Anonymous review of Dar One
Our cab pulls up outside the Palais de la Bahia. It's a corner of the medina thronging with locals and tourists alike. Standing on the northern edge of the Mellah (Jewish quarter), we wait momentarily for our Dar One contact, and we feel like something out of a Dashiell Hammett detective thriller. Surely we should be trading in some lost colonial treasure or tracking down the British ambassador’s missing daughter, not waiting to be escorted to a boutique retreat?
I’m half expecting our maitre d’ to appear in a pinstripe three-piece, a gilt-handled walking stick in hand, a cigarillo poking out beneath his pencil-thin moustache. As it turns out, of course, Michel – for that’s his name – is an entirely modern Marrakshi in designer sunglasses, jeans and a loose shirt. He is also charming, cheerful, and has most definitely nothing to do with a fictional antique-smuggling ring.
While I’m busy trying to work out whether to be disappointed our relieved by this normality, Mrs Smith is absorbed by how perfectly Moroccan the spot is: behind us are towering walls concealing an intricately decorated 19th-century palace, there's an endless stream of swerving spluttering mopeds, there's a hubbub of Moroccan daily life chattering all around. Could there be a more beautifully authentic place to begin a long weekend in this ancient city? Surely not.
‘Don’t worry,’ reassures Michel as he leads us down a sloping path off the main street and into a narrow medina alley of bright orange walls. ‘The directions are simple. You take a right off the road, then the second right. Then another. Then the last left… And then we’re just up here on the left.’ We pass through a private gate, its keeper is a smiling local boy of about 10, with someone who appears to be his equally cheerful grandfather. The deep amber of the private alley is almost luminous beyond a dense green line of potted plants.
‘Right’, I think to myself, ‘I can handle that’. Right, right, right, left and left. That’s right, right? Oh, bugger. Anyone with even half a sense of direction should be more than fine finding Dar One… Sadly, I lack even that. Thankfully, however, my particular Mrs Smith model comes with in-built SatNav. She also comes with quite a wardrobe – and as we turn the last dusty corner past the gatekeepers, Michel catches sight of her new ruby-red sandals.
‘Beautiful!’ he declares. ‘And the colour matches your luggage perfectly.’ (The scarlet Globetrotter is currently the pride of my beloved’s travel accoutrements collection, second only to the aforementioned footwear – so he’s firmly in her good books. Charmer.)
The front door to the riad swings wide open and the bustle of Marrakech fades instantly to a distant hush. Long canvas sheets hang from the ceiling, billowing gently. Around them, softly textured plaster walls frame a lounge of modern square tables, chairs and sofas. Daylight streams in from the open roof while a small waterfall in the centre of the room tumbles steadily into a svelte plunge pool, a scattering of dusty lilac roses bobbing on the surface. It’s one of those moments that forces you to take a deep breath, exhaling away all of life's petty stresses.
Dar One itself isn’t enormous, bearing instead that tall and slender format of the riad species; its three floors spiral up around a canopied atrium to a sun-drenched roof terrace. We climb the smooth concrete stairs to our room on the first floor. While hardly huge our room is certainly cosy, with plenty of character. We draw the curtains on the glass doors and collapse onto the large bed – drifting off in each others’ arms for a small post-flight siesta.
Design aside, perhaps Dar One’s greatest strength is its location. So when I awake with a profound craving for a Marrakshi tagine lunch, it’s only a 15-minute wander over to Chez Chegrouni on the central medina – an inexpensive favourite for watching the mulling anarchy of the square unfurl. And when Michel books us a romantic dinner that night on the roof of Hôtel Farouk, again it’s only a reasonable saunter away (although for the uninitiated, it can be a bit of a pain to find, so maybe allow an extra five minutes of getting-lost time).
The specific details that attract Mrs Smith’s eye when we’re travelling never cease to amaze me. The attribute of Dar One that most catches her attention? Even above the fabulous late breakfast we share on the sun-drenched rooftop? And more than the fresh roses that appear magically in our cosy little room, daily, their ivory petals glowing against the swirling deep grey walls? Believe it or not: it's our bedsheets.
So enamoured is Mrs Smith by the bed linen's thick, sensual softness that when we meet the riad’s proprietor Jean the next morning, my sybarite launches straight into pillow talk. And Jean, infinitely affable and distinctly approving of her admiration, promises to introduce her to his source. As they talk fabric weight and threadcount it’s like watching a linen drug deal going down. Yet with the waterfall trickling away in the background I couldn’t be more content. That is how magical this hip little house is.
For 15 years Jean was a lawyer back in France – but try not to hold that against him. With his two impeccably behaved hounds Tosca and Loukoum by his feet and the haven of Dar One around him, he is in fact decidedly charming. We pick his brain about where to spend the day awandering, sharing the city’s secrets and his excitement over his new riad, Dar White, set to open next year. After signing up for a candlelit dinner that night on the riad’s roof, we leave Jean to it, and we head off to tackle the Red City.
Mrs Smith is something of a legend when it comes to haggling. Further armed with Jean’s recommendations, we hit the souks hard. My only concern is that we’ll return one day to Marrakech to find warning posters tacked up throughout the markets: my better half’s visage smiling seductively above a note advising stallholders to barter with her at their own risk. Eventually we call time and back we trudge, foot-sore but loaded with a stack of impeccably bartered treasures.
Just before the first right (or is it a left?) into Dar One, the local cornershop has a drop-freezer that calls our name. Back in the riad, feet soaking in the waterfall-fed plunge pool, ice-creams in hand, we compare notes: the Palais was certainly a beautiful welcome. The winding amber streets are stunning. The souks are atmospheric, as is the call-to-prayer streaming over the roofs. And oh that breakfast on the top terrace, our rose-rich room, our smooth, welcoming bed... All of this is beautiful and irreplaceable and seductively unique…But this moment now – as our retail-beaten feet are draped into the flower-strewn pool, the cool marble beneath our legs, ice-creams clutched and a chilled bottle of wine beside us, the warm breeze slipping down through the canopies, Mrs Smith looking radiant in the dappled sunlight – this, strangely, will be the moment that brings us back to Dar One. And back again, most certainly, we will be.