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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Be Cool In The Souk

The Telegraph, 30 March 2001

Be cool in the souk

Staying in the Marrakesh medina is no longer hideous or kinky, says Jeremy Seal. The renovated riads are oases of comfort and calm

Marrakesh basics

ACCOMMODATION in Morocco used to be limited to the bland bed factories of the French colonial nouvelles villes, but this ancien regime is positively tottering with the emergence of individual and stylish lodgings in traditional Arab houses known as riads.

Seasoned Morocco visitors have been taking riads for private holiday rents for some years; over the past year, however, many more have been converted into small stylish hotels, from the Atlantic port and former hippy hangout of Essaouira to Fez in the north.

The medinas, the old walled cities, have always been a highlight of any visit to Morocco. Baffling, then, that a memorable day poking about the medina's souks and back alleys, and perhaps an evening at a remarkable medina restaurant such as Marrakesh's Le Pavilion or Restaurant Riad, should have ended in a sterile hotel room among suburbs that were grafted on to the original Arab cities in the early 20th century. It was the lodging equivalent of a cold shower.

Riads have changed all that. Typically European-owned and managed, they are arranged around airy inner courtyards that emphasise their traditional function as tranquil retreats from the vibrant hubbub of the street. With Moroccan features including courtyard citrus trees and fountains, the zellij tilework on the walls and mosaic floors, columns, sculpted plaster arches and painted ceiling beams, they ooze atmosphere without stinting on comfort. Bedrooms are often en suite, with lavishly equipped bathrooms, and there are loungers on the roof terraces - and sometimes even swimming pools and hammams (steam baths). The food is excellent, varying from Moroccan to lighter European.

Marrakesh's nouvelle ville hotel areas, such as Gueliz and Hivernage, seem to have been put in the shade by the riads. After a riad stay in the city's pre-colonial heart, one visitor even dismissed the much-admired Amanjena, in the exclusive Palmeraie, as a Disneyland Morocco pavilion, which would have been accounted a blasphemy not so long ago.

Ten years ago, only budget visitors and backpackers would have considered staying in the Marrakesh medina, says Abdul Benharima of the Travellink tourism agency.

Then hustling in the area was made illegal during the 1990s. Once licensed guides were appointed, it gradually became more than just a place for some high-pressure souk shopping and sightseeing. Now many visitors seem to regard it as the only place to stay.

The potential of medina accommodation was first realised in 1989 when Villa Maroc opened in Essaouira. The darling of the interiors magazines, it delivered on the dream of medina-smitten Europeans with its simple but chic rooms overlooking an inner courtyard of fronds and tumbling greenery, all in a wash of white with brilliant blue windows, and a rooftop terrace with views over the city walls to the Atlantic.

Among the most feted of the new riads is the Riad El Cadi, which opened last year close to the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh. Discreet to the point of anonymity, it lies behind a stout wooden door at the end of a dung-littered medina lane hemmed in by walls of dried red mud. Step inside, however, and this 12-bedroom riad, originally five houses, reveals itself as a refined and restrained retreat of eau-de-nil courtyards with lemon trees, a slate-coloured swimming pool, a library, a roof terrace and a scattering of antique treasures from the owner's renowned collection of Islamic and Byzantine art.

The El Cadi is owned and run by Hedwig Bartels, formerly the German ambassador to Morocco. Most of my clients are British, he says. I also get a few Germans, but most Americans and French continue to prefer the Mamounia.

With its bleached pink and yellow walls, the nearby seven-bed Riad Noga seems positively flamboyant in comparison. Even so, says its owner, Norbert Furnon-Roberts, who opened the riad in March 2000 (and has since been astounded by the interest), his clientele tends to be looking for a retreat rather than a party. The riad, originally two houses, is arranged around two courtyards, one a dappled haven of orange trees and bougainvillea with a resident parrot, while the other contains a jade-tiled swimming pool. With its handsome sitting room, three private roof terraces with views over the medina to the Atlas Mountains, and open fires for winter visitors, the Riad Noga is a great place for holing up.

Simon Harrison, a Bath-based company director, stayed at the Riad Noga with friends late last year on his first visit to Morocco. What won us over was that it felt totally exotic but was also extremely clean and with plenty of mod cons, says Harrison. (There are modem ports, satellite televisions and hi-fis in five of the bedrooms.)

I suppose you have to want to be right in the dirty centre of Marrakesh and to have a face full of local colour to love it, he concedes. But we did.

Many riads actively welcome families, notably the Villa des Orangers, on a Marrakesh street just south of the Koutoubia Mosque. It can arrange baby-sitting and boasts a stunning swimming pool on the roof. The alternative is to rent your own riad, though it pays to check on safety arrangements, particularly with regard to steep stairs and roof terraces.

A popular family choice is the Riad Souika, which succeeds in combining good looks - mosaic flooring, tadlakt (polished plaster) walls and Moroccan furnishings - with a high-walled roof terrace for safety, and is sufficiently robust not to shatter at the first sight of a boisterous child. It has three bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms and is about 15 minutes' walk from the Djemaa el Fna. The services of a houseman, who cleans, makes breakfast and can help with shopping and child-minding, come with the property.