Riad de Tarabel, Mr & Mrs Smith, March 2016
In December 2016, Mr & Mrs Smith asked me to travel to Marrakech to anonymously review Riad Tarabel. 'Despatching Katie as an undercover hotel reviewer is never anything short of a delight,' says editor Richie MacKichan. 'She tells the tales of her stays with wit, warmth, a deft turn of phrase and an eye-catching eye for detail. If you don't happen to be on holiday yourself, I highly recommend living one vicariously through Katie's words.' All copy as supplied to the client.
I am lying in a Victorian roll-topped bath in front of an open fire. Mr Smith is here too – following what is clearly a very important football match on his phone – but there are no arguments over the stupidity of reading a phone in a bath, or even who gets the tap end, because he’s in his own bath. A room with twin baths and an open fire is my kind of room. But before you start imagining a cosy British retreat, I should clarify – we’re in Marrakech and we’ve been sunbathing all day. It turns out December is the perfect time to visit Morocco and Morocco is the perfect place for some winter sun that doesn’t leave you feeling unseasonably summery just before Christmas.
The last time we visited the city Winston Churchill once described as ‘the most lovely spot in the whole world,’ we were here for adventure. We got followed by a seven-foot tall hooded gentleman down a dark alley before realising he was actually escorting us to our restaurant, we got trapped between a donkey and a moped in a chaotic corner of the souk, and we ate unidentified things on skewers. This time we were here to relax – we had agreed, somewhat decadently, that we wouldn’t be leaving Riad Tarabel from the moment the (complimentary) driver dropped us off until the moment he picked us up – and not Place Jemaa El Fna, famed for its market traders, Chleuh dancing-boys and snake charmers; not the haggling opportunities of the souk; nor even the highly recommended Maison de la Photographie, were going to tempt us outside.
We were met from the car by a member of the riad’s staff, dressed in white knee-high socks, cropped white harem pants and a white smock, finished off with red Converse boots and a fez, who led us down a series of increasingly dark and narrow alleys we would have been hesitant to traverse alone. ‘Welcome to Tarabel.’ We stooped through a fortress-like door into a courtyard, where a babbling fountain and orange-laden trees set the scene for the weekend to come – and instantly confirmed our decision to stay put. (Especially as it transpired that the riad has its own shop selling tagines, leather slippers, and even Tarabel’s own signature scent – no haggling required!)
Inherently inward looking buildings, riads are often un-noteworthy from the outside, but calm and luxurious within, and this one is no exception. Built in an understated French colonial style around three courtyards, the high, thickset walls protect guests from the heat of the sun and the chaos of the medina outside. As well as two baths and an open fire, our junior suite has a traditional tiled floor, a huge double bed with enormous pillows and marble-topped bamboo tables on either side, a pair of antique French armchairs and a shower that can only be described as Moroccan hammam meets Victorian luxury. The refined palette of sandy-beige and charcoal grey continues throughout the riad and provides the perfect backdrop for contemporary wicker furniture, antique maps of Africa and a collection of (stuffed) exotic birds. It is luxurious enough to make you feel spoilt, without making you worry about spilling your sun cream. All conceived by the owner, it has the feel of a home away from home, albeit much nicer than our actual home – and with staff.
With promised temperatures in the 20s, we headed straight to the roof terrace. We had been given a mobile phone on arrival with just two numbers in the contacts – the kitchen’s and the manager’s, ‘so that if you need something, you can just call.’ Having got over our initial reticence to be quite so demanding (‘You call,’ ‘No, you do it,’ ‘I’m too shy,’ ‘You’re the one who’s hungry’) we phoned down for lunch, and soon a table was set with a white tablecloth, silver cutlery and green and gold French tableware. We tucked into a vegetable pastilla that sent Mr Smith into a near-alarming state of rapture, followed by sliced orange and cinnamon.
Sated and by now slightly sweaty, we made for the pool. After a bold start, Mr Smith decided that standing knee-deep was actually just as refreshing as a swim, and I busied myself with making watery footprints around the edges. The near-freezing water temperature is no doubt utterly refreshing in the scorching heat of summer, but right now, we’re in danger of losing toes to the chill.
We whiled away the rest of the afternoon reading on an ornately carved four-poster daybed on the roof. Despite the fact that just beyond the aloe-vera-topped walls surrounding us khobz sellers were plying their trade – hawking the traditional flatbread in paper bags to passers by; burka-covered ladies, revealing just a hint of their colourful outfits beneath, were bartering over spices; and mopeds carrying entire families were haring around tiny streets; the only sounds we could hear were the circling birds overhead and the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer that is sung out from nearby mosques five times a day; our only view – plane tracks in the blue sky above.
Suddenly starving, we changed for dinner and took our seats next to another roaring fire. A recent convert to vegetarianism, I eyed Mr Smith’s chicken and green olive tagine jealously, while he tucked into both that and my veggie alternative. ‘You can dip some bread into my sauce,’ he offered generously, without a hint of a smirk. Chocolate soufflé finished us off and only lashings of mint tea could save our stuffed stomachs in time for bed.
There is nothing nicer than waking to the sound of a distant cockerel, knowing that you have nothing to do. Breakfast is served from 8am until ‘whenever you’d like it,’ so we ambled up to the roof at about nine. Fruit, yoghurt and pastries were followed by entirely unnecessary pancakes and cake, and once we’d sacrificed the honey to a nearby table to tempt the bees away, we polished off the lot. Over breakfast, we organised a hectic schedule of lunch, massages and dinner. An on-site hammam is on its way, but for now it was with relief and disappointment in equal measure that we decided to forego being scrubbed to within an inch of our lives and opted instead for an in-room massage. We could barely leave our room without someone surreptitiously making the bed, replacing the water, or even ironing the outfits we’d left out for that evening, so when we returned this time, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find it transformed with candles, Berber music and massage beds. An hour later, we emerged relaxed from head to toe – the massage included everything from our heads to all 10 fingers and all 10 toes – and that was how we stayed for the rest of the weekend.
Having tried to work out if we could move into Riad Tarabel – or at the very least smuggle a few staff members home – we have settled on a weekend getaway every December and an en suite with twin baths and an open fire for our new house. In the meantime, Mr Smith is trying to crack the recipe for that vegetable pastilla.