When traveling, I’m not big on staying in hotels.
I don’t look for a spa experience, 24-hour fitness center, or concierge services. I don’t book to stay at the Marriotts, Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons and the like, never mind luxury hotels like The Four Seasons. Without doubt they’re elegant, clean, sleek, efficiently run, and have marvelous guest services, in some cases earning 4-5 stars by the AAA or similar rating service. This is all well and good. I personally am lukewarm about them because they’re big and impersonal. They’re islands of separation from the people and cultures I’m visiting. And you’d probably agree the rooms have the same, predictable layout.
That’s why my wife and I fancied the opportunity to stay at riads in Morocco because many travelers feel it’s an experience not to be missed. Our reservations (and travel itinerary) were arranged by Experience It Tours, a stellar tour company based in the U.S. with an office in Fes.
A riad is a type of accommodation where one or two floors of rooms face an inside garden. It only has a handful of units, about 4 to 6, sometimes a little more. Each room is uniquely laid out and furnished. A similar kind of house, called a dar, has a courtyard instead of garden in the center but there is a great deal of similarity between the two. Both are uniquely Moroccan. I’ll refer generically to these accommodations as riads.
In medinas, you’d be hard pressed to identify a riad from the outside; there are no large windows facing the street or alleyway. In every case, my wife and I had to be ushered there by our driver or porter or risk getting lost. Wandering through the narrow streets of the Fes and Marrakech medinas, I was surprised by the sheer number of riads whose existence was indicated only by signs; otherwise you’d never know they were there. Only a door on an otherwise featureless wall hinted there might be a dwelling behind it. Once inside, I invariably was flabbergasted by the transition to a beautifully decorated interior—soaring spaces above the courtyard, center fountain or one designed in the Andalusian style along one wall intricately decorated with beautiful tilework, cozy salons where guests would be served tea or meals. With their small staffs, I had a sense that I could get to know everyone. Hotels are missing this feeling of intimacy or charm.
In every instance, when we first arrived, mint tea and little desserts were served while we filled out registration papers. Both my wife and I appreciated this kind of hospitality, a small gesture that made us feel like welcomed guests. We were even offered tea when we happened to be in the courtyard.
Breakfast and dinner were served at all the riads where my wife and I stayed. Here were where we got to know the Moroccan breakfast, which consists of hot beverages, orange juice, sometimes olives and an impressive variety of breads. Generally not fond of high-carb breakfasts, I welcomed the occasional egg or cheese.
Some of the riads had terraces where you can choose to take a meal (weather permitting) or while away the time lost deep in a book.
These lodgings were not without minor issues, in my experience mainly in the bathrooms. While the shower spaces were wonderfully and creatively designed, it was difficult to keep water from wetting the floor in some cases, or lacked a cradle for the flexible hose shower heads for hands-free bathing in others. A wash basin faucet in one spurted out water with such force that it spattered all over the counter; another faucet fixture dangled loosely above the basin. The toilet tank in another took forever to fill up because of low water pressure. Many riads had inadequate outlets to charge up our appliances or lacked anywhere to sit other than the bed. I say again, these are small quibbles that hardly overshadow the riad experience. The beds were all very comfortable, the rooms quiet and attractively decorated and the service above reproach. As a bonus, we enjoyed our best dinners in Morocco in a few of them.
Foreigners have taken a big interest in restoring riads. Australian Suzanna Clarke wrote about her sometimes exasperating, sometimes humorous experiences in converting a house into one (A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco). Four of the riads where we stayed were owned wholly or in part by Europeans. One of the bonuses of the French-owned riads where we stayed was the option of having wine with dinner; alcohol is prohibited by Islam and therefore not available at restaurants and cafés (except a few that cater to foreigners).
The many pictures below are of places where we stayed. It’s easy to see why they had such appeal for us. There was nothing cookie-cutter or mundane about them.
Riad the Repose (Rabat)
Dar Meziana (Chefchaouen)
Dar al Madina al Kadima (Fes)
Kasbah Tizimi (Erfoud)
Other than the hotels in Casablanca on arrival and departure days, this is the only accommodation that was not a riad or dar but is classified as a hotel. A kasbah is a military fortress.