Dreaming to find yourself in a one and 1000 nights scenario? Aladdin was your favourite Disney cartoon?
I hear you.
And I have to admit, I didn’t picture this images in my head when I signed the contract as fitness leader for the Fit & Fly Girl retreat in Morocco, but that is exactly where I ended up finding myself, and more.
The lights and the colours of the souks (markets) of Marrakesh. The tiny doors revealing outsized and beautiful spaces in the Medina. The happiness and the generosity of the people who have far less than most of us. The houses made of mud on the Atlas Mountains. The calm and the immensity of the desert. The chats and the laughter under the Milky Way and a million stars. The beautiful and breathtaking details at the Moroccan palace and grand-luxury Hotel La Mamounia.
A week to remember and not only for the places but also for the people who have been part of it.
Let’s relive the week together.
Saturday 16th September – Arrival Day
The day the guests arrive is always an interesting one. After reading all the sign ups questionnaires and answering their questions about the fitness schedule I am very curious to put a face to their names, and mainly a personality. When you sign yourself up for a trip where you don’t know anyone there is always the possibility that the different characters won’t gel with each other, and that can make the week a little more challenging for me and the host. Equally though when the right combination of personalities happens, they create something truly special. This retreat was one of those, where each one of the guest (and us!) bonded with each other.
Rebecca, Fit & Fly Girl co-founder and host, knew half of the girls were repeats and half of them were new, for a total of 12 guests. She had made 12 locally embroidered straw goody bags personalised each with the women’s name and their schedule for the week. In the bags were also other essentials for the week sponsored by Fabletics, a journal, Argan Oil and a scarf for the women to wear in the most conservative areas of the Medina. The attention to details that Rebecca always pays into her retreats is impeccable.
Rebecca and I welcomed the women as well as the manager of the Riad, Asma. One of the butlers served mint tea on arrival accompanied by Moroccan pastries.
Riad Sapphire, where we stayed for the first 4 days, is a gorgeous traditional house built around a central courtyard. Only few Riad in the Medina have a pool, and we were lucky enough to have one. The impeccable hospitality and friendliness of Asma and her team made our experience very special, and I would definitely recommend you to stay there if you ever happen to travel to Marrakesh.
I was leading the fitness classes on the rooftop of the Riad, a pretty special open air studio with a view of Marrakesh skyline.
Since most of the guests travelled from the States , the first class of the retreat is a yoga inspired flow, to stretch the hip flexors and open the chest after spending long hours sitting down on the plane.
After the class we indulged in some Moroccan traditional food (beef tagine), introduced ourselves and went over the weekly schedule.
Sunday 17th September – Day 1
The beauty of staying in the Medina (the historical centre) is that you are in the heart of the city and are surrounded by its true culture. Heads up…if you are a light sleeper, you might get woken up by the first call to prayer of the day at 5.30am. If you are like me however, no worries….I didn’t hear it once!
Day 1 started with an early circuit class, a nice blend of strength and cardio exercises done in stations.
Into breakfast and then a tour of the intriguing old city.
Our guide, Mustafa, a really knowledgeable and funny native took us around telling us traditional habits and little anecdotes. A curious fact is that Moroccan people make their own bread at home and the took it to cook to a communal oven. I was really impressed on how the baker could remember each and everyone’s bread, as to me they all looked identical.
Marrakesh is also known as the “red city”, and this come from the colours of the walls. The walls might all be red, but the doors are the main attraction. Colourful, beautifully decorated, and revealing huge beautiful spaces behind them, sometimes gardens, other times 5-floors boutiques. There’s a popular saying that everyone repeated “in Marrakesh you never know what’s behind the door”.
The streets in the Medina are small and there is no pavement or restrictions whatsoever. The locals all follow some unspoken traffic rules which is harder to understand for us, so used to traffic lights and roundabouts. Everyone seemed to ride a motorcycle or, if you needed to carry anything a little heavier, a donkey.
Our tour included the visit at one of the oldest universities on earth, Ben Youssef Madrasa. This was for me one of the highlights in Marrakesh. The place inspires you to think about how it must have been to study many centuries ago. It is a very beautiful building in itself, with many small dormitories for the students, a nice courtyard, rich decorations and a special atmosphere of peace and old, with verses from the Quran between the intricate carvings on the walls.
We then moved to the souks, passed the leather auction, the rugs and the spice shops.
Monday 18th September – Day 2
The alarm went off a couple of hours after call to prayer but early enough to still have a cool temperature for our HIIT workout.
After a hardcore and sweaty class, the ladies enjoyed breakfast and a day in the city centre with Maryam Montaguepersonal shopper and entrepreneur, who was able to take the ladies requests and guide them to the best retailers in town.
For lunch we headed to the renown Nomad, which offered lovely vegetarian and vegan alternatives as well as international food options, in case you are unsure if venturing out and ordering a Tangia.
Jen, one of the ladies in our group, felt brave enough to try one so we discovered that Tangia is just the name of a beef stew cooked in a fancy looking pot.
After lunch some of the ladies carried on their shopping, and others came back to the Riad with me for a sunset Barre class.
In the evening we headed to Marrakesh’s main square Jamaa el Fna, one of the touristic main attractions of the city for the market stalls, the restaurants and the performers.
Mustafa, our guide, explained to us that the spectacle of Jamaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes voices, sounds, gestures, the public,… Street performers with monkeys and snake charmers amuse and entertain, whereas the smells, the sound and the lights stimulate all senses.
Tuesday 19th September – Day 3
The tea is poured from very high up and an extra glass is also poured. In order to assess how good the tea is, it must be poured from high enough to create foam at the top of the glass. If there’s no foam, then the tea is bad and you should start over. The first cup of tea is only poured about half way full.
It’s then left to sit for a few moments. A second cup is also poured. The first cup is poured back into the pot while the second cup is discarded. The reasoning for discarding the second cup, by the tradition, is a claim that there are impurities released whilst pouring it.
Pouring the first cup of tea back into the pot is a way of removing some of the bitterness that may be found in the first glass or two.
After thanking the lovely wife and mum of the guide – shukraan – we headed back to the retreat for a bite to eat before setting out to the Eve Branson Foundation.
Wednesday 20th September – Day 4
With 3 retreats experience I can tell you that on day 4 the number of the classes attendants always drops, especially following a long day. Whereas on this retreat I was happily surprised that only two people slept in everyone else took part in my signature class, TotalBody.
After breakfast we learnt how to make some of the more typical Moroccan dishes, Briouates and Beef Tagine.
We then packed for glamping in the desert at Scarabeo camp, the activity I was personally most excited about.
I grew up in Italy pretty close to the mountains and every summer as a teenager I would go camping with my friends. It was always something pretty special: being away from the city, in the uncontaminated and fresh air, surrounded by nature. As I grew up I got more and more spoiled, so the idea of a glamorous camping (glamping) and in the desert (!!!) sounded perfect. At the camp there wouldn’t be electricity, wifi or plumbing so what excited me the most was the opportunity to truly unplug.
On our way we stopped to visit Les Jardin Majorelle.
The Majorelle Garden is a twelve-acre botanical and artist’s landscape garden in Marrakech. Majorelle was the son of the Art Nouveau ébéniste of Nancy, Louis Majorelle, and the gardens are his creative masterpiece.
The special shade of bold cobalt blue which he used extensively in the garden and its buildings is named after him, bleu Majorelle. The garden has been open to the public since 1947. Since 1980 the garden has been owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. After Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden and in the middle of the garden you will find a memorial in the honour of the designer.
After this beautiful pit stop we continued to our desert destination.
Scarabeo Camp did not disappoint.
In the rocky desert of Agafay the camp offers stunning 360° views of the Agafay’s barren grandeur and beyond the Atlas mountains.
15 tents decorated with African woven matting and Berber rugs, atmospheric Moroccan lanterns and local artwork, merge harmonically in the surrounding backdrop.
A place to completely unwind and disconnect from the city’s hustle and bustle. The smiley staff greeted us with frothy mint tea (of course) and Moroccan pastries.
We then checked into our tents, all very spacious and beautifully decorated. each of them had a shaded outdoor seating area where to relax and contemplate the immensity of the desert surrounding.
The dinner was served in the communal area and didn’t fail to disappoint. The dishes were traditional and delicious (yet it was our sixth Tagine of the trip) and the only source of light was coming from candles of various shape and dimension.
The most magical night was just about to start. After dinner we sat around the campfire. Belly laughs make the whole lot of difference with the Milky Way and a million stars clearly visible above us.
We were lucky enough to witness the majesty of Saturn and it’s biggest moon through a telescope.
We all went to sleep happy that night.
Thursday 21st September – Day 5
The day started with a sunrise yoga class lead by a local instructor. Sunrise in the desert is pretty amazing. And also my hamstrings and chest appreciated a little stretch.
Some of the ladies had their massages after breakfast. A small group and I ventured on the dunes in what quite surprisingly revealed to be a pretty challenging hike.
When we got to the top of the highest dune the view was breathtaking. It felt like being on top of the world with the breeze blowing on our faces and the vastness of the desert with the mountains silhouettes surrounding us in the distance.
We returned to the camp for lunch and then we actually had the whole afternoon ahead of us to relax and embrace the beauty of the place. At 6pm we went on a camel ride.
Camels are really funny animals. Riding a camel doesn’t require particular core strength or inner thighs work unlike riding horses. But be careful not to piss them off, they also spit and bite!
Don’t get me wrong, our camels were lovely and took us through a lovely sunset ride in between the dunes – pretty special!
We then had another dinner and another chat under the stars.
Friday 22nd September – Day 6
This day started with a different tone than the previous one. I was teaching the last class of the retreat and I prepared a mean, but fun!, partner circuit for the ladies.
Teaching with the desert as a background felt pretty special and I couldn’t imagine coming back to London without some serious withdrawals symptoms.
We finished the workout with a wheelbarrow challenge.
We had our last breakfast (with Msemen) at the camp and then we made our way to La Mamounia.
La Mamounia is a 5 star palace hotel. What a difference it made from the desert with the tiny disposable toilets, to the extreme luxury.
A stay at La Mamounia is an experience for all senses, with its beautiful Arabic-Andalusian architecture in beautifully contrasting colours. The hotel also offers delights for the nose, with fragrances of jasmine, orange blossom, cedar and leather. Last but not least, there are delicacies for the palate, such as almond milk and dates, which are served to welcome guests to the hotel in keeping with the Moroccan tradition of hospitality.
We all indulged in a massage and a Hammam after check-in in the sumptuous SPA. The traditional Moroccan Hammam starts with relaxation in a room that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air, allowing the bather to perspire freely. Bathers then move to an even hotter room before they wash in cold water. After getting full body wash and scrub (including hair) and receiving a full body massage, bathers finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation.
We then had lunch by the out-door pool and got ready for dinner at the Comptoir Darna.
The Comptoir Darna is a lovely restaurant-club in the modern part of Marrakesh. There you can enjoy traditional food whilst watching performers dancing and balancing trays full of candles on their head, belly dancer and musicians playing live. A fun experience to conclude an awesome week.
Saturday 23rd September – Departure Day
Breakfast at La Mamounia before heading to the airport was a worth-to-mention experience. The hotel had one of the richest – if not the richest – selection of food that I ever seen in my life
Time has come to say goodbye to the guests and to Marrakesh. I have to say, I hate goodbyes and the fact that each of the ladies really made my job super easy and were a pleasure to get to know, made it an even harder task.
But the hardest to say bye to was Rebecca, such an inspirational and generous lady who truly was born to run this business. This was the first year that Fit & Fly Girl organised the Morocco retreat and they completely nailed it. The schedule was perfect in every single detail. Even for me, who I was there to work, it has been thoroughly an awesome experience. What made it different from the other retreats is that it wasn’t just a wellness experience in a foreign country. It has been a dip into the heart of the Moroccan tradition and culture, a well rounded experience which merged fitness, travel and adventure in an absolutely unforgettable week.
Have you ever been on a fitness retreat with a rich cultural twist? Comment below!