A mixture of jazz and pagan ritual music blared out of the speakers of the taxi taking us on the ten-minute drive from Marrakech airport to El Fenn. Parking in a narrow alley, the driver carried our luggage down an even narrower alley to an entrance resembling that of an urban after-hours club.
A riad is a house built around a central square courtyard. Its exterior walls and entrance door are usually weather-beaten and uncompromising. Moroccan architecture encloses space, creates a sheltered garden from a wilderness, turns away from the outside world, shuts out its noise, and looks in on a personal paradise of shade, rippling cool water, and fragrant flowers. The door’s eye-slit slammed open and shut, and the massive door swung open to reveal a smiling face.
‘Welcome to El Fenn.’
Splashes of cherry red and pomegranate pink beamed at us as we walked down a dark corridor. At the end, a neat array of about 50 pairs of sparkling slippers and jewelled trainers lay next to a large mirror. I was about to show respect by taking off my shoes and adding them to the pile, when Mrs Smith exclaimed: ‘This is art at its best?’
Feeling sheepish, I recalled that while Richard Branson had been in the neighbourhood converting a kasbah, his sister Vanessa had bought a heap of ruins and vigorously set about restoring them to the current combination of family home, boutique-hotel business, and artistic retreat. Some of her favourite and most precious works are exhibited here. A portrait of George Bush was hung upside down. A sign read: ‘I Believe in Van Gogh’. El Fenn means ‘art’ in Arabic and ‘hip’ in local slang. The double meaning made sense.
We walked through a sensually lit courtyard, past a marble fountain trickling water into a rose-petal-filled basin, and up a short flight of steps to a WiFi’d library stocked with French and English books on all subjects. In the corner was a laptop and desk diary, which served as the reception desk. Frederic, the man responsible for the riad’s final design, welcomed us and reeled off a list of the facilities. There was a hammam, a marble swimming pool, and a lounge cinema with a digital projector to watch DVDs.
All food was freshly prepared with local products bought daily at the city market or produced at El Fenn’s own organic vegetable garden in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Drinks and snacks (breakfast, lunch and dinner, too) would be readily on hand anytime. Beauticians and masseurs, including a Japanese-trained shiatsu master, were constantly available to offer treatments varying from hot-stone chakra stimulation to upper-lip waxing, either in one’s bedroom or in designated healing rooms. We were offered the choice of eating dinner now or sometime after settling into our room. Tired and starving, we opted for the former.
In a cosy, informal dining room where Moorish architecture blended with superb modern interior design, we were served a delicious and delicate feast of lobster mousse, sesame wafers, artichoke hearts, grilled sea bass with olives and lemon peel, apple ratatouille, pulses, mashed turnips, harissa, pigeon, chocolate timbale, strawberries, and two bottles of wine. Well fed, we asked for the room key and were told there weren’t any: there was no need.
A feeling of complete safety overcame us. Soothingly exhausted, we climbed slowly up the steps to our room, which had an open fire and a private roof terrace with small plunge pool. Scented candles flickered seductively. Bowls of roses perfumed every corner. A giant powerful showerhead towered over a deep marble bathtub surrounded by various oils, salts and erotic products. Mrs Smith turned on the taps. The massive bath filled with hot water immediately. Twenty minutes later, we were lying in our hooded and tasselled dressing gowns on a huge firm bed with plentiful pillows and the finest of linen listening to the silence. Unexpectedly, we fell asleep.
Next morning, I cautiously opened the door and let in streams of strong sunlight. On a stool outside, the caring staff had placed a tray of hot tea and coffee flasks, milk, sugar, and tiny cakes. Consuming the lot simply increased our appetite for breakfast. We went to the main rooftop terrace, overlooking the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas and replete with corners containing woven-leather chairs, daybeds and giant cushions to make one’s own for reading, eating, drinking, sunbathing, or snoozing. Freshly squeezed orange juice, strong coffee, home-made yoghurt, beetroot marmalade and warm croissants took seconds to arrive at our chosen table. Smells of rosewater and incense and songbirds’ melodies floated over us we drifted back into dreamland. Carved wooden doors, ornate metal jalousies, antique mirrors, intricate carvings and lanterns in alcoves, and faded rugs reminded us where we were. Perhaps we should explore.
We ventured out to take a short walk, which was curtailed by Mrs Smith spotting the horse-drawn carriages. We grabbed one. Anxious to please, the toothless driver, proud of his city, took us for a ride around the sights of Marrakech. He stopped at a herbalist whose shelves were stacked with jars of medicinal plants, dried flowers, spices, cosmetics, and dyes. Mrs Smith bought some cream of argan (a tree that refuses to grow if transplanted outside Morocco) and some of the diet tea favoured by Victoria Beckham. I sampled some Moroccan Viagra (red ginseng) and Spanish fly (beetle wings).
The hotel room had been thoroughly serviced by the time we returned. This time, sleep eluded us. For providing a mixture of African exotica, Arabic glamour and European comfort, El Fenn is unbeatable.