Want to enjoy life as upper class Moroccans experienced it in years gone by? Book a traditional riad for your Moroccan holiday stay.
Though travelers to Morocco often use the term as though it is synonymous with “guesthouse,” “riad” specifically refers to the architectural style of the classical Moroccan home, a house with few or no exterior casements, whose rooms all open onto a central atrium garden. The word “riad” is derived from “ryad,” the Arabic word for “garden.”
Riads are the houses you see lining the narrow twisting alleyways of the medina. Austere facades of windowless stucco on the outside, riads are oases of coolness, comfort and beauty once you've entered their front doors. Riad patios with their fountains, citrus trees, jasmine, roses and flowering vines are the quintessential secret gardens. Riad windows, doors and balconies open on to these courtyard gardens rather than to the house’s exterior.
Courtyard dwellings like riads may owe their architectural inspiration to the villas of ancient Rome, communal dwellings that relied upon central atria instead of outward facing windows for access to light and air. Moroccan architects would have been familiar with the style from the Roman city of Volubilis, located near where Meknes stands today, an important influence on the region until well into the 6th century AD.
In the 7th century AD, Arabs began to pour into North Africa from the Arab Peninsula, bringing their religion with them. Hijab, or female modesty, is an important tenet of the Moslem faith and riad design with its interior focus created a perfect way to cloister female family members from outside influences.
Riads were build within the walls of the medinas so that wealthy businessmen would be close to mercantile concerns and within easy walking distance of the cafes where they discussed the affairs of the day with cronies. But as French influence grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, Morocco’s economic life shifted from the old city to the French-inspired Ville Nouvelles. Rich Moroccans moved into the newly constructed districts and the old riads fell into decay.
In the late 20th century, Morocco began to become an important tourism destination. Morocco suffered from a lack of tourist lodging at the time, and small businesspeople and other investors saw that renovating the old riads, turning them into the Moroccan equivalent of bed-and-breakfasts, provided a perfect solution to the hotel shortage. Turns out they were right. Though it’s not known how many riads are operating as boutique hotels today, you will find them everywhere in Morocco.
Riads are typically several stories high. In addition to the courtyard, the main floor usually has three rooms that were once used as living rooms or parlors. The fourth room, called a bartal, was a kind of banquet room used for celebrations.
The second story has interior-facing windows that open on to the courtyard, while the third floor frequently sports a balcony or terrace that commands magnificent views of the bustling streets of the old city from far above. Kitchen and dining rooms were typically on the second level, while bedrooms were on the floor above.
Riad ceilings are high, and doorways and walls are often decorated in intricate geometric designs made from ornamental tiles pressed directly into the plaster.
Although Moroccans have interacted closely with Westerners for many years and are tolerant of our customs, Morocco is still an Islam country. Many riads are boutique hotels, run by consortiums; but just as many, if not more, are family-run businesses. You and your Moroccan hosts will get along well if you observe some basic riad etiquette rules.
Dress Modestly: The Islam religion places a high premium on personal modesty. If a morning meal is included in the price of lodging, do not come down to breakfast in your dressing gown. Frequenting the riad’s public space in shorts or sleeveless shirts is tantamount to appearing in your underwear. Loose-fitting robes called jellabahs are for sale in every souk. Jellabahs are very comfortable and entirely appropriate for lounging around the riad courtyard. In many households, it’s considered polite to remove your shoes before you cross the threshold into a home. Ask your riad-keeper if this is the custom where you are staying.
Greetings: Moroccans are more formal about greetings than we are. A cheerful “Hi” thrown over your shoulder while you run up the stairs may give offense. Always take the time to stop and chat for a few seconds about the health and well-being of the person you are speaking with. Never greet a member of the opposite sex with a kiss, even on the cheek. And when you are greeting or handing an object to a Moroccan, especially food, always offer your right hand. The left hand is considered unclean.