Riad Fanrantchi – Marrackech Medina’s Masterpiece
May 5, 2020
Riley’s globetrotting Gina Baksa visits Riad Fanrantchi, Marrackech Medina’s Masterpiece, and gets royally pampered… Moroccan style
A favoured destination of celebrities and the cognoscenti since the sixties, Marrakech remains Morocco’s favourite tourist destination and is one of the top places to visit in Africa. The former imperial city’s 5-star hotels, luxury riads, oriental ambiance, hectic Medina, fabulous cuisine and its outlying Palmeraie attract thousands of visitors a year.
This is my first visit to Marrakech, and I’m staying at the luxurious award-winning Riad Farnatchi, a lovingly converted collection of private houses at the heart of the bustling medina. This gorgeous all-suite hotel with 10 differently styled units was transformed by English hotelier James Wix, who has a long background in hospitality after cutting his teeth at the Four Seasons, alongside his father who initially purchased the buildings.
My gorgeous ‘Suite 8’ is beautiful with views over the main pool from its generous balcony (the perfect spot for breakfast) as well as a private patio – replete with olive tree – leading out from the raised bedroom area. Carved plaster architraves, thick red-rich drapes, soft pillows, and a divine king size bed make the whole experience very sexy, and very private. So snug was this cocoon I never once awoke to the 5am muezzin call to prayer.
The bespoke traditional and modern furniture has been exclusively designed and made for Riad Farnatchi – one of the many perks of living in a country with easy access to master craftsmen. An aesthetically beautiful blend of traditional and Moroccan, with comfort the keynote. My bathroom is gorgeous with a deep sunken bath, and the suite has a separate shower room with Molton Brown amenities. I feel like a queen in this beautiful environment.
Exploring the Medina from Riad Fanrantchi
The public spaces at Riad Farnatchi are equally sophisticated and peaceful. A collection of covered sitting areas open to the internal courtyards, ideal for moments of quiet contemplation – or recovery after a morning at the souks – fortified with a refreshing mint tea.
I have to admit I find it hard to leave the peace of the Riad, but armed with a map and burning curiosity, I venture out to explore the Medina. Outside the Riad’s beautiful wooden doors it’s the third day of Ramadan: tempers are frayed by 4pm and I saw several low blood sugar-related scuffles. I certainly couldn’t go the whole day without food or water…
Head down to the massive Jemaa-el-Fnaa square in daytime and it’s fairly quiet with fruit stalls, the odd snake charmer, monkey handlers, and women attempting to give you henna tattoos. Make your way there after 6pm, and the square is transformed into quite possibly the world’s largest open-air restaurant. Stalls then sell all kinds of grilled meats and fish, and there are also Cheluh dancing boys, storytellers, and musicians with Berber, Arabic, and Gnaoua beats.
Luckily, I had a local resident to guide me to the best stalls, but if it’s your first visit to Marrakech, head for the busier stalls where the locals are eating. And do try the amazing spiced tea… it’s addictive. Many of the restaurants and cafés surrounding the square have elevated rooftop dining areas with great views of the action below.
Overwhelming the Senses in the Vibrant Souks
If you’re an animal lover, you’ll need to avert your eyes in Morocco. Animals are not treated well here and considered beasts of burden. Donkeys with heavy loads and matted manes are everywhere, as are so many sweet feral cats that I wanted to scoop up and take home with me. The Jarjeer donkey sanctuary in the Berber village of Oumnass, just 24km south of Marrakech, is well worth a visit. They take in older donkeys who would otherwise be slaughtered, and are always in need of funds.
The souks are completely overwhelming and fascinating. I got lost several times and paid local boys 20 Dirham to guide me back to Riad Farnatchi. Once I was so tired I hopped on the back of a moped… quite an adventure zipping along the narrow people-donkey-cart-laden alleyways without bumping into anyone. In retrospect, I should have filmed my adventure, but was holding on for dear life (and covering my eyes)!
My advice? Spend your first day slowly walking around, taking it all in, and try to orient yourself. Decide what you’d like to buy and the price you can afford before making any transaction. The art of haggling is of great cultural importance in Morocco, so don’t take it too seriously: just stay smiling and polite and you’ll have fun.
The souks are divided into specific areas: Souk el Haddadine for wrought iron work, from furniture to lamps to windows; Souk Cheratine sells leather, artwork and handicrafts; Souk Kchacha for dates, nuts and fruits; Rahba Quedima for Moroccan-style clothing, Souk Ableh for herbs and spices, and Souk Semmarine for shoes and footwear. And Criee Berbiere for carpets, scarves and textiles.
Dining Options at Riad Fanrantchi
The first evening I dine at the superb Le Trou au Mur (literally, ‘hole in the wall’) just a few steps across the alleyway from Riad Farnatchi. Managed and owned by the owners of Farnatchi, Le Trou au Mur offers an eclectic Moroccan and international menu that’s also available in your suite should you desire. Charmoula sardines filled with veggies was one of 10 starters on offer, followed by a sublime Dorade stuffed with vermicelli, lemons, and olives, with sides of sautéed potatoes with rosemary and garlic and roast vegetables. Both with crispy onions on top. Absolutely divine.
I chatted with other diners – a mix of American and English – who told me the lamb was impeccable. Try the Tangia – a local Marrakechi dish which is basically a delicious slow-cooked Moroccan hot pot served with steamed vegetables. Other Moroccan mains included stuffed poussin, traditional offal medley, tripe, and shredded fine pancakes with lentils, chicken and saffron (Tride). Plus international dishes of mac and cheese, Berber shepherd’s pie, and even fish and chips, alongside a lamb burger.
As you’d imagine, Marrakech does cater for vegetarians, but this is a country with a passion for the meatier side of life. I began my dinner at Le Trou Au Mur on its delightful roof terrace but withdrew to the snug dining room after it began to rain. The wine list is well priced with international as well as Moroccan varieties. I enjoyed a superb S de Siroua – a refined Syrah with gorgeous red berry and plum flavours from the Rommani region. Also recommended are wines from the Ithaque, Lumier, Medfalion, and La Petit Ferme vineyards. Perrier and Drappier champagne is on the list, with white wines and Vins Gris from the same regions. The Trou au Mur also offer an extensive Martini menu.
My dessert of almond pastilla and chilli chocolate ice cream was excellent. Friends at the next table dived into their mouth-watering doughnuts with three fillings while Moroccan desserts of Mahensha (coiled phyllo pastry), Berkoukesh, and fresh fruit pastilla, alongside home-made ice-cream.
Other restaurant recommendations in the neighbourhood include Le Foundouk, just around the corner from Riad Farnatchi, which serves mainly Moroccan cuisine with good service and a cool ambiance. And, of course, no trip to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to Mamounia or the Mandarin Oriental.
Things to Do in Marrackech Medina
There is so much to see in Marrakech that 48 hours is not nearly enough. The newly opened Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is dazzling. Set in a beautiful villa next to the 2.5-acre botanical garden Jardin Majorelle, this is a must for fashionistas as well as anyone with an eye for beauty. A tip: buy your ticket for both places at the Yves Saint Laurent museum and avoid the lengthy queues for the Jardin. I also visited the Photography Museum and the Marrakech Museum, both just a few minutes’ walk from Riad Farnatchi.
If you have a strong stomach, head north to Bab Debbagh and visit the pungent tanneries, best observed from balconies above the leather goods shops. I catch the Berber tanners on their last day before they head back to the Atlas mountains for two weeks during Ramadan. Thankfully, they hand me a sprig of fresh mint that I waft casually in front of my nose (the smell of the tanneries can be quite overpowering) and I am guided to a viewing of leather goods (you can leave without purchasing).
Among other sights I squeezed into my 48-hour visit was the Koutoubia Mosque and Bahia Palace. Jumping on a red double decker City Tour Marrakech bus saved time and was an informative and relaxing way to see Marrakech. The bus has two routes: an inner city drive, and another that does a loop out to the Palmeraie. It has around 18 stops where you can hop on and off and is very good value.
So Near, So Spa
On my final day I am in need of rejuvenation at the Farnatchi Spa. The Hammam treatments look amazing, but as I had recently been scrubbed in Fez, I choose a deep-tissue massage with Neroli to stretch out my Ryanair-scrunched and Medina-stressed body. Such a haven of cool peace. Treatments at the Farnatchi Spa include its signature Vital Wellbeing Ritual. This detoxifying session is purifying, energy boosting, and apparently a positive mood enhancer that comprises a detox scrub, prana vitality full body massage, and a bliss face therapy: just what you’ll need after a morning ramble in the souks.
Also on offer are facials, scalp and head revivers, manis and pedis. You can also opt for a full body Hammam cleanse using black soap, kessa, and organ oil, rhassoul clay followed by a divine rose milk pouring and body cream application.
I’d arrived at Riad Farnatchi very stressed after a hectic work week. By the time I left just 48 hours later I felt rejuvenated, revived, and already planning my return trip to Marrakech. Riad Farnatchi is a sophisticated and luxurious oasis of calm with superb service, beautiful suites, and attentive staff. Highly recommended.
Contributor Gina Baksa is a freelance lifestyle and features journalist with a focus on luxury brands and experiences. You can follow Gina’s travel adventures on @Travelscriber (Twitter), @ginabaksa (Instagram), www.ginabaksa.com, and www.ginabaksa.journoportfolio.com.