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Marrakech's new Euro chic

With a stay at a small, historic guesthouse, the secret heart of the old city opens up.

November 20, 2005|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Marrakech, Morocco — THERE won't be a sign, and every doorway will look the same. The street won't appear on a map. The taxi driver won't know how to get there.

But somewhere near the guesthouse in the heart of the Marrakech medina where you booked a room, a gaggle of children will be sitting on a stoop, watching you in your confusion. If you ask them for directions, they will jump up and swarm, demanding money. Promise nothing, but give them something, because they will know the way.

That's how I found the Riad al Moussika, where I stayed for three days last month while visiting a city that has recently remade itself. The improved Marrakech offers a new variety of accommodation options, including the riads, or small hotels in handsome, historic medina townhouses.

The Riad al Moussika, in a mid-19th century dwelling, is on the south side of the city's hot, crowded, boisterous medina, where simply going out for a walk exposes a traveler to sensory overload.

Before it became a guesthouse, the riad was owned by Si Hadj Thami el Glaoui, the urbane but cruel pasha of Marrakech, a torture aficionado and a friend of Winston Churchill.

Fortunately, I was admitted not by El Glaoui but by Giovanni Robazza, the current owner and a Marrakech habitue who sometimes wears a long, white djellaba made of fine cotton. Robazza is an Italian, who, like many other Europeans, bought riads in the medina and turned them into guesthouses.

Their often blank entryways belie the paradise inside. The Riad al Moussika, built around a series of courtyards, opens onto a shady courtyard with a long, rectangular splash pool lined by many-colored, hand-cut tiles, known as zellij. The music of caged songbirds fills the air. On their way toward the sky, two tall cypress trees, half-covered in bougainvillea, pass chambers around the courtyard on the second floor and the roof terrace.

At the far side of the pool is a salon with deep sofas and chairs, silken pillows, tassels, tasteful, abstract paintings and a grand piano. The only things missing are Bombay gin and Noel Coward. The first courtyard yields to a second that has wrought-iron tables and chairs, orange trees and a fountain in which rose petals were scattered.

Another salon reached through an elaborately stuccoed archway, a dining room and the hammam, a Turkish-style bath -- de rigueur at a riad -- border the oasis on the ground level.

Around it on the second floor is a gallery yielding to the library and guest rooms. Massive, richly patterned carpets hang over the balustrades, and all year long the Moroccan sun floods in.

'Connect with the sun'

THE term riad is loosely applied to hundreds of traditional dwellings turned inward toward their courtyards in Marrakech, Fes, Rabat and Meknes, the four imperial cities of Morocco.

Abdelatif Ben Abdellah, who came to Marrakech as a student, fell in love with the architecture in the medina and has restored about 40 riads in the last 15 years, told me that a courtyard in a true riad must have a fountain and trees.

Beyond that, he said, the principal, elevating characteristic of such dwellings is their openness to heaven, their interior squares of blue sky.

"Little windows on side walls are not enough. People need to connect with the sun on the tops of their heads," he told me over espresso at Dar Cherifa, a coffeehouse he restored in one of the oldest medina townhouses.

Dar Cherifa, which dates from the 15th century, is near the Mouassine mosque, north of the Place Jamaa el-Fna. It has a cool, pink courtyard with a floor of smooth, sensual tadellakt tile, made of lime; high, gracefully proportioned archways; a carved and painted cedar ceiling; and stuccoing so intricately patterned that the craftsmen who made it had to have been mathematicians, Abdelatif said.

The effect is elegant but austere compared with the Riad al Moussika's Islamic Baroque.

Abdelatif, who owns Marrakech Riads, a group of five restored guesthouses in the medina, is one of the few native Moroccans in the riad business. Most were purchased by Europeans in the 1990s for as little as $50,000 and renovated as chic Moroccan-modern vacation homes, sometimes with scant concern for historic and architectural integrity.

That concerns Abdelatif. "These buildings are part of our Moroccan patrimony," he said.

Whether they're Moorish or Midcentury Modern, they proved expensive to maintain. So, like the owners of historic homes converted to bed-and-breakfast inns in the U.S., the owners here have welcomed paying guests. Now the map of the medina is dotted with hundreds of riad restaurants, cafes and guesthouses.

No one knows how many because the tourist office hasn't yet figured out how to monitor and rank them, as it does with hotels.

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