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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Urban Oases

The Observer, 3 March 2002

Urban oases

Cool and stylish, these Moroccan palaces of peace are the perfect antidote to the noise, crowds and clamour of the city's streets. Jill Crawshaw visits eight of the best

Jill Crawshaw

The minibus taking us to the medina of Marrakesh deposited us at the end of an alleyway, a dark canyon between high claustrophobic walls too narrow for most forms of transport, except for a donkey ridden by a shadowy figure in a hooded djellaba .

Travel weary and with no hint of what was to come, we passed through great studded wooden doors set in the wall - and into an Arabian Nights' fantasy. Water rippled from a marble fountain in a perfect little courtyard filled with lemon trees and Ali Baba pots; the soft light from burnished brass lanterns glowed on alcoves piled with cushions, antique chests and oriental carpets.

La Maison Arabe, one of Marrakesh's first riads, is a tiny exquisite little palace so full of enchanting nooks and crannies, stairways and passages that we frequently got lost, even though there are only 16 bedrooms. It became our private oasis to which we could retreat every day from the heat, dust and hurly-burly of Marrakesh to sip a mint tea high up in the bower on our own private terrace, serenaded only by birdsong. Or lunch languidly off chicken with cumin and lemon in the shady courtyard, before plunging back into the m???l???e.

Cool and stylish, these little riads or houses in the heart of the medina are currently the hottest properties in Morocco. They're organised round one or more courtyards reflecting the traditions of Moroccan domestic architecture, which are inward-looking and intimate, with thick blank walls to protect their inhabitants from heat, cold, noise and the outside world.

By the middle of the twentieth century many of the old homes had fallen into decline, as the wealthy local merchants moved into the newer French quarter and modern suburbs, so they were picked up cheaply, and gradually restored by expats - Marrakesh has always been a winter bolthole for suntanned Europeans craving the exotic. Many of the new owners have opened their homes to visitors as B and Bs (no resemblance to their British counterparts) and the riads have rapidly become the places to stay.

When we visited the cavernous new Hotel Amanjena, it was almost totally bereft of its beautiful people and dotcom millionaires, and even grande dame La Mamounia Hotel seemed to be feeling the pinch, while the riads were clearly doing the business.

Yet they don't come cheap. You can pay up to ???150 a night in a top riad, and at least ???30 per person in one of the more modest versions. 'There are reckoned to be about 400 scattered around the medina' says Annie Austin, managing director of CLM Leisure, and the doyenne of Morocco's UK tour operators, 'but we can't offer as many as we would like because some are so deep in the maze that access is too difficult.'

Secluded and chic - some have their own pools - each riad fiercely guards its own individuality, though most incorporate traditional architectural features such as painted wood ceilings or arches ( zouak ) and polished plaster walls ( tadlekt ) decorated with bands of mosaic known as zellij . Roof terraces, where holidaymakers commonly breakfast under white linen awnings, are as intricate as the interiors, overflowing with jasmine and bougainvillea and offering stunning views over huddled Marrakesh and the snowcapped Atlas mountains. 'I've spent most of my week sunbathing up here,' said Melissa, a photographic agent staying at the Riad Kaiss. 'I came for R and R, and I've got it,' she said.

The roof and upper floors were originally the women's quarters, while the men would receive guests in the courtyard. So I was told by Hervig Bertels who was showing me around the several neighbouring houses he had converted into the luxurious Riad El Cadi. Former German ambassador to Morocco and a walking encyclopedia on Islamic art, he is concerned that Marrakesh's cultural heritage is still not legally protected and could become 'a Moroccan Disneyland'.

The old imperial city, encircled by rosy twelfth-century ramparts, is colourful enough, with its palaces, festivals, and possibly the world's most exciting square. Open-air theatre, circus and pageant rolled into one, the great Djemaa El Fna bombards your senses; the air is heavy with the scents of spices and orange blossom, roasting coffee, kif and dung. The vendors' eyes glitter, and the harsh cadences of the snake charmers drown the water-carriers' cries and even the Sudanese drummers. The action reaches its height at sunset as smoke drifts from the dozens of stalls sizzling with lamb brochettes, sheep entrails and spicy sausages.

Every day we wander about mesmerised until it's time to return to the snug haven of our riad. Outside, it's seething, swirling, pulsating; inside tranquil and private. Perfect really.

Best of the Medina

Riads to suit every traveller's taste.

La Maison Arabe

A thousand and one nights

One of Marrakesh's earliest riads, this classy little gem (a pricey one) mixes ethno-chic with Italian good taste. It started life as the medina's first specialist Moroccan restaurant, run by two raffish French ladies and aided and abetted by the Pasha in the 1940s. In 1997 it was taken over by Italian Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli, who spent two years converting it into a 16-bedroom hotel. Keeping up with tradition, an a la carte restaurant, one of the best in town, serves original Moroccan recipes, and guests can take cookery courses in local specialities.

Named after the 1001 Nights, the bedrooms (some are small) have some appropriately exotic features; beaten gold washbasins in the Jaffa suite; huge leather pouffes, painted wardrobes, log fires and a monster TV in Chems, the largest suite. Sheherazade has her own discreet little terrace. No pool, but the hotel has recently opened a country club outside the city, with free transport, large gardens, pool, and al fresco restaurant.

Riad Souika

Home from home

Ideal for a family or house party as you rent the whole property, this cosy pad is well-located on the edge of the old Jewish quarter, and near the Royal Palace. There are plenty of traditional features - tiled floors, painted ceilings, balconies - but it's more simply furnished than some of the other riads. It sleeps six in three comfortable en suite bedrooms overlooking a single small courtyard. Resident treasure is Aziz, the houseman, who will clean, take you to the markets, whip up whatever you fancy eating and babysit. There's a spacious roof terrace for sunbathing, but no pool or air-conditioning. Great value for money. (Best of Morocco).

Riad Noga

On the terraces

The friendly resident dog, chatty grey parrot and tortoises who all greet you in the leafy courtyard set the tone for this colourful mini Alhambra. Another dusky pink courtyard surrounds a green-tiled pool, where gregarious owner Norbert Furnon-Roberts floats his plastic ducks. Each of the seven bedrooms is painted a different rich glowing colour, with sexy baths big enough for two. Standard fittings include fireplaces, TV and CD players. Great roof terraces ('I'm a terrace freak' says Norbert), where two lady chefs will serve local specialities as you sink into oblivion on deep cushions. Fun, informal and relaxing.

Riad Kaiss

Ab Fab

Patsy and Edina would go a bundle on this one, to say nothing of its French architect owner, Christian, and slim-hipped manager, Mohammet. Orange, lemon, olive and pomegranate trees shade the stupendous large mosaic-tiled courtyard and fountain, flanked by cushioned recesses just made for secret assignations.

Four-poster beds, painted ceilings and enamelled chests adorn the seven bedrooms, with loos that are mini works of art. Go for Suite Three with its dreamy private terrace dripping with flowers, or Suite Four where you can play Peeping Tom behind a lattice balcony, and keep tabs on what's going on below. Hundreds of flickering candles illuminate the evening scene. Main drawback: no pool, though one is being added, as well as a hammam for the summer. (Best of Morocco).

Villa des Orangers

It's pukka

Swanky, elegant and patronised by the well-heeled French, the Villa des Orangers is Morocco's sole Relais and Chateaux member and only a stone's throw from Djemaa El Fna. The magic begins at the entrance, a corridor lined with water channels of floating petals, opening into a courtyard shaded by orange trees - the 1930s house was built for a Moroccan judge. Walls and ceilings are swathed with intricate polished white stucco (if there was a competition for Ideal Home, Morocco, the Villa des Orangers would win hands down). Staff guard their guests' privacy fiercely, and I had to sneak around to get a look at it all.

Of the 16 ochre and deep-pink bedrooms, some have their own private terraces, all sport king-size beds with Egyptian cotton sheets, Moroccan furnishings and huge log fires in winter. There's a plunge pool on the roof, light lunches and laundry are included in the price. It's one of the easiest riads to access by car.

Riad Dar Moha Almadina

For foodies

This one comes with some pedigree - owned previously by Pasha Glaoui's secretary, later by French designer Pierre Balmain.

Now it's the pied-???-terre and restaurant of one of Morocco's top chefs, the Swiss-trained Moha, whose passion is Moroccan nouvelle cuisine. Not for him the heavy, gargantuan dishes of rival restaurant Yacout, which can leave you feeling like an over-stuffed boa constrictor. Moha's mezes and pastillas melt in the mouth. He experiments with tajines (stews) of seafood, and quail with olives, and his chakchoukha aux fruits (a dessert of almonds and fruit) is to die for. Low -key traditional musicians play while you eat.

Pool and courtyard are large and pleasant, the bedrooms simply furnished, but, for the moment, Moha is focusing on food. Try it even if you don't stay there. (Best of Morocco).

The Caravanserai

Rural riad

The brainchild of Max Lawrence (son of Best of Morocco's Chris Lawrence) and father and son architects Charles and Stephane Boccara, this rural riad was inspired by the idea of the traditional old caravanserai, an inn where camel trains used to stop on their journey through the Sahara to Marrakesh.

Brand new, it's about seven miles south of the city in Ouled Ben Rahmoun, a not very picturesque village of compacted mud huts. Artefacts galore - bridal chests, antique doors, grills and the odd Grecian urn - have been collected by Max and Stephane from all over the country. The decorative effects have given local craftsmen a chance to practise traditional skills that were fast disappearing.

Seventeen bedrooms surround a much larger than normal pool and courtyard, but they're not just for sleeping in; some are mini houses with their own plunge pool, one comes with its own garden enclosed by blue walls.

A handy stopover to soak away the heat and dust, perhaps for holiday-makers touring by car, rather than a long stay - which is what a caravanserai is all about. (Best of Morocco).