Years ago I stayed in a Ryokan in Kyoto, a Japanese style inn (think, take your shoes off before going inside, sleep on the floor on Japanese mats). I am a big fan of experiencing a country fully, and immersing myself into the culture and food. Whether inspired by ancient times or modern trends, but preferably both.
When in Marrakech, there is no better way to experience the red city than to immerse yourself in the old Medina. The only way to do this is to stay in a Riad, a traditional Moroccan home. The word riad is derived from the Arabic word for garden, and likely has something to do with the fact that these homes, normally a few stories high, wrap around a central courtyard with a fountain.
From the outside, you’d never expect the oasis you find in a Riad. But before I get to the thoughts that ran through my mind when we got to, and through, the front door… I have to back up a bit and tell you a funny story about how we got to the riad.
Getting to a Riad
Many Riads are in the old Medina, which is both a huge draw and can also seem like a daunting expedition for someone who has never been to Marrakech and isn’t sure how to navigate the winding alleys and tight paths heaving with people going about their daily business in the old part of the city. This is where staying in a Riad that offers excellent service together with that traditional experience comes into play. In short, I don’t think my suitcases have ever travelled in such style. I was prepared to drag them over the dirt and cobblestones of the old city, already thankful one of the Riad’s staff, a friendly young man called Aziz, came to meet us where the taxi had to stop and couldn’t take us further into the medina. However, no dragging needed, Aziz brought with him another man with a push cart type contraption. Before I knew it my suitcases were swept away into the cart and hobbling ahead of us through the narrow alleys.
This may sound funny because the contrast between the cart and my Samsonite was striking, but I sincerely feel my suitcases have never traveled in such style before. Even before getting out of the taxi, my travel companion (who is normally the adventurous type) kept teasing me about where I was taking her. “Well,” she said, “in the worst case scenario we can check into another hotel somewhere,” as she looked out the window in the taxi while we hobbled into the entrance of the Medina. It wouldn’t take long before I’d make her take those words back, and she insisted she had just been kidding all along.
While I tried to make a mental map of how we were walking, I gave up halfway and just trusted I could ask Aziz later how to find my way around. Or possible use bread crumbs, Hansel & Gretel style… better than that, the Riad Star offered us a local mobile phone to keep with us during our stay, with the Riad’s phone number on speed dial, just in case we got lost or had any question of any kind.
I wasn’t keeping track of time too closely, being far more fascinated with the donkeys and colours along the way, but after what was maybe a 5 minute walk we stopped in a side street/alley in front of an non-descript door. All walls look more or less the same, and this door was perhaps just different in colour to some others. There were not real obvious signs we had arrived at the Riad, so again I was so happy we were picked up from the taxi and not navigating the Medina on our own for the first time, luggage in tow.
The Riad Star
Once the front door opened, the only way I can describe it is stepping into a different world. It’s a bit like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. The dusty old and anonymous looking walls on the Medina side gave way for a white, sparkling oasis of bright light and fluffy pillows. A riad, in the traditional sense, were build with an inward focus, protecting the privacy of the family living in it. This becomes incredibly clear when you first step inside the Riad Star, and instantly makes you never want to leave again.
There are only a handful of rooms, so it is an incredibly intimate way of staying in Marrakech. An experience vastly different from what you’d expect from a hotel, which would be far more impersonal and generic.There is no check-in desk or lobby. The riad opens up into a courtyard with a small pool, and another open air room with tables for breakfast or dinner. The environment is such that you really feel like you come home at the end of the day. You just happen to have staff waiting on you, and who seem genuinely delighted to be of help. Basically, staying at the Riad Star shows you what it is like to live like star for a few days.
I didn’t touch our suitcases since we got off the train, and when we arrived they were taken up to our room while we were invited into one of the courtyards. Within minutes, Aziz was back with fresh mint tea and Moroccan sweets. He then came back with a map of Marrakech, and the mobile phone we could use while staying at the Riad Star. He pointed out landmarks on the map and told us about good things to see around the Medina, and Marrakech as a whole. Aziz also showed us the Riad’s mobile app, which features a static map of the area but shows exactly where you are using your phone’s GPS (but no mobile data!). In addition, the app also offers some great tips about the area, and how to negotiate in the Medina.
Josephine Baker, and her bedroom
It is rather glamorous when you get to stay spend the night where a real life star has slept as well. I’ve recently had the opportunity to follow in Anouk’s footsteps at Hotel New York (I was a big fan of her music in my teenage years, so this was quite special for me personally), and now we had the privilege of living in Josephine Baker’s Marrakech home. Josephine spent a lot of time there as a guest of the Pashah of Marrakech in the 1940s. This same building is now the Riad Star. While Moroccan riads are traditionally inward facing, Josephine’s room has an unusual feature: a window out to the street. It can be interconnected with other rooms in the Riad, making it quite nice for families.
The room was set up as a twin room, but the Riad is flexible and guests can choose whether they want a double bed or two twin beds. A word of warning; Moroccan twin beds are particularly narrow. If I were to go again, I’d get a double bed! It’s nothing too new for me though, the same is true for twin beds in South America.
The walls are covered in reminders of Josephine, and the bathroom makes you want to come back for a honeymoon or romantic weekend getaway (instead of work!). Rose petals lined the bathmat, the towels and the fluffy robes waiting to hug me after a refreshing shower in the massive tub.
All room doors can be locked from the inside, and could be locked from the outside if you bring a padlock. However, in that case, the staff also can’t go in to clean your room. The riad is really a large ‘home’ in many ways, including this open door policy. Equally, it is entirely safe. We’ve left our Macbooks, cameras, phones, etc, without locking the door and the place is safer than many chain hotels with elaborate locking systems.
a Rooftop Hammam
A classic Moroccan experience is just steps away from our room: the hammam on the rooftop. The friendly young woman ruling the place instructs me to take all my clothes off before stepping into the warm room. She starts giving me instructions, and they are fired rapidly at me interspersed with her rubbing black soap on me with a scrubbing glove. I am not shy, and yet it is an entirely new and interesting experience to be washed by another human being for the first time since childhood.
Scrub, scrub, wash. It becomes a meditative ritual that goes on for some time. The hammam lady then leaves me to relax on the hot stone bench for about 20 minutes, and after a final rinse I feel pink like a lobster and baby-soft all over. She envelops me in my fluffly bathrobe and whisks me off to the room next door where I get to lay down for a relaxing massage. Time flies and before I know it I am drifting in and out of a slumber until it is time to get up and go back down to my room.
You’d think it’s already been a perfect first day, but it’s really just the beginning. With fresh mint tea waiting for me, and a surprise Skype call, the afternoon is already perfect.
The Riad Star’s welcome dinner
It’s not secret I love food. Having said that, I can be quite picky and I have never been a fan of lamb. In general, I’ve been reducing my meat intake lately, but particularly lam is never something on my regular menu. I also can’t call myself a vegetarian though, so when the Riad Star asked for our dietary requirements for our welcome dinner, I gave them free reign on deciding on the menu. Curious to see what a traditional Moroccan meal would look like, I was also happy to give lamb another go. I was glad I did, and also glad we didn’t eat on the trip from Casablanca to Marrakech because the amount of food prepared for us was astonishing. When the appetizers and vegetable dishes arrived, I thought that was surely it. Only to then have Aziz appear again with a large lam tagine a few minutes later.
The food was delicious and for the first time in my life I can say I genuinely enjoyed a lamb based dish. We convinced Aziz that surely in the morning we would love to have the leftovers so he saved them for us in the fridge. Unfortunately we never got around to eating them later because breakfast was equally elaborate and filling.
Marrakech Rooftop Relaxation
Marrakech is absolutely lovely, and the medina is a striking mix of colors, sounds, and smells that overwhelms the senses. The best part of my three nights in Marrakech were the opportunities to relax on the rooftop patio in the Riad though. It is rare that I go on a trip, and actually get a decent amount of sleep. Most of the time I am running around between business meetings and other commitments, or even trying to see as much of the sights as possible. Marrakech, and particularly the Riad Star, was different. I think we set the tone right by choosing a hammam treatment on arrival, and then the Riad added to the relaxation by taking any thought or guess work out of our first night’s dinner. The riad seems to flow at a different cadence than the rest of life, and is in stark contrast with the buzzing of the Medina. It’s truly a haven to return to and where you can escape from the world. I don’t think I’ve been quite this relaxed in years. And whatever your Riad routine will be, it is sure to be punctuated with fresh Moroccan mint tea.
Things we 😍❤ about the Riad Star
- English speaking staff, taking the language barrier stress out of the equation completely
- Free use of a mobile phone during our stay
- The app, giving you a map showing your location, without requiring mobile data + lots of useful info about Marrakech, the Medina, and history about the Riad
- The food. The food is amazing!
- Unlimited mint tea!
- Location, close to great restaurants, sightseeing and in the heart of the Medina
- The Riad has its own Hammam. One of my favourite things about getting a massage is relaxing at home afterwards, which is only possible if the massage comes to your home, or is already on site like this case.
How to book a Riad stay for yourself
The Riad star is part of a collection of Riads in the old Medina. Owned and operated by a UK-based couple, the Riads cater to international guests looking for an authentic experience, without the language barrier (or getting lost). You can book your stay directly with the Riad, with rooms starting at £112 per night.
More impressions of the Riad Star