In conversation with Beryl Bakewell, the Moroccan hotelier with a striking vision
For some hoteliers, setting up a riad with a difference in the centre of Marrakech may seem like quite a challenge. Then again, Beryl Bakewell and her twin sister, Barbara, are no regular hoteliers. In fact, Barbara and her husband were amongst the first people to open a boutique hotel in the medina, and their ambition clearly paid off.
‘It was so successful that my husband and I also decided to invest together with my sister and her husband in another riad,” Beryl explains. “We found the perfect place and opened up after one year of renovation.’
Together the sisters have more than 15 years’ experience in hotel management and have renovated three riads in the medina, all of which were virtually ruins when they first purchased them. They have since sold the first two and are concentrating solely on their latest gem – the Riad Sapphire and Spa – a gorgeous, colonial chic style destination with an intimate ambience and just eight elegant suites.
How it all began
While the Riad Sapphire & Spa today appears as a flawless example of luxury hotel style, the renovation process was by no means an easy one.
‘Building in the medina is completely different to building a modern hotel. It was impossible to get a lorry to the building site because of the narrow roads, so all the rubble and building supplies had to be transported by donkey cart.’
Yet this method of transportation is one that stays true to the eco-credentials of the sisters, whose commitment to alternative energy use includes the introduction of solar panels to heat the riad’s water, spa, hammam, and larger-than-average swimming pool.
While Beryl and Barbara headed up the riad’s design process entirely on their own, the local talent played a key role in helping to realise their dream. They employed highly skilled artisans and craftspeople to create ‘woven fabrics, plasterwork and woodwork by hand.’
The aim was to establish a calm, welcoming retreat and add a touch of glamour to the Marrakech riad scene. With more than a thousand riads in Marrakech that have already been renovated into boutique hotels, the sisters wanted to make their own unique statement.
‘We set out to interpret a pure form of Moorish architecture with clean lines and restrained décor coupled with a slightly retro oriental colonial look. We also wanted to add a modern twist that placed us firmly in the new century.’
They acknowledge the minimalist movement as a key influence but there are also many features that keep the riad typically Moroccan, such as the intricate hand-sculpted plasterwork and woodwork.
The sisters’ great respect for the local craftsmen is evident in the story of the riad’s construction and I am curious to know more about the artisans whom they worked with. ‘One of the fascinating things about Marrakech is the plethora of artisans – metalworkers, wood carvers, leather workers and weavers – who practise their skills from tiny workshops dotted around the medina,’ Beryl explains. ‘We selected artisans who could work to our designs, as we wanted to modernise traditional designs: for example lampshades were custom-ordered, fabrics were hand-woven and made up into modern drapes, cushions and blinds.’
Their creative process also offers fascinating insight into how older traditions are blending with the 21st century way of life.’An example of Marrakechi artisans adapting to the new century is how it was possible for us to order modern glass panels for the loggia and arcades on the upper floor, but in order to make it typically Moroccan, we were able to have the pattern of traditional metal railings etched onto the glass.’
A whole lot of love
Their design process was also inspired by a great love for the city itself.
‘Marrakech is a vibrant, exotic and exciting city with a great deal of innovation in terms of design and art. It transports you back in time. It’s a mixture of ancient and modern, East and West, chaos and calm. You can easily imagine how it was hundreds of years ago as you meander along the alleyways of the medina passing donkey carts and artisans’ workshops.’
It is amongst this magical ambience that the sisters set about renovating the Riad Sapphire and Spa. ‘Renovating a riad tells the story of preserving beautiful Moroccan architecture, which would otherwise become derelict. We want to show our guests the Moroccan way of life and what it is like to live in a riad. It’s also about having an authentic experience.’
The real Marrakech
In the spirit of having an authentic experience, I ask Beryl for some insider tips on how to experience the city. The diverse foodie scene is apparently one of the best ways and she suggests trying the ‘nouvelle Moroccan cuisine’ – of which she can offer some great restaurant recommendations – and the traditional street food around the medina. For a more in depth experience, a food tour of the city is a great way to discover the best food spots. The riad also offers cookery classes where you can whip up your own local specialties – a great way to take a little bit of Morocco away with you in the form of some delicious recipes.
Beryl also recommends taking a carriage ride off the main square, Place Jamaa el Fna, around the ramparts of the medina and visiting a hammam – perhaps the riad’s own – for a traditional Moroccan bath and massage.
With their latest hotel offering, the sisters provide affordable luxury and warm, friendly, efficient service, as well as genuine Moroccan hospitality and flair. As Beryl says, ‘The highest compliment for us is when clients tell us that they felt at home and extremely well looked after.’
There’s one thing for certain, we would be more than happy to call the city of Marrakech – and the Riad Sapphire and Spa – our second home.