Escape the buzz of the souks and bed down at one of Morocco’s riads, where a world of spas, home-cooked food and culture awaits you
Savvy travellers to Morocco are increasingly opting to stay in traditional local accommodation. Riads, dars and kasbahs offer a taste of Moroccan life with the amenities modern tourists demand. Riads and dars, both generally referred to as riads, are homes centred around a courtyard, the distinction being that riads have gardens in theirs. Riads are frequently found in city centres in the middle of the action. Kasbahs are usually large, rambling places, often the former home of a local ruler or member of the aristocracy, and tend to be on the edges of cities or in beautiful rural areas. Whichever you choose, you can be sure of a unique experience, often in luxurious surroundings, with plenty of renowned Moroccan hospitality.
Best for glamorous types
You’ll get a royal reception at this opulent riad, favourite of celebs, VIPs and Moroccan aristocracy. When the chaos in the Fes medina gets too much, stepping into Riad Maison Bleue’s cool central courtyard, with its small pool shaded by lush orange trees, is the perfect antidote. Rooms are lavish, with large, canopied beds, elegant sitting areas and spacious bathrooms. The three roof terraces offer excellent views of the nearby hills, and the small bar is a great place to relax in the evenings. Friendly, helpful staff provide a high level of service, and a hammam in the private spa is a must. Gourmands must try the vegetable pastilla at the restaurant of nearby La Maison Bleue (+212 3574 1843), owned by the same family.
Hot: The sumptuously appointed rooms are fabulous.
Not: The bathrooms could do with a little more lighting.
Doubles from 1,970 dirhams, including breakfast. Spa treatments from 400 dirhams.
Riad Maison Bleue & Spa, Fes, +212 3574 1839, www.maisonbleue.com
Best for hip grown-ups
Along a small alley in the middle of the medina, a hidden doorway opens up to reveal the towering fairytale courtyard of Dar Seffarine. Graphic designer Kate and architect Alaa bought a crumbling medieval riad in 2003, restoring it to its original, magnificent state over the course of three years. Decorative zelliges tiles make up with lower part of the walls in most rooms, with ornate plasterwork and carved woodwork above. Kate and Alaa could see that sumptuous furnishings would be overkill here, so they’ve chosen high quality but simple interior decoration. The roof terrace is wonderful, with unbeatable views of the medina.
Hot: The food. Breakfasts are feasts and dinner, offered just once or twice a week, is to die for.
Not: Daylight rarely reaches the courtyard, making it a cool respite in summer but chilly in winter.
Doubles from 70 euros, including breakfast.
Dar Seffarine, Fes, +212 7111 3528, www.darseffarine.com
Best for nature lovers
Halfway up Morocco’s highest mountain, Kasbah du Toubkal sits amidst Berber villages, providing high-end accommodation in rustic surroundings. The result of a 25-year project, the Kasbah is one of the pioneers of responsible tourism and has won a plethora of awards for it. Formerly the home of a local ruler, it offers a unique glimpse into Berber life. Accommodation ranges from the multi-bedded Berber salons to the enormous garden house, with living room, kitchen, dining room, private terraces and large, luxurious bathroom. The very friendly staff all hail from the local communities, and they can arrange excursions into the mountains or Berber villages. Guests can enjoy a hammam in the beautiful bathhouse in the afternoon.
Hot: The setting halfway up Mount Toubkal is incomparable, with magnificent views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains dotted with Berber villages.
Not: It takes 1 1/4 hours to get there from Marrakesh, and the journey can be expensive.
Doubles from 150 euros per night, including breakfast. Berber salons, without en-suite bathrooms, from 120 euros for three people.
Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, 01273 600030, www.responsibletravel.com
Best for culture vultures
Moments from Marrakesh’s famous Jmaa El Fnaa square, with its street performers, acrobats, food sellers and fortune tellers, is this serene respite. The former home of the German ambassador, it’s full of his collection of art and artefacts. Wandering through this meandering riad, with its numerous courtyards and cosy lounge areas, is part of the pleasure. One turn might lead to the small pool, another to the hammam, but all eventually return you to the main courtyard, where birds twitter through the large citrus trees and a delicious dinner is served as classical music wafts through the air. The atmosphere is one of elegance and high culture, and the large individually decorated rooms live up to expectation. The suites are fabulous, but even the least expensive doubles are spacious and luxurious.
Hot: The roof terraces offer stunning views of the Atlas mountains.
Not: The toiletries, such as Dettol soap, don’t fit in with the upmarket atmosphere.
Doubles from 115 euros, including breakfast.
Riyad El Cadi, Marrakesh, +212 2437 8655, www.riyadelcadi.com
Best for families
For those wanting more services than offered by a typical riad, such as in-room TV and phone, taxi access, a bar and 24-hour manned reception desk, Les Borjs de la Kasbah fits the bill. Several riads were joined together to create this small hotel, and all 18 rooms overlook a courtyard. Rooms are well appointed with plenty of lighting and wardrobe space and enormous bathrooms. Arab and Moorish architectural elements are used throughout. Although the buildings are old, the renovation is new, giving Les Borjs more the feel of a boutique hotel than a Moroccan home. Because it is next to the grounds of the royal palace, Les Borjs can’t have a roof terrace, which is a drawback. A spa, pool and hammam are due to open in June.
Hot: The staff couldn’t be more helpful.
Not: Lacks the intimate atmosphere of smaller riads.
Doubles from 1,400 dirhams, including breakfast.
Les Borjs de la Kasbah, Marrakesh, +212 2438 1101, www.lesborjsdelakasbah.com
Home for the holidays
Brothers Richard and Daniel bought Riad Tizwa in Marrakesh in 2005. Intended as a second home, they soon turned it into a guesthouse and are now planning to open two more in Fes and on the coast
“We’ve always wanted our riad to be a home away from home,” says Richard, “and I think we’ve achieved that.” Walking through the door of Riad Tizwa, you feel as if you’re visiting long-time friends rather than staying at an anonymous hotel. “The atmosphere here is laid-back and relaxed luxury, and although the staff offer a high level of service, it’s a comfortable level,” explains Daniel.
Staying in riads in Morocco is increasingly popular with tourists, and many of them are being turned into guesthouses (maison d’hotes) and holiday lets to meet demand. Having spent time visiting a friend’s riad in Marrakesh, Richard and Daniel decided to purchase their own. “I saw 52 riads in one weekend in May 2005, whizzing around the souk on the back of the estate agent’s motorbike,” says Richard. “Our plan was to buy one as a second home, but I fell for a riad that was double our budget. It was beautiful, in the right location and the rooms had width as well as length, which is unusual for riads.”
The process of buying in Morocco is similar to England and takes around two to three months from offer to completion. Richard and Daniel used the equity on their British homes to pay for the riad, but soon realised they’d have to open it as a guesthouse since they’d gone over budget. They also had to factor in the cost of decorating it.
Unlike many riads, Tizwa was structurally sound, so the only works required were installing air conditioning, upgrading the electrics and fitting additional lighting. Finding tradespeople in Morocco turned out to be far easier than in Britain, with neighbours happy to recommend skilled labourers keen to work. “If you need a plumber or an electrician, someone will be there in half and hour, and unlike at home, you can afford them,” explains Richard.
To ensure the riad was fitted out to a high standard, a great deal of thought and planning went into the process, from finding an authentic Berber tent for a corner of the roof terrace to putting an ipod docking station in every room. Richard designed all the furniture himself, commissioning craftsmen from the medina to build it using local materials, renewable hardwoods and traditional methods. Marrakesh has quite a few riads, so it’s touches like this that help one stand out. “We spent ages working out how to do the detailing properly, to bring the scheme altogether and look natural. It doesn’t seem important, but it makes a difference on a subtle level,” explains Daniel.
While working on the riad, Daniel and Richard also began applying for maison d’hotes status. “Getting permission to turn it into a guesthouse is the longest process,” says Richard. Approval came through a few months later, and Riad Tizwa opened its doors in early 2006. Throughout the process, Richard and Daniel both continued with their regular employment, taking it in turns to spend weekends and holidays in Morocco to oversee the works. Although it’s a great deal of work, they’ve enjoyed it so much, they’ve bought riads in the medieval medina of Fes and on the coast in Sidi Ifni, both of which should open this summer.
For anyone considering buying a riad as a guesthouse, it’s worth considering why most people choose to stay in them over the nearby chain hotels. Richard and Daniel understood this instinctively from the start and made sure their riad was as unlike a hotel as possible. “I can’t stand the fact that when I’m in a hotel, I have to get up and go down to breakfast by 9,” says Richard. “At Tizwa, you can have breakfast whenever and wherever. If you want it in your room at 4 o’clock in the afternoon – perfect. If you want it on the roof terrace at 6am – absolutely fine. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. That’s the key thing. We want our riad to feel like a second home, not a hotel.”
Doubles in Marrakesh from £50
Riad Tizwa, Marrakesh, Fes and Sidi Ifni, UK: 07973 238 444 or 07973 115 471, Morocco: +212 68 19 08 72, www.riadtizwa.com
How to buy
Whether you want a riad to use as a second home, to let as a whole house or to run as a guesthouse, the buying process is essentially the same
Properties are often listed with estate agents, but many people sell by word of mouth, so ask any locals you meet. Find estate agents online, by strolling the streets of the city or, ideally, by word of mouth. Unofficial estate agents, often called simsaars, shouldn’t be overlooked because they usually represent a wide selection of properties, but because they’re unregistered, do use them with caution.
Arrange appointments to view riads before leaving the UK, if possible. You can see dozens in just a few days if you plan it well. Making an offer is straightforward. Unlike haggling in the souks, you can’t usually expect to knock much, if any, off the list price. If the offer is accepted, the process is similar to England’s, with various legal issues to attend to and plenty of documents to sign. Local lawyers or notary publics usually handle the transactions and will guide you through the various levels of bureaucracy necessary to complete the sale.
Fees and taxes for buying a riad, including payments to estate agents, lawyers, etc, will vary from around 5-13% of the purchase price, depending on the property and your planned use for it. You will be required to fill in form after form and pay an almost endless stream of small taxes and fees.
You’ll probably need to open an account at a local bank, so be prepared to make friends with the bank manager, common practise in Morocco. Only a few Moroccan banks offer mortgages to foreigners, and rates are usually worse than in the UK and Ireland. Most foreigners extend their British or Irish mortgage to pay for their home in Morocco, but there are now some British and Irish companies who offer mortgages on Moroccan properties, usually at 70% of the value.
Where to buy
Morocco is a destination on the rise, thanks in no small part to their modernising king. He has huge plans for the Moroccan tourist industry, so almost everywhere should see a surge in visitors. Marrakesh is one of the hippest destinations right now, a trend set to continue, while Fes currently suffers from a shortage of good quality guesthouses, so a gap needs to be filled. In Marrakesh, riads with a few bedrooms usually cost from £100,000 upwards, but in Fes it’s still possible to snap up bargains for £50,000 or less.
Buying a house in Morocco by Abby Aron (Vacation Work, £12.95) – all aspects of house buying, from selecting where to buy to detailed information about the purchasing process.
www.houseinfez.com – excellent information about buying property in Fes.
www.buyingmoroccanproperty.com – where to buy, what to buy and how to do it, with useful message boards, book and website reviews and links to estate agents.
Published March 2007, Ryanair in-flight magazine. See it online here: http://www.ryanairmag.com/story/moroccan-riads/50/1/