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I was Astonished by Morocco: Celia Sandys In Her Grandratner’s Footsteps

Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02

Page 34

*Winston Churchill’s article by this same title appeared in tke Daily Mail, 6 February 1936 (Woods C286), reprinted in the Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 1975.


My grandfather first went to Morocco in December 1935. Like all his travels it was a working holiday, during which he would paint seven canvasses, write three chapters of Marlborough and a number of newspaper articles, and discuss politics with Lloyd George and Lord Rothermere, who were also wintering in the North African sun. It would be the first of six visits over the course of 23 years. On this occasion my parents, who had been married just four months, spent some time with him. He wrote to Clementine, “It is vy nice having Diana and Duncan here. They are so happy. They say it is a second honeymoon.” My memories of my parents are of less good times, so for me it was nice to visit a place where they had been really happy.

His 1936 article in the Daily Mail shows how quickly Churchill fell under the spell of what was then a French colony: “Morocco was to me a revelation. Reading about the Moroccan question in the newspapers or official documents affords not the slightest impression of the charm and value of this splendid territory.” Towards the end of some thousand words he confesses himself “captivated by Marrakesh. Here in these spacious palm groves rising from the desert the traveller can be sure of perennial sunshine, of every comfort and diversion, and can contemplate with ceaseless satisfaction the stately and snow-clad panorama of the Atlas Mountains. The sun is brilliant and warm but not scorching; the air crisp, bracing but without being chilly; the days bright, the nights cool and fresh.” Of course my grandfather always went to Marrakesh in the winter. When we retraced his footsteps there in August it was a good deal warmer, scorching in the desert, but we too were captivated.

My husband Ken and I set off with our children, Alexander and Sophie, on the last research trip for my book on my grandfather’s travels. We arrived in Tangier, where he had landed in 1935; and also, incidentally, where his ancestor and hero, John Churchill the first Duke of Marlborough, had served for three years when an 18-year-old ensign. Here we stayed at El Minzah, a delightful hotel built in Moroccan style around a central courtyard not much changed in appearance since Churchill occupied room 146, but modernised and comfortable. The terrace beside the pool was our favourite place for lunch or evening drinks while the courtyard provided a wonderful atmosphere for dinner. From the city centre, the shops and souk were within a short walk.

Tangier, like most places in Morocco, is a charming mixture of the old and the new. Streets bustle with traffic, but step through one of the arched gateways into the medina and you are rapidly transported back a couple of centuries as you thread your way through the narrow, age-old alleyways lined with the open fronted shops of the souk. Everything anyone might want seems to be available: carpets, caftans, jewellery for the visitor; scrawny legs of lamb, rice and spices for the housewife. Haggling is meant to be part of the fun. The vendor starts at about double the price at which he may eventually be persuaded to sell. So one has to begin by offering considerably less than the asking price.

We went for lunch to the magnificent Mirage Hotel, right on the coast, looking across the sea to Spain. The beach was completely deserted and when we asked the way down to the sea we were told it was off limits because the King was staying nearby and might arrive at any minute. At this point the head waiter told me he had known my Aunt Sarah when she had lived in Malaga, and that he would see what he could do. A telephone call later, we were on our way down a narrow path to an idyllic sandy beach which we had all to ourselves.

The American Legation in Tangier had offered to help in my research and we found it through a modest wooden door in a narrow alley between old Moroccan buildings. Here Thor Kuniholm had set out material relating to Churchill’s visits. Millions of words have been written about my grandfather but now, on my third book, I am no longer surprised that there is always something new to discover. So it was at the American Legation. Here were notes dictated by Harry Hopkins just after a breakfast consultation with Churchill who, “in bed, in his customary pink robe,” was drinking red wine because of his “profound distaste for tea with skimmed milk.”

There was interesting information about Churchill and the Pasha of Marrakesh, Thami Al Glaoui. This cosmopolitan head of a great Berber family, known variously as The Lord of the High Atlas and the Black Panther, was Churchill’s host on several occasions. A keen golfer, his plus fours and golf shoes were often glimpsed beneath his Arab robes. He played golf on his private course with my grandfather and invited him to traditional feasts with all the grandeur of the feudal ruler he undoubtedly was.

Fez to Casablanca

From Tangier we moved on to Fez. It was here that Thami El Glaoui entertained Churchill during his first visit. The feast included a dance by a hundred women. Describing it he wrote, “My taste is more attuned to the Russian ballet but the natives seem to have been thrilled by this for a thousand years.” There was no research to be done in Fez as my grandfather was there for only two days, but we thought it would be an interesting diversion on the way to Casablanca. By road from Tangier, a motorway can reduce the journey to some two and one half hours but we stuck to the normal road which, after running along the Atlantic coast, turns inland through the rolling hills and wheat lands of northern Morocco.

In Fez we stayed at the Meridian, a comfortable, modern hotel with a magnificent view across the roofs of the medina to the hills and kasbah beyond. The medina in Fez is home to some three hundred thousand people. A guide is virtually essential to any purposeful expedition. Once among the maze of narrow, dark alleyways, where goods are transported by mule, one finds one has gone back several centuries. The only obvious concession to modern time is electric light and the occasional wood or metal worker using an electric tool which brings one back to the present day.

Our guide took us to a tannery where, in a honeycomb of vats, men trample hides in various mixtures of dye. We were each given a sprig of mint to sniff to counteract the all-pervading and very unpleasant smell. We were then led to the carpet warehouse where, over mint tea, we had to be quite firm that we did not intend to carry away a carpet! If we had, the array of choices would have been unbelievable. The pottery, situated outside the medina on account of the black smoke from kilns fuelled with olive pips, was worth a visit. We left there armed with a handsome yellow and blue bowl.

From Fez we drove to Casablanca by motorway, a three-hour journey. The modern Casablanca is a commercial centre with none of the mystery invested there by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. We were there simply to visit the Hotel d’Anfa, where Churchill and Roosevelt met in 1943, and to see the Villa Mirador where my grandfather stayed, which is now the residence of the American Consul General.

The Hotel d’Anfa turned out to be no more than an empty shell standing in a quiet residential area. The young girl caretaking this derelict building had no understanding of its historic significance or the whereabouts of the Villa Mirador, where I had arranged to meet Paul Malik from the American Delegation. However, as I approached a policeman some 200 yards along the road, I found that the imposing set of security gates behind him marked the Villa’s entrance.

The building, obviously refurbished several times during the last half century, has changed little in exterior appearance and the room, just inside the main door, set up in 1943 as my grandfather’s map room, has been preserved as a small museum, the walls covered by photographs taken at the time. We wandered round the beautiful garden and could easily imagine Churchill and his colleagues walking between the palm trees discussing the latest session of the conference.

Following the ten-day conference, Churchill planned to spend a few days in Marrakesh before continuing his month-long tour of the Middle East, while Roosevelt was intent on returning immediately to America. Churchill wanted his fellow statesman and friend to accompany him to the “Paris of the Sahara”: “You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh,” he said persuasively. “Let us spend two days there. I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”

From Casablanca we took the train to Marrakesh, travelling much the same route along which Churchill and President Roosevelt drove and took their picnic lunch. Marrakesh has spilled into the countryside well beyond the pink walls which were its limits on my grandfather’s first visit, but the walls and the city within have hardly changed. Viewed from outside, the medina, from which spring the towers of the Koutoubia and Kasbah Mosques, appears to be just as he painted it in 1936 and again in 1943, the one occasion he set up his easel during the Second World War.

The most popular part of the souk in Marrakesh is less congested than those in Tangier and Fez, and displays much the same wares; but venturing beyond the normal tourist beat brings one into narrow alleyways where a western face is seldom seen.

The most magnificent sight is the spectacle of the snow covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains caught by the setting sun. I had fortunately experienced this on a previous visit, as on this occasion, in July, the mountains were obscured by haze and dust. I had also made excursions into the mountains, where Churchill took elaborate picnics and painted. A short car drive away is the Ourika Valley, with Tinerhir somewhat further.

During his wartime visits my grandfather stayed at the Villa Taylor. Legend has it that Mrs. Taylor sold the villa after the war because, as a staunch Republican, she was incensed that the Democrat Roosevelt had slept in her bed. After an intermediate owner, the Comte de Breteuil, the villa was bought by the late King of Morocco, who intended to turn it into a residence for the Crown Prince. Since then it has remained empty; it became unsuitable because it is overlooked by newer buildings.

We were denied admittance by two obdurate policemen who were deaf to my family connections and historical interest. At the Hotel de Ville the Head of General Affairs interrupted his business to try to obtain permission, but an hour’s efforts failed to find anyone willing to provide it. The historic villa seems destined to deteriorate, like the empty shell of the Hotel d’Anfa at Casablanca: the two buildings in Morocco which played a significant part in the Second World War.

Soon after their arrival Churchill insisted Roosevelt accompany him up the tower of the villa to look over Marrakesh and see the changing colours of the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas as the sun went down. Two of his staff made a chair of their arms and Roosevelt was lifted from his wheelchair and carried up the winding stairs to the roof-top. Reclining on a divan, Roosevelt was so taken by the scene he said to Churchill, “I feel like a sultan: you may kiss my hand, my dear.” In his diary Churchill’s doctor recorded, “We stood gazing at the purple hills, where the light was changing every minute. ‘It’s the most lovely spot in the world,’ the PM murmured.” Marrakesh has developed over the years, but the lovely vista out over the city towards the mountains remains, although it is no longer possible to appreciate it from the Villa Taylor.

After five days at El Saadi, a very comfortable hotel where I had stayed on my previous visit, we moved for our last night to the grandeur of La Mamounia where apart from his wartime visits my grandfather had always stayed. There have been many famous visitors to this beautiful hotel but the one they take the greatest pride in is Winston Churchill. His association with the hotel is perpetuated by the Winston Churchill Suite and the wonderful collection of photographs in the corridor leading to it. (See Finest Hour 108.)

We spent our last day lazily splashing around in the magnificent pool in the beautiful garden that my grandfather had painted. Over breakfast on the terrace the next morning we all agreed that we wanted to return.


The Hon. Celia Sandys is a Trustee of The Churchill Center and ICS, UK. Following her 1999 tour of South Africa, some asked if she would be doing any more. She will accompany a tour, “In Churchill’s Footsteps,” to Morocco in late October, 2002. For information contact Annie Austin at CLM Leisure, fax: (44) (207) 235-3851, telephone (44) (207) 235 0123.

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