Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I co own and manage Sun Trails.

Website URL: http://www.sun-trails.com

Palais Khum

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When I find myself sometimes wandering about the medina of Marrakech in the morning, I yearn for a good coffee in a beautiful setting, somewhere away from the hustle and bustle. Away from the selfie sticks. And Palais Khum is just the place. After all, Stefano, the owner, is Italian and from Milano, which means great coffee and good taste. Jazz pouring through the speakers ensures just the right mood for coffee. When Palais Khum opened its doors to guests, it was not just another 5 bedroom riad. With the opening a couple of years later of a cafe giving onto the pedestrian street, Stefano emphasized his desire of making  the restaurant a vibrant place where passers- by would mingle with the in- house residents. Some of the rooms here have their own private terrace. There's an elevator, two restaurants, a decent size covered heated pool and a spa. But it's also the man behind it all, Stefano. He's often on site, always available, greeting guests and sharing insider tips, without being invasive. He graciously agreed to an informal interview with us. 

Sun Trails: How long has Khum Palace been open and how did that idea come to you ?

Stefano: Palais Khum opened in 2014. At first we purchased it to make it a private house. Afterwards, we realized that it was too big for us to live alone in it, so we deemed it would be better to turn it into a guest house. We were inspired by the concept of riad but we endeavored to create an open space, not so much separated from the outside - or the cafe that overlooks the street and communicates with the inner garden. It also has to do with the pleasure of being in a Moroccan setting and decor, in the medina, but with a garden, an indoor pool, a spa, etc. This is what makes the charm of Marrakech.

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ST: Where does the name Palais Khum come from?

Stefano: In Italy, there is a lido (beach) called Kum, where my daughter was always asking me to take her so she could hang out with her friends. This place was dear to her and so I wanted to pay homage to it. At the same time kum in Arabic means your so Palais Khum = your palace. It is a name that is easy to recall. Moreover, all the guest houses are called Riad or Dar. At the time, the building was a foundouk (caranvaserail) among the other hundreds of foundouks in Marrakech (the foundouk was a building for caravans to stop, where camels and slaves occupied the groundfloor, while the merchants held the first floor).

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ST: Why Marrakech and not another city in Morocco?

Stefano: It's chance. To tell you the truth, I adore Cairo in Egypt, but considering the situation there, I prefer to be in Morocco, where there's security and political stability to which the King ( of Morocco) went at great lengths to ensure. He is a sovereign who travels a great deal, even when he is sick. I find him very dedicated to his country. The location of Marrakech is also ideal. Very well connected with the countries abroad and this close to Europe, the cultural difference is very intense. The desert, the mountains and the coast are quite within easy reach. Everyone falls in love with Marrakech. Since Winston Churchill, discerning travelers have always frequented Marrakech, just like they did Istanbul or Cairo.

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ST: When you bought the house, it was in the current state?

Stefano: No, we had to refurbish everything. We had to redo the plumbing, the lighting, and so on. Since we had added an indoor pool, an elevator, a spa, two restaurants, this was essential. Not to mention a certain range of comfort that we wanted to offer. However, we tried to preserve as much the Moroccan spirit as possible in the decor and architecture. The pool is a western touch - as you probably know, in a traditional Moroccan riad, you would find at best a central fountain, but never a pool for swimming. The local authorities have been kind enough to allow us to build this. 

Sun Trails: How many rooms are there ?

Stefano: 11 rooms and suites. We also have two restaurants (Moroccan and Italian / International) and a spa. We will expand spa in the near future. We welcome people from the outside looking to enjoy our garden and our restaurant, but from 10:00 pm, common areas are exclusively reserved for resident guests.

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ST: Have you had any experience in the hotel business before the opening of Palais Khum or is it something new for you?

Stefano: No, I have not had experience before and besides, I don't know if I would do it again one day, if given the opportunity. It was quite strenous, even if today, 4 years later, we have earned a reputation and enjoy a good occupancy rate in the year. Personally, I believe in the principle of staying local, whether it is the staff, the cuisine or even the wine. I think there is some very good Moroccan wine being produced now. We do not serve French wine, even though I know that other houses do it. Also, the team manager must be Moroccan. I'm here to correct things sometimes, but I'm proud of my small, yet effective team. They speak several languages. Moreover, the spirit of welcome, to receive, is profoundly Arabic, so also Moroccan. Among my travels to Central Asia, I was able to experience this at every opportunity. There, when you visit someone, you are treated like a king. We give you everything we have best.
But visitors must try to respect the customs and local traditions.

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ST: What type of clientele stays at Palais Khum ? Is there a nationality that is dominant ? 

Stefano: There is no predominant nationality. We receive guests from all over. On the other hand, the Chinese are on the rise compared to past years. On the other hand, Chinese do not often speak other languages. It's not easy to understand them - they do not wish to mix with others and even in Marrakech seek Chinese restaurants.

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ST: What are your favorite places in Marrakech?

Stefano: Personally I prefer to visit Raids. There are not so many monuments in Marrakech. Marrakech, its medina, is one large museum. I love going back to beautiful houses instead. For example, I take pleasure to go sometimes to dine at Riad Kniza. I also like Gueliz, not so much the other districts of Ville Nouvelle. As a place to go out and party, the Jad Mahal.

ST: What else could Marrakech do to attract tourists?

Stefano: In my opinion, it could do with a music festival. In Italy, in Peruggia, we have a jazz festival and this brings a lot more tourists to the area. But for a music festival, you have to have the right line- up. And music is easier than cinema. The Film Festival ( that was being held every December) is now dead. They are holding one of the of Formula E races, but to make things big, it will be necessary to build a circuit and hold a Formula 1 race. With music, things are easier, but you need consistency and a well curated line up.

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ST: You offer Moroccan and Italian cuisine. Are there special dishes?

Stefano: We offer pesto tagliatelle, tramezzi and a few more dishes. The pasta comes from Italy, but I try to use local ingredients. As for the Moroccan cuisine, I am not keen on revisiting. For me, foie gras has no place next to couscous. The cuisine is part of the local culture, it is often an introduction into a culture and Morocco is rich in cultures. Why revisit traditions, local cuisine ? It's not my angle.

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ST: What makes Palais Khum unique ?

Stefano: I think every house is different. Every house has a soul to itself. I think even we could suggest tourists to visit various Riads in the medina. They trully are works of art. At the same time, I can not recommend my guests to go to visit my competition :). Much of our furniture comes from La Mamounia hotel, which had sold their furniture before the renovation.

ST: What is the best time to visit Marrakech?

Stefano: There is no season. Maybe in July and August people should avoid Marrakech if they do not support the heat. But even during these months, you can go out in the afternoon and in the evening and spending most of the day by a swimming pool.

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ST: Do you have plans for the future of Palais Khum ?

Stefano: We are always trying to improve. Like I mentioned before, we are expanding our spa. Many of our neighbors did cooking classes. Many have opened cafes as well. Perhaps a boutique. A boutique inside the cafe. I think it is something that could work. 

Accommodation at Palais Khum is currently being offered on our tours with our Privilege range. 

© Sun Trails 2018. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Travel to Morocco during Ramadan

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Ramadan is a holy month in Islam, during which the Muslims refer from drinking and eating, among other things, from dusk till dawn ( 4 AM to 7H30 PM in Morocco). Morocco being a Muslim country, most Moroccans observe the fasting. In 2018, Ramadan will begin around 15 May and end around June 14, give or take one day.

Is it still worth visiting Morocco during Ramadan ? Of course it is. May is traditionally a very popular time of year to visit Morocco, before the summer heat settles in. Here is what changes during Ramadan in Morocco compared to the rest of the year:

- shops and businesses don’t usually open before 11 or 12 in the morning. Some monuments and sites may change their schedule and close sooner than usual. They all come to a standstill around 3- 4 PM and many will open again after the ftour ( breakfast) around 9 PM;
- dinner in restaurants is served later than usual ( starting with 8H30 PM), since most Moroccans have their ftour ( breakfast) around 8 PM;
- alcohol may not be as easy to purchase locally as during the rest of the year;
- each individual is affected differently by fasting for weeks on end, but most of them will not be at their 100 percent. Some will be less focused. Some will be grumpy. Most of them will invite you to share a meal with them;
- our drivers and guides are aware that you will probably not be participating in the fast. They are completely used to tourists eating in front of them and will not be offended at all;
- many mosques have tables spread out to feed the hungry after prayers. In the markets and streets, special dishes are prepared during this time, some of which can’t be found during the rest of the year.

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In order to have the best out of your holidays in Morocco during the Ramadan:

- although Moroccans are by now used to it, try not to eat, drink or smoke in public, unless you really have to. If you do, do it discreetly. No one will throw stones, but it would be impolite and may upset some;
- don’t expect much between 3 and 7 PM. Shops and businesses will reopen again later in the evening. If you have planned for a trek/ visit/ activity, try to schedule that to end before 3 PM;
- try to enjoy the nights. There is hardly a better time of year to have a glimpse into the locals’ every day lives. Try to share a meal with the locals ( you will get plenty of invitations) and observe the locals and their lives. Most prayers in the evening are conducted outside the mosques and there is a special ambiance all around as people greet and visit each other;
- try and space out the itinerary. For example, if you needed 7 days for an itinerary around Morocco during the rest of the year, you should plan for 8-9 days to cover the same distance and areas during Ramadan.

Naturally, the fact that most Morocco is observing Ramadan puts some stress on the logistics of a private tour. Nevertheless, May and beginning of June is a great time to be in Morocco and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity just because of it. You can browse through the reviews left by our previous guests over the years on the internet and see that they have thoroughly enjoyed Morocco even when Ramadan month used to happen in July and August.

If you have any further questions or you want to send us an enquiry, please use the form here.

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Fine dining in Fez

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When you ask a Moroccan which city best represents Moroccan cuisine, the answer will most likely be: Fez. And there’s a feeling that the time has stood still here for the past few centuries when walking aimlessly through thousands of derbs or just turning the corner to find oneself in the middle of an auction- sale of goat skins. Where Marrakech is opulent and sensual, Fes is traditional and discreet. There is no wonder then that some of the long- forgotten Moroccan dishes can still be found on the menus of some of its restaurants. However, the last decade has also seen the arrival of foreign chefs that are pushing for Morocco- inspired imaginative dishes, lured by the organic ingredients they can easily source in the surroundings of Fes. John Dorry with Chermoula, Sephardic Bitter Orange or Scored Calamari with Zaalouk are but such examples. We are often in Fez and have tried most of its best well- known restaurants so we are going to talk about 3 restaurants that really stand out. Two of the them twist Moroccan cuisine while the third one keeps long- forgotten Moroccan dishes alive or enhances classical tagines.

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DAR ROUMANA

Moroccan food with a twist in Fes all started with Vincent Bonin, a chef who had worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, worked for legendary chefs in Australia and catered to celebs on their yachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. He and partner Vanessa took over Dar Roumana in 2005. She was managing the guest house and he was in charge of the cuisine. In the beginning, it was a question of serving something different to the resident guests. Eventually word got around and they had to open the restaurant to more and more non- resident guests. Ultimately, the charm of French countryside got the best of Vanessa and they decided to end their Moroccan adventure in 2015, leaving the cuisine in charge of Chef Younes Idriss who worked alongside Vincent for 7 years. 

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Having had the privilege of dining there 3 times in the last 7 years, last time after Vincent had left, I can only assert that the imagination and great taste are still present. I wish I could choose a favourite dish but you’re not likely to find it again as the menu is constantly changing. Before dinner, offer yourself a glass of wine on the roof terrace and take in the beguiling panorama of the medina of Fez at night. 3 dish menu at 350 Dirhams per person.

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L’AMBRE @ RIAD FES

A more posh affair, the Ambre restaurant is set inside Relais & Chateaux’s only property in Fes, Riad Fes. Here, it is not about twisting the Moroccan recipes but making sure that some of them don’t disappear in the wake of mass tourism cuisine. Some of the visitors in Morocco complain about the uniformity of their meals as they seem to be served the same dishes all throughout. In reality, mainstream restaurants are cautios of stepping outside the norm and copycat the same menus. And some travelers soon end up ‘tagined out’… When family culinary traditions have been passed down for generations, why not celebrate them with the people who know. Lamb tossed in Smoked Onion Jam or Spiced Sea Bass roasted with vegetables are not your typical Moroccan restaurant dishes. With this idea, the restaurant opened itself up to cooks who have never set foot in a cooking school but have learnt everything from their mothers; a true marker of authentic cuisine. On arrival, they receive training to supplement their existing know-how and are taught to use products in their entirety, to eliminate waste. Each year, Michelin-starred chefs also choose to complete their training at the Riad Fès. Here, fruit and vegetables are all seasonal, sourced from a local sustainable farmer. Light menu from 350 Dirhams per person.

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NUR RESTAURANT

When first opened a few years back, Numero 7 caused a stir in the rather conservative Fez medina. A small riad patio, very minimal in design, that could accommodate at best 30 persons, a 6 dish menu of what resembled molecular cuisine concocted by a resident chef that would change every three months. It was never heard of. Although the formula proved to have some success, it was a concept difficult to manage, especially given the logistics of being tucked in the middle of the medina. In 2016, the concept changed and so did the name: Nur. It was the idea of chef Najat Kaanache and her husband Charles. Spanish- born but of Moroccan origins, Najat wanted to pay tribute to the proud cultural and agricultural diversity of Morocco. She affectionately refers to her country as "the mouth of Europe", forged through its unique confluence of colonial cultures. She must know what she’s talking about since she is the only Moroccan chef that has worked in the kitchen at restaurants like El Bulli and Noma, among others.

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Last November when I had dinner there, in between my 10 courses , Najat had time for a chat where she explained among other things that she wanted to create something unique, a very refined cuisine yet retaining the Moroccan flavors. She also felt a little disheartened that some of the best Moroccan produce ends up in restaurants in Spain and that although Moroccan cuisine is so rich in recipes, most restaurants reproduce the same bland menus. Each morning, she and her team source the best available produce from within the Medina and construct the largely improvisational menu around the seasonal seafood and local protein offerings from their specialty purveyors. And if 10 dishes seem like a lot to take in, don’t expect to come out bloated – this is much more about a culinary travel than getting your belly full. 10 dish menu at 700 Dirhams per person.

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© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

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Riad La Parenthese Marrakech

The riads of Marrakech, probably Morocco's most coveted attraction. If until the late 90's, they were a well kept secret, the secondary homes of well- off French urbanites that used to come and spend the weekend or winter holidays and started to let rooms to their friends and aquaintances, they then became hugely popular with non- French guests starting around 2006- 2007. Nowadays, there are more than 1600 only for the medina of Marrakech. If they share something in common, it is the fact that rooms spread around an inside patio, with little or no windows on the outside and service is personal yet discreet. The owner will sit down with you and share insider's tips on where it is best to shop or dine. Breakfast at 1 PM ? No problem. In general, nothing is too much trouble, when requests are within reason. And ultimately, the feeling of being transported into another world, when walking past the threshold, from a world of narrow and scrubby alleyways into a setting of 1001 nights, where a fountain is girgling, surrounded by orange trees and the scent of fresh cinnamon filling the air.

But how do you choose the best ones ? After all, you've booked one of our private tours of Morocco and are not likely to return to Marrakech soon. Well, based on our experience, it makes a difference when the owner ( usually a foreigner) is always on site, rather than having a manager hired. Then, the location: close to Jemaa El Fna square, a taxi drop off point and the souks. Third: security. You are not likely to get robbed or attacked anywhere in Marrakech, but in some parts of the medina you will get hustled more by over-night guides. Riad La Parenthese ticks all these boxes and then some: the cuisine is delicious, the decor is sober yet modern ( after all, you get plenty of traditional in Fes, Meknes and Rabat) and nothing is too much trouble for Patricia, her son Pierre and their loyal and hard working team. Patricia generously offered to share with us some of the secrets behind her love- affair with Marrakech.

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Sun Trails: How did you get the idea of the guest house? How long have you been living in Morocco and why? Where does the name of the riad come from? Do you previous have experience running a hotel ? 

Patricia: My first trip to Morocco was about 20 years ago.
To be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight- I was a little apprehensive. When I visited the Medina there, I remember there were a lot of fake guides and for me, the culture shock was complete. 
On my second trip to Marrakech however, I do not know what happened but I only had one thought in my head: to return as soon as possible.

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That’s how we ended up buying a small house a few years later and were moving between Marrakech and Belgium, but as soon as I was landing in Belgium my heart remained in Marrakech. So one day I decided to sell my shop in Belgium so we can purchase the riad. We did and then needed one year of refurbishment works to turn it into what it is today.

We had no previous experience in hospitality, but had many ideas and I knew one thing was I wished to really spoil our guests. The name (Parenthese) because in general, one visits for a few days, has a break, a parenthesis ( faire une parenthese, FR)

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ST: The staff has not changed much in recent years. Was it easy to find a team so welcoming and motivated? When you are not on site to greet customers, who takes your place?

P: Our staff has not changed for 5 years. We are a bit like a family and customers can witness that. I know I can count on them at any moment. It is however very rare that none of us are here. Pierre, my son and partner, takes care of everything when I am not there and I am always very happy when I get an email from a customer who thanks me because he has been very accommodating.

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ST: How do you get along with your neighbors in the medina ? Are there many other guest houses on the street or is it more a residential area ?

P: The neighborhood has several guest houses and we are generally solidary enough to help us in case of overbooking or to lend us things when we need it. I do not consider the other riads as competitors, we are all different in design in terms of what we offer. The good relationship with the Moroccan neighbors comes naturally; it's always nice to say a word to people while crossing the neighborhood.

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ST: You are ideally located, next to Dar El Bacha palace and the souks and 10 minutes from Jemaa El Fna square, with a taxi drop off point not far. What will you advise someone to do if they stay with you and only have 48 hours in Marrakech?

P: I always advise guests who only have 2 days in Marrakech to visit the Mellah and its palaces, the Madrasa for its architecture and especially the Majorelle gardens that I adored on my first trip. The souks are unmissable, for therein lie treasures of Moroccan handicrafts. If the guests want to leave Marrakech, I advise them to take a day trip up in the Atlas and its small villages.

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ST: What will you advise someone especially not to do, the first time in Marrakech?

P: I would advise against evenings too touristy. Some restaurants used to offer dinner and good entertainment years ago, but that is not the case anymore.

ST: What are the best restaurants not far from your hotel ? And spas?

P: The restaurants where we enjoy spending an evening are: Le Comptoir du Pacha (at only 100 m from the riad), Le Café Arabe and La Maison Arabe. We also love Latitude 31 for its reinvented Moroccan cuisine and stunning setting. As regards spas, we work exclusively with the Bains d'Orient and Heritage Spa. They are very professional and quite welcoming. Their decor is unique, with Heritage Spa being quite authentic and Les Bains d'Orient rather chic. It’s the best way to spend a few hours.

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ST: Which countries do your customers come from? Families or couples? How many nights do they spend at the riad on average? Tell us a funny thing that happened to your guests.

P: Our clients are mostly English and Spanish but the rest of our guests come from all over the world. They usually spend between 2 and 4 nights with us.

A funny thing that happened to us:
A guest that had just arrived with his luggage in his hand and who, upon walking past our plunge pool, thought it was covered by a see- through glass and stepped on it... He ended up in a bathrobe while waiting for his things to dry. Fortunately, he only got away with a scare...

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ST: What is one of the typical dishes of the house or one that your guests appreciate the most?

P: Our couscous is I think one of the best (I’m not the one preparing it, fortunately!) The girls are very good cooks. Our breakfasts which change daily are generally very appreciated.

ST: What is your favorite place in Marrakech, inside or outside the medina ?

P: My favorite place inside the city is Majorelle Gardens and a little outside the city, Lalla Takerkoust Lake. Inside the medina, the souks where I love to stroll and treasure hunt.

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Riad La Parenthese is currently offered on the Dreamers level of our bespoke tours of Morocco.

© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Sun Trails

14 Avenue Hassan Seghir

Casablanca 20000

Phone : +212 638 636 719/ +212 (0) 649 510 359

Skype: sun_trails_morocco

We are open 7 days a week from 9 AM to 5 PM local Morocco time. For any last minute enquiry feel free to call us on the number(s) listed above.

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Boutique tours of Morocco

What better place than Morocco for a private tailor made tour ? It can be a day trip from Marrakech into the Atlas Mountains. Or a 14 day private luxury Morocco tour. And everything in between. With such a different culture and language, a boutique 4x4 Morocco tour with an English speaking local driver- guide guarantees the best holidays in Morocco. Choose one of the many 4x4 tours from Marrakech or another imperial city and you will discover the off the beaten track Morocco. Much more than excursions from Marrakech or Morocco desert tours, our 4x4 custom tours travel all across Morocco, covering Berber villages, majestic Kasbahs, enchanting palm groves or Touareg desert camps. From Ait Benhaddou to Chefchaouen, from Erg Chebbi to Taroudant and from camel rides in the Sahara to hardcore trekking Morocco can only offer. Browse among our 4x4 boutique tours of Morocco and book your favorite today !