Travel

A Hotel With a View of an Italian Piazza, and Angkor Wat

French hospitality guru Thierry Teyssier’s audacious new idea to disrupt the hospitality industry: Create a roving hotel that assimilates into its surroundings.

A guest room at the inaugural 7’000 Heures pop-up, housed in the 19th-century bones of art curator Francesco Petrucci’s ancestral home in Salento, Italy.

“What is a hotel?”

Thierry Teyssier posed the question in March of 2017, as we watched the sun disappear behind a vermillion-streaked canyon from the deck of Maison Rouge, the Studio KO take on a Sahara-style stone house outside the southern Moroccan village of Aojou. I had come to this remote Berber enclave to interview Teyssier, only to find the peripatetic Frenchman more interested in looking ahead than back on his considerable hospitality accomplishments, among them Dar Ahlam, the 200-year-old casbah turned 14-room hideaway in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains run by Berber villagers that has become the toast of travel world for its ability to connect luxury with simplicity.

Teyssier wanted to talk barriers, specifically how to tear them down. “Hotels no longer need four walls, a rooftop bar, and suites with 2,000-square-foot bathrooms,” he insisted, arms waving into the crisp North African evening. In a charming mélange of French and English, he waxed romantic about the new ways of bringing travelers more authentically into otherwise inaccessible places. The former theater actor spoke of high-flown notions like finding unscripted backdrops for his storytelling, and his plans to transport guests across time and space as we scanned the atmosphere for shooting stars. I secretly wondered what the hell he was talking about.

Then late last year, his musings that night in the desert became reality. Teyssier’s vision of making the impossible accessible—both physically and metaphorically—had come to fruition in the form of 700’000 Heures, the world’s first ephemeral hotel. “Choose to spend your most precious hours with us,” he proposes, referring to the venture’s name, which represents the average human lifespan in hours, “and I will lead you to shared moments of happiness.” Give Teyssier this: his confidence in his abilities is not for lacking. He’s either a genius or crazy. “Even as someone who builds remote hotels I thought Thierry’s locations were quite mad,” says Malik Fernando, a Sri Lankan hotelier who met Teyssier through Dar Ahlam’s membership in Relais & Chateau and serves as an advisor to 700’000 heures’s upcoming project in Sri Lanka. “But then it’s mind-blowing to really stay in the middle of an oasis.”

Instead of building walls, Teyssier rents unique yet simple structures and recasts them with new energy in the form of the objects contained in 108 handmade steamers, courtesy of Morocco’s L’Atelier de Manue, one of the last remaining master trunk craftsmen. Every six months or so, he will pack them up and decamp to a new destination informed by “nature in all its splendor,” Teyssier says. “Wherever makes me start to dance in the sand.”

A Khmer crew spent three months renovating floating fishermen’s houses in advance of 7’000 Heures Cambodia.
A view from one of the rooms.
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Like any good invention, 700’000 heures and its agenda of constant reinvention originates in limitations Teyssier observed in his earlier endeavors. “Eighteen years ago, authentic experiences were missing from luxury travel, so I built Dar Ahlam,” Teyssier recalled as we tooled around the Italian countryside last fall. “To that I added a [La Route du Sud] journey of movement and discovery. Thrilling, but so much revolves around looking, not interacting. So I began to imagine again.”

An early guest of a 700’000 heures trial run last September on Italy’s Salento coast, I arrived at Palazzo Daniele, the 19th-century ancestral home of art curator Francesco Petrucci, in the village of Gagliano del Capo, just in time to witness the unpacking of the canvas-and-mahogany-leather trunks. A giddy Teyssier jumped from one to the next, pantomiming how each will be used. “This one opens into a daybed,” he exclaims, mimicking a nap with his head resting on hands in prayer. “This one is for holding our picnic lunch accessories,” he says as he tugs on a drawer that pulls out as a tray. There are trunks for the portable kitchen, a shower, and even a traveling toilet. Some chests unfold as leather chairs, which he planted on rocks along the Mediterranean for sundowners; another unpacks as a hammock, ideal for siestas between kitesurfing and quad bike adventures when 700’000 heures moves to the dunes of northern Brazil’s Lençois Maranhenses beginning in June. Still others are filled with custom bed linens from Chez Zoé in Marrakesh, tableware he handpicked at Maison et Objet and Paris flea markets, and copper tea caddies scooped up at the Kyoto cult shop Kaikado with girlfriend Kiki Geisse, an expert on Japanese tea ceremony.

To ensure that shades and grain matched, several rounds of intense examination took place at Manue’s no-address atelier, down a maze of unpaved roads outside Agadir in southern Morocco. “Le détail, c’est tout,” Teyssier calls out, unlatching one meticulously finished leather strap to reveal a bespoke stand-up minibar.

The dining room at the palazzo in Salento.

Teyssier’s obsession with the minutiae extends to the experiences, which are carefully curated after much research and the modern-day nomad’s own immersion in the destination. In Salento, we embarked on a guided hike to the sunlit mouth of a colossal sea cave, where an immaculately set lunch table awaited us, then hopped into a vintage Fiat 500 en route to a private wine tasting in a cellar that dates back to 1878.

Consistently achieving this level of sophistication operationally means that staff, though temporary, undergo months of on-site training by members of the Dar Ahlam team. Teyssier sees employment as one way to make a lasting impact in communities where 700’000 heures operates transiently. In Salento, Teyssier worked with a refugee organization to recruit and train nine African immigrants, whom Teyssier helped place in permanent positions after 700’000 heures departed.

In keeping with Teyssier’s hyper-curated approach, fewer than 50 international travel agents are allowed to book clients into the wandering hotel. The extreme exclusivity, he rationalizes, fosters a loyal community without national boundaries. They must “truly believe” he insists. Guests who enjoy 700’000 heures in Salento or Cambodia, which launched last November, will want to follow Teyssier to Lençois. Then onward to Geoffrey Bawa’s country estate Lunuganga, in Sri Lanka’s lush tropical interior, at the tail end of the seminal architect’s centenary, this fall. Next year in Japan, Teyssier plans to operate two separate locations simultaneously, one with washi artist Eriko Horiki in a funaya fisherman’s house in Ine, on the northern curve of the Tango Peninsula two hours north of Kyoto, and another south of the city at the 1200-year old Sanboin Buddhist temple, on sacred Mount Koyosan. “I don’t know if it will work,” he reveals about adding more juggle to his global experiment, “but I will always try.”

Travelers who book directly must also become members of 700’000 Heures. Teyssier contends that this allows him to get to know his guests as well as to provide increasingly personalized trips. Already Teyssier has cooked dinner for gatherings of members in Paris and Tokyo from ingredients collected on early reconnaissance missions. Admission starts at 2,000 euros (US $2,250) plus an annual charge of 500 euros ($565), all of which gets deducted from trip costs as a 20% discount. Those who upgrade to the 25,000 euros ($28,400) level may join Teyssier to scout future destinations. “My guests will help to define the experience,” he says. For instance, Teyssier liked a request for a block of ice to combat the Cambodian heat so much that he incorporated into the full guest experience.   

Unsurprisingly, the path that led him to take others so far off-piste was circuitous.  After starting out in the theater world, Teyssier launched an event company in 1991. “I discovered that people were willing to pay me to create exceptional moments for them,” observes the former producer of his evolution from the stage to real life. Awed by these one-night-only spectacles, clients began asking Teyssier to plan their holidays. The only disappointment was his. Impersonal service among even top hotels prompted Teyssier to create his own, where he could implement his philosophy of head-to-toe customization.

(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Thierry Teyssier in Morocco. A Khmer-style house serves as the accommodations at a stop near Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Paper lanterns light up a courtyard before dinner at Palazzo Daniele in Italy.

Seventeen years after Dar Ahlam opened, Teyssier’s first hospitality venture remains irrefutably radical. The rose-hued fortress has been sensitively modernized with a candlelit spa and palm-fringed swimming pool, yet Dar Ahlam is not so much a hotel as a community of just over one hundred unreservedly dedicated people, most of whom grew up in a neighboring Berber village, empowered to realize Teyssier’s gift for storytelling and endowed with over 400 gourmet recipes from the likes of Thierry Alix, Philippe Conticini, and Pierre Hermé. There are no keys, no bar, no restaurant. “But also no limits,” Teyssier points out. It wasn’t the last time Teyssier ventured into untrammeled territory and devised a way to dream up something extraordinary.

A decade after Dar Ahlam opened, Teyssier set out to the southern reaches of Morocco. At the time, there was nowhere suitable to stay, so he pulled out maps and methodically built an itinerary. “I would need somewhere for my guests to sleep near Agadir, which is halfway between Marrakech and Guelmim, then another stop halfway to Akka and a third en route to our dune camp.” On the five-day flipbook of a journey called La Route du Sud, visitors traverse jagged red-earth coastline, past argan bushes and wizened fig trees, through Saharan lunarscapes before arriving at Teyssier’s ultra-stylish dune camp. Teyssier’s masterful staging culminates among the light and shadows of Iriki, an ancient salt lake turned seemingly endless sandbox that evoked the purest joy from my inner child when I met him to hear about his next great idea. “He’s a real magician,” Malik Fernando says. “There is serenity in every moment. Thierry creates mini-dramas where you are the star.”

When we speak again in mid February, Teyssier is more than halfway through 700’000 heures first full-term residency in Cambodia, which concludes in early April. The the weeklong program begins in Siem Reap at Hanchey House, the century-old Khmer-style stilted house he rented near Angkor Wat, and ends in the colonial town of Battambang for private encounters with Phare, the circus troupe founded in a Khmer Rouge–era refugee camp and comprised of former street kids. 700’000 heures guests may follow an archeologist into otherwise padlocked storerooms filled with carved-stone Buddhas and Shiva linga alongside hundreds of fragile wooden bodhisattva statues at the Conservation d’Angkor, founded by the French colonial authorities in the early 20th century, or spend a day or more bird-watching on floating platforms Teyssier commissioned on the Tonle Sap Lake, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Artist Eriko Horiki’s washi production.
Lunch above the treetops during a bird-watching excursion in Cambodia.

Members of Teyssier’s 40-person Khmer crew spent three months renovating four floating fishermen’s houses, outfitting them with real toilets, energy sources to charge mobile phones, powerful fans, and environmentally friendly lighting—all under new bamboo roofs. Simple wooden floors get covered with organic water hyacinth reed mats woven by Saray, a local women’s cooperative, and French linen shades now hang from bamboo poles for privacy. At sunset, beanbags, Champagne, and candles are arranged by staff members like Khunh Siengly, who joined Teyssier following vocational training at Green Gecko Project, one of the country’s most highly regarded NGOs. In April, when the southwest monsoon rains arrive to Cambodia, Teyssier will return these vastly overhauled yet simple homes, which he calls “the soul of our project,” to the fishermen, having already established arrangements with local nonprofit Osmose to ensure continued rental income for them.

“The journey Thierry has created is truly special, leading guests from the ancient Khmer heritage into our vibrant contemporary cultural revival through an array of visual arts,” says Marina Pok, creative director founder of Anicca Foundation and local partner in 700’000 heures Cambodia. She points to the itinerary, which includes visits to see Khmer women crocheting dresses that will sashay down runways in Bangkok and Dakar, then sell in Paris on the rue Dauphine; the private performance by New Cambodian Artists, a troupe of young women that put a contemporary spin on royal Apsara dance; and sojourn in Battambang to meet the artists of Loeum Lorn Gallery and share an apéro at chez Srey Bandaul, the founder of Phare School of Visual and Applied Arts.

Going forward, Teyssier plans to seek out such indigenous forms such as the fishermen homes, abandoning earlier notions that had him traipsing around the Icelandic tundra and Colombia’s gaucho country for contemporary structures that stand in stark contrast to their environments. “Even with my help, traditional houses remain utterly imperfect, and I want to offer only the simplest pleasures,” Teyssier says. Luxury travel has become too sanitized, he believes, with high-end companies erecting “glass walls” that diminish spontaneous encounters into an endless cycle of static experiences for the Instagram-addicted. “This is real life,” he offers, pointing his phone toward a pelican fluttering past the deck of the floating house, the faint wail of boat motors and Buddhist thrumming in the distance. “My projects are for people who can embrace the imperfections. This is where we make memories and find true happiness.”

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