When Mike and Lucie Wood found an old property in the Marrakech Medina to add to their small group of Marrakech Boutique Riads, they named it Riad Star, for not much more reason than their daughter liked the name. It was only when neighbours asked them if they were naming it after the star who had lived there, that they learned this had once been home to Josephine Baker; the American born cabaret artist of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who had been the toast of Paris, who had been awarded the Legion d’Honeur by Charles de Gaule for her wartime work in the French Resistance and who was a leader in the civil rights movement for racial equality. In honour of Josephine Baker, the renovation of Riad Star, with its art deco woodwork and coloured glass took a new theme, incorporating jazz age glamour and sparkle and a sprinkling of objets and memorabilia from the period.
I hope you enjoy the video below of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech
We spent a weekend staying at Riad Star in May, taking advantage of the new easyJet direct flight from Bristol with a schedule that is well timed for long weekend breaks. Our taxi from the airport dropped us as close as it could could get to the Riad, where Abdel, the energetic Riad manager greeted us and led us through the narrow lanes to the unassuming door of the Riad, marked only with a small star. Miriam, the Riad’s excellent cook had prepared a traditional Moroccan meal for us with a selection of side dishes as starters; coleslaw with walnuts and sweet dried fruits, a delicious rice dish with green and red peppers, courgettes and green beans cooked with oil, lemon, parsley and cumin. After such a feast we barely had room for the succulant and fruity lamb tagine cooked with prunes, a dish that is often served at celebration meals in Morocco.
The Josephine room where stayed is thought to be where Josephine Baker herself slept, and the white walls were hung with Jazz age prints from the Revue Negre as well as a large portrait of Grace Kelly who befriended Josephine Baker and invited her to perform in Monacco. The double bed covered with a soft gold bedspread was framed by an arch of traditional carved plasterwork, while silver cutwork metal lamps threw patterns of light on the ceiling. On the tiled floor was a Zayan Berber marriage shawl serving as a rug, with silver sequins woven into the fabric to represent money and a few small tables and stools scattered with catalogues and records from Josephine Baker’s musical performances.
Our en suite bathroom was a similar fusion of traditional Moroccan polished plasterwork and art deco inspired polished black marble with delicious orange blossom shower gel and body lotion from Les Sens de Marrakech. The powerful shower was contained in a bathing area with a high step which I tackled rather carefully for fear of slipping on the tiled surfaces. At the internal window from which voices wafted up from the kitchen below, was a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker dangling in the space, complete with banana skirt and pouting lips.
From reading the books and biographies about Josephine Baker that were scattered around the Riad, I learned more fascinating stories of her time in Marrakech. In the early years of the Second World War, Josephine had started to work for the French resistance, secretly passing information about German operations within occupied France which she hid in her underwear or wrote in invisible ink on her music scores. In 1941 she received orders to move on the North Africa, arriving first in Algiers and then moving on the Casablanca and Marrakech, and it was during this time that she met one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Morocco, T’hami el Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech. Josephine had left France suffering with pneumonia and fatigue but now El Glaoui offered her a place to rest and recuperate in his palace, now the Museum of Marrakech next door to Riad Star, putting on a grand dinner in her honour.
The two became close friends and in 1942 Josephine became pregnant and late in her pregnancy suffered a miscarriage in the clinic in Casablanca. She developed an acute infection from which she nearly died and had an emergency hysterectomy which meant that she could never have children of her own. When she was well enough Josephine returned to Marrakech where El Glaoui offered her the use of the guest wing of his palace, now Riad Star, to recuperate. It is said that the Pasha paid children to stand under her window and recite verses from the Koran, as we might say a prayer for someone’s good health and speedy recovery.
As the Josephine room where we stayed is the only room in the riad that overlooks the street, which is unusual as most look inwards to the courtyard, it is believed that this must have been her bedroom. In the street she was known for her generosity and the elderly neighbour remembered being given sweets and modelling clay by her when he was a child. After her recovery Josephine Baker spent the remaining war years touring North Africa entertaining the American, English and French troops and later adopted a ‘Rainbow tribe’ of thirteen children to make up for the children of her own she could never have.
We loved the fusion of Moroccan craftsmanship at Riad Star with the elegant furnishings and metalwork from the souk and the Art Deco antiques and objets that owners, Mike and Lucie Wood have collected on their travels. Each room is decorated in unique style and is named after a part of Josephine Baker’s life; The Paris room after the Casino de Paris that made her a star; the Rainbow room after her Rainbow tribe of adoptive children and the Chiquita room on the roof terrace after her pet cheetah.
Each morning we were served a delicious breakfast of fruit salad, pancakes and scrambled eggs, seated at the green banquette in the alcove to one side of the inner courtyard, which had a small dipping pool to cool off on hot days. While many of the Riads of Marrakech have been converted into holiday homes or small boutique hotels, they were originally family homes designed to house extended families, with different generations living in the rooms that overlook the internal courtyard. The narrow street outside may look a little scruffy, but the unassuming door opens to reveal an elegant private world, designed to shield the women from prying eyes and to keep the house cool in the heat of summer. Owner, Mike Wood told me how most of the skilled craftsmen he had employed to recreate the traditional Beijmat teracotta tiled floors, Tadlakt polished plasterwork and hand carved plasterwork friezes and arches, could be found within 10 minutes of the Riad. From the souk had come embroidered cushions, small silver poufs and stools, silver cut metalwork lanterns and berber sequin marriage rugs, as well as art deco statues and ornaments in keeping with the Jazz Age theme.
The roof terrace has been converted into a delightful area for relaxation, with a wrought iron ballustrade around the central opening which has a clever retractable roof to keep the courtyard below dry and warm in the cooler months. The terrace is cleverly designed with different seating and sunbathing areas separated by arrangements of shrubs and herbs in pots, and in the evening the fairy lights twinkle in the bouganvillia with a fireplace for cooler evenings. There’s also a private hammam that leads off the terrace, where private treatments can be arranged, which is ideal for couples who want to try the hammam experience together, as the public hammams are strictly segregated.
In keeping with the Josephine Baker theme, there’s a rail of sparkling, sequinned dresses and other costumes provided for guests to dress up, with a jewellery box of 1920s style hair ornaments and necklaces to try. While we were there, the Riad had a special display of costumes for the Marrakech Bienniale cultural festival, including a red evening gown worn by Josephine Baker in during one of her final performances in Paris before she died in 1975. The Woods managed to purchase the dress, along with a sequined costume worn by the celebrated French singer, Mistinguett, letters, a movie script and other Josephine Baker memorabilia at a recent auction at the Casino de Paris.
We very much enjoyed our stay at Riad Star, being looked after by the wonderful staff, relaxing in the beautifully restored surroundings and reliving a little Jazz Age glamour. I’m sure Josephine Baker would have approved.
Visiting Riad Star and Marrakech
Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast. The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.
Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!
We also found the free Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app features a GPS responsive map of the old town medina which saves you from getting lost in the maze of narrow lanes and the latest version has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech. Download the free Marrakech-Riad app from iTunes here
More things to see in Morocco
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