“No you must not go there, is mosque – you cannot enter. Where you want go?” asked a street seller, standing at the cross roads of a maze of alleyways, from which I had selected a dead end! I had intrepidly decided to make my way through Marrakech’s old medina and souk in search of Riad Sapphire & Spa and I was lost. With little other option, I followed the young Moroccan, zig-zagging at speed from one alley to the next; with blind faith I went from the hustle and bustle of souk life into narrower, darker and above all quieter lanes feeling a little anxious. But good as his word ‘Tarik’, my new found guide, took me to a very simple door that one would have passed in the blink of an eye.
Of course this was Morocco, so Tarik rightly expected payment for his services; I laid on his palm several coins which equated to a taxi fare, however Tarik had other ideas and so a full negotiation took place upon the doorstep of the Riad. Having just arrived and with no other Dirhams to supply, I finally dug deep into my rucksack and found a small gift to help him on his way, begrudgingly he moved on and I entered the Riad. Had I simply called in advance, a representatives of Riad Sapphire would have met me at the nearest mosque – ‘Ben Nassar’ – (which are always helpful points of reference in the medina) and accompanied me straight to the property, something most guests take advantage of, but my wanderlust encouraged me to dive straight into the souk.
Riad Sapphire & Spa was the first Marrakechi door I had ever passed through and its bare simplicity belied what lay behind, this was to be a recurring pattern throughout my stay in the Medina. Stepping from a narrow alleyway into an oasis of peace and calm, is the only correct way to describe those few strides. Riads, which are residential houses and Fondouks, which are ancient hostelry for travelling merchants are based around a central courtyard and for a good reason. The central courtyard funnels cool air into the property, but also would have been an area for, specifically women, to sit with their family without being observed by strangers.
Riad Sapphires central courtyard oozed class and Moroccan design sophistication with chalk white walls, juxtaposed against a perfect blue sky; a central water feature burbled gently around some stylish tables and chairs adorned with a single red rose and candles.
The angular form of the building creates aspects of light and shade. The wedding cake style layers of the building which graduate to the upper levels are positioned over sturdy columns and lead toward the serene spaces of outlying rooms, of which there are plenty to accommodate groups and guests.
There are two levels of life in Marrakech, the one that takes place on ground level and the one that takes place on the flat roof terraces. Riad Sapphires terrace looks out across a patchwork of neighbouring platforms. Some used to dry laundry, some neglected but all overlooked by the wondrous snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains. The only high rise feature of the cityscape are the square minarets, whose design can be traced to the Ummayad rulers of Islamic Spain. During the call to prayer, the roof terraces are the places to be, as the first Imam sets off a domino effect that bounces from minaret to minaret across the city until it creates some unity of religious devotion.
Riad Sapphire & Spa is big enough to accommodate a modest sized group and yet small enough to book it exclusively for your own purposes, perfect for the MICE market and to create a highly sought after ‘Incentive’. The manageress of Sapphire informed me that in the preceding week, the Riad had been exclusively booked by a ‘Yoga’ group; spacious ensuite rooms and a kitchen serving fine Moroccan and Western cuisine, would sustain the many sessions of yoga planned. Also, the diverse spaces throughout the Riad can cater for the varying temperatures throughout the day.
As a corporate Incentive, the Riad could be the base from which to set a number of tasks for eager corporate groups to explore within the souk. An ‘Apprentice’ style activity could bolster team cohesion, productivity and enhance a number of key industry skills. As I had already encountered, the souk provides an ideal exercise in ‘navigation’, using landmarks or points of interest to create a mental map. Above all the market requires interaction with the local population; Moroccans are experts in the art of ‘Negotiation’, so providing the corporate group with a list of non-touristic everyday items to purchase from the souk, within a set time would provide a culturally rewarding experience.
Riad Sapphire is tailor-made for smaller groups looking for exclusivity at a cost which is hard to match, bearing in mind Marrakech is just over 3 hours flying time from London. The location, the diversity of the spaces within the Riad and prime location within the old medina and souk, should make it a property high on the list of creative ‘meeting planners’.