Dr Who would feel right at home in Marrakech. Not because of his little-known penchant for pigeon pie or because he was an expert haggler. No, the reason the timelord would settle in comfortably is because of the city’s riads. These traditional medina houses are delightfully confusing, their Tardis-like layouts proving particularly beguiling to the first-time visitor.
Take the unobtrusive wooden door of Riad Farnatchi, for example. After negotiating the rabbit warren of noisy, dusty alleys that lead you there, there is nothing to suggest that anything of note lies behind it, a small workshop perhaps, where men hammer decorative metal plates for sale in the souks, or maybe a bakery, now shut for the day, after the morning rush of local women carrying dough laden trays to be fired in the wood-fuelled ovens. The last thing you’d expect to find is a roomy, chic retreat with film star looks and a five star welcome.
Such is the wonder of the riad’s dimensions that Mrs Smith and I have to stifle a gasp on entering. This place is big. Impossibly so. It’s like some weird wormhole has opened in the space-time continuum to allow such an enormous area to exist behind one small wooden door. Originally created from five smaller riads as a holiday home for a well-heeled Brit, its incarnation as a high-end hotel has seen a flurry of bookings from the off.
One step inside the first of the two courtyards and it’s clear why so many people have fallen for Farnatchi’s considerable charms. Comfy cushioned seating areas surround an intricately tiled pool’ its quiet bubbling and cool embrace a welcome respite after the heat and noise of the outside streets. The second courtyard is equally tranquil, lit by Moroccan lanterns and decked out with quirky designer touches, such as an imposing dining table and chairs carved from solid rock. The white walls that surround this space are offset with wooden arches that are a masterpiece in painstaking whittling.
Morocco’s Islamic culture, explains the general manager, forbids the representation of living beings. This ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God. Islamic art and design instead focuses on lavishly decorative stone and wood carvings and tile patterns. This heavily geometric style informs much of the woodwork around Farnatchi with local artisans drafted in to replace, where necessary, original decoration with scrupulously harmonious reproductions. It’s testament to their skill that you literally cannot see the joins.
This attention to detail is everywhere. Our room, one of five suites, each with their own private lounge area, combined the best of traditional Moroccan handiwork with technological touches to make even the most avid Stuff reader happy. While Mrs Smith busied herself with checking out the various Molton Brown potions in the bathroom (three different types of shower gel, no less), I was admiring the digital movies-on-demand set-up. A tiny box sitting next to the room’s TV contained hundreds of good films and, best of all, it was a completely free service. Considering that even the classiest hotel chains expect their guests to cough up extra for this, it’s generous little touches like these which make Farnatchi feel more like a posh private home than a room for the night.
Guests also receive complimentary Moroccan robes (djelaba) and slippers (bobouches). We wasted no time in getting into our outfits and they remained the garments of choice when we were flitting around the hotel of an afternoon. Occasionally we’d spot another guest wearing the same, like we were all members of some bizarre cult – a benign cult, obviously; one with sybaritic leanings, whose worship extended to the drinking of mint tea while flicking through a magazine.
The beds are handmade, huge and covered in the softest Egyptian cotton sheets. Opulent deep red curtains keep out the bright morning light and cleverly set-up dimmer switches ensure that a smoochy couple can set up the perfect room for romance. The generously proportioned bathrooms continue the luxury theme – it’s all marble this and sunken that – while thick, fluffy white towels that you could lose a badger in complete the picture of ablution excess.
We dined that evening in the downstairs courtyard. With the flickering shadows of ornate lanterns as a backdrop, and only the occasional spine-tingling cry of the local mosque’s call to prayer as our soundtrack, it was clear that we were falling under Farnatchi’s spell. We were in good company, it seems. Hollywood hot-shots such as Scarlett Johannson, Russell Crowe and Angelina Jolie have all spent time within these 400 year-old walls and enjoyed the traditional cuisine served up by the riad’s skilled Berber cook. Preserves, pickles and pastries preceded a main course of the most melt-in-the-mouth tagines you could ever wish for. The meat version, in particular, was a masterpiece in slow cooking. Great, savoury chunks of well-hung beef had been softened and reduced until they fell off the bone. This proved to be, without a doubt, the best meal we ate during the whole trip.
The general manager was the perfect host, materialising when we had a question but never being too intrusive. When we had to change a flight, this gracious lady spent the best part of an hour on the phone to the airline sorting our booking so that we might enjoy more sunbathing time by the pool. It was also the GM who directed us towards the evening’s entertainment – drinks and dancing at the world-famous Pacha nightclub.
Further proof, if it were needed, of Marrakech’s status as a glamorous getaway is this newly opened danceteria on the outskirts of the city. The latest outpost of the famous Ibiza club is its most impressive to date, with a swimming pool, two fabulous restaurants and a well-designed dance floor featuring some of the world’s top DJs. For a taste of international hedonism at its best, this place is hard to beat. After giggling our way through a slightly dodgy covers band in the bar, we hit the dance floor where the sight of two slightly jerky 30-somethings fuelled on Mojitos caused not a ripple of surprise among the accepting and stylish Marrakechi crowd.
The return to our hotel-cum-Tardis was like time travel itself, leaving the modern world of house music and strobe lights to be led back to our hotel by a friendly local. Left, right, left, right, down ever smaller alleyways deep in the ancient medina until we came to that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it door. Marrakech’s appeal is that you could be in any century or any time in the last 500 years. Riad Farnatchi’s appeal is that the time you spend there you will treasure forever.