On the road of Muiz li-Din Illah, that famed thoroughfare of Fatimid and Mamluk Cairo, is a new gem of a hotel. A small boutique hotel named Le Riad Hotel de Charme, it shares the same street address as some of the Mamluk era’s greatest examples of architectural and artistic achievements.
Landmarks such as the Mosque of Al-Aqmar, the madrassa and khanqah of Sultan Barquq and the sabil kuttab of Katkhuda all share the same street address as this charming 17-suite establishment. It is a thoroughly modern establishment that lies in the heart of Islamic Cairo.
Cozy, intimate, each room has been decorated with a unique theme borrowed from Egyptian culture. Most amazingly, the hotel overlooks Beit El-Suheimy, an Egyptian house from the 17th century that has recently been restored to its former glory.
“It’s not the politics of Egypt to encourage a small project, says Veronique Sedro who, along with partner Youssef Takla, have had their fair share of challenges to get this project off the ground. First off, they had to compensate 81 inhabitants, 30 of whom were squatters on the roof, and then gut the building to begin work.
Sedro is French, and came to Egypt 10 years ago to do field work in archeology as a PhD candidate. She bought a building on Maadi’s Road 9, and restored it to become a small pension only to have been refused a hotel license. Such is the arbitrary nature of the game in Egypt.
Downtown, and after having met her Syrian-French partner Takla, a more modest boutique hotel called Hotel Talisman was built, and today runs quite successfully. Catering to a middle income crowd, it stands at number 38 Talaat Harb Street. Two more boutique hotel projects were successful in Syria afterwards, and now Sedro and Takla are back with something so beautifully conceived and crafted, it adds a lot of sophistication to the area.
Sedro is quite wary of the demise of cultured tourism. Bemoaning the cheap package holiday tour groups and their lack of sincere appreciation for the sites around Islamic Cairo, and Egypt for that matter, Sedro’s establishment was built for a particular sort of patron. Her patrons are sophisticated travelers who are aware of the sights they are coming to visit and their scholarly value.
Suites range in themes from Calligraphy, Om Kulthoum, Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights, Belly Dancer, Egyptian Cinema to others such as Ottoman and Music. Each suite contains a large bathroom tiled in marble with mashrabiya style woodwork cabinets, a sitting room, and a small study. Inside, art work hangs, be it fine oils by local artists or embroidered tapestries sourced locally from the Khan El-Khalili.
The hotel certainly lives up to its name. It is a charming spot away from the hustle and bustle of the bazaar around the corner. A modern façade with wooden lattice work, almost no noise is to be heard save for the call to prayer emitted from the thousand minarets around the city.
A roof top terrace to relax on after a day of exploring the area offers a fantastic view of the city. You can see the Muqqatam hills, the Citadel, and Fatimid walls of the area; sip a cup of tea during sunset, perhaps one of the most picturesque opportunities in the city; and watch the rooftops of the Mamluk buildings neighboring the hotel.
An indoor reading room on the terrace is decorated so creatively it begs to be photographed for high profile design publications. An antique chair was sourced from Alexandria’s famed antique market (El-Attarin) and upholstered in a variety of fabrics and colors. A purple couch and dark wooden side tables inlaid with mother of pearl all rest beneath a large dome. The room is so vibrant yet maintains a sense of modernity and Orientalist appeal-wholly in line with the theme and philosophy of the hotel.
And each suite has been tastefully decorated according to its theme. “95 percent of the items are Egyptian, or else come from Syria, says Sedro.
An extensive collection of paintings by Egyptians and a select few sourced from Syria hang throughout the suites and hotel. It is the very craftsmanship of the furniture, the hand-painted patterns on the closets, the embroidered bedcovers and other creative touches that have all been produced locally, that have made it charming. It is, save for its makers, a thoroughly Egyptian effort.
But it seems that Sedro in her heart is Egyptian. Her love for the country, its history and preservation of artifacts really drive her, and she is frustrated at the lack of similar ventures in an area which she explains attracts a lot of foreign interest, yet is neglected by its very citizens.
There is a genuine lack of investment in the area by locals. “If you offer foreigners a place to buy a flat, in a nice building in front of Mamluk buildings they would be willing to pay a lot of money.
“If you ask Egyptian people to invest in this beautiful street they’ll ask you if you’re crazy. Egyptian investors don’t come here because it’s so difficult. She also points out that whereas considerable renovations have been made to the surrounding landmarks, renovations that have been funded by foreign cultural grants and loans, few of the historical monuments are actually open to visitors.
Most monuments are still closed to the general public, waiting for an official inauguration that has been put on hold for three years. Tourists are greeted by “Sorry Opening Soon signs on site doors yet VIP guests come every few months and the monument sites are opened for the entourage. “These monuments are made for peace, not to be opened up every two months to be [stampeded] through by 300 people.
Sedro’s challenges with her own boutique hotel are numerous. Sedro was refused a license to serve alcohol, a necessity so as to receive five-star accreditation, and to build a pool on the roof top. A pool or Turkish baths is typically found in any boutique hotel in the region, the lack of the two is an impediment to attracting business. Officials cite the religious nature of the area as reasons for refusing her such wishes.
“It’s very interesting for us to be in this part of Cairo but business is difficult: we are private investors after all so we need to receive something in the end and its difficult to market our hotel.
But it seems that Sedro and Takla will have fewer troubles now. Many high profile media publications including Conde Nast Traveler have visited the hotel, and occupancy is relatively good. Although not cheap (?280 a night and ?300 for suites with a view of Beit Suheimy) Sedro has already received repeat patrons.
Le Riad Hotel de Charme114 Muiz li-Din Illah St., CairoTel: 2787 6074/75www.leriad-hoteldecharme.com