Parsley and pumpkin seed milkshakes are just one of Emma's surprising specialties at Zamzam Riad, luxury hotel
and spa, in Marrakesh. The Ugandan-born mother of one swears by the benefits of the drink, and if the effects on you are equal to what they seem to be on her, you’ll be delighted. She’s spirited and spritely with plentiful supplies of energy, the same energy that led her to traipse around the globe seeking a suitable hospitality venture. She opened this atmospheric, seven-room riad seven years ago. Sipping mint tea in the cozy lobby staring up at the menzah, a decorative cedar wood balcony, it is easy to imagine this building in its illustrious former life almost 500 years ago. As Emma describes it, it was a popular fortune teller’s house near the shrine, or zaouia, to Sir Bel Abbes, patron saint of the blind. Complementing its history, a 160-year old date palm rises majestically up through the riad’s roof, and is still considered a mere sapling.
Being a marketing consultant in her own former life in England, Emma wanted a simple name for her riad, one that would stick but would also have rich resonance. Upon reading the Koran, she came upon the story of Hajar and her child, Ismail, grandfather of Muhammad, who were refreshed in the desert by a flowing spring named Zamzam. When she and her husband, Marcus, a building engineer, bought the three-story building, it was somewhat rundown and they spent 18 months renovating it. The result is eye-catching, with rooms gathered around the ground and first floor furnished with French and Moroccan artifacts overlooking a small lobby. All around one of the bedrooms are walls and pillars made from tadelakt, a traditional lime plaster coating in Morocco. The pillars were highly polished with river stone and then treated with a soft soap tadelakt, a Berber word, means ‘to rub’).
A small pool near the entrance, more of an oversized bath, provides a welcome opportunity for a cool dip during hot summer months. An intimate dining area off the lobby is where a delicious welcome meal was served to us. Pumpkin soup and briouats (miniature cigar-shaped rolls filled with vegetables and cheese) brought life back to numbed senses after our long plane journey, as did our first sip of Moroccan wine, Cuvee Premiere du President, which was a dry, chilled rose. By the flickering flames of an open fire we easily succumbed to the delicate tang of lamb tagine and fluffy couscous. Breakfast can be taken inside, or more interestingly, on a rooftop veranda, which offers panoramic views over Marrakesh and the towering Atlas Mountains in the distance.
Emma has a small garden outside the city, which produces organic fruit from which marmalades and jams are made. These provided the flavors for our traditional breakfast of beghrir and msemen (traditional pancakes), as well as yogurt and mixed fruits. Staff at the riad are friendly and tourist savvy, offering enthusiastic guidance on issues ranging from museum closing times to the most appealing restaurants. Aside from Emma, we were impressed with the property managers. Imane, a lively, independent-thinking woman not averse to giving her illuminating views on the changing social and economic landscape of her native land, as well as Faysal, a 25-year-old local man, served in-depth and informed conversation with a welcome cup of refreshing tea each evening we returned weary from our day-long walks.
Zamzam Riad also has a spa, featuring traditional spa pleasures and a small area off the veranda housing the hammam and treatment rooms for various massages, black soap scrubs, mud packs, as well as manicures and pedicures. The riad also hosts cooking classes and has joined with another hospitality leader in organizing three-night beach outings that include yoga, reiki, cuisine experiences and luxury Saharan desert excursions with Berber guides. Walking to the city’s famous Djemaa el-Fna market square takes about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on one’s skills in navigating the intricate labyrinth of narrow lanes. A half or full day’s guide is a worthwhile investment if only to familiarize oneself with directional landmarks.
The ‘medina and souq experience’ is what many people come to Marrakesh for, and its exoticism is indeed well-worth absorbing. The experience includes cobra charmers, hawkers and evening performers (halqa). Avoiding the persistent waiters in the crowded square can be challenging, but sitting with locals on narrow, wooden benches for a tasty harrira soup with a chunk of fresh khobz (flat, round bread rolls) leaves one with that satisfying feeling of having gone native, at least for a while. For aerial views over the square, go to Cafe de France an hour before sunset and grab a ring-side balcony table to monitor the action below. Venture a hundred meters away into what is known as Mechoui Alley and try a nuss (half kilo) of slow-roasted lamb while seated atop one of the verandas located there.
Of course, such sights as Ali ben Youssef Mederesa, the former Quranic learning center, Bahia Palace and Dar Si Said are must-sees on the traditional walkabout, offering glimpses into the country’s rich cultural, religious and artistic past. All can be seen and enjoyed in a full, leisurely day’s outing. Aside from the much-touted medina in Marrakesh, Emma also emphasized the myriad opportunities for outings for parents with young children, putting emphasis on the Oasiria Waterpark, a mere 20-minute taxi ride away and providing lush gardens, a pirate boat, slides, heated pool and various restaurants. There’s also Terres d'Amanar, an adventure park 35 kilometers outside the city, where you can swing across ravines, climb treetops, ride horses or bike around the park’s rugged terrain.
Emma also operates a retail business in Berber carpets – from Beni Ourain in the Middle Atlas Mountains - and items such as vintage wedding blankets. Details about Zamzam and Emma's boutique can be accessed on the riad’s website RiadZamzam.com