Marrakech it if you can / Riad Fever
House & Garden, November 1999
It was an acute case of Riad Fever. They had spent three days looking at fifty houses in the old quarters of Marrakech. None were possible, let alone suitable. They ardently longed to clear out sixty squatters and transform a warren of sub-let slums back into a courtyard mansion of the old beldi aristocracy. But they also knew that they were too late. A year ago anything was possible, but now all they could do was to let off small volleys of tightly exhaled air at the missed opportunities. Everywhere they turned, be it to magazine spreads or fellow-guest at dinner, they were tortured by tales of restoration.
They were rich, well travelled and used to getting their own way in matters of property. I tried to interest them in a villa in Tangier and an apartment in Agadir. Had they thought about the advantages of Tunis, Damascus, Istanbul or a village in Jerba? No it had to be Marrakech, Marrakech or Marrakech - and it had to be within the old walls.
They were so right. Marrakech has never been so fashionable, never in such demand. Never so full of artists, designers, flaneurs and lovers of textiles. Whether it is a businessman with a passion for balloons or the King of Morocco himself, they are all here. Where should you stay?
Arriving either by train or by plane you pass down the length of Marrakech's Avenue de la Menara and Avenue de France. There is room for us all in this long line of swish hotels. Do not be confused by the immaculate clipped terraces of citrus and ficus trees, the splendid pools, palm shaded gardens or the imposing neo-Babylonian Opera. Fashion only recognizes five hotels in this whole vast teeming city.
The Tichka has an L.A.-like profusion of cigars, mobile phones and desk-tops amongst the starched poolside tableclothes. This pool, lit at night by lanterns hanging from a vast Sidi Bou Said bird cage, is the favoured backdrop of a thousand and one fashion shoots. This is no accident. The Tickha was designed and furnished by two renowned Marrakechi socialites, architect Charles Bocarra and American-borne designer, Billi Willis. Sadly the thick profusion of killims that once slipped around the tiled floors have been culled - perhaps for safety reasons. It's major disadvantage is that is tucked away on the far edge of the city, a taxi ride away from anywhere.
The Es-Saadi wins no awards for aesthetics. It is virtually impossible to make this 50's apartment block appear anything other than what it is. The secret of its success lies in the penthouse tucked out of sight on the roof, the home of three generations of the Bauchet-Bouhlal family. Nothing, not the pianist, the cascades of lillies in the hall, the ice at the bar, escapes the attention of this resident family of proprietors who have created and nurtured a place of dignified hospitality. The hotel garden is enormous and spills over into the grounds of the neighbouring Casino - also owned by the Bauchet-Bouhlals. Blazers and monocles may be spotted at the bar, which is the natural home of the whisky and soda rather than the spritzer.
Within the walls, in old Marrakech, the Mamounia still stakes a claim over the affections of the well-heeled. For those who feel restless at night unless they are getting, or at least paying for the best, it offers the only bed in town. Those who knew it before its 1986 renovation still shiver at the vandalism. For the Mamounia began as an 18th-century Riad, the garden-palace of the Pasha of Fez, before evolving into the residence of the crown prince. Placed at the disposal of visiting ambassadors at the turn of the century and converted into a hotel in the 20's, it aquired cult status in the 40's as the favourite resort of Winston Churchill. The old interior can be best admired by watching Hitchock's 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much rather than staying as a guest.
If you want to catch more than just a glance of this old graceful vision of Marrakech you must stay in one of the Riad hotels hidden away in the old city. They are not for the nervous, or for first time visitors to Morocco. Tucked deep in the old quarters, down a sequence of twisting alleys, past persuasive salesmen and covered archways, vivacious children, blank window-less walls and silent doors, just arriving can be either a dream sequence or a bad trip. Most of these places have just a couple of bedrooms and shun any form of advertising. Their address is a secret passed between friends by word of mouth that is carefully excluded from both travel articles and guidebooks.
The identity of two such hotels can be revealed without breaking any confidence. La Maison Arabe is tucked up a side street opposite one of the gateways into the Bab Doukalla mosque, one of Marrakech's great mosques built by the dynasty that ruled over golden Timbuctoo. This three-year-old hotel is the brainchild of Fabrizio Ruspoli, who has skillfully converted an old restaurant back into an intimate townhouse. A portrait of his grandfather hangs in the hall, a helpful reminder to some of the hotel's grander guests such as Lord Carrington, of the superior dignity of a Roman princely house. There are no more than eleven bedrooms at La Maison Arabe which has resolutely turned its back on the whiff of institutional cooking. Apart from breakfast the only aromas that disturb the nose are those of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee or mint tea poured from a height. As Nabila, the young Moroccan manageress, explained, all her friends thought her mad to leave her top job in the capital until she had them served tea in the courtyard.
The Riad Enija, not yet a year old, is the latest, and the most distinguished addition to insider Marrakech. This oasis of almost unearthly calm is only 100 paces away from the magicians, bag ladies and apothecaries who sell their disturbing wares in the dusty Rahma Kedima square. Peacocks and pheasants push their way through the foliage of the garden courtyard which is overlooked by just two magnificent bedroom suites. Tables are ornamented with petals, gilt tinted glasses and contemporary ceramics whilst tinkling jewels, precious bowls and rich silk cushions ornament the rooms. In the evening the guests are invited to dinner presided over by the two genii of the house, Bjorn and Ursula, accompanied either by their dogs, their neighbours or their daughter. More rooms are being added in a separate courtyard but this engagingly hospitable Swiss-Scandinavian couple have already achieved their aim of restoring the 18th-century house of a silk merchant back to its days of glory. But watch out. In these surroundings an outbreak of Riad Fever might be just round the corner.
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by Barnaby Rogerson