1 September 2008 by Pete Mathers
Forget the Djemma el-Fna and ubiquitous mint tea, the new Angsana Riads Collection is reason enough to make the short trip to Marrakech.
From behind its pink ochre walls, Marrakech has cast a spell on many a seasoned traveller. No more so than on Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of Asia’s prestigious Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, now also the proud owner of six beautifully restored Moroccan riads.
No doubt he was seduced by the countless emporia on offer in the souks. A spider’s web of alleyways hides row upon row of closet-size stalls. The sky is crowded out by overhanging carpets and ornamental iron lanterns. Rows of colourful babouche slippers lie side by side with exotic remedies like bottled leeches and dried chameleons.
Perhaps Ping spilled out into the Djemma el-Fna, a medieval square, bounded by the souks and overlooked by the Atlas Mountains. Snake-charmers and souvenir sellers may well be there for tourists, but the dentists, barbers, storytellers, acrobats, dancers and scribes all draw local crowds. Dusk is the bewitching hour, when lanterns light the square and the cast of soothsayers reaches its climax. But above all, it was the riad experience that for Ping stole the show.
These traditional homes are centred around a courtyard, with a central pool and an open roof terrace. Typically hidden behind thick wooden doors, their decorative interiors were seldom seen by visitors. They were cool inner sanctums, removed from the chaos of the city. Over the years many have been converted into chic boutique lodgings, attracting a discerning clientele of winter-sun seekers. Ping’s riads, trading beneath the banner of Angsana Hotels & Resorts, are among the best of a new breed.
Five are clustered in the medina itself, the heart of the old city, near the famous Bahia Palace, while the sixth is in the Kasbah, just a ten-minute walk away. (There’ll be more to follow in the popular port town of Essaouira.) Each is a former private residence, lovingly restored with the contemporary Angsana touch. You’ll be hard pushed to pick a favourite. All are romantic and delightful in their own way, so it comes as a relief to learn guests can share the facilities of the other five riads. In other words, if you’re staying in one, you can have dinner in another and a spa treatment in a third.
Angsana’s Asian roots shine through in the menus, which feature Thai as well as Moroccan dishes. There are few places in the world where food is more carefully or artistically prepared than in Morocco. The great chef Paul Bocuse once claimed, “There are only three cuisines in the world: French, Chinese and Moroccan.” We wouldn’t necessarily put them in that order.
Begin the day with a traditional Moroccan breakfast, taken in the courtyard or on the rooftop terrace, of fruit and tea, pancakes, breads, croissants and other pastries. Unusually for Moroccan riads, Angsana offers all-day dining and room service, available from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The menu features a superb selection of light Moroccan dishes and Asian food, all made from fresh ingredients purchased locally. As dusk settles and the muezzin dies away, enjoy a three-course evening meal. Orders are taken after breakfast, and the day is given over to creating a memorable meal – be it a flavoursoaked lamb tajine or a sugar-sprinkled pigeon pastilla.
Asian influences extend to the Angsana Spa too. Each riad has a treatment room and a hammam where Thai staff deliver exquisite massages. In fact, service everywhere is hard to fault. Riad hosts cater to all needs and there’s a choice of daily activities, from cooking classes and city tours to trekking in the Atlas Mountains.
Over the course of its near-thousand-yearold history, Marrakech has never ceased to excite and amaze. Angsana’s riads are a brand-new pleasure in an age-old style.
ANGSANA RIAD SI SAID
This all-suite 19th century riad stands out for its opulent décor, traditional bathhouse and large pool. Decorated in gold and cream, with intricate mosaic tiles, it’s where Grand Vizier Ba Ahmed used to keep his concubines.
ANGSANA RIAD BAB FIRDAUS
Hand-woven carpets and custom-made furniture fill this beautifully restored sevenroom riad, though it’s better known for its spa facilities: a sun deck, swimming pool, and a hammam steam bath complete with massage room and large jacuzzi.
ANGSANA RIAD AIDA
This six-room riad was once home to the Grand Vizier Ba Ahmed, designer of the neighbouring Bahia Palace, and it shows in the decorative detail. Vivid and brilliant colours evoke a sense of passion and painted wooden ceilings display a master at his peak.
ANGSANA RIAD LYDINES
Located near the Kasbah and Royal Palace, Riad Lydines has a sleek and modern feel. There is a library, a lounge and a dining room, a courtyard pool and a rooftop terrace heaving with cushions and comfy day beds. The suite has its own terrace and hot tub.
ANGSANA RIAD BLANC
Bask in the sunshine on Riad Blanc’s tented rooftop terrace as you browse the all-day dining menu. Four superior rooms, two deluxe rooms and two suites are available here, as are jet pools, a heated swimming pool and two living rooms with chimneys.
ANGSANA RIAD TIWALINE
The atmospheric Riad Tiwaline is tucked snugly in a 14th century alley. It boasts warm cedar woodwork replete with intricate Berber motifs. Retire to the library and relax with a good book, or for something more hands-on, head to the hammam.
Tailormade travel: For more information or to book an Angsana riad, call an Africa specialist on 020 7838 5968 or email [email protected].