Secret Hotels of Marrakech
With their quiet courtyards and cozy, traditional rooms, the secret hotels of Marrakech offer an Eden-like respite from the vibrant labyrinth of the medina.
Marrakech is the kind of place where even taxi drivers get lost. At least they do inside the walls of the old city, or medina, a roughly two-square-mile district that dates back more than 800 years. With its tangles of handicrafts stalls and circuitous alleyways (which, as often as not, culminate in dead ends), the medina feels somehow suspended in time. Donkey carts crowd its narrow, dusty streets, and rugs hang like laundry set out to dry. Yet at the same moment, life in the medina can seem as if it's in fast-forward: Snake charmers and storytellers mill about the square; salesmen and hustlers call out "My friend!" and beckon passersby into their shops; commerce and community blur together. Such a frenzy of activity can overwhelm—and in those moments, Marrakech's old city offers the ultimate antidote to the chaos. Behind its windowless, terra-cotta-colored walls lies a wealth of boutique hotels built inside converted Moroccan homes, known as riads. These centuries-old former residences, with their tranquil central courtyards, serve as private sanctuaries, open to the sky but protected from the bustle outside. After a day wandering among the stalls of metalworkers, leather makers, carpet hawkers, cloth dyers, and herb purveyors, a riad is a quiet kaleidoscope of sun, shade, tile work, tapestries, and tinkling fountains. Most of them are run by Europeans, who tend to tell a familiar tale: came for the sun, the food, the culture-and decided to stay. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Many riads sit within the knotted heart of the medina, inaccessible to even the most intrepid taxi driver, but Riad Tizwa, just off the main road to Dar El Bacha palace, is a relative cinch to access—a car deposits you steps from its front door. Such convenience is as important for London-based owners Daniel Bee, a celebrity publicist, and his brother Richard Bee, a BBC documentarian, as it is for their mostly British clientele of fashion models and journalists.
The Bees never intended to become hoteliers. In fact, they bought their three-story riad in 2005 as a family retreat, leaving many of the structure's original features intact, such as traditional tadelakt (polished-plaster) walls and cement floor tiles with geometric patterns. Their only major upgrade was to renovate the house's wood-fired hammam—a traditional Moroccan bathing area equipped with warm, hot, and cold stations. Then a friend borrowed the house for her honeymoon, and she convinced them to open it to the public. The Bees set to serious work. They outfitted the six rooms with romantic touches like canopied beds and colored-glass lanterns, and spruced up the bathrooms with modern European fixtures and handmade rose soap from the Ourika Valley, 45 minutes to the southeast. The brothers also took certain intangibles into account: "Dan and I made a list of all the things we hated about staying in a hotel," says Richard. Right at the top? "When you have to get up in the morning so you don't miss breakfast." So, he says, "we invented the 'Anytime, Anywhere' breakfast. Our record is now 4 p.m." Whatever the hour, Tizwa's breakfasts are memorable, with chocolate croissants, homemade yogurt, fresh bread, muesli, locally made jams, coffee, and mint tea. Take yours on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks a vast mosaic of pink and brown rooftops, interspersed with minarets. 26 Derb Gueraba, Dar El Bacha, holidaymarrakech.com, from $90, breakfast included
A five-minute walk from the main square of Djemaa El Fna and surrounded by souks, the intimate, four-room Dar Attajmil is pretty much an immersion course in Moroccan life. Energetic Italian expat Lucrezia Mutti runs her riad like a cross between a travel agency and a community center: She directs guests to her organic farm in Essaouira, two hours away on the coast; sets them up with guided cultural tours of the Ourika Valley; and arranges bird watching and beach outings upon request. Meanwhile, the riad's long-standing on-site cooking class (from $65 per person), which includes a guided tour of the outdoor market at Bab Doukkala, about 15 minutes away, sheds light on the action within the medina's walls. The half-day course begins with a shopping trip to buy all the supplies needed for the day's meal—often a traditional lamb tagine and the four typical side dishes (eggplant, zucchini, lentils, and peppers), although guests can weigh in on the menu options the evening before. Back at Attajmil's kitchen, Loubna Serhani, a university literature student, translates the cook's instructions as participants peel, core, dice, julienne, pare, and cook the ingredients. This kind of personal engagement is a key principle for Mutti. "I wanted to make a place where people can rest and recenter from a busy Western life," she says. "Entering a different, rich culture helps us look at our own—and at our own problems—from a little distance." There's no shortage of choice places on-site to unwind and reflect, like the shaded courtyard, where a tiled fountain mutes the periodic buzz of mopeds outside. Or one of the four guest rooms, all painted in warm hues, layered with textiles and tapestries, and decorated with hammered-copper sinks and old-fashioned mosaics called zellij. Their ceramic tiles, hand-chiseled and painted with enamel, were assembled with as much painstaking care as everything else in Dar Attajmil. 23 Rue Laksour, Quartie Laksour, darattajmil.com, from $120, breakfast included