Review by James Dunford Wood, published 23rd April 2012.
Not everyone who has been to Marrakech will have experienced the intense experience of staying in the thick of the Medina. Most tourists stay in one of the larger, more modern hotels of the new town - but to experience the best of Marrakech, a few nights spent in a riad in the warren of small souks and alleys is, in my view, an essential part of the experience of Morocco.
Arrival can be unnerving the first time. The taxis from the airport drop you off on the edge of the Jamaa el Fna, the famous open square on the edge of the main souk, and a porter from the riad you are staying in will normally meet you to guide you and take your cases in a handcart. These guides are essential, because finding a riad can be daunting. Moreover, until you are steeled to the tricks of the hustling street vendors, it is easy to be relieved of most of the cash you brought with you before you even get there. There are only three rules - don't stop, don't shop, and don't start a conversation!
Choosing a riad is key. In recent years there has been an explosion of them, and there are now nearly 1000, of which about a half are unlicensed, and many more are poorly converted townhouses with just a veneer of authenticity. We stayed in two raids, but there are many others we would recommend.
The first of them, Dar Fakir, was the perfect choice for young children as it was the riad, it transpired, where 'Made in Chelsea' was filmed, so for 13 year old girls it conveyed huge bragging rights. However, it is much more than this. Run by the charming Kerstin Brand, the riad is a jewel, with a small, romantic courtyard which can be covered in winter to retain the heat (the problem with many of these courtyard raids is that they can be freezing in the winter), where guests can eat year round. It is framed with olive trees in pots and a twinkling pool (not for swimming!). At night, candles flicker, and guests can lounge on traditional Moroccan cushions in small private alcoves, or eat out under the stars. The rooms - just four suites and three doubles, ranging from 15-25 square metres - are elegantly furnished in Berber style and decorated in pale colours - creams and beiges. In common with most riads, the rooms face inwards, but in this case with large open doorways and shuttered windows that lend an air of living in a family house. With only seven rooms, this riad has a real feeling of intimacy. In addition to the courtyard, there is a spacious rooftop terrace for sunbathing and relaxing in the day, or star gazing at night. Dinner can be served there too. If you feel like getting away for your William Burroughs moment - or perhaps think you are William Burroughs - this place will fit the bill.
Dar Fakir is a luxury riad of real style, and the best thing about it is the price - rates are well below those you would find elsewhere for this kind of experience.
The second riad we stayed in belonged to the Sansouci Collection. Owner Eben Lenderking is an old Marrakech hand, a stalwart amongst expatriates who have made their home in Marrakech, and someone who has created three stunning riad experiences of differing styles. We stayed in Riad Kaiss, which differs from Dar Fakir in a number of ways. Where Dar Fakir was jewel like and intimate, Kaiss is larger, with a wide courtyard full of chirruping birds and tall trees, so you get more of the feeling of a private garden. There are nine rooms, all in different styles and configurations, with their own unique character. Striped fabrics, traditional Moroccan latticework furnishings, Berber rugs, ornate iron bedsteads - it is clear that the owners of the riad, as it's sister raids, have spent years making a collection of great art and artefacts. and art is everywhere here. Room 9, for example, has large floor to ceiling French style windows, that lead onto a private exterior terrace, while room 3 is decorated in a warming rose. There are many terraces at this riad, with great rooftop views, and in addition to its own hammam it has a small swimming pool on the roof. There's a cosy living room/library overlooking the garden courtyard for intimate dinners or games of chess, and for those interested in Moroccan cookery (why would you be, I thought before I arrived, but having been here, I am won over), there are regular cooking school courses held here for guests and visitors.
If the Kaiss is fully booked, Eben's flagship riad, Dar Les Cigognes, is located outside of the souk area next to the Royal Palace, and is stunningly designed. This has more of the intimate courtyard, interior feel of the Kaiss. Though it is further from the hustle of the souk, some may prefer it for this reason - it can be reached by car, and is perfectly positioned for sightseeing. The large roof terrace here is wonderful - with views of the storks nesting on the roofs of the Royal Palace, which gives the Riad its name, as well as a cornucopia of potted plants, cactuses, bourganivillia and oleander that make it a riot of colour in the spring and summer months.
Of course there are many other riads to choose from in the Medina, and we have a full Marrakech Medina list to recommend. But make sure you do get a recommendadtion, because with over 1000 claiming the title of riad, you can easily go wrong. Moreover, we heard plenty of evidence of shady practises like 'gaming' the big review sites such as Trip Advisor - so, 'Caveat Emptor' seems particularly relevant in Marrakech.