Marrakech’s horizon is low, speckled with the occasional peak of a mosque or palace tower. So it is with a certain royal pleasure that I find myself lounging like a sun lizard, glass of dry Moroccan white wine in hand, atop one of the tallest points in all of the Medina, on the upper terrace of the palatial Riad Siwan.
This relaxation is much deserved, be assured. After a lengthy flight, Mr Smith and I bravely hopped into a private car and tackled the rugged, mule-ridden obstacle course into the heart of the city. Here we were wordlessly transitioned to a porter who hauled our bags into a jaunty blue wheelbarrow before taking off, turning right, left and right again through the labyrinthine alleys of the sprawling medina. As we got further from the noise of the busier paths, passing lazy cats and the occasional fruit stand, the alleys narrowed until we arrived at the large, unmarked door of our new Marrakech home.
Our eyes widened as the nondescript door in the dark alley opened way to the lush, bright core that is Riad Siwan. Dramatic art, intricate lattices and coolly assembled tropical plants – from our first step inside, the seven-room riad has us stunned. And within seconds, we are getting the grand tour from jovial owner Cees Van den Berg.
Cees and his wife Maryk bought the riad as a crumbling hovel filled with dirt and exposed to the elements. The couple painstakingly restored the entire space to opulence, working with a local husband-and-wife team who tackled the light fixtures and glasswork. The result is an oasis that pays tribute to the traditional patterns and colours of vivid Marrakech, incorporating modern conveniences – hello, rooftop plunge pool! – and dramatic ironwork.
Each of the seven rooms – named after Moroccan villages or meaningful Arabic words – features high ceilings, local art and posh marble bathrooms, and most have a four-poster bed and fireplace. Ours is Qamar (the Arabic word for moon), a bright, tapestry-adorned space with beamed ceilings and a private veranda overlooking the gardens. But it is the giant, cavernous bathroom that’s earned our room its name. Stark black marble is lit by a beautiful ceiling fixture designed to appear like the night sky. These Smiths will soon be splashing under starry twinkles in a giant tub, sweetened up with local jasmine bath lotion and padded around on heated floors.
When Mr Smith and I first booked our trip to Morocco, I don’t think we intended to spend much time in our lodgings – but Riad Siwan has an uncanny way of easing the pace and helping travellers relax. Forget fumbling with fortress-style locks to get into your room – the riad forgoes keys, which is an instant mind-easer. Though we’d planned to drop off our bags and dash to the first palace, we soon found ourselves reclining on deck chairs, sipping wine and snapping pictures of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains from the tower instead.
It is no small accomplishment that this boutique abode can remain such a soothing space: Riad Siwan is perfectly situated just a quick walk from the loud, bustling main square, Djemma el Fna. When we finally depart from Siwan’s tranquility, we are amazed to discover that the noise and chaos of Marrakech’s vibrant streets is only a few feet from our door.
Despite its maze of souks, Marrakech is easily navigable. That said, Mr Smith and I soon learn that it takes at least a few tries to see or do most things in this ancient city. The path to the dazzling Medersa Ben Youssef eludes us; multiple haggling attempts are required before we have any reasonable success; our first expedition to see Yves Saint-Laurent’s beloved Majorelle Gardens is thwarted when the country’s princess decides to pay a visit for a spontaneous stroll. Luckily, Van den Berg and his staff are always at the ready to offer new tips, or soothe bruised egos with cocktails and offer up sedentary alternatives.
At Riad Siwan, everybody’s ability to anticipate our needs – from a sun hat to a happy hour cocktail – expedited a transition to full vacation mode, in breakneck speed. During our first evening’s cocktail hour in the garden, we set up downstairs in the garden. The wine here seems brighter, the breeze smells like garden blossoms. And when the staff brings out a few snacks, Mr Smith crows that even the Pringles taste revolutionary.
Balance out the bustle of the medina with the riad’s spa services. Riad Siwan does not operate a full-time hammam, but there is a spa room on site for massages, oil treatments and facials. One day’s bargaining with the feisty vendors of the souks is enough to warrant a 45-minute massage, surely? In true Moroccan fashion, body treatments at Riad Siwan take advantage of all senses. Rose water, argan oil and orange blossoms are as much a treat for my nose and appetite as for my tensed shoulders.
Drowsy with sweet-scented relaxation, we are delighted when we opt for an in-house supper one evening. The dining room is set among centuries-old columns and the Van den Bergs have transformed a giant circular skylight into a dramatic cascade of glass raindrops. Under those faux-rainstorm glassy drops, we feast on a romantic, quiet dinner of roasted aubergine and lemony chicken tagine prepared by the riad’s chef. In between licking our bowls from the seductive dessert (a slightly sweet avocado soup with vanilla ice), Mr Smith and I toast this magical escape with Moroccan red wine.
Beneath a cloudless desert sky the next morning, we take one last look down at the Red City from this bird's-eye view. Hustling vendors, roaming cats and playful kids all just out of earshot – it is a lucky traveller who gets to lord over this ancient North African city quite like this.