Blush-coloured walls line the city of Marrakech, and there’s a spirited culture that hits you at every turn. But it’s the traditional Moroccan riads and Moorish architecture that sets this city above the rest.
As I touched down in Marrakech for the third time, a place I’d jumped at the chance to return to, I embarked on a new journey of discovery at the newly-launched IZZA; one filled with the yearning, entrepreneurial spirit of Marrakech creatives, both old and new.
My visit was just two weeks before the city experienced the effects of a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in the nearby Atlas Mountains. But Marrakech is open again, and, more than just welcoming visitors, it’s encouraging them. As Yahya El Aouad, a waiter at IZZA explains, “tourism is so important to Morocco and the city of Marrakech; we count on welcoming visitors again to enable us to rebuild our homes and provide for our families.”
Mohamed Ait Belhaj, the hotel’s General Manager, agrees, telling me that “the recent earthquake was disastrous for many, including at my own family home in Asni. Many of our friends, family and staffing team were affected and we are grateful to the tourism industry for the support provided.”
WHAT TO PACK
Those who haven’t visited Marrakech, Morocco’s ancient Red City, should be prepared for a sensory explosion. The Medina, in the centre of the city, buzzes with the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists. Cobbled streets lined with textile and spice souks are busy with mopeds, but you can find calm within the walls of its riads, traditional Moroccan homes built around an interior garden or courtyard.
As I stepped into IZZA, a riad in the making for over eight years, it was clear why this hotel took so long to complete. A passion project for the owner, designed as an ode to interior designer Bill Willis (the man behind Yves Saint Laurent’s Marrakech home), every corner was meticulously curated with traditional Moroccan decor juxtaposed with contemporary design. Despite comprising seven interconnecting riads, three tranquil courtyards, three pools, an intimate roof terrace and 14 individually designed rooms, IZZA still seeped a sense of home.
The colour palette includes a rich shade of green, a colour synonymous with the city and associated with the religion of Islam, representative of heaven. Offering a sense of calm, tiles and decor are peppered throughout the riad and mosaic walls and floors are the feature of every room. The coffee boutique showcases work from Moroccan artist, Hassan Hajjaj (pictured) while the lobby is home to impactful photographs spotlighting Franco-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui which are captivating at check-in; hauntingly-beautiful explorations of identity, cultural diversity, and migration.
There are 14 rooms spread out across the interconnecting riads. I’m in Grace, one of the more cosy rooms, named after the iconic Grace Jones. Each room is uniquely decorated and boasts its own identity, just like the stars they are all named after. Grace welcomes a soft, creamy colour palette scattered with natural textures and, while traditional Moroccan design runs deep, it is challenged with contemporary updates. It overlooks one of the courtyards and one of three pools, and a small yet perfectly formed private living room is conveniently positioned next door, for a change of pace.
A copper roll top bath is the star of the show in the bathroom, standing proud against pearly-white tiles and brushed-gold fittings. The bath has been through a lot, subject to robbers during the initial build who were, fortunately, unsuccessful. That somehow makes it feel more special, it is an object d’art after all.
Enjoy fresh cuisine on IZZA’s garden terrace, a beautiful spot cocooned with greenery. Enjoy your breakfast in the morning sunshine with traditional dishes boasting a Moroccan twist. The westerner in me opted for avocado on toast with harissa and slow-roasted tomatoes: a dish I’ll forever be trying to create in my own kitchen. You’ll savour light lunches and slow dinners thanks to a menu that delivers traditional cooking methods combined with a European influence and a Mediterranean flair.
British consultant chef Paul Weaver focuses on seasonal and sustainable produce bought from local vendors in the Medina’s souks as well as at nearby organic farms – the dishes aim to showcase the best Morocco can offer. As El Houssein Zemhoune, the Restaurant Supervisor points out, by “booking a stay, guests are supporting not only the hospitality staff here, but local communities and producers that we work with.” Expect sharing plates such as sea bass carpaccio with confit tomato, harissa and lime oil; IZZA tagine with monkfish; and charred cauliflower with spiced yoghurt, house-dried tomato séchée, basil, toasted pine nuts, whipped feta and argan oil.
The main pool, in all its emerald green glory, is found within a tranquil oasis in the centre of the riad. Sip delicious cocktails made in the Bill Willis bar next door and settle in with a good book, or fall asleep to the calming Moroccan music that swirls in the background. Mesmerising, hand-carved Moorish archways provide the perfect backdrop to rejuvenate your senses once you return from your expeditions in the city.
Art is the heart and soul of IZZA, and the selection proudly demonstrates the hotel’s blend of traditional and contemporary elements. The 300 framed pieces dotted around the property are worth over £5 million; this is a ‘Museum in the Medina’ housing contemporary Moroccan works and one of the largest physical collections of digital and generative art from around the world.
The multi-million-dollar gallery collection includes an installation of 24 prints from Sebastian Selgado’s ‘Amazonia’ NFT release at Sotheby’s, 10 artworks from AI artist Refik Anadol as seen at MoMA and this year’s Grammy Awards, as well as 11 screens with moving images from Ethiopian rising star, Yatreda. Each piece has been carefully curated and has its own museum label and dedicated gallery website page. Paying homage to Bill Willis, who the riad was inspired by, you’ll find a treasure trove of photographs and artefacts from his former home, in nearby Dar Noujoum.
The To-Do List
Before you go, or while on the plane, get a sense of the hospitality you’re about to experience by watching IZZA’s General Manager Mohammed Ait Belhaj in BBC’s Life Beyond the Lobby, filmed whilst he worked at the renowned Royal Mansour, or the captivating short film about designer Bill Willis. If you can pull yourself away from the sense of escapism that encapsulates you at IZZA, visit the Jardin Majorelle – Yves Saint Laurent’s garden – or do a bike tour of the city with Pikala Bikes, a new way to see the sights.
Explore the souks, or start slowly with mornings reading in the quietly serene library followed with time in IZZA’s intimate spa for a traditional Hammam to recharge the mind, body and soul. By the time you leave, you’ll have made new friends, even ones that feel like family. It is called House of Friends after all.
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