The first card I opened celebrating my not-inconsiderable birthday said "Splendid 09" - except that the word "splendid" was upside down. Yessss, I thought, I can take that, I'll be nine! Because the truth is such an enormous number and considering how childish I can be, I can't quite believe I've been on the planet this long. But my very considerable birthday has indeed been splendid and the ones with the 0 are definitely the best.
The children asked me what I had done on previous 'ones with the 0' and I can remember a fabulous 30th birthday lunch at the sadly-missed Linton Springs with a new baby in my arms. Then there was the very excellent girls' lunch at Lady H's when I was 40 and heavily pregnant with the twins (now looking forward to the next Lady H birthday lunch!) and flying to Paris for my 50th. I remember so clearly looking across the aisle on the plane and seeing that we - la famille Barr - now occupied a whole row. We had a delicious and boozy dinner at a very smart Parisian restaurant at which I was not allowed to stand on my chair and make a speech (disappointing but perhaps health and safety intervened) before taking the twins off to Euro Disney. The freezing cold weather, hippos in tutus, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers (yes I still have the photograph) and the relentless playing of 'It's a Small, Small World' on a loop take me right back there.
I didn't know where I was going for this big 0 birthday until we got to the car park at Manchester Airport on Tuesday. I had been told to pack for mid-20 degrees, and the combined brains trust that is the team at Spear Travels where I work each week had come up with the following: The Canaries - could my beloved be taking me back to the scene of our first holiday together? I hope not, Playa de Las Americas in Tenerife is probably less salubrious than it was back then. Dubai or Abu Dhabi or North Africa. Given that big chunks of North Africa are not suitable holiday locations currently, there was a fair chance that we would be going to Marrakech where I had been with the intrepid granny and number 2 six or seven years previously. And indeed we were.
The only place to stay in Marrakech is a riad in the Medina i.e. inside the city walls. And the very first riad which opened its doors in the 1940s was La Maison Arabe - popular with foreign royals and our own Sir Winston Churchill. I've been fortunate to stay in some very good hotels (my beloved doesn't believe in slumming it) and La Maison Arabe comes very high on my list. It's a stunning place and we somehow were upgraded to the Royal Suite which comprised three floors including a private terrace with a jacuzzi. The food was spectacular, served round the pool in the garden lit by hundreds of candles at night.
First morning and we're off for a sightseeing tour with Achmed who oozed charm from every pore (you need to know your My Fair Lady for that one!) and gave us a potted history of the Berber nation whilst negotiating the cars, donkeys, scooters and cyclists that whizz past regardless of side of the road, pedestrians and mere tourists. A few historical sites later and it's into the Souk for my beloved's first taste of the unique shopping experience of Marrakech. And yes, before you know it, we have bought an unscheduled carpet! Thank goodness we're not on Ryanair! This seemed to sober up my normally shopaholic husband and we managed the rest of the souk tour with only a selection of spices to stop snoring and some sandalwood. The spice man offered him something 'for the bedroom, not for your lady, just for you,' which caused us to hold in our guffaws until at least we got out on to the street!
After 4 hours of tramping the hectic streets of the Medina, close encounters with snake charmers and so on, we went back to the riad for the first of our treatments in the Hammam. The one at La Maison Arabe is listed as top in the Lonely Planet Guide and we were not disappointed. Though we did get the giggles... We were sent to put our robes on together in the changing room and shown the two small packs with our disposable pants. I took one and went off to the loo next door and when I opened it, I found a very large pair of black paper boxers. Coming back into the changing room I found my beloved looking quizzically at the thin strip of paper held together with two bits of elastic and wondering how he could put it on. Of course, this rendered us helpless and we were still giggling when we went off for our massages. How childish!
You would have thought that just bringing me away to Marrakech was surprise enough but on the actual birthday, he promised me a day of lying by the pool at the Country Club just outside town which belongs to La Maison Arabe. So bag packed with swimmers, sun tan lotion etc, we waited in reception for the arrival of the hotel minibus which takes about 20 minutes to reach its destination. We were joined by some people from Madrid and Barcelona, a lovely girl from Sydney and a couple from London. Chatting away in the back of the bus, they asked me whether I am looking forward to the cookery course...? Confidently I said that I am lying by the pool all day but... I'm not. I'm learning to make bread, lamb tagine with preserved lemons and two sorts of salad - obviously! My beloved just loves it when he pulls a fast one on me - he looked so smug all day. And it was brilliant fun so I had to forgive him.
Then it was back to the riad for my second treatment in the Hammam. Children 3 and 4 had bought me a Royal Hammam treatment and I was duly abandoned at the door by my beloved who muttered something about having work to do or some other lame excuse. I can now tell you that the traditional Hammam treatment involves a lot of steam, stuff that looks like mud, a roving shower head and a firm woman with something that I would use to scour pans! This is not exfoliation. This is like a snake shedding its skin and I am considerably softer (and slimmer?) after the process which was followed by a massage from a woman with thumbs of steel. Was it enjoyable? Well, honestly, only in parts, but it was a fantastic experience and totally unforgettable. And the smug one upstairs in the Royal Suite said my skin had never been so soft. Then a fantastic dinner in the riad (seriously one of the best meals I have ever had) complete with singing waiters with an entirely non-cheesy version of Bon Anniversaire.
On my list of places I wanted my beloved to see was the Jardin Majorelle or as it is usually known hereabouts, the Yves Saint Laurent garden. We walked the mile or so, dodging the usual traffic plus lorries and buses as the garden is outside the city walls and therefore not subject to any traffic restrictions - or rules, it would appear - and found our way to the garden. My beloved was initially not impressed. He described it as a lot of brightly-painted pots and cacti but I think the unique charm of it worked its way into his soul eventually. The thing about Marrakech is that there are these oases of peace enclosed by high walls whilst the mad Moroccan world goes on outside.
Our last day was spent doing what I had thought I was doing on my birthday i.e. lying by a pool reading my book whilst sipping rose wine. All in all a truly fabulous and memorable birthday planned with great style and finesse by my beloved. His only condition? That I am not allowed to refer to myself as old. So I won't. Till the next big one with an 0!