One of my all-time favourite holiday destinations is Marrakech; I love the sparkle and bustle of the Jemaa el Fna, the sweeping sandstone architecture of the Bab Agnaou, the steamy heat of the souks serving tagines and freshly squeezed orange juice. In my opinion, there’s only one type of property you can stay in to experience the real Marrakech: a traditional riad.
What is a Riad?
A riad is a traditional style of house that you will find in cities all over Morocco. The magic of them is that they don’t look anything special from the outside – narrow, dusty streets separate tall, windowless buildings made of plain mud brick or clay. An ornate wooden door may be the only indicator of the luxury within…
Once you step inside a typical riad in Marrakech you will be blown away by the oasis of calm it offers in the middle of the city’s Medina (Old Town). You will enter into a central garden, often planted with lemon trees around a fountain, or a courtyard – although technically a house without a garden is a dar rather than a riad, the latter meaning ‘garden’ in Arabic. On all sides you will see the arches and pillars of several storeys rising above you.
Along with the scent of the garden and the gentle tinkling of the water, you will be struck by the beauty of the traditional craftsmanship used to create these ornate houses: perhaps you’ll notice the sheen of labour-intensive Tadelakt plaster or intricate Zellige tiles laid out in beautiful geometric patterns. Whether done out in lavish earthy tones or gauzy, soothing whites, the inner atrium is the perfect place to enjoy a mint tea away from the baking heat of the Moroccan sunshine.
Originally these sumptuous secret spaces were town houses for Marrakech’s elite, but in the twentieth century they were largely abandoned and crumbling away into disrepair. Interest in them, sparked by the European tourist trade, has blossomed in recent decades, meaning that now there is a wide selection of riads converted into hotels and restaurants. The desire to refurbish and restore these beautiful buildings has encouraged a revival in the artisan trades and handicrafts traditionally used to construct them, which were in danger of extinction.
Is it Really for Me?
We have had a number of clients who love the romance of the Moroccan riad but have been put off by the realities. Many do not have air conditioning or a swimming pool, which can be a deal breaker in the 45˚ heat of the North African summer. Many are tucked away down narrow, uneven streets, with rooms a few floors in the air – not ideal for those with mobility problems.
Many… but not all. We have curated a collection of absolutely outstanding riads in Marrakech that provide all the comfort and modern conveniences of a brand new, five-star hotel within the historic environs of a beautiful traditional town house.
The Original Riad Retreat – La Maison Arabe
La Maison Arabe has an esteemed history. Originally it opened as a restaurant serving traditional Moroccan cuisine to foreigners in 1946; it catered to an esteemed guest list, including Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Jackie Kennedy. In 1998 it was elegantly renovated by Fabrizio Ruspoli to become the first riad hotel in Marrakech.
Many of the rooms have balconies, fireplaces, even Jacuzzis with stunning rooftop views. Air conditioning is sure to keep you cool in the fierce heat, as will the central pool. For even more luxury you can catch a 15-minute free shuttle to the hotel’s own country club with extensive gardens, a swimming pool and a golf course.
If you’re worried about the accessibility of your hotel but want to enjoy the atmosphere of the historic Medina of Marrakech, La Maison is perhaps the only property in the city that can make your dreams come true. It is unusually accessible by car, and is the only riad in the Medina with a lift.
The Twenty-First Century Riad – Ksar Anika
Ksar Anika offers the perfect combination of traditional craftsmanship with luxurious modern comfort. The current owners undertook a complete reworking of the beautiful old building, fitting brand new plumbing and electrics as well as creating unusually airy spaces – making this a rare ‘best of both worlds’ property.
By popular demand to preserve the hotel’s serenity, none of the rooms or suites have televisions in them (although they do all feature iPod docks and USB internet connectors, so you can relax to the gentle strains of classical music). Instead, the Ksar has a private cinema with a large collection of classic films, as well as a large heated swimming pool, spa and hammam.
If you’re looking for chic and peaceful rather than opulent and traditional, the Ksar Anika is the riad for you.