Ever since I was a teenager, I've dreamed of visiting Marrakech. Tales of its old winding streets, ancient buildings and bustling souks with their glittering wares and colourful spices captivated me, and as I grew older and developed a deep love for fashion, realising that many designers had visited the pink city for inspiration or even to build a holiday home there, I was even more intrigued. The hotel was named "The Ultimate Hideaway" by the US edition of Harper's Bazaar in January 2012, as well as the "Best Luxury Riad" by Conde Nast Traveller (one of my favourite magazines of all time!) in 2011, so it had a pretty good pedigree. To say we were excited was an understatement.
After the hustle and bustle of the Medina - Marrakech's old town - having a tranquil place to relax is essential, and there’s no place better to rest your weary head than Riad Farnatchi. This small, family-run luxury riad (a traditional-style Moroccan home with a courtyard in its centre) in the heart of the Medina simply oozes charm. Despite being just steps away from the bustling souks, Riad Farnatchi is tucked away into a quiet alleyway, and behind its unassuming wooden doors you’ll find an elegant swimming pool (complete with waterfall feature), a cozy restaurant, two beautiful courtyards, and a rooftop with a spectacular view. We arrived late on a Wednesday night, after a long flight from Dubai via Casablanca. A driver from the Riad had come to pick us up from the airport, warm and welcoming with a huge smile and friendly chitchat, explaining a bit about Marrakech on our way to the Medina. We stopped on a dusty, run-down street with live chickens flapping around on one end, a stall selling hot food on the other, and a donkey kicking its heels about nearby. "There are some streets in the Medina where cars aren't allowed so from here on out, we have to walk."
As we walked deeper into the Medina, it got quieter and quieter, and as we turned a corner we came to an unassuming wooden door on a quiet side-street (don't worry, it was perfectly safe to walk down at night, at least it was with our guide by our side). The door opened, and we were welcomed with a big smile by the lovely night manager - who went on to make our stay as comfortable as can be, never making us feel like anything was a hassle. All of the staff were fantastic, actually - Morad, the day manager, and all of the waitstaff, porters, the chefs, and so on. We also had the opportunity to meet James Wix, the owner's son, who was absolutely lovely - one of those people that makes you feel instantly at ease and as if you've known him for years. James, a jovial and interesting chap, explained that his father had come to Morocco years ago on vacation and fell in love with Marrakech, and after returning home and gushing about it to his wife, they decided to buy a home there. He swore he'd retire, but that didn't happen of course - so they began to renovate the place, maintaining as much as possible from the original structure (there's even one wall where you can see the original design, and the new walls have been created to replicate that). While they originally used the house as a vacation home there, one neighbour came forward and offered to sell them his house so they could knock the adjoining wall down and expand it. Shortly afterwards, six more neighbours came by and offered the same thing - and before they knew it, the property had grown into the beautiful grounds it is today, and they decided to turn it into a B&B.
You can see the love that has been poured into this place everywhere - from the personal recommendations found in the leather-bound guest book in each suite, to the choice of food and the decor. I loved the thoughtful touches everywhere - the stack of books next to the fireplace, the jars of snacks (in fashionable Weck jars, no less) atop the cupboards, the variety of shower gels that simply beg for you to stay for longer so you can try them all, the handmade Moroccan hand soaps in the bathroom, and the modern Bose sound systems. The bathroom products are Molton Brown, and while I adore the shower gels, I've never been a fan of Molton Brown hair products. The shampoos really dry my hair out, the conditioners do nothing, and my hair is usually left feeling like straw - so I'll be bringing my own shampoo and conditioner next time! The handmade soaps in the bathroom are amazing though - they smell fantastic and are really gentle on the skin, a really nice local touch - and wow, what a bathroom! The grand bath and high ceilings made me feel like I was bathing in Lara Croft's bathroom. Once you're all clean and snuggled up by the fireplace, you can slip into one of the djellabas - a local-style gown - given to each guest as a gift. Djellabas come in all sorts: thick ones for winter, thin ones for summer, fancy embellished styles and simple dressing gown styles, and these are the latter. They were left on the bed along with some traditional fez hats (one for each guest), and we had a real giggle trying them all on. I think it's safe to say that fez's are not a good look on me, though the djellabas, we loved, particularly since they made us two Star Wars fans feel like we were some of the Sand People while wearing them (though we probably came out looking more like the Dink Dinks in Spaceballs, if I'm being honest).
My companion spent quite a lot of time out smoking on our private balcony, and I loved being out there too for the view alone - we looked down upon the gorgeous courtyard. I was surprised (and delighted) to discover that the gorgeous waterfall in the centre was actually a pool, though unfortunately it was so cold at the time of year we went that we couldn't swim in it. I mentally filed it away for my future dream house immediately, though. There are two main courtyards in the Riad - the one with the pool, and the other, quieter one that encompasses a relaxation area, a reading room, a room where you can watch movies (the hotel provides a selection of DVDs) on a big projector (a mini-cinema, if you will), the hammam, and the beauty treatment and massage room. A visit to its spa is a must – resident masseur Ahmad is one of the best in town, and his magic hands can work away months of tension within minutes. I suggest combining a treatment with a scrub and steam in the in-house hammam for a truly blissful afternoon, but make sure you book in advance so you know Ahmad is available. He tends to be there in the afternoons, which is perfect. The hammam also needs advance reservation so they have ample time to warm it up and prepare it for use.
Come dinnertime, although there are several excellent restaurants nearby (like the fantastic Le Foundouk just around the corner), enjoying dinner in the hotel’s intricately decorated dining room is an experience you won’t soon forget. Their tagines are cooked to perfection – without a doubt the best tagines I’ve ever eaten, anywhere – and are made with fresh produce from the market, while a vast wine selection (that includes fantastic local wines) will easily complement each dish. I adored the wine that we had - an inexpensive, simple Moroccan wine called Medaillon - and we sucked down a half-bottle very easily. As for the food... wow. Just wow. I'd go back for the food alone. Both my companion's fish tagine and my beef and spiced eggplant tagine were so tender they literally fell apart at the touch of a fork and just melted in the mouth, bursting with flavour. As if the tagines weren't good enough, our starters were also fab. My pigeon pastilla was also the best I've ever had, anywhere, with crumbly hot pastry that flaked into my mouth with ease and a rich, satisfying filling, while my companion's Moroccan salad selection was as exciting as a salad can get, and we had fun sampling all the different varieties, scooping them up with pieces of warm homemade bread. Dessert let us end on a high - homemade ice cream with fresh oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, a very Moroccan sweet treat apparently.
We retreated to our room happily, with full bellies, looking forward to the day ahead. And the next morning, the delights weren't over - breakfast could be taken in the restaurant, on our balcony or on the beautiful rooftop terrace (we opted for the latter two on separate days), and munching on fresh fruit, tasty breads (put a plate of "msemen" bread in front of me and it won't stand a chance) and homemade jams in the golden morning sunshine was the perfect way to start our day before we headed out to answer the call of the souks of Marrakech just steps away...
Photographs by Yi-Hwa Hanna