Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
additional photos courtesy of Riad El Amine Fés and Heure Bleue Palais

Morocco Riads 1

Riads in Morocco

Portugal has its Posadas, Spain its Paradors. Greece has its Traditional Island  Houses, Turkey has Cave Hotels in Cappadocia, and Morocco has its Riads  located in the Medina or Old Walled Town. Each of these countries has  found a way to introduce visitors to their authentic cultures by  converting modest traditional homes, or castles, or opulent residences,  into accommodations for the travelers who seek to submerge themselves to the ancient ways. It’s lovely to be pampered at a five-star luxury  property or share a personal experience with locals at a Bed &  Breakfast, but a visit to Morocco is not complete without a stay at a  Riad.

On my recent trip we stayed at two very different luxury Riads; one an 18th century converted traditional private home in Fès, Riad El Amine Fès and the other, a Relais & Châteaux restored 18th century property, Heure Bleue Palais, in Essaouira.

Morocco Riad El Amine Fès Courtyard

Riad El Amine Fès

Our driver drove us to a narrow unlit area of the Medina in Fès and  deposited us into the hands of a fashionably dressed gentlemen who  introduced himself as Yassir M’hammed Jawhar, Président, Director  Général, Chairman & CEO of the 18th century “maison traditionnelle” Al Amine. Yassir shepherded us down the dark ally to a non-descript doorway, not exactly what I had hoped for but once he opened the door and invited us to enter, my breath caught at the scene before me.

We entered  into the central courtyard supported by columns of vast height and  covered by brilliantly colored tiles; the floor also was tiled in an  intricate pattern and in the center stood a fountain also covered in  decorative tiles. All traditional Moroccan homes have an interior  fountain representing the waters of life; many are seated inside a  five-point star for the five pillars of Islam. There was a lovely scent  permeating the air that made the room seem all the more exotic - more  about this fragrant aroma later.

Morocco Riad El Amine Fès Pool

Massive doors leading from the central courtyard were intricately carved with  decorative brass handles that led into another large area featuring an  interior swimming pool. Smaller rooms surrounding the courtyard and the  pool, were beautifully decorated and served as sitting areas or dinning  rooms. One evening we had dinner in one room and the next morning we had breakfast in another of the colorfully decorated side rooms. Dinner was traditional with a series of small plates for starters with home made  bread for sopping up the delicious sauces: beet, eggplant, potatoes,  beans, cauliflower, pumpkin, etc. The entrée consisted of fish and  chicken, also dancing in flavorful sauces that encouraged dunking.  Dessert was a large bowl of fruit, rather than a sugary concoction, and  the ubiquitous mint tea that delights tourists by being poured from a  spouted teapot from on high.

Morocco Riad El Amine Fès Dinner Table

Yassir and his staff were so welcoming and captured perfectly the raison  d’etre of the spirit of the Riad concept by making their guests feel  like members of the family. When we left or returned to El Amine we were always greeted and warmly welcomed.

In a traditional house one part is reserved for the owners with stairs  leading off the central courtyard to their private quarters and the  other part of the house is for visitors. In the day before hotels,  complete strangers could knock on any door and ask for accommodation. It was the custom to invite the travelers in and for three days attend to  their needs. No one was refused but after the three days they were no  longer welcome and had to move on.

Morocco Riad El Amine Fès Bedroom

Each of the 11 rooms and suites are individually decorated with no two alike and all of the rooms on the upper floors have colored windows and  wooden screens that could be closed for privacy or opened to look into  the patio below. My room was on the top floor, a steep climb up  beautifully tiled steps but worth it. The room was a fantasy of  intricate carvings, antique furniture, colorful fabrics and a massive  vaulted ceiling that defies description. The bathroom had all modern  features including a double sized tub but somehow they managed to  salvage the original wall and floor tiles.

Now, to the fragrant scent that wafts through many public buildings and is  called Rose Water, which is a misnomer, because this light, lovely,  fragrance is made from the blossoms of the sour orange tree. In the  spring the blossoms are collected and distilled in a three pot system;  one holds the blossoms; one holds steaming water to extract the essence  and the third collects the fragrant water. Almost every home makes the  Rose Water in quantities that last all year long.

Morocco Heure Bleue Palais Bar & Restaurant

Heure Bleue Palais

Built at the end of the 18th century as a sumptuous residence for the Mayor of Essaouira - whose  portrait currently graces the reception area - the building is located  just inside one of the main gates leading into the Medina. At one time  the property served as an orphanage but by 1960 it was abandoned. It was eventually acquired by the prominent Azoulay family who restored the  existing building to its former grandeur and added two new floors plus a pool and roof garden and bar, while maintaining the integrity of the  original design. Due to the extended height of the building there is a  lovely view from the roof overlooking the Medina and the ocean in the  distance. After three years of renovation Heure Bleue Palais opened as a hotel in 2004 as a member of the prestigious Relais & Châ¢teaux  group with 33 rooms and suites.

Morocco Heure Bleue Bedroom

The bedrooms are spanking clean with well appointed but minimal decoration  and, happily for a grateful traveler, extremely comfortable beds. The  bathrooms were beautifully laid out with every need covered. As  befitting a five-star property there was the expected bathrobe and  slippers, large fluffy towels and a fragrant amenity package.

Morocco Heure Bleue Palais Central Courtyard

As is traditional in Moroccan architecture, there is a colorful tiled  central patio with a fountain in the center surrounded by massive tiled  columns and live foliage. Rooms or balconies on the upper floors  overlook the inner courtyard which often functions as an interior garden open to the sky for light and air as there were no outward looking  windows in the home mainly to protect the privacy of the women of the  family. In Heure Bleue Palais there is also the family’s original  Hammam, a new billiard and game room, and a stunning English Lounge Bar room and Oriental Restaurant off the patio featuring a massive fireplace and decorated ceiling.

Morocco Heure Bleue Palais Hammam

The overall décor is an appealing combination of Moorish, African,  Portuguese, English and Oriental. Formally known as Mogador, Essaouira  was a major trading port at the crossroads of east and west with a  tradition of hospitality welcoming all cultures... with each leaving its  mark.

Breakfast is served in the courtyard and features both Moroccan and Western  specialties. For a real morning treat try the Moroccan pancakes and  crepes made to order right in front of you and top with homemade jam or  Moroccan honey, and unless you must have coffee, stick with the freshly  made delicious ubiquitous mint tea. We were welcomed to this beautiful  property by the charming Eric Molle, newly named Directeur Général after a prestigious career in hospitality around the world. Directeur Molle  brings his enthusiasm to continuing the tradition of Moroccan  hospitality to this five-star luxury property.

For further information contact Moroccan National Tourist Office




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