Inside the magic of Moroccan riads and dars

INTERNATIONAL INSPIRATION PROFILE: feature from the WINTER 2024 issue of STAY Magazine

Morocco’s luxury traditional houses turned-hotels give us something we can’t find at home. And isn’t that what hospitality is really about?

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LIKE ALL RIADS AND DARS IN MOROCCO, IT’S HARD TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT LIES BEHIND THE SIMPLE EXTERIOR OF RIAD DAR EL KEBIRA—an old keyhole hardwood door with a large knocker, guarded by a robust Siamese street cat who looks like he could teach you a thing or two in a fight. Located in the heart of the Moroccan capital Rabat’s maze-like old medina, or walled city, it’s taken a while for me to find.

Yet behind this humble entryway is a palatial residence fit for a sultan. It’s the kind of space that teases the senses — there’s the aroma of dried lavender steeping into the space, which the cleaning staff uses to perfume the rooms. The visual treat of the two-story enclosed courtyard, furnished with delicate Arab-Andalusian, Turkish, and Ottoman furniture upon which its ornate chandeliers cast a warm glow. The feeling of the steam rising from a glass of mint tea, the country’s proprietary welcome drink that blends mint, black tea, and heaps of sugar, carefully arranged on a silver platter in the foyer. It’s high summer, but the hot tea is paradoxically refreshing, a warm treat accompanied by Moroccan shortbread cookies, or sables, of all shapes and sizes.

Soyez bienvenue, madame,” Safouane Abouya, general manager at Riad Dar El Kebira tells me as I bite into an almond cookie. You are welcome in Morocco.”

The riad — a traditional courtyard house that has been transformed into a hotel — has some of the most elaborate décor I’ve ever seen in a guest accommodation. Ironically, I’m told it’s rather modest, compared to some of the riads out there. Dar in Arabic means house”, while riad means garden”. Together, these words describe the traditional homes that have been around in Morocco for close to 1,000 years, and that today, are in high demand among travellers to the North African tourism mecca. Historically, riads were places where entire families would live — parents, plus their children once they were married, and even extended family members.

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Some riads have been around almost that long—what’s widely regarded as the earliest example was the former Marrakesh palace of one of Morocco’s famous early rulers, built in the early 1100s. It’s not uncommon today to find a riad that’s hundreds of years old—Riad Dar El Kebira is over 500, relatively young to be situated in Rabat’s old medina, which dates to the 12th century.

The homes are known for their opulence—grand entrances, towering doorways, and immaculate inward-facing gardens and patios that create the illusion of a wealthy sultan’s palace and a villa in fair Verona, all at once.

Five years into running the operations behind this elaborate property, Abouya feels at home here. It’s a big change from the large hotels he worked at before, but a welcome one.

“It’s not the same. In the hotels, we’re always signing papers, making reports,” he says. “In the riads, we have time to say hi, to talk to people.”

Such is the experience that travellers from around the world come to Morocco’s riads to find. They offer Canadian travellers a taste of the lavish and luxurious, for a fraction of what they might pay for a luxury stay back home: sprawling continental breakfasts of pastries, omelettes, and fresh Moroccan olives, bathrooms with clawfoot tubs and luxury soaps, and impeccable service throughout the day.

Riad Dar El Kebira, from what I gather during my stay, has all this and more. Its charm is that what it offers is something that simply cannot be replicated outside of Morocco—a stay that is authentically Moroccan, from the food it prepares to the exquisite handicrafts with which it furnishes the rooms, each named after the city’s quarters.

Industry forecasts suggest that stays like this are what leisure and business travellers are coming to expect. Hilton’s third annual trends report, released in October, has forecasted that culture will remain a major priority for hotel goers in 2024. This is particularly true for culinary experiences—cue the steaming tajines and Friday couscous that Riad Dar El Kebira prepares in-house. The report also found that, globally, 46 per cent of full-time and self-employed workers plan to travel for bleisure in the coming year.

“Traditional accommodation really gives you a sense of place, a sense of where you are in the world,” says Nicole Mathias, a Niagara travel agent who plans trips around the world for couples and families. “If you’re in a traditional, North American-style hotel room, you could be anywhere.”

The folks Mathias works with, she says, look for places that are locally run, beautiful, and comfortable—a unique experience, but with creature comforts. So too do the business travellers who comprise most of Riad Dar El Kebira’s visitors, Abouya tells me as we weave up an immaculate staircase with polished railings made from wooden canes. Most of them work for large conglomerates like IBM, Microsoft, and French telecommunications giant Orange. In between meetings, they want to experience the culture, from the medina through to their accommodations.

“People who visit Morocco, they want to see the old parts of the city,” says Abouya. “They don’t want to see the big buildings of the new town. They want to discover real life here.” While each riad is unique in its architecture, service, and interior design, there are similarities among them that standardize the riad experience. The balconies and galleries face inwards, not outwards, onto an interior courtyard. Walled in by a two-or-more-story building, the courtyard typically boasts a garden, pool, or decorated lounging space. Of course, for all their antiquity, riads have evolved to keep up with the times. High-speed Wi-Fi, an in-suite TV, and an air conditioning unit are the traces of modernity that betray the age of my superior suite at Riad Dar El Kebira.

It is this combination of traditional architecture and design, and modern comforts from home that makes Moroccan riads so alluring to travellers visiting the North African country. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in riads. Many of these historic structures fell into disrepair over the years, but a wave of restoration efforts has revitalized them. Today, many have been transformed into boutique hotels, offering travellers a chance to experience the charm of traditional Moroccan living.

Dar El Kebira’s own transformation took place about 10 years ago when the previous owner sold the house to a Moroccan family from Rabat. It was retiled, expanded, and combined with the adjacent property, which the family also bought, to turn it into a fully functioning boutique hotel.

It is perhaps the North American tendency to favour the predictable—ready-to-assemble furniture we can re-order at a moment’s notice, monochromatic bed sheets and curtains that match any colour palette—that separates us from the bold patterns, colours, and quirks of a traditional Moroccan riad. It smells unbelievably good here, not because of a Glade plugin, but because of the dried herbs steeping their aroma into the suite. Even the toilet bowl’s rim is painted with an Andalusian pattern.

It’s the careful thought-outness of the room that makes it easy to overlook the hardwood, stained glass door that, swollen in the summer heat, takes a good few pulls to close shut; the low arch, a forehead clunker for anyone over 5’7” that opens up to the bathroom; the light drip brought on by the heavy overnight rain.

There are differences in supply, of course, that make it easier to go with a maximalist design look here. Riad Dar El Kebira’s hand-woven rugs, silver teapots and platters, and polished wooden armoire come a lot cheaper in Morocco, where the cost of goods and services is far lower than in Canada. So is the source of the country’s handicrafts—Fes, a city just a few hours from Rabat.

Yet a stay at a Moroccan riad is perhaps a lesson for Canadian boutique hotels and hospitality businesses looking to differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s the quirks and the careful details, the commitment to authenticity, and the weaving in of creature comforts that turn a guest stay from mediocre to magical—authenticity, down to the experience of finding the riad again after leaving to explore the medina.

I wander down several cobbled alleyways, passing stores that sell brass teapots and copper lanterns on my hunt for the riad’s entrance. Later, a laundromat. After several tries, I locate Riad Dar El Kebira’s heavy hardwood door, the small sign that swings from a jutting metal bar above it. Abouya laughs—the chase is part of the experience.

“Sometimes it’s better to get lost inside the narrow streets than to find your way by yourself,” says Abouya. “Of course, we have porters who can come and meet guests, help them home. But this is good.”

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