, it was a rather frosty journey. Anita and Keith pretended to barely know each other. “Yeah, we had a great trip, Brian. Everything was cool. Went to the Kasbah. Valencia was lovely.”
The Stones’ preference for La Mamounia came in later years. In ‘67 they moved into the nearby Es Saadi hotel, where they bumped into famous lensman Cecil Beaton in the lobby. He joined the party and sank into the back of Keith’s Bentley en route to a midnight dinner. As he described it, “the car was filled with pop art cushions, scarlet fur rugs and sex magazines. Pop music boomed from the region of the back of my neck.”
Our Bentayga is an altogether more tasteful affair; camel-coloured diamond-quilted hide, with secondary burnt oak leather. The wood is dark stained burr walnut from Bentley’s Mulliner bespoke department. The Naim stereo system would deafen Beaton, and I suspect even Mick and Keith would gulp at the near £6,000 upgrade cost. The Union flags on the skirts, another optional extra, add a bit of Brit-pop flair.
After a wonderful 24hrs holed up at La Mamounia, and stuffing my face with aromatic harira (thick bean soup) and delicious pastilla (a sugar-coated and almond-filled pigeon pie) at their fountain-filled Le Marocain restaurant, we saddle-up the Bentayga and move to the Royal Mansour. Owned by the King of Morocco, this is essentially his guesthouse (the Clintons have crashed here). It took over 1,000 Moroccan artisans four years, working day and night, to build this amazing palace, adorned with zellij mosaics, which comprises 53 private riads. Ours is a three-storey fantasy capped with a private pool on the roof terrace. Baccarat chandeliers hang in our drawing room, while the bedroom is cloaked in silks and velvet.
You go to La Mamounia if you want to be noticed, and you come to the Royal Mansour when you don’t want to see a soul. You’ll barely notice the staff, let alone other guests. An underground network of service roads and disguised doorways in the riads allow the maids and room service to dip in and out unseen. It’s a custom-made hideaway for the oversaturated rocker who just wants to disappear for a while. It is hyper-discreet.
That’s not a word which featured in Brian Jones’ vocabulary. Once they got to the Es Saadi, Brian and Anita fought 15 rounds, the pair throwing food and punches. The band had taken the whole of the fifth floor and the hotel also emptied the fourth floor of guests so as to negate complaints of disturbance (the kind of forward thinking that made this an apt location for The Night Manager).
The Es Saadi’s owner, the elegant and evergreen Elizabeth Bauchet-Bouhlal, was around the same age as the Rolling Stones at the time and her apartment directly faces the door that led to Mick’s room (Room 503, which has also been inhabited by Princess Margaret, as it happens). “I was excited to have them,” she tells me. “My father was in the entertainment business (he owned the Moulin Rouge in Paris), so we had friends in common. We knew they might be too loud for the normal clients, so emptied the entire fifth and fourth floors so they could do whatever they wanted. They were with their girlfriends, going from one room to the next. We found a sock in one room, and a sock from the same pair in another. Generally, they were like owls, living at night not in the day and, yes, they were rather noisy and messy.”
Beaton corralled Mick and Keith into posing for his camera, with the shirtless photos of the guitarist reclining by the pool becoming particularly iconic. Of course, we couldn’t resist replicating this.
“It’s said that I stole her. But my take on it is that I rescued her,” recalls Keith of his blossoming relationship with Anita. “When Cecil Beaton took that picture of me lying beside the pool, I was actually figuring out an escape route”. Brian was coaxed into walking down to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech’s central square, with his Uher tape recorder to see the snake charmers, musicians and acrobats, while the others arranged their sortie.
As well as a lovely place to escape to in a Bentley, Morocco can also be an exhilarating place to exit at high-speed, should you have the Crewe-built tools at your disposal. “I was thinking, ‘Right, tell Tom to get the Bentley ready, we’re getting out of here,’” writes Keith. “The great moonlight flit from Marrakech to Tangier was in motion, in three tons of machinery. A car made to be driven fast at night.”