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.
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 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)
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.