Nikki’s Nest: Riad Joya (Marrakech, Morocco)

The amazing Riad Joya courtyard

The amazing Riad Joya courtyard

Planning a trip to the majestic city of Marrakech? I recommend staying at the fabulous Riad Joya (designed by the eclectic & posh Umberto Maria Branchini). Featured on The Today Show’s 2012 “Hotlist”, this decadent riad captures the essence of different African cultures and each suite is light & airy.

Located in the very heart of the Medina (in the historical and protected area of the Mouassine quarter), Riad Joya is just a short walk from main monuments, the souk and Djemaa El Fna square (where you can buy spices, get a henna tattoo or take part in snake charming). You can also see some of the most exciting attractions of the red city, such as the Coranique School, the Koutubia and the Museum of Marrakech.This elegant boutique riad is a welcome retreat of peace & tranquility after spending the day exploring the chaotic Medina. I had the pleasure of spending 3 lovely days at this riad last year and can’t wait to visit again.

What’s a Riad?
Historically, it is a traditional Moroccan home with an open garden or courtyard. However, now most function as hotels/resorts. Riads are more inward focused. You won’t see large exterior windows. In fact, the exterior is rather plain and you are unable to tell if the home is upper or lower class. There are clay walls with a huge (and in some cases, ornate) door. Once you enter thru the massive door, you will be amazed at how lovely the interior is. This is where the magic happens..beautiful tiles & mosaics, water fountains, lush fabrics…riads offer you the opulence of a grand mansion combined with a cozy atmosphere. These lovely “homes” only have a small number of rooms (i.e. 5-10). Riads provide you with a unique Moroccan experience that you won’t get staying in a traditional hotel. You receive special attention & stay in beautiful surroundings. It’s like a slice of heaven.

Getting There

Riad Joya will arrange for a taxi from the airport, train station, or other cities at your request. Your taxi will drop you off just outside one of the gates to the Medina. The streets are very narrow inside the Medina so no cars are allowed…only push carts, donkeys & mules. They will also arrange for a luggage porter to greet you at the gate and lead you to the riad which is just a few minutes walk away. My advice…do not try to find the riad on your own. The Medina has many streets and this riad is located off a side street from another side street. A 20 Dirham (which is about $2 USD) tip to a luggage porter is money well spent. Plus, this will allow you to take in the sights and sounds of the Medina while walking to your destination.

Promotions

You can book directly via the website or go thru a 3rd party discount booking agency (i.e. Jetsetter; Trip Advisor).

The Courtyard

This riad surrounds a breathtaking courtyard that has a water fountain and beautiful plants & flowers. There are open lounge/sitting areas surrounding the courtyard. Each area makes you feel comfortable and relaxed.

View of the Riad Joya from the rooftop at night

View of the Riad Joya from the rooftop at night

Marrakesh 442Rooms & Suites

Riad Joya is an elegant 7-suite luxury boutique hotel. Each suite has a theme based on a particular African region. The riad website describes it best, “The overall atmosphere is of an elegant private house where understated luxury fuses with eclectic style and bespoke service and attentions.”

This hotel also has a “Butler service” which offers tailored services “from the assistance with transportation and luggage, to recommendations of activities, Joya’s Butler is always ready to ensure that all our guests have everything needed for an enriching stay.” We were spoiled rotten! He anticipated our needs, handled getting our laundry washed & pressed; walking us to and from the hammam and inquiring about our favorite fruits & vegetables to help with dinner selection. I really needed him to come home with me 🙂

Each suite features a private seating area and large dressing room. The bathrooms are amazing!!! They are “all made in natural stones combined with the traditional tadelak, are bright and spacious and features large shower and a vanity corner.”

Be sure to check out the pictures on the riad website (linked above) or tripadvisor.com as each suite is different. Upon arrival, we are told we can pick from a variety of suites since the riad was not fully booked (fab-u-lous!). After we chose our suite, we were taken to our room and given time to relax before heading down for dinner. Words really can’t capture how wonderful this place is.

We stayed in the largest suite — the Dar Arabe…absolute luxury!

A writing alcove in the Dar Arabe suite

A writing alcove in the Dar Arabe suite

Vanity area

Marrakesh 431

Soaps, shampoo & conditioner

Marrakesh 411

Seating area

Seating area

I was also given a tour and was able to photograph a few of the suites that weren’t in use.

The Tuareg suite (inspired by the Berber people). Love the eclectic look & feel of this room (even if it is the darkest suite of the bunch).

Entrance to the Tuareg suite

Entrance to the Tuareg suite

Sweet dreams in the Tuareg suite!

Sweet dreams in the Tuareg suite!

Marrakesh 425

Check out the sinks!

A copper bathtub surrounded by a circular cloth shower curtain.

A copper bathtub surrounded by a circular cloth shower curtain.

Marrakesh 426

Seating area

Seating area

The Naos suite – in Egyptology, naos refers to that which is hidden and unknown inside the inner sanctum of a temple (source, Wikipedia).

Naos suite

Naos suite

Naos suite

Naos suite

Naos bath

Naos bath

The Domus suite…

Domus suite

Domus suite

Domus seating area

Domus seating area

Dining

The chef at the Riad Joya is PHENOMENAL! You can dine in their beautiful dining room or on the terrace (which is up several sets of very steep stairs). The riad provides a bountiful breakfast of fruits & pastries (you can request eggs as well) and a daily set menu.

A bountiful dinner

A bountiful dinner

Ambient lighting in the dining room with their beautiful Moroccan lamps.

Ambient lighting in the dining room with their beautiful Moroccan lamps.

Delicious dessert

Delicious dessert

The Hammam & Spa

What better way to unwind from a day of sightseeing than to enjoy a hammam & spa? Unfortunately, the riad’s hammam was out of service during our stay but they did set us up with an appointment at another hammam a short walk away (and the massage is fab-u-lous)! You pick between a couple of fragrant oils (my choices were “orange flower” and “jasmine”). Those magical hands lulled me right into a light nap. Want to know more about what to expect when visiting a hammam? Check out my Tale of 2 Hammams post.

Overall

If you are looking for the perfect place to unwind and relax during your visit to Marrakech, this inviting sanctuary is the place. Have insightful conversations over mint tea while learning about Moroccan culture from the locals. I must warn you that this riad is not suitable to those who are wheelchair bound or have mobility issues due to the amount of stairs. Other than that, this place is perfect. Centrally located with delicious food and an absolutely phenomenal staff, the Riad Joya is a wonderful place to stay during your exotic trip to Marrakech. So forget using hotel chain rewards points and enjoy the unique experience of staying in a riad!

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Nikki’s Rating: Absolutely Wonderful 5

Rating Scale 1-5 (1 = GET OUT NOW; 2 = Seriously?; 3 = Eh, it’ll do; 4 = Fabulous; 5 = Absolutely Wonderful)

Looking for a place to stay in Fez? Check out my review of the Riad Laaroussa. Interested in visiting Morocco? Check out my travel adventures here!

Fabulous Firenze

English: Michelangelo's David (original statue...

Michelangelo’s David (original statue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FRIDAY

Buongiorno!!!  After finishing up work a bit early on Friday afternoon, William (aka Sweet Willy) and I took the train from Genoa to Florence (which was a 4.5 hour train ride along the beautiful Mediterranean and Tuscan countryside).

The train ride was uneventful until we changed trains in La Spezia to transfer to the regional train to Florence.  Of course, I picked the car with crazy in it.  Why does this always happen to me???  When you buy a train ticket in Italy, you are required to validate the ticket in one of the yellow machines on the platform.  If you don’t validate your ticket, you are subject to a fine up to 50 Euro.  So, the train operator lady comes into our railcar to verify that everybody has a validated ticket.  There are only 4 people in our car (me + William + African guy + Italian guy). 

She gets to the Italian guy first who looks completely normal.  He was wearing glasses and reading a book.  All smiles when we got on.  Little did I know that glasses can obscure crazy eyes.  I mean, crazy folks aren’t usually smiling & reading a book.  So, the train operator lady asks him for his ticket…then tells him that he either has the wrong ticket or it’s not properly validated (it was hard to translate).  He was like, “no, no, no…the machina Italian words, foccacia, Italian words, primavera, Italian words” and train lady was like, “yeah, you need to pay 50 Euro because this ticket isn’t properly validated.”  Why did she say that to that man?  Because that set him off and he continues to repeat himself basically saying that he got the ticket out of the fast ticket machine and it’s not his fault if it’s missing something.  The train lady is not sympathetic and now they are both getting heated.  Next thing I know, train lady was like, “pay this fine or I’m calling the police.” Crazy Italian guy was like, “Call’em.  You don’t know me.  I’m real.  I’m wild.  It’s the machine’s fault.  Kick rocks!”  

At this point, he starts cursing in Italian and talking to himself after she leaves.  Then, he turns around to plead his case to William and myself (speaking Italian a mile a minute) and we just give him a blank look and the crickets (for those of you who don’t know what “the crickets” are, it means being so silent you can hear crickets chirping).  We weren’t about to get caught up in that mess.  He got the police on him now.  We can’t help you, buddy.  Get your Euros, pay the lady and shut up.  You ain’t gonna win this fight, Giuseppe.  But, you know what?  You can’t reason with crazy.  Why did 2 police men come and he STILL gives the same story about the “machina” messing up his ticket?  They wanted identification and to talk to him in “private” (which was out in the corridor where he is still completely visible and continuing to go off about the machina).  It was high drama and lasted for at least an hour and a half (crazy folks don’t have watches or a sense of time) and the result was that he paid the 50 Euro fine while continuing to fuss and teach me Italian curse words.  I would’ve taken a picture but I didn’t know if crazy Italian man would go all Kanye on me and try to take my camera.

So, we finally arrive to Florence around 6:30pm and get to our hotel where they give you an actual key with a big gold-plated key ring (like we are about to do a breakdance battle) that you have to turn into the front desk when you leave the hotel.  If you ever go to Florence, and are looking for a nice budget hotel with a friendly staff, I highly recommend the Hotel Privilege. 

After we checked in, we went to dinner and had a great meal of lemon flavored penne & meatballs as well as gnocchi with drunk cheese and the house Chianti to drink.  Then a fabulous dessert!

DSCN0097

Angie's Pub

Angie’s Pub

After dinner, we walked around Florence and ate gelato.  Then stumbled upon a really cool lounge named “Angie’s Pub”.  It was packed and they were showing the movie “Scarface” on the wall in the back room.  William and I had a debate on whether or not a patron who came up to the bar was a man or a woman.  My viewpoint was that it was a woman (I didn’t get a good look at her face and couldn’t hear her talking but she seemed built like a woman).  William was insistent that it was a transvestite.

Sweet Willy: That is a man
Me: No it’s not. She looks straight woman.
SW: Look at her! She’s got an Adam ’s apple and a deep voice. That is a man.
Me: Maybe she’s had a hard life. That don’t make her a man.
SW: Are you deaf? His voice is deeper than mine!

So, we agree to disagree because I wasn’t convinced.  However, when William came out of the men’s bathroom, the “lady” was entering so um….he was right.  Then I start to wonder what type of bar we are in because I had already started to notice a certain element but it really seemed to have a broad range of patrons.  And we had a great time talking to people so it really didn’t matter.

SATURDAY

William and I get up Saturday morning and I am really dragging.  It’s been a rough week of long hours at the office and little sleep.  But, I wanted to be up to see as much as we could on our last day in Florence.  So, we check-out of the hotel and make our way to the train station.  It was weird how dead the city was at 11am.  When I visited Florence during the summer 2 years ago, it was packed.  I think the cold weather puts people off sightseeing.  But, that turned into a major advantage for us because we didn’t have to wait in any lines and got to see a lot.

William: Why do the pigeons look homeless?
Me:  Because they are? They look fine to me.
William: Their feathers are all dull and that one looks like it has a tumor on its foot.

First stop was Santa Croce Church.  It’s a 14th century Franciscan church decorated with centuries of precious art and holds the tombs of some great Florentines (such as Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, who was from Pisa but lived his last years under house arrest near Florence because he defied the church and declared the Earth revolved around the sun; also, the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564, famous sculptor of Statue of David and the Pieta and painter of Sistine Chapel).

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

Then, we walked towards the Duomo. Florence’s Gothic cathedral has the third-longest nave in Christendom. The façade from the 1870s is covered with pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. So, you know why I love to look at it. Maybe I can suggest we do the next Boule here?

Duomo

Duomo

Afterwards, we made our way to the train station to check our bags so we could sightsee unencumbered.  We then made our way to the Accademia where we were able to see the Statue of David…if you have never seen this amazing statue in person, buy a ticket to Florence now and go see it.  When you enter the Accademia, you have to walk down a hall then when you turn the corner, you see this magnificent and very large statue.  It’s a sight to behold.  And it is beautiful!  But you can’t take pictures.

Once we left the Accademia, we stopped by this café and had the BEST pasta. I had the gnocchi with Bolognese sauce while William had spaghetti with tuna and peppers. We had planned on leaving for Rome mid-afternoon but once we stopped by the street markets, it was a wrap because the shopping was great. We ended up buying some great souvenirs for friends and family and William bought a fab new coat.  While we were at one store, the sales lady let me know that a pigeon had taken a dump on the back of my coat. Sigh. Really Petey? I defend you when Will calls you homeless but you gonna just use my coat as your Port-a-Potty? That’s how they do in Florence now?

We also noticed that dogs could go anyplace.  Not only the restaurants but into the high-end stores!  Most of them were so well-behaved. It’s a shame Riley will never get to experience that because I can’t be put on a Watch List since he doesn’t know how to act.

After shopping and realizing that time is about to expire to pick up our checked luggage, we start walking back towards the train station and realize there were more markets. Then, it was like the heavens opened up and I saw the most fabulous coat!  It was hand-stitched with fox fur trim.  The sales guy says, “I’ll give you a 50% discount so it’s only $1900.”  Wait…what?  $1900 U.S. dollars?  What currency are we talking about because I can only afford that denomination in pesos.  He confirmed U.S. dollars so I was like, “that’s okay, playa.”  Still, I couldn’t resist trying it on.

Me:  Man, I love this coat. Will you get it for me?
William: Uh, sure. Let’s ask about their layaway plan. I’ll see if they will let me pay 20 Euro a month for 4 years.  If I put down 50 Euro in good faith, they may let you walk off with the coat.
Sales guy: *crickets* [then puts his hand out to take the coat back]
Me:  I really love that coat.  I need it in my life.
William: Yeah, that  coat is hot.  You’d have a closet full of death with the fox-mink. With the leather you just bought and this fur, you’d have your own pet cemetery. Because you know they had to kill those animals to make that coat you love.
Me: *crickets* {walking away dejected}

We rush to the train station, get our bags and just make the train to Rome.  We meet 2 ladies on the train who are artists from NY but own second homes in Umbria that they visit every 3 months or so.  I just had one question…how can I do that?

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Nikki’s Nest: Thon Hotel Astoria (Oslo, Norway)

image sourced from Thon Hotel Astoria website.

Thon Hotels is one of Norway’s largest hotel chains with hotels in Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Holland.  They have 4 types of hotels; City (typically in the city center), Conference (professional conference hotels geared towards business travellers), Budget (simple accommodations) and Resort (suburban accommodations).  I spent 1 night at the Thon Hotel Astoria located at Dronningensgate 21 in Oslo, Norway.  The Thon Hotel Astoria is in their “budget” class of hotels and is centrally located close to the main pedestrian street (Karl Johan), the Oslo S Station, and many restaurants and boutiques and sights.

Promotions

Oslo is expensive.  Seriously.  A small pizza for 1 person averages $40 USD.  With that in mind, taking advantage of promotions is critical.  Thon offers promotions at most of its hotels.  By booking at least 7 days in advance (via their website), you can save money on your stay.  My stay cost 653 Kronor/night (which was approximately $117 USD).

Rooms & Suites

There are 3 types of rooms available:  Standard Single, Standard Double and Standard Triple/Family.  As stated above, this is a budget class hotel which means there are no frills.  I stayed in the Standard Single which had a twin-sized bed, an older tv and a small shower.  While the room is small, it was comfortable enough.

 

The Fitness Center

None

The Spa

None

Dining

Breakfast (the only meal served at the hotel) is included in the cost of the room.  As I left prior to breakfast being served, I cannot review the taste or quality.

Internet

Free wireless internet service is available.  You must get the code from the front desk so I suggest asking for it upon check-in to save yourself a trip downstairs.

Activities

None

Overall

I found this hotel to be comfortable and a great value.  The rooms were clean and cheap.  The only negative was the long line at check-in.  This has been a big complaint from other reviewers.  The lobby is small and there is typically only 1 person working the front desk which makes the check-in process longer than necessary.

I also stayed at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia in Oslo for 1 night (which is considerably more expensive as I paid 1525 Kronor/$284 USD) and I found the Thon Hotel Astoria to be better.  While I can’t give this hotel the rating of a Fabulous 4,  I would definitely stay there again in the future.  Looking for things to do in Oslo?  Check out my city review here and my Norway in a Nutshell review here (if you are looking to visit the fjords).

Nikki’s Rating: 3 “Eh, it’ll do”

Rating Scale 1-5 (1 = GET OUT NOW; 2 = Seriously?; 3 = Eh, it’ll do; 4 = Fabulous; 5 = Absolutely Wonderful)