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"My heart belongs to Marrakech"

Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli comes from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Italy. The owner of the stunningly beautiful riad La Maison Arabe in Marrakech spoke to us about his love of music, of Morocco and of life.

Text:
Annemarie Mahler
Photos:
Christoph Kern
W

“We should never be afraid of improvisation.”

How would you like me to address you?

Simply as Monsieur Ruspoli or just Fabrizio. The “Prince”  is only used on very official occasions. For me, that’s all totally meaningless.

It was almost 20 years ago that you opened the first hotel-riad in Marrakech. Could you tell us how that came about.

I had been living in Marrakech for two years in 1994 when I heard that La Maison Arabe, a once legendary restaurant that had been shut for 20 years, was for sale. Back in 1946, the Pasha of Marrakech had given permission to French mother and daughter Hélène and Suzy Sébillon-Larochette to open the first foreign restaurant in the medina. A lot of famous people came to eat there: Charles de Gaulle, Ernest Hemingway, the Queen of Denmark, Elizabeth Taylor, RitaHayworth, Jackie Kennedy and even Winston Churchill. I was young and had my whole future in front of me, so I went along and knocked on the door. An old lady opened it and asked me what I wanted.“Madame, I would be interested in buying your house,” I said. “Please call me Mademoiselle,” replied Suzy Sébillon-Larochette, correcting me quite forcefully. She was 84 years old at the time.

Oasis of peace at the heart of the bustling medina: treat yourself to a glass of Moroccan mint tea or relax in the riad’s beautiful basement spa with its traditional Moroccan hammam and various massage rooms for treatments using natural products from the region.

Why did you want to buy the house?

I had the idea of opening up the house for friends to stay and possibly for paying guests, too. I wanted to give people the opportunity of living in the medina, at a historic site that would also be my own private house. The renovation work took more than two years. There were eight rooms, no restaurant, no central heating, neither swimming pool nor air conditioning. Being a pioneer in the medina was both an experiment and a privilege for me. Since it opened in 1996,  La Maison Arabe has grown a little. We recently bought an old hammam nearby, where we are going to create a third restaurant and two new suites.

Your passion for La Maison Arabe continues unabated …

We should never be afraid of improvisation. I love changes. It’s the same thing with music or in the kitchen. But it’s also important to have consistency. I’m very lucky that I have been able to work to­gether with the same people since the very first day.

That speaks in your favour!

It speaks far more for the wonderful people I work with! Running the hotel is in the capable hands of its director Nabila Dakir and general manager Taoufik. I’m no egocentric who thinks he has to be on the spot all the time. But I do understand how important it is to surround oneself with excellent employees because I am often away from the city. This style of hotel makes it possible to meet a lot of interesting people and that’s marvellous.

A virtually unrivalled air of romance: dine at the restaurant by the illu­min­ated pool in the...

La Maison Arabe is not only a gorgeous little luxury hotel that’s bursting with charm, it also offers cookery workshops. How did that come about?

We didn’t have a kitchen when I opened La Maison Arabe; later on, we had a tiny one. Guests would always come in to watch the cooking. Which is why our kitchen is much larger today. The most important person in my hotel is the dada. She is a Moroccan head chef who introduces our guests to the secrets of Moroccan cuisine. Traditionally, dadas are highly respected women who look after the children and do the cooking in families. Their cooking is based on age-old traditions that are passed down from mother to daughter.

You grew up in Paris and Rome and you travel a great deal. How did you end up in Morocco?

I am the product of a variety of cultures and have Italian and French roots. Needless to say, it is a privilege to have lived in Paris and Rome – two cities with a great history, which I found very inspiring as a young man. Today, my heart belongs to Marrakech. It is my home. Whatever happens, I will always return there.

Not to be missed: before you withdraw to your chamber in the evening, make sure to have a nightcap at the elegant piano bar, which regularly features talented musicians.

How did Morocco become your second home?

Because of summer vacations spent with my grandparents, who had bought a house in Tangier after World War II. I had several unforgettable summer holidays there with my brother Stefano in the late 1950s. Edmondo Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and my grandmother Marthe-Marie de Pineton de Chambrun used to have some extraordinary people visit them there: authors and intellectuals from all over the world, including Paul Bowles and his wife Jane. My grandmother spoke seven languages fluently, was an outstanding pianist and a much-admired writer. These Moroccan holidays had an enormous influence on me. My father Mario Ruspoli was a well-known documentary maker. In 1956, he shot a film in the Azores about the last harpoon whalers. My mother was French and had an intense love of antiques. My parents were a little crazy and adored looking round flea markets. This is also something that has carried over to La Maison Arabe, where many of the items have found their way back to create an authentic atmosphere. It’s a house full of memories, souvenirs, family portraits, Moroccan handicrafts, paintings, sumptuous carpets and beautiful old furniture.

As a trained pianist, you are active today in fostering classical music in Morocco, organising piano concerts and hosting famous singers and musicians at La Maison Arabe.

My father loved blues and jazz above everything. He passed this affection on to me and so we also have a piano-jazz bar at the hotel. An interesting fact on the subject of music: in 1707, Francesco Ruspoli invited Georg Friedrich Handel to Castello Ruspoli, the 16th-century family castle in Vignanello, where he spent quite some time and composed a number of pieces for the Ruspolis during his stay. I have a great passion for music – of every kind – for the love of music is something that’s inherited, too.

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