Michael Edwards visits Riad Spice in the heart of Marrakech’s historic souk. Another memorable addition to the riads owned by English couple Lucie and Mike Wood.
Once the Ahansal family were traders guiding camels through the mirages and sandstorms of the Sahara. Then, from the early 1600s, for 17 generations, they settled in a three-storey house in Marrakech. Soon, their street was named after a respected and affluent family who had become community leaders: the Derb Said Ahansal. Just one of the many thousands of ochre derbs, narrow snaking alleyways, that have crisscrossed the Red City for more than a millennium.
Now, the Ahansal’s family home has been stylishly reborn and graciously rejuvenated to fulfil the Moroccan tradition of hospitality as Riad Spice. Part of the Ahansal family’s legacy also remains at nearby Baroudienne Souk, still named after the Baroud muskets that the family’s skilled horsemen carried as they galloped through gun-smoking performances of the Tabourida Fantasia.
Now Mike and Lucie Wood, an English couple who became fascinated by Marrakech on a holiday nearly two decades ago, have brought their previous experience of restoring and recreating four riads to their latest project. More and more, travellers fly to Marrakech in search of decadent 300 thread-count Egyptian cotton linens, fluffy white dressing gown self-indulgence and fragrant rose petals in deep baths. Increasingly, travellers are seeking larger and more luxurious rooms. Decor at Riad Spice is white, bright and light: Arabic brass light fittings, rugs from the souk and a plethora of cushions add homely touches.
Riad Spice is an appropriate name, the Ahansal’s camels would have carried cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, turmeric and many other precious cargoes along the Spice Routes through the baking Sahara. Honouring this heritage, room names include Anise, Cinnamon, Coriander, Ginger, Paprika and Saffron. The Nigella and Juniper rooms interconnect for families or friends staying together.
Taking its name from the spice merchants’ finest blend, Ras al Hanout, translating as “top of the shop”, is a suite on the second floor, afforded privacy in a separate part of the riad known as the douiria.
Then there is Paradise. A luxury Bedouin tented style bedroom, with penthouse overtones, on the top floor. Complete with a private terrace it was designed to create the feeling of floating over the Médina on a magic carpet: a dreamy, romantic destination for a honeymoon or anniversary. It is a place to watch a fire streaked sunset, to take in a view of silhouetted mosque towers and flapping white storks returning to their nests.
Over three years, scores of craftsmen in their white djebellas, have brought their painstaking artisan heritage, skills passed down from generation to generation, to a project that blends the historic with cutting-edge state of the art contemporary. For his fifth riad, Mike Wood returned to his most trusted craftsmen from the souks. Asking them to restore hefty cedar doors, deftly chisel plaster to create intricate designs and designing mosaics with zellij tiles from Fez. But, also to conceal two kilometres of cabling for superfast Wi-fi, smart televisions, air-conditioning, mini-fridges and subtle pools of light. Aware of social responsibility, the Woods installed a bank of photovoltaic solar panels and a source heat pump for warming the dipping pool.
Riad Spice’s hospitality begins when a driver collects guests from the airport, five miles away, and takes them into the Medina until the road narrows. Collecting luggage, a porter walks guests the last few hundred yards to Riad Spice and then a welcoming tagine for the hungry traveller.
Location, location, location. Riad Spice is next to the Ben Youssef Mosque and within a mere 10-minute stroll of the Jemma el Fna vast square. Yet, “You will get lost”, prophesies Riad Spice’s English-speaking concierge. Guests are given, free of charge, a local mobile phone loaded with the Marrakech-Riad app, providing a guide to a complex city that sprawls through and beyond the medieval medina.
Guests can book a Moroccan cookery course at nearby Riad Star, haggling for ingredients in the souks and cooking in the Riad Star’s astonishingly beautiful kitchen. For a visual taster, track down film clips of Gordon Ramsey, Gino D’Acampo and Fred Sirleix as three “unwise men” who took a Christmas road trip to the Riad Star. There is also a roof-top Hamman at Riad Star offering a range of treatments.
Over the years, the Woods have been drawn into Marrakech life. As well as creating five magical Riads – Cinnamon, Dar Habiba, Papillon, Spice and Star – Mike and Lucie have published a recipe book of their favourite Moroccan dishes and also established the Henna Cafe, a charitable initiative to help the people of a country that Mike and Lucie have come to love.
Tell Me More About Riad Spice, Marrakech
Riad Spice, 2, Derb Said Ahansal, Baroudienne Ben Yousef
Marrakech, Morocco 40001
T: +212 678 451893
Rooms, including breakfast, begin from £128