It is impossible to resist Marrakech. Once you see the early morning sunshine dance over the intricate plasterwork of a horseshoe arch, hear the soft murmur of water rippling in a rose-strewn fountain, and catch the heady scent of dried roses, cumin and savon noir mingling in the souk, it becomes a question of when –not whether — to buy a home here.
Although the city has been a playground of the international rich and famous since the 1920s — Rita Hayworth, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and, later, Liz Taylor all holidayed here — the French were the first to fall for Marrakech?s property charms.
Yves St Laurent, for example, bought a villa here some 30 years ago?just before he rescued the verdant Majorelle Gardens, which he bought, restored and kept open to the public?and made the city popular with the fashion elite.
Many French and some Italian buyers followed suit over the years. But now that the palm-fringed Menara airport has several direct flights from the UK, the British are coming in earnest too.
‘We get French and Swiss buyers, among others, says Widad Charki, manager of the Domaine de l’Akhdar, a new development designed by French architect Charles Boccara, which is being built near Marrakech’s oldest golf club, the Royal, on the road to Ouarzazate. But the buyers of our first phase were mostly British,’ she adds.
‘There has been a vast increase in British interest in recent years,’ agrees Philip Arnott, of Savills associate Moroccan Properties Immobilier. He puts it down to a combination of factors: the fact that direct flights have made Marrakech in particular, and Morocco in general, more easily accessible it is easier to fly from Marrakech to London than to Tangier,’ he jokes; the fact that properties for sale are very often exotic architectural masterpieces but asking prices are significantly lower than in France or Spain; and, most of all, the fact that Morocco has a cosmopolitan feel but also retains its genuine charm.
It helps, of course, that the cost of living is a lot lower than in Europe: a main course at a good restaurant costs about £5, and a taxi ride across the medina, the old town, about £2.50 and that it is easy to find caretakers and cleaners for reasonable money. And, adds Mr Arnott, Morocco is one of the few Muslim countries where you can find good wine and beer (including the locally brewed Casablanca).
This rise in international demand has fuelled an unprecedented property boom in recent years, and it only takes a look at the streets of the medina, where every third shop sports a sign that reads agent immobilier (even though, very often, the only thing inside the shop is the agent himself) to see that some entrepreneurial types are making the most of foreign interest.
The Government itself?which is investing heavily to meet its target of 10 million tourists by 2010 looks favourably upon low density, low rise developments on the outskirts of town, according to Miss Chakri. Perhaps this is why some corners of Marrakech look like an exotic building site, out of the pages of a djellabaed Bob the Builder.
There is plenty of construction work going on, says Miss Chakri. About five big projects and maybe 30 or so smaller ones of five or so villas. But the biggest advantage of the Government?s tourist push, she says, is that they built the infrastructure first.
Compared to new builds, old properties in the medina often require a greater degree of investment in the basics?electricity, piping, mod cons unless you buy them clefs en main (those that have already been done up). But then new builds and medina homes appeal to two different types of buyers.
Developments such as the Domaine de l?Akhdar, whose villas stand in orange and olive tree gardens a short drive out of town, draw people looking for peace, golf, and wild expanses of sun-drenched countryside. Urban types, by contrast, prefer the architectural marvel of the medina townhouses, where the African heat and the bustle of car- and donkey-jammed streets melt in the cool silence of courtyards encrusted with zellij, the local tiles.
Prices for either type of Marrakech idyll are perhaps a little higher than one would expect when looking at Morocco’s average per capita income (estimated at about £852 in 2006), but significantly more affordable than southern Europe. And you get a lot of house for your money. Properties err on the largish side, even though rooms can sometimes be long and narrow. You can find a two-bedroom apartment for £70,000, and a three-bedroom townhouse ripe for renovation for £110,000, although a well-restored, fully modernised three-bedroom riad is more likely to cost in the region of £300,000.
But the truth is that any price is worthwhile just to sit on your terrace and see the silver gleam of the African full moon shining over the Marrakech rooftops on a balmy Moroccan night.
Domaine de l?Akhdar,
road to Ouarzazate, Marrakech
Vue de Paradis (view of paradise) is how developers Integral Estates label the second phase of Domaine de l’Akhdar, a set of 37 villas just outside Marrakech, on the road to Ouarzazate, which have distant views of the Atlas Mountains. A road lined with prickly pears, palms and olive trees takes you to the development, coasting the lush grounds of the Royal and Amelkis golf clubs. Red walls built in traditional Moroccan style with straw and mud encircle the villas, designed by French architect Charles Boccara. Painted to match albeit with modern materials the villas are available in two designs. Type A with a gigantic master bedroom and spa-like bathroom, which dwarves the two additional ensuites; and type B with a more equitable distribution of space and three similar-sized bedrooms. Both have ample living rooms, with hand-made, hand-cut tiles and 4m-high ceilings. Marble is everywhere, in the kitchen as in the bathrooms. Outside, each house has a patio, a garden, and a large, part-covered swimming pool with sitting corner. Common areas will include a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a hammam and spa. Domaine de l’Akhdar will have a concierge, a 24-hour reception, site security, and child care. The development here is taking place in two phases. Phase one, ready in June 2008, is sold out. Phase two, or Vue de Paradis, is scheduled to be completed between December 2008 and February 2009, and has about 19 villas for sale, with prices starting from EUR358,500 (about £261,385) through the London office of Integral Estates (08700 613 432; www.integral-estates.com).
The entrance to Riad Sebbagh is an iron-studded wooden door so typical of medina townhouses. ‘You knock on the door if you are a friend, and on the frame if you are a stranger,’ says owner Jean-Philippe Lavalette. How people inside can tell the difference is hard to say, but Mrs Lavalette must be able to, because she opens the door without asking who it is. A small hall acts as a buffer between the street and the house proper ‘so strangers won’t be able to see inside,’ says Mr Lavalette. Poor strangers, what do they miss. There is a bright, cool courtyard decorated with Moroccan tiles, and a bhou — an open air sitting room perfect for sipping a cocktail-facing the backdrop of rushing water, which fills a plunge pool. In traditional style, rooms open straight onto the courtyard: a shady, soothing living room with wooden carvings, a study, a gigantic bedroom with exquisite plasterwork. There are more bedrooms upstairs, and they are all enormous affairs marrying Moroccan feel with European furniture. Every little detail is perfect?from the ochre bathroom with a vast tub to the wetroom, from the lavish abundance of marble, zellij, plasterwork, carved wood and wrought iron to the air conditioning hidden behind a false ceiling, from the medina views off the rooftop terrace to the private hammam, a sign of an affluent house, according to Mr Lavalette. The price for this marvel is high, but not stellar. It is on the market with Moroccan Properties Immobilier (002 12 24 43 04 65, or Savills on 020-7016 3740) for EUR750,000 (about £509,169).
Mr and Mrs Jacques Moisset’s riad, Medina, Marrakech
Stretched on a chair, a grey cat soaks up the sun on the rooftop terrace of Mr and Mrs Jacques Moisset?s riad, in a quiet corner of Marrakech’s medina. He couldn’t have chosen a better spot: the tiled terrace, which has a large table and outdoor kitchen for alfresco dining, overlooks the city?s minarets and roofs. But when the sun shines too fiercely, cats and people descend the stairs, along tiled galleries with beautiful wrought-iron balconies, to the central courtyard, where water ripples in a tiled fountain. Inside, rooms are a triumph of East meets West. Perhaps the most fascinating one is a huge bedroom with a wrought-iron four poster set against pale peach walls under an ornate Moorish ceiling.The blue bathroom too?a huge tub stands at the foot of arched niches, all awash in a cerulean blue. As it befits a house of good standing, there is also a private hammam. The asking price for this riad is EUR450,000 (about £305,463), through Moroccan Properties Immobilier (00 212 24 43 04 65 or Savills, 020-7016 3740).