We arrived in Marrakech by road early in the afternoon, after spending five days and nights up in the Atlas Mountains. We were in Marrakech for five nights, out of which the last two were at Riad El Fenn. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan townhouse built around a central courtyard.
Located in the ancient labyrinthine Medina (fortified old town), El Fenn is a ten minute walk from the iconic UNESCO world heritage square of Djemaa El Fna and the legendary Koutoubia Mosque.
Our driver dropped us off in the Medina, from where we walked while our luggage was carried by a porter in a hand pulled cart. Finding our way through the maze of narrow lanes and alleys, we eventually arrived in front of a nondescript, large black door under an arched entrance. There was an innocuous brass signboard with El Fenn engraved on it.
Traditional Moroccan architecture is essentially ‘inward looking’. Hence old, aristocratic townhouses of Marrakech (the Riads) shun ostentatious facades and exterior decorations in favor of elaborately embellishing their enclosed private interiors with complex and vibrant mosaics, intricate stucco (‘arabesque’) and delicately carved woodwork. Hence the richness of what lies within these buildings contrasts dramatically with the deceptive plainness of its external appearance, and the lack of a frontage.
As a standard pattern, rooms in a Riad are organized around a quadrangular central courtyard. This courtyard, which opens up to the sky, generally has a small fountain, shaded trees (often citrus) and ornamental plants. Windows, interconnecting galleries and balconies look inward into the courtyard. This provides maximum privacy to the residents from the world outside.
The modest entrance of El Fenn belied the charm and grandeur that lay within its antiquated walls. A gentle knock and a uniformed employee opened the heavy black door for us. From there we moved along a dark and dimly lit crimson passage, into a bright and serene open-sky courtyard. It was a dramatic transition from darkness to light – literal and metaphorical.
There was no front desk at El Fenn; just a small inconspicuous office next to the library. We had a quick and seamless check-in process over a glass of refreshing mint tea, as our luggage were carried off to our room on the third floor.
A charming member of staff showed us around the place. We found glass lanterns, dangling wicker lampshades, vases stuffed with fresh cut roses, and numerous nooks and secluded corners with couches and colorful cushions and bolsters all over the place. An old world of solid thick walls, checkered flooring, high arched ceilings, brightly painted hallways, hidden alcoves, colonnaded galleries, carved cedar wood arches and traditional stucco work contrasted beautifully with a fascinating collection of contemporary art works placed all over the property.
Here, a few words on the history of El Fenn would be in order.
In 2002, Vanessa Branson (a champion of cultural and ecological initiatives, founder of Marrakech Biennale, and incidentally, sister of British business magnate Richard Branson) and her business partner, Howell James, bumped into this old traditional townhouse in Marrakech – a building that was in a state of ruin, but had an inexplicable atmosphere and a magical charm to it. They bought up this century old dilapidated house and embarked on a two year restoration and renovation project that saw local craftsmen use traditional Moroccan building techniques to transform the building into the jewel it is today. The process included restoration of original carved cedar ceilings and doorways and renovation of the original tiling.
Subsequently, Branson and her associate bought two adjoining townhouses, renovated these and joined the three properties together through an interconnecting set of corridors/passages and courtyard gardens. The complex restoration work was done with the expertise of renowned Moroccan architect, Amine Kabbaj.
Serene courtyard gardens which open up to the skies are filled with orange and lemon trees, ornamental plants, flowering shrubs, palms, vines and tumbling creepers, hosting colonies of tiny birds that fill the air with their calls. In daytime, you have dappled sunlight filter in through the green canopy, casting shadows that create a hazy dreamlike feel. You can doze off in the hammock under the citrus trees in the courtyard, or read a book lying in one of the many comfortable couches or daybeds, or just do nothing and simply let the world go by.
Trays of delicious homemade cakes and cookies are served along with fresh mint tea every afternoon, at 4, in the main courtyard. Here you will find a family of four small resident tortoises. You can spend hours observing these delightful little creatures potter around the place, seemingly clueless and aimless.
In the evenings, the courtyards are beautifully lit up with dangling wicker lampshades, arrays of glass lanterns mounted on the floor and on walls, and suspended jars with tea lights swaying to the evening breeze. A bonfire by the main swimming pool in the second courtyard lends a surreal feel as sun sets and darkness descends.
If the sundrenched days are translucent and dreamlike, lantern-lit evenings are starry and magical.
Surrounding the courtyards are numerous colonnaded enclosures, galleries and balconies that provide an equally alluring option to relax, unwind and soak in the atmosphere. These galleries and balconies have high ceilings and beautifully tiled floors, replete with rich Moroccan rugs, bright and colorful couches, day-beds, arm chairs and stools. These wide galleries conjure a magnificent world of style, grandeur and serenity. It takes you back in the mist of time.