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June 3, 2013

Mellow in Marrakech

Where to eat, sleep, cook and chill in the medina.

Snake charmers. Henna artists. Lantern hawkers. Marrakech is a city at fever pitch, with a cast of colorful characters eager — make that very eager — to unveil the mysteries of the Near East for a dirham or two.

But chin up, intrepid traveler: we’ve got the lowdown on where to find blissful oases in this frenzied city — where you can tap into the soul of Morocco’s rich culture.

The only noise you’ll likely hear in the courtyard of your Angsana riad is the soothing trickle of a fountain. After treasure-hunting in the busy souks, it’s a dream to sit on the mezzanine of your riad — a traditional Moroccan home built with an inner courtyard open to the sky — sipping mint tea and nibbling pastries as a rosewater-scented breeze cools your skin.

Five of the six properties that form the Angsana Riads Collection are within a stone’s throw of each other, and you’re welcome to enjoy each one regardless of where you lay your head. It’s a unique, intimate experience — each riad has only six or seven rooms, and shares the same staff — like staying at your own personal guesthouse. (You can do just that, in fact: each riad is available for full, private rental.) You’ll dine in the lovely mosaic-tiled courtyard at Riad Si Said, and luxuriate at the spa in Riad Bab Firdaus. All the while you’ll be within short walking distance of the main square, Jemaa El Fna, and yet a world away.

Plus, you’ll get to enjoy Angsana’s iconic spa experience, here fused with the traditions of a Moroccan hammam, where all local intoxicants (like the never-ending barbecue smoke and motorbike fumes) are exfoliated and steamed away.

You should also prepare to be transported by the gardens of La Mamounia, the most glamorous address in Marrakech. If you can’t afford to stay at the recently renovated grande dame (whose life began as a royal palace) — rooms start around $600 per night — then you must at least stroll the 20-acre grounds with its olive trees, bougainvillea and white roses.

Better yet, enjoy a meal at Le Marocain, housed in its own beautiful riad in the gardens. By the unobtrusive rhythms of live traditional music, you can choose between typical Moroccan dishes and some with a contemporary twist. If you’re not stuffed to the gills by the time the surprise pastries arrive with your Moroccan tea, then you have more restraint than the rest of us.

Of course, the ultimate luxury is taking the knowledge of Moroccan cookery home with you — and that’s exactly what you’ll get from La Maison Arabe. Another of Marrakech’s finest hotels, it is also one of the city’s top dining destinations and the place to take a cooking class. (The cooking school was the first in the country when it opened in 2001.) Here, you’ll master the art of Morocco’s best dishes — think: chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon; roasted eggplant and tomato salad (zaalouk) — under the guidance of a real dada, a revered matriarchal home cook.

Ours, Fatiha, sang merrily, spoke both French and English, and charmingly coaxed the best from her pupils’ disparate skills. By the time we sat down for lunch — you eat everything you’ve cooked — we felt like we could conquer the culinary world. Or at least manage a respectable meal in the lovely tagine pot you’re gifted at the end.

By September, La Maison Arabe will open a new cooking school in their Private Gardens, a 15-minute drive from the main property. Set in the middle of an organic vegetable garden, students will pick most of the produce they will cook. Consider it one more pioneering step from the place that opened the first restaurant (1946) and the first riad hotel (1998) in the Marrakech medina.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1 and 2: Courtyard and rooftop of the Angsana Riads Collection.

Photo 3: La Mamounia at night. Image courtesy of Anson Smart.

Photo 4 and 5: Dada Fatiha and food prepared at La Maison Arabe cooking class.

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read more: 02. Sleep | boutique | romantic | 03. Spa | 05. Eat

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