on September 3, 2010
What kind of traveller are you? Do you like to spend your holiday budget on a luxury villa somewhere, with all the mod cons, or do you prefer more Spartan accommodation, on the basis that you're just renting somewhere to rest your head at night? Usually, I fall into the latter category - as much as I like luxury, I cannot justify spending large sums of money if I'm visiting a city in order to get out and about, and discover the culture and meet the people. However, I've just returned from Marrakech, and found a happy medium.Riad Dar Sbihi is in the northern part of the Medina (old city) in Marrakech. A riad is a traditional Moroccan dwelling. It is laid out around a central courtyard, with the rooms communicating with the courtyard, but not with each other. The result of this design is that you step from a bustling (and dusty) and somewhat chaotic street into an oasis of green and calm...and birdsong. The courtyard is surrounded on all four sides, but the centre is open to the elements. This is easy to forget, such is the peace within. The style of decoration is typical and traditional Moroccan. There are large cedarwood wardrobes, huge painted doors, an ample quantity of coloured glass and the very Moroccan zellij tiling. Blue is a common colour throughout, which contrasts nicely with the greenery of the plants in the central courtyard. This riad has a ground floor, a balcony and the roof terrace. In addition, there is a small swimming pool, a hamman (Turkish bath), a couple of public rooms (we ate in one of them once). The website boasts rather charmingly, "Dar Sbihi proposes 6 rooms and 3 suites."Riad Dar Sbihi has several room types, ranging from doubles and twins, through to small suites. All rooms have an en suite bathroom - ours (room 101) had an enormously deep bath, with a shower attachment that sadly didn't attach to the wall (there were no shower curtains in any case - something not entirely atypical outside of the UK, in my experience), but did deliver skin tingling pressure. I was completely incapable of keeping anything in the room dry. There is also a bidet, which I did not try out. None of the rooms are huge, though the room we were in (one of the smaller) had ample space for the two of us for three days. There is air-conditioning (very useful, as even if it's not ridiculously hot, the air conditioning gives you the option of shutting the doors and windows at night - rather important, when you remember that there is a mosque very near, and the call to prayer is a bit after 5.00am this time of year). There are wardrobes with hangers that actually come out of the closet (I hate those 'thief proof' hangers you get in the major chain hotels), and a fridge with soft drinks and water. The fridge locks, as there is a shelf above the cold compartment for valuables. There are no tea making facilities (which is probably just as well, when you remember that Western guts can't usually stomach the tap water). There is a TV, which picks up some satellite channels, including BBC World. As an aside, you see satellite dishes everywhere in Marrakech - every rooftop seems to have whole clutch of them.Breakfast is included in the room rates (more on that later), and is excellent. Unsurprisingly, it's not a full English. Instead, you get coffee, Moroccan mint tea (absolutely delicious, but VERY sweet. Moroccans seem to take loads of sugar in everything; it's a wonder people don't pass out from diabetic shock on a regular basis - even the sugar cubes are brick sized), freshly squeezed orange juice, bread, jams, butter, pastries, and one either Moroccan or Belgian hot speciality - we had crepes, a kind of French Toast and a type of pita-style bread with goats cheese. Unusually, breakfast is any time you like within reason. There is no set time. They seem to watch for their guests' emergence, as it were, and have breakfast prepared for when you are ready to eat it.In addition to breakfast, you can choose to eat lunch and/or dinner at the Riad. We had lunch there the first day and dinner there the first and last days. The food is superb. You can let them choose your menu for you, or you can order from a menu which includes both Moroccan and European dishes. We let Sybylle choose for us. On day one, we had a salad for lunch (usually to be avoided, however, we were assured that the vegetables were washed in mineral water, and I asked other guests how their digestions had coped - we had no stomach problems as a result). Dinner consisted of five starters (including a lentil with preserved beef dish that was to die for) followed by a beef and cabbage tagine (a kind of Moroccan stew cooked in a special clay pot) and fruit salad to finish. On our last day, we had again, five different starters with a whole roasted sea bream as the main course. All of it was lovely. Although you can't generally get alcohol in the Medina (old city), hotels that cater to Europeans have special dispensation. Having said that, the local beer is nothing to write home about, and the rose wine is the best of the bunch. You don't go to Morocco for the booze. When we did order drinks, though, they came accompanied with little tiny tagine dishes filled with olives, cheese and nibbles.So far, this all sounds pretty standard. Smallish rooms, en suite facilities, pretty courtyard. So what makes Dar Sbihi so special? Apart from the fact that my current favourite place in the entire world is there (sitting on a couch looking over the palms and plants in the courtyard), there is something extraordinary about this place. The owners, Saâd and Sibylle Sofia Sbihi make your stay something utterly memorable. Saâd is Morroccan, and Sibylle is Belgian (though speaks a jillion or so languages, including Arabic, German, French, English, and Flemish). They've been in the business some years, and are possibly the most welcoming hoteliers I have ever met. Sibylle seems to do much of the client facing, and she is very knowledgeable, and can find guides, cabs, local services, stamps - pretty much anything for you. She makes very helpful suggestions if you would like help planning your day. She can advise how much you should expect to pay for a cab (remember, you have to haggle for everything in Marrakech - it can get quite tiring).Room and dinner rates are quoted in Euro, and include breakfast and taxi transfers to and from the airport. Current rates can be found here: http://www.riaddarsbihi.com/tarfen.htm - we paid 140 Euros for room 101 per night (not per person, that's for the room) - this would have dropped to 120 had we gone in June instead of May - the summer is considered the low season due to the heat of the Moroccan summer. Dinner cost 300 Dirhams per person. We got a little more than 14 Dirham to the pound when we were there - it's apparently gone up to around 20. The quality and the amount of food for that made dinner truly value for money. You can, of course, eat for considerably less in Marrakech, but it makes for a very relaxing and pleasant evening to eat either in one of the rooms set aside, or up on the roof terrace.I would happily return to Dar Sbihi. The rooms are clean, comfortable (the bed was an ample size - important, considering my husband is 6'5" tall) and though a bit on the small size, don't feel cramped due to the large windows and doors that open wide onto the gorgeous courtyard. The staff and proprietors are friendly and helpful (do keep in mind, though, that many of the staff speak very little English - instead, they speak French and Arabic). It really is a halfway house between the type of hotel for just laying your head, and the type of resort where you go to visit the resort itself, rather than necessarily anything around it. It is conveniently located and the contrast between the street outside and the tranquillity inside is remarkable.Highly recommended - if you are visiting Marrakech, I don't think you could find any accommodation better, prettier or friendly than Riad Dar Sbihi.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009