Harry Potter v. the Mayor of Casterbridge

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 23rd March 2008.

They’re wised up these days, the hustlers in Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s magical, pulsating central square, where snake-charmers, acrobats, fortune tellers, musicians and whirling dancers appear without fail each evening as the sun begins to set.

At the same time, the food stalls and rows of numbered makeshift restaurants gear up for action, offering boiled sheep’s heads and steaming mounds of couscous. Each has a tout whose job it is to lure the tourists to their eatery and no one else’s. Sizing up their prey in a flash, they are adept at tailoring their imprecations to the types they see before them. “English? English?” demanded one enthusiastic character, continuing, to our astonishment, with “Thomas Hardy, Mayor of Casterbridge, you like? Yes, am I right? You come this way, No 212”. As we took the bait and meekly joined other captives at his trestle table, he changed his fly and deftly cast it at the next couple in view: “English? English? J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, you like? Yes, am I right? Come this way, No 212”.

Impressive, I call that. It’s all about sizing up your customers, and giving them what they want. Which, I reflected, is just what Richard Branson and his sister Vanessa do at their oh-so-different Marrakech hotels, Kasbah Tamadot and Riad El Fenn. I stayed at both, and they are as unalike, but no less enjoyable in their ways, as J.K. Rowling and Thomas Hardy.

And yet, though they are never marketed together (united only by sibling affection) these two properties complement one another perfectly as bases for an entertaining short break to Morocco: El Fenn is in the heart of the Marrakech medina, while Tamadot stands in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, an hour’s drive from the city. When the heat and dust, noise and pollution of Marrakech becomes too much, it’s heaven to slip away to the cool of the mountains.

Not that Riad El Fenn isn’t a calm haven itself. No sign outside announces that this secretive front door is yours, but when the bell is answered you enter a shadowy sanctuary of deep red walls that leads to an intriguing series of leafy courtyards, quiet pools, narrow stairs and broad, plant-filled upper galleries draped with flowing white curtains.

There’s show-stopping contemporary artwork on the walls, quirky furniture from the ‘50s and ‘60s, brightly coloured sunhats laid out on unobtrusive loungers, tiny tortoises pottering in beds planted with orange trees. There’s a hammam, a screening room and an inviting, ochre-walled library. You can email wirelessly from a shady ground floor courtyard, or stretch out on piles of Berber cushions on the roof terrace, with a plunge pool, a mini putting green and tables set in the shade for simple, delicious lunches of salad and fish.

Full of sleepy charm, El Fenn is one of those rare contemporary hotels that feels far older than its seven years, as if it’s been a slightly raffish hangout for arty types for decades. The atmosphere, I’m sure, is thanks to the hotel’s French manager, Frederic Scholl, who helped Vanessa to create the place; it’s down to him, too, that the riad’s roll-with-it vibe is underpinned by superb service, the like of which most five star hotels boast about but rarely deliver. When you wake, for example, you’ll find a beaten silver tray outside your door with a flask each of tea and coffee, pottery bowls from which to drink them, and a dish of pastries to tied you over till breakfast.

But it’s time to leave Marrakech. Kasbah Tamadot, though it stands in a biblical landscape, is not, as we were expecting, an ancient construction, but was built in the 1930’s by a powerful Lord of the Atlas as a combination of private home and public court. By the late 1990s it was owned by an Italian antiques dealer when Richard Branson’s mother, Eve, came across it. According to Brahim, who was ‘house manager’ then and still is today, Eve chose breakfast time (‘he’s always most susceptible then’) to persuade her son to buy the kasbah and turn it into a hotel. She succeeded, and it finally opened, with 18 guest rooms, in 2005, after 9/11 had delayed the project.

If Riad El Fenn is a dark ruby turned up amongst a heap of less precious stones, Tamadot is a showy sapphire gleaming in the dust. Its walls and turrets are the precise pinkish colour of the rugged landscape, yet it possesses an almost Disneyesque quality in its tamed perfection. Mosaic courtyards, vast chandeliers, silver inlaid furniture, a marble indoor pool and magnificent outdoor infinity pool set in landscaped gardens give the hotel a glossy veneer quite different from its sibling, though (like Hardy and Rowling) no less enjoyable.

It took time to adjust. We arrived in the rain, but even through the mist, we could tell that the setting was spectacular, and in our lovely room we appreciated the toasty bed, complete with electric blanket for winter nights, the complementary babouche slippers and pointy-hooded djellabas and we noted straight away that all the staff, save the key managers, are from the surrounding villages. By the time the sun had returned, we’d thoroughly settled in, made friends with other guests over cocktails, treked on mules to local Berber villages, been roughed up in the hammam and bicycled up the stunning valley almost as far as Imlil, at the foot of Toukbal, the highest mountain in North Africa. Though we played tennis, we had no desire to use the gym and the spectacular views from its picture windows seems wasted on all those obnoxious machines. I’d get rid of them, and turn the room into a cosy den.

As the heat increased, the sapphire dazzled. Guests popped up on their private rooftop terraces and waved to one another from their eeries, while others stretched out around the pool. We sat on our turret and gazed at the timeless landscape, the village women washing clothes in the river, and the snow-capped mountains.

They say you are never more than a few yards away from Harry Potter these days, and sure enough, the macho bloke on the sunbed next to me was completely engrossed. “Never enjoyed a hotel more”, he told me, and right at that moment, I could not disagree. Neither Riad El Fenn nor Kasbah Tamadot are perfect – what hotel is? – but apart from the strange new dining room at the former and the slightly disappointing food in the latter, I would have a hard time laying down the law about which of the Branson siblings has the better one; only that, like Thomas Hardy and J.K. Rowling, they suit different people. And both suit me.

Essentials

Elegant Resorts offers 7 nights in a superior double room on a bed and breakfast basis at Kasbah Tamadot, including return economy flights from London Gatwick with Easyjet and return private car transfers from £1,145 per person (based on two people sharing); 3 nights on the same basis cost from £690 per person. For bookings, call 01244 897515 or visit www.virginlimitededition.com.

Double rooms with breakfast at Riad El Fenn (00212 2444 1210; www.riadelfenn.com) cost from £206 per night, including breakfast, tea, transfers and taxes.

Your shortlist (0)