Garden of Earthly Delights
The Maison Arabe pitches a Berber tent and opens a Casbah cooking school on a property outside Marrakech
Judy Fayard -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
In the 1940s and '50s, the Maison Arabe was the legendary restaurant of Marrakesh. Installed in a riad, or town house, in the medina—the colonial city's old Arab quarter—and run by an eccentric Frenchwoman and her daughter, the Maison Arabe was famous for its superb Moroccan cuisine and an international following that included Hemingway, Churchill, and Eisenhower. When the Frenchwoman's daughter, Susanne Larochette-Sebillon, finally retired in 1983, the restaurant closed, and the building remained shuttered and empty for nearly 20 years.
Then Fabrizio Ruspoli met Larochette-Sebillon by happenstance. A descendant of a noble Roman family, Ruspoli was born and raised in Paris, spent childhood holidays at his grandmother's house in Tangier, and had traveled widely in Morocco ever since. When he bought the slumbering Marrakech house in 1994, it was in fairly good repair but "outdated and démodé," he says. "It had no charm at all. The restaurant was known for wonderful cuisine, not the decor."
Owner-designer Ruspoli and his team of artisans proceeded to turn the Maison Arabe into the first boutique hotel in Marrakech, relying on traditional Moroccan building techniques. Walls were covered with tadelakt, a pigmented lime plaster applied with a trowel and smoothed with an agate stone. Floors were laid with small blond bricks called bejmat. Ruspoli oversaw the installation of cedar ceilings, chiseled plaster ornaments, lacy wood and wrought-iron moucharabie screens, and fabrics handwoven on ancient looms. Guest rooms were individually decorated with Moroccan and European furniture, antiques, and both orientalist and contemporary paintings. The hotel opened in 1998.
Ruspoli's next big move was to add a pool, not in the close quarters of the medina but a 15-minute shuttle-bus ride away, in a 2 1/2-acre walled paradise straight out of a tale by Sheherazade. First comes a kitchen garden—tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, artichokes, herbs and spices—bounded by cypress trees. A rose garden and an olive orchard follow, then a 60-foot-long pool lined with sky-blue tiles and surrounded by palm and fig trees, yuccas, bamboo, and bougainvillea. Alongside the pool, a Berber chieftain's tent, made of heavy off-white canvas with a grid motif and an interior draped with green and red fabric, provides a cool retreat for sipping a coffee or a mint tea from an antique silver service or relaxing with a book or a game of chess. Special dinners and receptions also take place here, lanterns aglitter with a thousand and one lights. "The tent's red and green colors are very traditional, but now I think I'm going to change them," says Ruspoli.
In the meantime, the newest addition to the swimming-pool garden is the Casbah, which Ruspoli also calls the annex or, laughingly, "my château." The word Casbah originally signified a North African fortress, and, although small, this one has two towers and two floors. Construction is modern, but the facade is finished in a traditional earthen treatment.
The ground floor is a large salon whose floor is unpolished marble flagstones laid without joints. "Like a Roman road," says Ruspoli. The tadelakt walls are rose, yellow, and red; the high ceiling is stenciled with floral and geometric motifs in the same pale colors.
Upstairs in the state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, hotel guests and visitors (aided by a French-English-Arabic translator) take hands-on classes in Moroccan cuisine from a real dada, or Moroccan matriarch. The bright yellow-and-orange kitchen, with its walls of windows, is equipped with marble-topped brick counters, four double sinks, and eight two-burner stove tops to accommodate a maximum of eight students per class in culinary luxury. (Classes are offered in half-day sessions, available one at a time or in a series.)
Since January, cuisine has again become a major attraction at the Maison Arabe's medina property, too. A new wing houses a spacious restaurant, plus a hammam and two guest suites, bringing the hotel's total to six rooms and seven suites, most of them with fireplaces and terraces. And Ruspoli's plans seem almost as limitless as his enthusiasm: He might just build a winter garden and add four more bedrooms. "That's the next step," he says with a laugh. "But I'll never go beyond 17 rooms. The Maison Arabe must always remain small. And charming." And how.