Slender terra cotta pots that once cured olives, now hold palms. Custom-made bricks of pale amber, rose and sand echo the colors in the nearby twelfth-century walls of Marrakech’s medina. Water plays in a low marble fountain. Roses float in alabaster bowls, a 19c bronze sits on a inlaid damascene side board and a stylized painting of an African wedding is not far from the portrait of a young boy—silky long ringlets hanging to the lace collar of his velvet suit. That boy’s boy, Fabrizio Ruspoli, is responsible for this dream of a small hotel, La Maison Arabe.
Ruspoli, an Italian who grew up in Tangiers, put Moroccan craftsmen to work with local materials and traditional techniques to transform these riads (traditional homes) beyond their noble origins. He would not let anyone see what he was doing until he finished. "I could picture what I wanted and I wasn’t going to give anyone a chance to dissuade me," says Ruspoli. I say, "Merci Dieu."
It took two years. Tadelakt, a colored plaster-like coating hand-polished with soapstone glazes the entry’s fireplace and the bathroom walls. Gebs, designs chiseled in plaster, encircle the windows and doors. Ruspoli designed decorative scrolled iron window bars and silk fabrics of dark crimson, saffron and gold. To this he added muted colors, Arabic antiques, rough pottery and modern art. His creation is an exquisite mix—the rustic with the refined, the rough with the resplendent and the ancient with the modern.
Following the dictates of the original houses, coves and domes, niches and courtyards fill the rooms and halls with doors. Carved cedar doors in Moorish horseshoe arches have smaller doors within them. Doors painted red and scrolled with Arabic designs lead to closets. Antique doors, carved and painted masterpieces, lead nowhere. Others lead to Aladdin, Scheherezade and Dalila, a few of the hotel’s thirteen rooms and suites. Named for the characters in A Thousand and One Nights. "We have Ali Baba, but no forty thieves," quips Ruspoli.
Passing a thousand and one exquisite details, I wind my way up to Sindibad. A dramatic Berber rug runs before a silken couch tucked in an alcove of windows. Dates and figs spill from a silver bowl piled with fresh fruit. Up several stairs, my bed rests in a cove of shuttered windows. When open light, breezes and bird songs from the interior courtyard swirl above my head. The bathroom of mellow tadlekt and striking marble is filled with plush robes and choice potions.
La Maison Arabe’s conception and décor are all Ruspoli, but he is not its only talent. General Manager, Ms. Nabila Dakir, stylish in her long suit coat and short black hair, manages to be both gracious and efficient in the same breath. Raised in Fez and trained in hotel management, it’s a pleasure to watch this modern Moroccan woman at work. Passing through the public rooms, she greets her guests, handles problems, dispenses advice and creates the amicable atmosphere adopted by all her fine staff. What, no stress? Nabila reveals her secret de-stresser, La Maison’s dada, "Whenever I have a tough day, I go into the kitchen for hugs and come away refreshed and ready to do business."
Traditionally, dadas took care of the children and the cooking in wealthy families and today, many cook for Morocco’s best restaurants. La Maison Arabe’s dada is a short, plump woman. With a warm smile and a curl of hennaed hair escaping from her coiled scarf, she exudes warmth. She also shares her culinary secrets with the guests over at the new demonstration kitchens in La Kasbah.
La Kasbah is "a trip to the kitchen for hugs" for La Maison's urban-weary guests. In less than ten minutes, I’m transported from the center of a bustling medieval town to an earthly paradise which is the goal of all Moroccan gardens. Through a rose arbor, a lush garden hums with bees and birdsongs. Lusty vegetables, herbs and fruit flourish for the hotel’s kitchen. A willow tree weeps over a small pond. A rose hedge, covered with blossoms for bouquets, divides the working gardens from the relaxing gardens. Here an enticing swimming pool, a kingly tent and quiet tables under orange trees provide ease for the stressed-out guest.
La Kasbah itself, a grand house, backs the garden. The second floor houses the sharp modern kitchens of La Maison Arabe’s cooking school. Here Dada reveals the delights of Moroccan cooking along with its history and traditions. The view from the roof’s terrace gives no hint of the city nearby, only groves of date palms and olive trees. "Who," I wonder aloud, "owns all this undeveloped land?" Why, the King, of course. "He makes a good neighbor," Nabila says, "he’s never around."
In the late afternoon, spent from a grueling day of bargaining for kaftans and teapots, I collapse into the down cushions of a cobalt blue sofa in La Maison Arabe’s courtyard for tea. Steamy mint tea poured with a flourish from a great height is accompanied by sweet pastries of biscotti, gazelle’s horns and honey cakes. I sigh with contentment.
My intention of dining in La Maison Arabe’s well-regarded restaurant is eclipsed by the pleasure of just staying put. The square of sky above the courtyard darkens to indigo and the lanterns are lit. The breeze, smelling of jasmine, sets the palms’ shadows to dancing on the honey-colored courtyard walls. Having finished my sweets, I order my favorite Maison Arabe dish, a sextet of small salads and savories with warm Moroccan bread to scoop them up. The restaurant, its fine Morrocan cooking and many more of this hotel’s exquisite details will have to wait for my next visit. I expect a thousand and one nights would just about do it.
Crawford February 2003
LINKS WITH ATTITUDE
La Maison Arabe's web site is quite beautiful.
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