When traveling, I’m not particularly interested in staying at hotels.
I don’t look for a spa experience, 24-hour fitness center, or concierge services. I don’t book stays at the Marriotts, Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons and such, never mind luxury hotels like The Four Seasons. Yes, 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. But, I’m lukewarm about them because they’re big and impersonal. They’re islands of separation from the people and cultures I’m visiting. And you probably agree the rooms have the same, predictable layout.
That’s why my wife and I were excited about the idea of staying at riads in Morocco because many travelers feel it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Our reservations (and travel itinerary) were arranged by Experience It Tours, an excellent tour company based in the U.S. with an office in Fes that encourages riad stays.
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 different and uniquely furnished. A similar kind of house, called a dar, has a courtyard instead of garden in the center, otherwise 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 spot a riad from the outside; there are no large windows facing out. It can be tucked away deep within a maze of alleyways that can rapidly disorient you. In every case, my wife and I had to be ushered there by our driver or porter or risk getting lost. Wandering through the Fes and Marrakech medinas, I was surprised by the sheer number of riads where signs only revealed their existence; otherwise you’d never know they were there. 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 (zellij), cozy salons or lounges where guests would be served tea or meals. With their small staffs, I had a sense that I could get to know everyone. And I did. Hotels are missing this feeling of intimacy and 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 creatively designed, it was difficult to keep water from wetting the floor in some cases, or a few lacked a cradle for the flexible hose shower heads for hands-free bathing. A wash basin faucet in one spurted out water with enough force that it spattered all over the counter; another faucet fixture dangled loosely over 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, clean and beautifully 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 (A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco). Four of the riads 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 any of 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.