(Highgate, London, 2009)
London. Morning. Cold everywhere. Cold up on Hampstead Heath, where it settles on the cheeks of children sledding on Parliament Hill. Cold in the noses of salesgirls arriving for their morning shift at Top Shop. Cold creeping into the collars of City businessmen; cold savagely freezing the fingers and toes of tourists standing in line for Madame Tussaud's. Cold all round, whirling and swirling into every crevice and corner of the frozen metropolis.
Inside The Gore Hotel, however, it is blissfully warm. Piero and Luca have ventured out on various errands and I am alone. I glance down at the pile of books I have accumulated so far and my signed copy (thank you, Hatchard's) of interior decorator/society fixture Nicholas Haslam's new memoir stares beseechingly up at me.
All right, Nicky. It's your turn today.
I decide to read it downstairs in the hotel's fabled Bar 190, which is to me one of London's best-kept secrets. In 1968, the Rolling Stones filmed "Beggar's Banquet" there and it still has the feeling of a decadent private members club, complete with Gothic details and worn-to-a-high-sheen leather furniture. (They even offer a "Rock 'n Roll Tea" with star-shaped cookies and Jack Daniel muffins.) I repair downstairs and find it for once gloriously empty.
As I settle myself into the lounging area in the rear known as "Cinderella's Carriage"...
...I spot the massive framed photographs of the Rolling Stones taken in this very room during the "Beggars Banquet" party...
...and wonder if the energy of Mr. Haslam himself has led me here. In 1964, he threw the band a legendary soirée and has been close friends with them ever since. I leaf through the book's index and sure enough, there are multiple entries for the Rolling Stones. Synchronicity is in the house.
Christmas lunch was at Baglioni's (opposite Hyde Park and just around the corner from our hotel).
(photo via Baglioni's website)
It was a wonderful meal, made even better by the fact that we celebrated with good friends.
(Belinda and me)
(Piero and Belinda's husband, Morgan)
After gorging ourselves on turkey and stuffing and bread and soup and salad and pudding and espresso (everyone) and pasta with butter and cheese (Luca), we all surreptitiously undo the top buttons of our respective trousers/skirts and stagger back to our respective abodes.
That evening, la famiglia Giramonti, still in the depths of a carbohydrate haze, collapses into bed early. Predictably, at some point during the wee hours, a mass fidgeting of legs underneath our respective bedclothes makes it apparent that we are all wide awake. Luca comes up with a brilliant remedy for our sleeplessness: a game of midnight Scrabble.
Outside, the city is completely silent. The only sound for miles, it seems to us, are our whispers ("That's not a word"; "Yes, it IS") and the sound of tiles clacking onto the game board.
Boxing Day. Our flight to Marrakech leaves at 3pm. I leave Piero and Luca asleep in bed and take a taxi to meet Belinda for an early morning walk along the Thames. The light is just coming up and the streets are empty. The slow cadence of our footsteps feels like physical meditation.
I find myself wishing that I had made it to St. Paul's Cathedral when all of a sudden, there it is, visible through a gap in two buildings. I gasp. It's too strange.
The light is so mystical and otherworldly that I almost feel like crying. We walk in silence.
On the flight to Marrakech, we block out the turbulence and the cramped seats by retreating into private dominions. We are in a netherworld at 32,000 feet.
Setting foot on the tarmac (and a new continent), however, reenergizes us immediately. Our North African adventure has officially begun.
After clearing customs, we are met by a tall elegant Moroccan named Hamza who chauffeurs us into the city proper. We drive under a walled archway that marks passage into the ancient medina and through the maze-like alleys (too narrow to be called streets) to our hotel, La Sultana. Once inside, we are led down hallways that redefine my definition of the word "exquisite."
After being ushered into a gorgeous courtyard, we are feted with glasses of mint tea and a tiered stand of sweet delicacies which Luca promptly devours. Apparently, the task of checking-in is deemed too taxing a duty for arriving guests. All paperwork is performed off-stage and when our glasses are drained, our room key is presented.
If this is a sign of the level of service here, I think to myself, I may never want to leave.
Our room is on the second floor overlooking the interior of one of the five courtyards in the hotel. It's called "Crocodile" (and Luca counts twenty-four of them) but it is the wooden dome over our bed that I can't stop looking at.
The bathroom is another revelation, resplendent with marble and Moroccan plasterwork, carved alcoves and towels strewn with rose petals.
We take the elevator to the roof garden and peer over the edge. Below us, a thrilling cacophony of sounds and shouts floats up to us. French and Arabic voices mingle with the thrum of mopeds, the clop of horse-drawn carriages and the intermittent screech of wheels.
We are here.