The first thing you see outside your hotel room is the sunlight, streaming down from a huge hole in the roof.
You’ve already laid there in bed for a while, listening to the quiet bustle of the hotel’s morning rituals, the shuffling of feet on tiles, the birdsong, which occasionally comes from within the building. The door to your room is made in much the same way as the wooden shutters on the windows, so you can hear it all - apart from the other hotel guests in their rooms, since the building is too wide and the rooms too spaced-out.
It’s a surprising mixture of privacy and intimacy: quiet enough to hear the soft background noise of the outdoors. It sounds, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on, like a hotel should sound. Not artificially damped and deadened, and not the invasive racket of a place insufficiently soundproofed, but something else - and that “something else” fills your eyes when you slide your room door back and peer out…
When I first saw that Wheel & Anchor were heading to Morocco at the end of 2023, my first thought was Are they using the right kind of hotel?
Actually, that’s not quite true - it was my second thought. The first was a blast of pure, small-minded jealousy. (Ahhhh! That is going to be magnificent and why on earth have I not gone back to Morocco recently? What’s with that?)
My time in Morocco in 2016 was perhaps the perfect travel experience I’ve had as an adult - a thrill of a place, friendly enough to make everywhere feel welcoming, alien enough to my experience that every day gave me something new to learn and experience, plus gallons of fresh orange juice and mint tea, and a range of colours in the landscape and architecture that I’ve not seen anywhere else - and, in a particular type of hotel, the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a decade.
I know: good sleep can be an unhelpfully subjective thing. Some people, after all, have the ability to sleep soundly in the seat of a bus or train, or on a long flight - but nobody would suggest those are great experiences to seek out if you’re suffering from chronic insomnia. I once had a great afternoon nap in a ditch just outside London (long story), but I won’t be recommending that experience to you anytime soon. Each to their own, of course.
But I was travelling with my partner, a doctor from Costa Rica - and she felt it too. Some magical alchemy of the hotel’s hushed soundscape, the soft hiss of ambient natural noise, the splashing of the fountain in the middle of the building, and all that glorious sunlight streaming in...
It’s called a riad - also sometimes ryad, riyad or dar - and Morocco is famous for them. The word comes from the Arabic for “garden”, aptly chosen in most cases: at the centre of each of these multistoried, balconied town houses is often a square of tended greenery, perhaps with a fountain in it. And above that, there’s nothing but the hot blue sky.
If you’re most accustomed to staying in guest accommodation in Western Europe and North America, a riad is a radical change of perspective, courtesy of some commendable Islamic ideas about the importance of home and of giving a warm welcome to visitors.
Think about the layout of the average big-chain hotel. You get into the lobby, there’s reception, you’re shown to your room and the first thing you do is head for the window, to look outwards, with the hotel at your back.
The focus is always out there - which is fine when you’re already heading out to do some exploring, but feels like a weird, if subliminal, holding-pattern if you’re staying in your room for a while. It’s a design that says, “we get it, you’d rather be elsewhere, and hotels are things you get over with, rather than enjoy properly.”
Morocco is having little of that. There aren’t many outward-facing windows in a riad (and therefore, little of the traffic noise pulsing in from street outside). You may be used to expecting that epic window view that the brochures always promise, but come on - how often do you get that view? Most guests don’t! Isn’t it usually something less, something more disappointing in comparison?
In contrast, your morning view from your room in a riad is much the same as everyone else’s, and probably very similar to mine, that first day I stayed in one. You open the shutters, and everything is golden light streaming into the middle courtyard from above.
It’s dazzling, and speaks of all the heat of the average Moroccan day, but you’re up here in the relatively cool shadows, yawning pleasantly. (I bet it’s equally lovely to watch it rain - alas, a rare occurrence in the country outside of the winter months.)
If all this reminds you of what you’d always imagined life in a Roman villa to be like, you’re bang on the money: there are clear influences from ancient Eastern Mediterranean architecture, not just early medieval Persian and Moorish, hastened along by the modern attempts at the architectural equivalent of fusion cuisine.
Giving yourself a few sleepy minutes to take in the view is also a chance to look at the decor - it’s usually a medley of richly-coloured tiling, intricate calligraphy, geometric patterns and floral imagery. It’s designed to be looked at, and the structure of the places points you inwards, so you have the chance to really, truly see it.
The riad is something of an unlikely survivor in the hospitality industry. Isn’t it better for everyone to have those luxury hotel chains come in and throw a lot of money around? Isn’t that what always happens?
Yes, frequently - but not, I’m glad to say, in Morocco, or in a few areas of southern Spain where the same architectural style shows Arabic influence from when the Iberian peninsula was known as al-Andalus (from which Spain’s most southerly region, Andalusia, derives its name).
Riads have become big business in Morocco, and visiting the country as a tourist is a much better experience for it. As demand has grown, many run-down riads within Moroccan medinas (walled ‘old towns’) have been purchased, renovated and brought back to life (sometimes catalyzing the local skillsets required for restoring them, which of course leads to even more riads).
And they’re the real thing. In almost every case, you’re not in a modern replica - these are the places themselves, with all the history baked into their walls and felt in the smoothness of the worn floors underfoot.
I don’t know what yours will look like. There are now many, many types of riad, all the way from the kind of enormous luxuriously-restored places that are so photogenic they’re regular featured on the fronts of magazines and in people’s Instagram feeds, all the way down to the local equivalent of a room in an incredibly charming guest-house or Airbnb, complete with having a cup of tea (mint, of course) and a chat with the owner before you head up to your room. But however the details will differ, it’ll still feel like a riad.
And if you’re like me (and my partner, and everyone I know who has stayed in a riad), you’re going to sleep so deeply you’ll wonder if the place is filled with knockout gas. It’s that combination of the light and dark, the softness of the non-intrusive non-silence drifting in from the outside, the comfort, the utter lack of reminders of the world outside the building - and, of course, a certain amount of tiredness from the travel it took to get here. (But it wasn’t just the latter. I stayed in my riad for 4 days, and I slept as soundly on the fourth night as on the first.)
As Gordon says here, the Morocco tour is built around this guiding ethos: “If you travel in Morocco, you have to stay in a riad.” No arguments from me. Please do that, whether it’s next year, or some other time. It’s absolutely the best way to start a day of travel.