Apart from being a name amusing to foreign tongues, thus meriting many out-loud repetitions, the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech is the city’s main square and social hub. That doesn’t mean you would want to spend too much time in this – one man’s hive of activity is another’s teemingly touristy Leicester Square, and there are only so many times you can pretend to be dazzled by a stall selling old teeth or a bloke with a tethered monkey.
What makes Riad Azzar, in the south Medina, so special is that it’s no more than a stone’s throw from the Djemaa, which means that you can dip in to the charcoal waft of the street food or grab an orange juice from one of the endless ranks of vendors, safe in the knowledge that you can dip out again. In a city as raw and raucous as Marrakech, some calm before, during and after the storm is a real boon.
As usual with a Marrakech riad the outside of the building is an exercise in discretion. Buildings in the old town are mainly windowless, instead facing inwards around courtyards. What that means is that you haven’t a Djemaa’s hope in el Fna of finding your temporary home. We were picked up by a bagman on the far side of the Djemaa (it’s closed to traffic after 1pm, or at least it’s supposed to be), and then battled through the crowds of hawkers and gawkers, past a mosque and down a couple of I’ll-never-find-this-again blind alleyways.
But once you arrive there may be no need to leave – inside, Azzar’s aesthetic takes wholesome dollops of Bedouin and marries them with discreet Western luxury. The lanterns in the stairwells, the artwork on the walls and the textiles have all been carefully, and locally sourced. Some of Marrakech’s rebooted Riad’s have gone so design-led that you could be holidaying in the Architectural Review.
That’s a bit of a non sequitur in a city that is still essentially an African trading hub. Azzar redresses the balance: our room overlooked the courtyard pool and was cool and shuttered, with a stark black tadelakt bathroom (this is the smooth polished plaster that somehow grants instant karma to the humblest of bathrooms) and a standalone tub, vintage fittings, ornate mirrorwork. The whole place echoed the formula: take Morocco, add serenity, remove dust, turn down volume.
A little bit of Azzar’s history helps to understand what they’ve tried to create here. Dutch owner Cees van den Berg was a high-powered financial director, racking up airmiles in the low millions before reaching breaking point and jacking it in. He and his wife Maryk moved to Marrakech, and Azzar, and its newly-opened sister hotel Riad Siwan, are the result. Cees and his wife’s desire to just get away from it all-evident. Nothing about Riad Azzar is flash, high powered or overly structured. They see a lack of wireless broadband as a selling point, not a glaring omission, and after half an hour in the heated plunge pool, or chugging away at a Casablanca on a lounger in the roof garden, you will too.
The theme continues: there are no room keys, in fact there are no keys at all, which is a blessing on the pocket and turns in to a balm for the mind: once you’re in the riad that holy trinity of modern life – watch, keys, mobile phone – ceases to matter. Rooms go unlocked because there is a 24 hour doorman who knows who you are and lets you in and out. Food and drink are supplied as and when you choose to eat and drink. The message is clear: the only blackberries here are the ones that go in a blender.
Cees and Maryk’s build-your-own de-stressing zone project hasn't been without hiccups – deadlines are a concept unfamiliar to most Moroccans. But for the casual shopper their suffering has been a boon – they know a thing or two about local craftsmanship. And if you’re in the market for a lantern or some furniture (few people are capable of leaving Marrakech without one or the other – come over to my place and I’ll show you my soap dishes), make sure to tap their knowledge for the best places to go and the prices to pay. The medina is fast, furious and fun, but if you really want to make some purchases, those in-the-know don’t go near it.
Bored at my attempts to haggle, Mrs Smith, went to try a hammam – again at Maryk’s recommendation (as Marrakech hammams are very much unequal, you may want to side step those that seem to think a lack of basic hygiene is part of a venerable tradition). I went back, lounged on the roof terrace and watched the storks flying overhead (they nest on the old city walls.) Mrs Smith returned in a state of near bliss, claiming that every particle of dead skin had been expertly scrubbed from her body to the point where she was barely there any more.
Less successful was a trip to La Nouvelle Ville: we had read of art deco architecture and French café culture. We found a building site. The saving grace was stumbling across a café called Le Chineur on Bo Mansour Eddahbi. As luck wouldn’t have it, our taxi on the way back managed to hit an old lady, albeit with the gentlest of nudges. We laughed nervously as our driver informed us that this was ‘comme d’habitude’. If Marrakech’s demographic is skewed on the young side, now you know why.
Our last night emboldened us to hit the Djemaa el Fna, if only so that we could say to one another, ‘shall we go to the Djemaa el Fna, darling?’ It is everything it is cracked up to be, which means equal measures delightful and discombobulating, where you’ll get fed for next to nothing, blinded by rows of bare bulbs, stumble across storytellers, hucksters, charlatans and jugglers. What made it most memorable, though, was the knowledge that Riad Azzar was no more than a whisper away.