Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Riad Fever
The Economist, Intelligent Life, Summer 2005, print edition
Why are westerners flocking to the courtyard houses of old Marrakech?
MARRAKECH has long lured western travellers.
The days are perfect, the nights are cool, Winston Churchill noted in his war memoirs (he was a regular guest at the city's La Mamounia hotel). In the 1960s, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards lived it up at Hotel Es Saadi, and Yves Saint Laurent bought his first dar (Moroccan house), flying from Paris between collections. But it is only since the late 1990s that significant numbers of westerners have started to flock to the city's 12th-century, pink-walled medina. Some come for a holiday; others choose to settle here. What has attracted them? For a large number, it is the courtyard houses built around gardens - riads.
It may be a mere three-hour flight from London, but for most visitors Marrakech provides a genuine dose of culture shock. The medina (the old, walled part of the city) is a seething mass of urban dwellings, and contains perhaps one of the world's most exotic squares (Jemaa El Fna, a riot of snake-charmers, acrobats and transvestite dancers). The surrounding honeycomb of dusty alleyways - or derb - seem to defy navigation.
Riads (the word means
garden in Arabic) are dotted quietly along these alleys. From the outside, many are inauspicious, concealed by unpretentious doorways, with no balconies or windows overlooking the streets. But step inside a renovated riad today and you will enter a peaceful world of fountains, arched colonnades, intricate stucco carving and brightly coloured zellij tiles.
Typically built around at least one courtyard, riads are cloistered sanctuaries in which life is turned away from the outside world and inwards to a central space. Their structure reflects traditional Moroccan domestic life, with its emphasis on the family, and the importance of privacy for women. Thick walls and few windows (almost all natural light comes from the courtyard) keep the ground floor cool and dark - ideal in summer. Rooms tend to be long and narrow, and traditionally they were simply furnished with seating on three sides for receiving guests. Eucalyptus and oleander often fortify the lofty ceilings. Orange and lemon trees dot the courtyard.
Staying in a riad gives travellers a chance to sample something of day-to-day Moroccan life. A world away from a traditional hotel, many of these courtyard dwellings have just four to eight rooms, a hammam (steam room) and a small swimming pool. Meals are generally taken on the rooftop, overlooking the labyrinthine medina.
Discerning travellers should choose their riad with care. Some are palaces, others are hovels. There are those run with a sure touch by savvy professionals. At others,
you might be driven to distraction by an eccentric owner recounting his woes over the breakfast table, warns Chris Lawrence, who runs Best of Morocco, a travel agency. Some boast broadband internet connections and 24-hour room service, while others are spartan retreats from modern life.
Style and decor also vary enormously. Traditional Moroccan clutter (mountains of Ottoman throws, lanterns everywhere) has given way to a soothing minimalism in which authentic craftsmanship blends with clean, simple lines. At Italian-owned Riad 72, modern, low-key furniture sits harmoniously alongside Moorish fretworked wooden screens and copper hand-basins. Nearly all renovated riads make bold use of tadelakt, a water-resistant, polished plaster, traditionally reserved for the steam room.
Riads are not just for sleeping. Some of the best food in Morocco is served in these courtyard houses. Though conveyor-belt tagine is still the order of the day in much of Morocco, adventurous cooking is increasingly in evidence in Marrakech. Witness Richard Neat, a British chef who last year upped sticks from his Michelin-starred restaurant in Cannes and opened a riad, Casa Lalla, in the medina. Mr Neat's guests feast on seven-course gourmet dinners under a white Berber tent on his roof-top, and then stagger to their luxuriously appointed bedrooms.
Today, there are about 400 riad-hotels in the medina, and the Moroccan tourist board estimates foreigners own at least 30% of them. Although some have settled here, most foreign buyers turn their properties into guest-houses or maison d'hote (bed and breakfast). Michel Kergreis, a French architect who helps westerners negotiate their way through the property maze, believes riad fever began in 1998, after a French television programme broadcast the charms of buying in Marrakech. At the time, a small, untouched riad could be picked up for as little as 300,000 Moroccan dirham ($35,500). Today, the same property is likely to sell for at least 1m dirham - and three times that if it has been carefully renovated.
The foreign influx has its downsides, but is good news for Marrakchis keen to sell their crumbling properties and move into new high-rise apartment buildings outside the medina, in Quartier de l'Hivernage or Gueliz, the old French colonial quarter. Western arrivals, anxious to insert modern plumbing and electricity, and many of them prepared to spend liberally on traditional craftsmanship, have also given a boost to local builders and artisans.
The most sought-after area in the medina is north-west of Jemaa El Fna, near bab Doukkala and bab Laksour, two of the gates that punctuate the city walls. Proximity to the main square and ease of access to transport puts a premium on prices, making this quarter something of a ghetto for westerners.
We call it 'Medina-shire', says Jennifer Lloyd, a British designer who works here. Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard Branson, a British entrepreneur, recently opened an opulent six-bedroom riad-hotel in this quarter. But Mr Kergreis believes a wiser investment today would be in the poorer eastern quarter, near bab Kechich and bab Ailen, or in the southern part, around the Kasbah.
Buying a riad can be fraught with obstacles. A property shown for one price in the morning might be offered for twice that sum by someone else in the afternoon. Transactions are often hammered out in caf???s, with frantic arguments over mobile phones. Most properties in the medina have no title deeds, and with no papers to produce at the notaire, finalising a sale can take a long time. Worse, Moroccan property tends to be handed down over the generations, meaning that scores of cousins, aunts and uncles may want their share of the proceeds.
Time has no meaning for many Marrakchis, says Chris Lawrence, who has experience of buying here.
They'll quite happily wait for years until you give in on the price.
Intrepid property-seekers are now looking farther afield, setting their sights some 20 miles from Marrakech towards the fertile Ourika Valley, with views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Those with enough money opt for both a small riad in the medina and a plot of land in a rural setting, where they can build from scratch. Among the handful of rustic retreats just outside the city is Tigmi, a clutch of white-washed mud huts on the edge of a Berber village 15 miles south of Marrakech. Its riad-like interior, bursting with ethnic-chic, has already graced the pages of several style magazines. A handful of foreigners have bought mud houses in this area - more are sure to follow.
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