In Marrakech, the retreats are as colourful as its souks
Known as the Red City because of its rose-tinted architecture, Marrakech might not be Morocco’s capital — Rabat takes that honour — but it’s certainly the centre of most visitors’ attentions. At the city’s thumping heart lies the medina, or Old Town, enclosed within a ring of ancient walls. The real attraction here, apart from the atmospheric architecture and maze-like souks, is the proximity to Djemaa el Fna. One of the largest and most chaotic squares on the continent, it’s home to a throbbing mass of dancers, musicians, magicians and, in the evenings, myriad stalls selling a deliciously pungent range of foodstuffs, from dates and grilled meats to freshly squeezed orange juice.
Unlike most riads, which can be booked by the room or on a whole-property basis, Riad Vanessa is only available on an exclusive basis, its four en suite bedrooms, each with hand-sewn, camel-leather floors and cream tadelakt walls (coloured lime plaster), let as a single self-catering property. However, if you think that sounds like too much hard work, fear not: guests can still tap into hotel-style services, with breakfast included in the rates and access to Riad el Fenn’s hammam, spa, organic restaurant, private screening room, library and swimming pools all thrown in. Sometimes it’s good to stay put, especially in unruly Marrakech. If you’re looking for privacy and peace, Riad Vanessa makes the perfect urban escape with several lounge areas, its own kitchen and a rooftop plunge pool.
■ From Dh6,700 (£500) a night for up to eight people.
Riad Vanessa, 6, Derb Moulay Abdellah Ben Hezzian, Bab el Ksour.
T: 00 212 524 441 210. www.riadelfenn.com
■ X-factor: There’s a buzz about this place since it opened in January. In Marrakech, yesterday’s hip hangout is today’s old news, so catch this while it’s still cool for ultimate smug points.
For design fans:
An exquisitely designed bolthole right in the centre of the medina, this cool, calm riad is Dutch-owned and packed with atmosphere. Its seven bedrooms are dressed with delicate textiles and carefully chosen objects and are set around a lovely open courtyard that’s lamplit in the evenings. There’s also a roof terrace to while away drowsy afternoons lolling under the shade of very chic umbrellas. Though it also operates as a guesthouse, those looking to rent the whole property can do so.
■ From £1,250 a night for up to 14 people.
1, Driba Jdida, Sidi Ben Slimane.
T: 00 212 524 375 980. www.ryaddyor.com
For calm seekers:
Marrakech flaunts its exoticism with a kaleidoscope of bright colours and glimmering brass but for those after respite from the crowds and hustle of the city, Riad Adore is a sanctuary of calm. A contemporary take on the Moroccan aesthetic courtesy of renovation maestro Christophe Simeon, it’s close to the souks, the monuments and the main square and features a small pool, roof terrace and private hammam. The riad can be rented on an exclusive basis.
■ From €2,460 (£2,075) for three nights for up to 10 people.
Riad Adore, 97 Derb Tizouagrine, Dar El Bacha, Medina.
T: 00 212 524 377 737. www.riadadore.com
Kasbah & Mellah
The kasbah (‘palace’) quarter in the southern section of the medina has a slightly more ‘authentic’ feel than the rest of the old city, especially once you veer from rue de Bab Agnaou and rue de la Kasbah. Like the rest of the medina, many old riads have been restored and opened up as guesthouses and private houses. The area’s entered via the beautifully weathered Bab Agnaou gate and the Saadian Tombs, the El Baadi Palace, which dates from the 16th century but is now a rather lovely ruin, and the Royal Palace, Dar el-Makhzen. To the east is the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, poor even by medina standards, whose once-thriving population and synagogues have dwindled to a handful.
Set on a quiet street near the Royal Palace, Dar Azure is a traditional Moroccan townhouse complete with sun-dappled courtyard and rooftop terrace. Recently restored by its British owners, the villa mixes traditional architectural details such as tadelakt walls with contemporary comforts including en suite bathrooms and wi-fi. The property’s three light-soaked bedrooms have been simply yet stylishly decorated with neutral walls offset by jewel-coloured windows, furnishings and wall hangings. The light is perhaps the biggest selling point here. Don’t miss the chance to sit out on the terrace and while away an hour or two looking for passing storks picked out against a sharp blue sky.
■ From £840 a week for up to four people or from £1,080 a week for up to six.
Dar Azure, 84 Derb Chtouka, Kasbah. T: 07803 723320. www.darazure.com
■ X-factor: The sense of peace. Dar Azure is within walking distance of Djemaa el Fna square but set away from the maelstrom surrounding the medina.
With its four bedrooms (three doubles and one twin), small heated pool and child-friendly staff, Riad Hugo’s a good choice for either two families wanting to holiday together or one large family in search of a bit of space. Traditional tiling, carved wooden doors, a roof terrace and an open courtyard give the property plenty of atmosphere and add-on services such as babysitting can be arranged. Breakfast’s included and reasonably priced, and freshly cooked lunches and dinners can
be prepared for guests with advance notice.
■ From £1,000 a week for up to eight people.
Riad Hugo, 33 Derb Demnate, Kasbah.
T: 020 7266 3037. www.riadhugo.com
A four-bedroom private villa in the old Jewish quarter, Le Nid can be hired with or without staff depending on how indulgent a holiday you want to have. Designed in a more low-key, European style than many of its more over-the-top competitors, the villa has a roof terrace for breezy lounging and guests also have access to the restaurants and spa facilities at sister hotels, Dar Les Cigognes and Riad Kaiss. There’s also a wide selection of films to choose from in the cinema room.
■ From €4,500 (£3,765) a week for up to 12 people.
Le Nid, 40, Derb Saka, Mellah.
T: 00 212 524 382 740. www.lenid.co
Not everyone wants to be based in the boisterous medina. For some, the Old Town isn’t entirely compatible with a serene night’s sleep. If you’d rather dip in and out of the city and retreat somewhere calmer at night, the Palmeraie might be the solution. This moneyed enclave, located around 15 minutes’ drive north-east of the centre, is laced with palm trees said to have taken root from date seeds spat out by passing Arab warriors centuries ago. In reality, they’re more likely to be the result of an ancient irrigation system. Though there are no real sights to speak of, accommodation here promises peace, privacy and, for a price, some of the most stylish villas in Marrakech.
The two-bedroom Villa Alkhozama is an elegant, contemporary property packed with Moroccan design touches; many of the materials used in its construction were sourced locally and the building work involved the employment of a wide range of traditional crafts. More modern amenities include en suite bedrooms (one with its own plunge bath), a DVD player and massages included in the rates. Space is at less of a premium in the Palmeraie, so it’s no surprise it’s the outdoor areas of Villa Alkhozama that really shine. As well as a gorgeous sunken pool, guests can recline on huge ship-like daybeds anchored on acres of grass and shaded by olive trees amid impressive gardens. The villa’s location is perfect for anyone seeking seclusion, but it does mean getting out to restaurants in the evening is a trickier prospect than it is for those staying in the medina, which is why all meals are included in the price here. If you’re part of a larger party, neighbouring Villa Ezzahra, which sleeps eight people, can also be rented.
■ From £3,500 for three nights.
Villa Alkhozama, Route de Fes, Palmeraie. www.ezzahra-morocco.com
■ X-factor: It’s unusual to find a two-bedroom villa in the Palmeraie as most properties are much larger. The free massages are pretty special too.
Dar El Riad
Many villas in the area are resolutely contemporary, but not this one. The peaceful Dar el Riad speaks more of 1930s nostalgia than 21st-century showiness. Inside, rooms are light and luxurious, with ceiling fans, framed prints and paintings, and access to a hammam. Outside are sunny terraces, a pool and gardens planted with roses, olive trees, jasmine and citrus. With four bedrooms in the main building and two more in two cottages in the garden, the overall feel is one of upmarket homeliness.
■ From £6,047 a week for up to 12 people.
Dar El Riad, North Palmeraie.
T: 020 7401 1045. www.cvtravel.co.uk
Though as plush as the best of them in this exclusive neighbourhood, this veers away from Moroccan styling, favouring a minimalist aesthetic. There are four bedrooms in the main house and another in a separate pavilion building (which can be arranged to sleep up to five people if required), and facilities include a swimming pool, tennis court and gorgeously sleek hammam. Villa Farhana comes fully staffed and catered, with the use of a car and driver, and is 10 minutes from a golf course.
■ From £5,000 a week for up to 15 people.
Villa Farhana, Bab-Atlas, Palmeraie.
T: 07785 921530.
One of the great attractions of staying in a city centre riad is sitting on a roof terrace trying to spot North Africa’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal. For some travellers — especially repeat visitors who’ve already explored the souks, sounds and smells of the centre — the lure of the mountains is hard to ignore. For them, the countryside is better than being in the heart of the action. Accommodation tends to be cheaper than in the Palmeraie and it promises the best of both worlds, with access to Marrakech in less than an hour, mountain trekking, pretty Berber villages and skiing in winter. Countryside villas tend to come on a catered basis as restaurants may be some distance away.
One of the most atmospheric destinations here is Ouirgane, a Berber village set in a valley about an hour from the city. A good base for day walks into the Tassa Ouirgane National Park and longer treks to Mount Toubkal, it’s also on the road to the Tiz-n-Test Pass and Tin Mal mosque. Built from earth, the property has been completely restored by owner Peter Shayne and features a kitchen, open fireplace, outdoor patio and plant-filled garden; the village is also surrounded by groves of almond, olive trees and pomegranate. Decorated in ‘hippy chic’ style, another attraction’s the food. Though you can self-cater, you can also go full-board and have neighbours deliver home-cooked tagines, couscous, bread, honey, fruits, nuts, vegetables and more to your table — much of it made with local organic produce.
■ From £350 a week for up to five people, excluding food.
Maison Shayne, Ouirgane, near Asni.
T: 07958 492687. www.ownersdirect.co.uk
■ X-factor: Clear skies with little light pollution give guests a dramatic sense of space.
There isn’t much this villa doesn’t provide, from a hammam to a BBQ. The interiors are more opulent than the contemporary exterior suggests, with richly tiled bathrooms, painted ceilings and a pillared atrium. There’s also a lovely roof terrace and a cook on hand by arrangement. Its best feature by far is its heated pool, where you can swim while enjoying views to the Atlas Mountains.
■ From £3,216 a week for up to 10 people.
El Goute, Sidi Abdellah Ghiate, Provence El Haouz, Amriyne.
T: 01993 823809. www.holidaylettings.co.uk
Surrounded by farmland and with views of the Atlas Mountains, the villa features three bedrooms, elegant walled-gardens, outdoor and indoor dining areas, Moroccan-inspired interiors and a gorgeous outdoor pool. The villa’s cook will happily rustle up dishes by arrangement. Guests can also use facilities at Les Jardins de Touhina, including a restaurant, cafe, spa and hammam.
■ From £375 for three nights for two people.
Maison 27, Les Jardins de Touhina, Route Ouarzazate.
T: 020 8940 9493. www.maison27.com
Published in the May-June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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