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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Modish Marrakech

Evening Standard, 18 June 2002

Modish Marrakech

By Nick Redman, Evening Standard

It has become very fashionable among weekending Westerners to Marrakech to stay in a riad - a town house-turned-B&B in the thick of the medieval medina.

So much so, that the once-decrepit properties have doubled in value in less than five years.

Around 600 were bought by foreigners in 2000/01 alone.

Restored, behind inscrutable walls, many are Eurocentric reimaginings of the local decorative idiom - Armani aloofness or Gilbert and Sullivan effeminate orientalism in sherbet tones - while outside, in the markets, Moroccans root for fruit 'n' veg.

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Seasoned observers seriously fear a 'Disneyfication' of the Medina in the sprucing of masonry and muddy ways.

A taste of things to come is the H�tel Les Jardins de la Koutoubia: a French-owned, Vegas-style fraud of candelabra and uplit columns, unveiled last month on the site of a razed 18th century palace.

It's heartening, then, to find two hotel newcomers have arrived with dignity and sensibility.

Caravanserai and Tigmi, scant kilometres north and south of the city, propose a novel way to stay in the country-house calm of a baked-earth village.

'The concept was to do something similar to the riads, but in a rural surrounding,' recalls their maker, Max Lawrence, 27.

He spent a decade fixing fashion shoots for the likes of Missoni and Vogue before being seduced by a red-mud edifice in tiny Ouled Ben Rahmoune, 11 kilometres north of Marrakech, its dirt-poor dwellings piled where the Route de Casablanca snakes into tawny infinity.

With architect Mathieu Boccara (a Frenchman raised in Marrakech, whose father's house it was), and the deployment of vernacular eucalyptus, plaster and compressed-earth bricks, Lawrence extended it gently into the 17-room Caravanserai.

It is now a two-storey projection of rooms around a courtyard with pool and deckchairs (for use if you haven't nabbed the Pool Suite, which naturally trumpets its own).

'We tried not to be a spot on the village,' says Boccara, an undisturbed colony of indigenous tortoises moving in the gardens behind him.

Hence the tipsy collision of Cycladic whitewash and Berber cookie-shades forming sun-spiked courtyards.

All around are old riad doors reincarnated as low tables and Berber blanket chests, patterned in maze-like zouac.

With local staff including Naima, who bakes breakfast cr�pes on her twin braziers, and Ahmed, the wandering gnawa musician, strumming his laments for diners - it's the perfect PC pit stop for erstwhile Lonely Planeteers with eco-sensitivities and Habitat habits.

In rooms and suites the look is led by tadelakt, the plaster coating of the hammam.

Polished to a gloss with olive soap, it renders Caravanserai's bathtubs, lined prettily with silver-worked vials, as beautifully pale and delicate-looking as eggshells.

Walls are thick with pointy windows punched minimally.

The dawn chorus of scrapping dogs in the street below and the glimpses of piled village rubbish, which Boccara's introspective architecture can't fully mask, were not quite as delicate.

Yet the view from the terrace to Marrakech stopped the heart: a biblical sweep of wheat, palms and olives.

It was the prelude for eight-suite Tigmi, 24 kilometres south-west of town along a route plumed with eucalyptus.

A clutch of pis� (rammed earth) homes remodelled with the enlistment of 250 residents, it commands the Haouz Plain in Tagadert; a place of many wells, one tap and no phones.

Within Tigmi's flanks, - fashioned lopingly, as if from marzipan - bougainvillea festooned a walled garden and cushioned banquettes begged for Kate Moss and a Testino lens.

Here were Tim and Alex, on decompression leave from London, raving about a quad-bike trek 40 miles into the Atlas, as we shared sea bass tagine made by manager Mahfoud with fish from the far Atlantic at Oualidia.

The cabernet slowly drugged, making the bedroom with its mallow pillows ludicrously cocooning.

From the roof after breakfast, beyond the Ab Fab pool, the plains had greened after rains and olive groves folded into the land.

Kasbahs on the skyline might have been patted out of a child's bucket.

In the village, the barber grinned, and showed his water supply, in a faded Laurent Perrier bottle.

The children raucously recited Arabic in the school.

The olive press owner took two coins to reveal a contraption older than his memory, silvered with cobwebs as the opened door poured sun upon it.

Later, with the orange glow of Marrakech on the darkening horizon, from the top of Tigmi you scented olive timber from the home fires burning, smoking the breeze sweetly, timelessly closing the day.