It is said that the Red City has close to 2000 riads accepting guests, although this may be an apocryphal number.
Either way, visitors have a vast choice of beautifully restored old buildings, all arranged around a central courtyard and a roof terrace with luxuriant greenery and fragrant flowers cascading down walls and draping around chiselled columns and wrought iron balustrades.
BBeyond, along with The Tastemaker, visited a number over a period of a week and found a world of difference between them.
We focused on smaller, individually owned and managed riads, starting with Riad Farnatchi, followed by Riad Karmela, both in the heart of the medina and a short walk from Jemaa El’Fna.
We then moved to another part of town, some 20 min. walk from Jemaa el’Fna, where we visited two of the Sans Souci collection riads, as well as La Villa des Orangers, a Chateau&Relais hotel.
Our last riad was Le Jardin des Oliviers, owned and ran by an idiosyncratic Swiss with an interesting background who makes staying at the riad rather an experience.
Marrakech has become a brand in its own right in the last 2 decades and draws a vast number of tourists from all over the world. Many spend their time being channelled through the endless souks, haggling over more or less authentic craft items, trying out the food stands at Jemma el’Fna and otherwise relaxing at the oasis that is their chosen riad.
In fact, move away from the tourist spots and you will find another city altogether: tiny craftsmen shops using quasi-medieval tools, cheaper markets, 2-3 table cafes, serving a spicier or earthier version of the regular restaurant fare and less rapacious salesmen. Try out the street food: charcoal grilled skewered meats, one portion tagines, stuffed sardines, spiced batter fried fish, freshly made salads… These are delicious, often much tastier than any restaurant fare, and quite safe to eat, in spite of the often insalubrious aspect of the surroundings.
The more touristy the area, the more you would be hunted by the locals who make a living out of offering their services to visitors. Weary foreigners and Moroccans size each other up and try to strike a bargain that works for both parties but the deal is never quite equitable. This is not your turf and you should accept that being ripped-off to some degree is part and parcel of visiting North Africa. If you love haggling, you’d be in paradise; if you are not very good at it or simply dread it, Marrakech is best explored with a recommended guide that you trust and have retained for the duration of your stay. He would ward off pests, steer you through the maze of souks, help you avoid both motorised and animal-drawn vehicles streaming in from every direction, seemingly without any traffic rules, haggle on your behalf, and take you to the best local eateries and craftsmen.
This, after all, is the gate to sub-Saharan Africa… Enjoy!
Riad El Fenn
The BBeyond Inner Circle (BBIC) hosted a dinner for 20 at Vanessa Branson’s riad, El Fenn on the last week of the art biennale that she founded in Marrakech, some 10 years ago.
The biennale has established its own edgy, slightly bohemian character and cemented its place on the global art scene for a number of reasons, not least because its founding mission is to promote tolerance and cultural bridges between North Africa and the rest of the world.
El Fenn is probably the largest riad in the medina. Although parts of it are newly built, it looks uniformly authentic, its walls and courtyard terraces quite literally covered in giant climbing plants, improbably tall coconuts swaying in the breeze, and the large pool equally tempting day and night. A portion of El Fenn’s vast lobby has been converted into an elegant shopping area for those who do not enjoy the heat, bustle and endless haggling of the souks. The rooftop restaurant and ground floor bar are hubs for Marrakech habitués and smart, art-loving visitors in the know. El Fenn is very much like its owner, in fact: laid back, stylish, with an amazing youthful vibrancy to it.