The Delight of Staying in Riads


When traveling, I’m not big on staying in hotels.

The Marriotts, Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons and the like, never mind luxury hotels like The Four Seasons, don’t do a whole lot for me. Yes, they’re clean, sleek, efficiently run, 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’m lukewarm about them because they’re big and impersonal. They’re islands of detachment from the people and cultures I’m visiting. And the rooms have the same, predictable layout.

That’s why my wife and I jumped at the chance to stay at riads in Morocco, not only to save money but because it’s an experience not to be missed.

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, averaging about 4 to 6, sometimes a bit 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. 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 windows facing the street or alleyway, which occasionally is dark or dimly lit where you normally might not venture into. 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 abundance of riads whose existence was revealed only by signs; otherwise you’d never know they were there. Only a door on an otherwise featureless wall suggested there might be a dwelling on the other side. Once past the door, 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 with beautiful and intricate tilework, cozy salons where guests would be served tea or meals. I knew right away that I could get to know everyone on a first name basis. Hotels are missing this feeling of intimacy.

Breakfast and dinner were served at all the riads where my wife and I stayed. Here were where we got introduced to 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.

Typical Moroccan breakfast

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.

Roof terrace

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 needed to be better secured to the basin. The toilet tank in another took forever to fill up because of low water pressure. Many rooms had inadequate outlets to charge up our modern day gadgets 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 the service above and beyond 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 restoring 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 great appeal for us.

Riad the Repose (Rabat)

Courtyard

Main space

Shower space

Dar Meziana (Chefchaouen)

Stepped approach

Courtyard from the salon

Main space

Shower space

Dar al Madina al Kadima (Fes)

Fountain

Courtyard

Main space

Bathroom

Moroccan breakfast served in the salon

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.

One of several courtyards

Main space

Dar Jnan Tiouira (Skoura)

Dar Jnan Tiouira from garden

Courtyard

Main space

Alcove

Bathroom

Dining room

Riad Tafilag (Taroudant)

Main space

Sitting area outside room

Dining room

Riad Mimounia (Essaouira)

Salon

Main space

Bathroom

Riad Boussa (Marrakech)

Main space

Bathroom

Wash basin

Courtyard

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Are Moroccan Carpet Makers Getting Fleeced?


“We don’t have room for any.”

That’s what I told the salesman more than once at a licensed carpet dealer in Fes. He was showing us Moroccan rugs. My wife and I were taken there by our local guide. There might’ve been a kickback involved.

“I want you to know that we have no intention of buying,” I said to the salesman at the start.

He probably heard this refrain countless times from tourists who wound up buying a carpet anyway.

“Pick out which ones you like most,” he continued as we sipped mint tea. Employees unrolled one carpet after another as he was trying to discern the preferences of my wife, whom he addressed as Madame.

“Which one do you like the best?” followed by, “which is the next best?”  We favored the Berbers for their simplicity and resemblance to Native American rugs at home.

He was friendly but persistent, oblivious to our comment that we were downsizing and while we found everything beautiful, we had no use for them.

The salesman proceeded without missing a beat. “I will shock you with the price,” pointing to not one but two that we admired. He was sure to mention that the same pieces at Bloomingdale’s would cost thousands of dollars. “Allow me to shock you.” He punched in some numbers on his calculator and showed us the figure. We said no. He discounted the price even further. We said no again. He came back with yet another lower offer. Sticking to our guns, we declined and finally rose to leave. Sensing our resolve, he thanked us for coming and wished us good travels.

Shopping in Morocco involves bargaining. It’s a pervasive cultural practice that takes getting used to since bargaining in the industrialized world is uncommon. The art of it requires that you offer much less than what is asked for and then settle on a final price after going back and forth with the seller.

What if we had purchased a rug? Who stood to benefit most from the sale? My money is on the carpet dealer.

By Moroccan standards, what tourists spend on purchases is enormous. Therefore, how sale proceeds get distributed is an important question in a country where poverty is a big problem (the median annual income in 2014 was US $2,800). There are a myriad of artisans who are struggling to eke out a living. They work hard to make exquisite things but lack the wherewithal to distribute or sell in quantity. They rely on middlemen who likely extract concessions. Where is the ‘fair trade’ in all this?

It’s all the more encouraging and remarkable then that there has been a rise in women’s cooperatives that make a range of products—argan oil and cosmetics, rose water and oil, djellaba buttons, weaves and carpets. The proceeds get distributed back to their members.

There are many wonderful and world-famous things made in Morocco, including ceramics in Fes, leather products by the Chouara and Marrakech tanneries, thuya woodworks and silver jewelry in Essaouira, rose products in the M’Gouna Valley, argan products in the Souss Valley, fossil furniture in Erfoud and of course the carpets of the Moroccan nomadic and Berber tribes. We visited them all and wound up only buying small gifts for family members back home, little household things for ourselves.

One final note. I can only hope that most of the money I spent on a camel-skin coat in Marrakech which I had no idea I wanted, let alone buy, got back to the people who made it. I’ve no idea if I was fleeced. The guy who sold it to me was most convincing.

Images to Remember Morocco By


This post has only images. They reflect the personal wonder and beauty I felt about Morocco’s diverse landscape, architecture, craft and food. They were photographed in and around Casablanca, Rabat, Chefchouen, Volubilis, Meknes, Fes, Erfoud, Erg Chebbi (Sahara), Todra and Dades Gorges, Skoura, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakech and El Jadida. (Click on the first to start the slideshow.)

White Storks of Morocco


I’m not a birder. But when an interesting bird appears in my travels, I take note and try to find out a bit more about it. In several places throughout Morocco, I saw the white stork (Circonia circonia) that builds its large nest in high places, atop roofs, walls, even ancient Roman columns. The one above was seen at the ruins of the Chellah necropolis near Rabat. The storks apparently migrate to and from Europe depending on the time of year.

White stork at the ancient ruins of Volubilis

Follow Your Nose—the Scents of Morocco


I experienced Morocco through my nose. Partly anyway. It wasn’t a way I anticipated or planned; it just happened. Morocco’s scents and aromas accumulated in my consciousness until I realized that smell was as important as seeing to have an appreciation for the country.

It started with mint tea, the beverage that Moroccans drink in gobs. The aroma is subtle but unmistakeable. It’s consumed as much as coffee by Americans and Europeans, typically with lots of sugar. When we arrived at our first riad (in Rabat), tea was offered with cookies while we filled out government-required travel papers.

Mint tea

All riads thenceforth did the same. Serving tea is a gesture of hospitality. The preferred ritual will be the same. Tea is poured from a considerable height, easily 3 meters or so, into tiny glasses to aerate the liquid that’s made by pouring boiling water over Chinese green tea and fresh mint. A variation was putting mint directly in the glasses.

mint tea

A frequent trio of containers (here, behind the teapot) contains sugar, milk and more mint

I began to love the beverage (without sugar) partly because of the refreshing scent. All the produce stalls sell bushels of fresh mint to satisfy Moroccan passion for tea.

Mint

The faint perfume that I smelled in the courtyards of many riads came from a basket of dried rose buds. They’re sold in bulk at all the spice stalls (image above). Originally from Syria, the Damascene (Damask or Damascus) rose is an important crop and is grown commercially in the M’Gouna Valley. Berber women manage the rose co-ops. Our driver Mustapha took us to a shop in Kelaât M’Gouna where the process from picking to distilling the petals for making rose water and oil was explained. The backroom had faint hints of rose attar. I was fortunate to see the flowers in full bloom, which happens in April and May, bushes growing in almost every conceivable corner.

Freshly picked Damascene roses

Rose buds drying in oven

As I strolled through the garden of the Dar Batha Museum in Fes, I caught the heady fragrance of orange blossoms, which has a jasmine-like bouquet. Nearby in the Jardin Jnane Sbil, the blossoms on the trees also permeated the air. This is an intoxicating fragrance that not surprisingly Moroccans try to capture in the production of orange water.

The fragrance of orange blossoms is incredible

The tangy scent of oranges is also prevalent at this time of year (spring). Vendors in carts everywhere peddle freshly squeezed juice. Grown mostly in and around Fes, the fruit is sold widely in markets and souks. I had orange juice for breakfast every morning no matter where I was in the country, which I don’t normally do when I’m at home. Who can resist freshly squeezed OJ?

Carts offering orange juice

Freshly squeezed orange juice

Lavender was just beginning to flower in the country. It wasn’t a flower that I normally associated with Morocco, but here it was and in significant amounts. There were excellent, redolent specimens in the Fes garden of Jnane Sbil.

Lavender

Aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and paprika suffuse the air where tajines are made. And they are made everywhere, in virtually every restaurant that serves Moroccan cuisine. Tajine may just be its national dish. The other popular items are couscous and brochettes, as is Moroccan salad made with cucumber, tomato and red onion. The fragrances of these spices along with lamb, chicken or beef, come in waves out of the tajine vessel when the lid is lifted or linger when I pass stalls making them in quantity.

The vessel and dish are both called tajine

Tajine with chicken brochettes

I find it hard to resist the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from a bakery. It’s as likely to be coming from a commercial bakery as a eucalyptus or olive wood-fired communal oven (faraan) where women bring their unbaked goods. Bakery stalls in narrow streets of the medina are especially difficult to walk past without getting a tantalizing whiff. The display cases or shelves are piled with freshly baked bread. Moroccans consume mountains of bread, especially khobz that always accompanies tajine. No meal would be complete without bread. Breakfast at the riads in particular were showcases for all manner of bread, flatbread and pastries. Besides khobz, there could be msemen, batbout, harcha, meloui, beghrir, small Napoleons filled lightly with chocolate. As I’m not partial to high-carb breakfasts or of yogurt, it became a challenge for me to eat contentedly in the mornings, unless there were eggs or cheese.

Khobz

Msemen

Typical riad breakfast

I saved the ‘best’ for last—the tanneries. Both Fes and Marrakech have them, though the former is much more famous and easier to find. The odors have been described as a retching stench, of cow, sheep, goat and camel hides being treated in stone vats of pigeon dung, cow urine, quicklime, salt and water. Tourists are encouraged to shove sprigs of mint under their noses to mask the smell. It’s true that the tanneries reek but I didn’t find them overly offensive, stinky but tolerable. Still, I can’t imagine being exposed to this every day as are the tanners who follow a tradition that dates back a thousand years.

tannery

Chouara tannery in Fes

When you go to Morocco, keep your eyes open but do pay attention to your olfactories.

What Is a Berber Pizza?


“You want to eat something different?”

This is a thorny question that depends on who’s asking and why. Mustapha, who’d been driving us throughout Morocco, found out early that my wife and I were willing eaters. Maybe not willing so much as open to trying local food. To a point. We’re not Andrew Zimmern. In researching Moroccan food before the trip, I drew the line at sheep’s head in Marrakech.

“Like what?” The question was pregnant with doubt.

“Berber pizza.”

“What’s in it?” Again, hesitation. Crap, why can’t I just go with the flow? Carpe diem.

“You’ll find out.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.

We were in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Erg Chebbi desert. Towns here are spread out among wind-blown sand dunes and palm trees. The entire area is famous for its Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils. We had just completed an overnighter in the Sahara.

I said to my wife out of earshot, “It’s probably camel.” She nodded hesitantly, no less because even our local tour guide in Fes (Idriss) didn’t like the taste.

We had just finished visiting the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif and the 17th-century ksar in Rissani. It was time for lunch.

Mustapha led us past restaurants along the main street and into an alley. “Rissani is known for its Berber pizza.”

Upon entering, he seemed to know the proprietor of La Baraka and introduced us. The dining room was hung with Arab carpets, the columns wrapped in Berber fabric. Some of the diners, probably guides, had on Tuareg robes and turbans.

La Baraka in Rissani

We ordered a Moroccan salad and the ‘pizza’ (called medfouna or madfouna), which is more like a calzone but filled with minced beef, onion and aromatic spices. The yeasty crust was crispy and chewy, like a traditional pizza, a combination of semolina and regular flours. In all, a tasty meal.

“What did you think of the pizza?” asked Mustapha. We told him we enjoyed it. “It doesn’t have cheese and tomato sauce. I like it better,” he said.

Then it struck me that he wasn’t trying to be coy about the meat filling but was concerned we’d be disappointed with the lack of Italian flavors. We breathed a sigh of relief that “something different” wasn’t camel.

Brilliant Cooking at Riad Boussa and How It Made Me Re-imagine Fruit Ingredients


It consisted of just orange juice and shredded cucumbers. This unlikely pairing, a combination I’d ordinarily skip over in a cookbook, made a sublime cold soup, the beginning of a superb three-course dinner at Riad Boussa in Marrakech.

Cucumber and orange juice soup

In keeping with Moroccan tradition of having it on Fridays, the next course was a couscous. The riad’s was served in a tajine. Its talented young cook presented hers fringed with carrot, squash, eggplant, zucchini, turnip and fava beans (pictured above). Tucked underneath a compote of sultanas and onions like a surprise present were pieces of chicken and lamb that together with the vegetables also flavored the incredible sauce, served separately in a bowl to spoon over everything. Real couscous takes time to make that requires triple-steaming; it doesn’t come in a box with 15-minute instructions. The grains were fluffy and tender. I never imagined couscous could be this wonderful.

Dessert was another unexpected combination. Shaped as a five-sided rosette (which intentionally or not conjures up Islam’s five pillars’ star symbol), sliced avocado crescents sprinkled with sugar were filled in the middle with strawberries. The dish changed how I now look at avocados—as a healthful way also to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Only two nights previously, the kitchen produced the best tajine I had on the trip, chicken with dried apricots and walnuts, and a trio of cold vegetable salads among which was a zaalouk (made with eggplant and tomato) to die for.

Moroccan salad, pickled green peppers, zaalouk (clockwise from top)

Chicken, apricot and walnut tajine

Dessert was poached pear with a cinnamon-infused syrup.

Pear compote with cinnamon syrup

My tour operator (Experience It Tours) believes that the best meals in Morocco are served in riads. After having spent 17 days throughout the country, eating in many dining establishments, I agree. My wife and I ate our finest meals in riads. As a bonus, they have the most pleasant ambience.

And so it was during our journey, a completely vegan dinner at Riad the Repose in Rabat and organic dinner at Dar Jnan Tiouria in Skoura where the proprietor is his own chef. And I’ll not soon forget the chicken pastilla at Dar Hatim in Fes. They were all gems.

Unlike restaurants that regularly serve scores of people every day, riads only have a handful of guests who may or may not choose to eat there. I suspect this is the reason why some riads welcome diners who are not lodgers. You won’t usually find professional chefs in riads but rather talented locals. So it’s all the more extraordinary and fortunate to come across great cooks in these ranks. Riad Boussa has one of them and, as exceptional as it is in every other respect, shines even more brightly for the cook who runs the kitchen.