Eighteen years ago, Ursula Haldimann and her husband, Bjørn Conerding, lived in Switzerland, where she operated a hotel and he worked for UNESCO as an architect. Both felt that they needed a new, less stressful life with more time for each other and their family. So the idea to open a boutique hotel in Morocco took shape.
It took the couple nearly three years to find the right place, in Marrakech. “We had visited more than 200 sites when we finally saw the palace located in the medina,” says Ursula. “Here was a great story and the place oozed atmosphere. It is four houses totalling 2500m2, so it’s a very large riad.” After several months of negotiation, the palace was theirs and they could begin creating Riad Enija, named after their daughter, Enija Luna.
To find Riad Enija in the jumble of narrow streets that lead from the Djemaa el Fna (the main square) is not easy, but once you are there, you step into another world. Behind the heavy oak door, time stands still in a getaway where guests are invited to relax and listen to birdsong and the bubbling fountains. Here, you can swim in the small pool, read on the terrace or drink mint tea in the garden. In the evening, you can dine under the stars. The many lanterns in the garden are lit and it is easy to imagine the tales of One Thousand and One Nights unfolding before you as the candles flicker and dance. Riad Enija’s chef makes flavourful Moroccan dishes, and the aroma of cinnamon, cumin and coriander spreads through the garden.
The building has been standing for more than 250 years and, having once been a king’s residence, was more recently home to a wealthy silk merchant and his family. There was even a harem and, consequently, a traditional hammam, or steam room, which is now used as a dining room.
When it became fashionable to live in modern houses, the family moved out and the building fell into disrepair. When Ursula and Bjørn took it over, there was much to put in order, but both agreed that it was important to preserve the spirit and the Moroccan atmosphere. The restoration was carried out by Bjørn with great respect for Islamic art and architectural traditions. Many of the rooms have the original ceiling paintings and carved window frames and doors. Ursula chose the decor, a blend of Moroccan design and antiques with a European touch in the form of designer pieces from Tom Dixon and Mark Brazier-Jones. In every room there are Berber rugs on the floors and a fairytale atmosphere. “We really wanted our guests to be able to relax and therefore there are no televisions or phones in the rooms, just as there are no minibars,” says Ursula. Not that the place is tech-free: a common room houses a shared internet connection along with other telecoms.
“It has been a big leap for us to move to Morocco, but we do not regret it,” says Ursula. “Morocco has a fantastic nature and often visitors forget that Marrakech is truly a city.”