We stepped out of a cab into Marrakech’s old quarter, where a teenage boy plopped our suitcases into a cart that bounced in and out of puddle-filled potholes. Trailing behind him, we weaved our way through a narrow bamboo-mat-shaded street, dodging people, unforgiving motorcycles, and tables overflowing with tomatoes, oranges and disc-shaped bread. Meanwhile the locals, exhausted from Ramadan fasting, sat dazed alongside our path, some with their heads hidden under wet wash clothes, fending off the heat. It was an unpredictable medley of exotic sights, sounds, smells and sensations.
And then there was silence.
Disappearing into an alley off the main market (the one with the kitties, sleeping lady and wandering glue-sniffer), we suddenly dropped out of sight behind a nondescript black door. We crossed over from the chaos of the outside world and into a mini and unexpected paradise: our riad, Riad al Massarah.
Sigh, the riad – what a concept! Moroccan riads are homes, or, in many cases, were homes. Imagine a traditional two- or three-story house as we know it, but turned inside out, with the garden in a center courtyard, and all the windows facing inward toward the open-air hallways. The outside world disappears and home becomes a private, secluded getaway.
The riad concept is said to date back to Roman times, apparently an adaptation of the ancient Roman villa, which was used for wealthy families. Facing inward — with virtually few, if any, exterior windows — they allow not only for privacy, but also for relief from Morocco’s often not-so-pleasant heat (on our trip, that magic number reached 120F/50C).
In recent decades, it has become popular to renovate the often dilapidated structures, turning them into restaurants and small hotels. The trend not only ensures the preservation of the palatial homes, but provides visitors the opportunity to stay within the tightly packed old quarters (called the medina) of cities like Marrakech and Fez, while seeing what hides behind the secretive city walls – and all for a reasonable price.
But, more than anything, for a bleary-eyed traveler like myself, the riads provided a sanctuary. They were a haven to map out my impending Moroccan adventure — one that started in the chaotic streets of Marrakech, took shape over pastries and mint tea in a quiet courtyard, and then came to life as we set off to explore the big city and beyond.