Riads: Marrakech Espresso

(with apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young…)

Last week I was in Somerset visiting some impressive houses that will make magazine features. Next week, who knows… I don’t jet all over the place but my work has taken me to some interesting locations, sometimes at short notice. I’d probably never have seen Marrakech, but for a chance Internet encounter a few years ago.

total privacy, luxury, an enclosed world - it's what Westerners love about the riad lifestyle

As part of my regular schedule I’d been in contact with a lot of PR agencies, seeking leads to potential feature homes. Brett Gregory-Peake of Frank & Earnest replied with an email asking if I would like to be put in touch with Jimmy Boyle, who had a lovely riad in Marrakech. Being reasonably well informed I knew Jimmy’s name by repute: after an unconventional (little bit of euphemism there) early life in Glasgow he’d done fifteen years in Barlinnie, discovered sculpture through a prison visitor, followed his great natural talent after release, and never looked back. So as casually as I could I replied sure, why not…

After a phone call in which I reassured Jimmy that I had no interest in dragging up his past – being hounded by the press had driven him from Britain – he said yes, and I set about getting a commission to feature his renovated riad home in the Medina of Marrakech.

It wasn’t difficult. His place was eminently photogenic, but my fame within the world of editorial interiors photography didn’t sell the feature – no, it was the Boyle name. I was commissioned by The Guardian Weekend magazine for a full feature package.

Jimmy B

Met at Marrakech airport by Jimmy’s “gofer”, a delightful man named Fouad, I was taken to my hotel, then to the riad. Jimmy was very welcoming, and I met his equally charming partner Kate; over the next three days I shot the riad in depth, interviewed the pair about life in Marrakech, and saw the two other properties they owned. There was what they called a “villa”, which I’d describe as a small palace, still being completed – but they were selling that, since they’d found a farm a few miles out of town, which they showed me, wonderful place with acres of olive trees and fruit: tranquil, private, almost idyllic. That was going to be home. They love their life out there, and I wish them well, very open and hospitable people. (I wish I could afford to buy Jimmy’s striking sculptures, but I have to leave that to his international circle of well-heeled collectors…)

Marrakech itself? I’m in two minds. It’s been popular for a long time, first among the fashionable artistic crowd and jet-setters, more recently on the holiday circuit – and with people seeking a second home abroad that’s a bit more exotic than Brittany. It struck me as interesting but I confess to a degree of disappointment; it felt safe, with friendly people, and with the same surreal mix of squalour and high luxury as some other “exotic” destinations. My hotel was OK, nothing special, some distance from the souks and Jemaa El F’Naa; I discovered the Café de la Poste and drank a terrific espresso which made up for the rubbish coffee at my hotel.

rooftop terrace breakfasts in the sun - and an alien skyline of mosques & satellite dishes

I flew home after my worst ever airport experience: the computers had crashed and all booking-in had to be done by hand. Shoulder to shoulder crowds queued for hours; there was some hysteria; fights broke out… But my feature appeared, they used the pictures well, and my copy wasn’t too heavily subbed.

Later, I returned to Marrakech, after Jimmy had apparently mentioned me at a gathering of Brit expats: Grant Rawlings runs his business (chic-marrakech.com) there, as a facilitator and agent for Brits moving into the city, and he had some clients whose riad might suit my requirements, he thought.

despite my reservations about residency, I could get used to riad life...

Again things worked out. On the strength of some snapshots I was commissioned by 25 Beautiful Homes, I flew from Bristol to the super new Marrakech airport (vastly better – the computers worked), and the three Brits who jointly owned the large riad to be featured put me up there, very hospitably (www.timila.com)

Gorgeous décor, beautifully done, large and rambling, could accommodate a dozen or so comfortably, and it photographed very well. Being on site, I could shoot lots more images than otherwise, and instead of the bland fare of an hotel I enjoyed excellent dishes prepared by the resident cook. I had a great time, as good in its way as my first Marrakech trip; staying in the Medina itself showed me more of the city than I’d experienced on my first hotel-bound visit.

breakfast is served, riad style

But I still wouldn’t live there myself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very interesting city, one of those places like Katmandhu or Timbuctoo whose very name is redolent of an extra-European exoticism.  I understand the appeal for those who buy into it and spend so much time in Morocco – or base themselves there like Grant Rawlings, whose love of the local culture came across in a long conversation over coffee in the Café des Epices. It’s politically stable, though all those Europeans who’ve bought into Moroccan property must have been nervous during the “Arab spring” of 2011… I’d visit the city again tomorrow – would be delighted to see Morocco once more – and staying in a modernised riad is wonderfully relaxing, a little self-contained world of its own, with sunlit breakfasts on the roof terrace. But perhaps I feel more at home in Europe.

Where might I live? I’ll explore the possibilities in future blogs.

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2 thoughts on “Riads: Marrakech Espresso

  1. good piece…must have been a while back that we spoke. Let me know if/when you plan to return.

    brettbrett[ at ]frankearnest.com

    • Hello Brett, glad you appreciated it. Yes, it’s a few years since we were in touch, but perhaps we can co-operate over some new project. As I wrote above, I’d go back tomorrow! Very nice at this time of year, cool nights and warm days… I was talking this morning with a friend who visits Marrakech two or three times a year on business, made me feel wistful. Do contact me if there are any interesting possibilities.