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In order to feel at home in a strange city you need to have a secluded room to which you have a certain title and in which you can be alone when the tumult of new and incomprehensible voices becomes too great.”
It is no coincidence that Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti came up with these lines in a book about Marrakesh.* There can be few places in the world where the tumult of new and incomprehensible voices is as great as this ancient trading centre, at least to western ears. Fortunately, the modern-day city is well endowed with tranquil retreats in which to recharge one’s batteries if the colour and hubbub become too overwhelming. Foremost among these are the riads.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden which is usually open to the elements. Most are tucked away behind scruffy walls down obscure alleys in the medina. Visitors would have little idea they existed were it not that many have started to open up as boutique hotels.
It is hard to overstate what a benefit this is for visitors to this endlessly fascinating, but also hot, dusty and tiring city. As the Moroccans themselves obviously realised, the laid-back riad lifestyle and Marrakesh were made for each other. When you tire of one, you simply plunge into the other.
The blueprint of all the riads I saw was the same. The courtyard always has water and usually luxuriant vegetation. In one case, this stretched to a mature banana tree whose enormous leaves contributed to an atmosphere of languid decadence. Clustered around this inner sanctum are usually no more than half a dozen rooms or suites. A roof terrace, where guests take breakfast and generally loll around husbanding resources for their next sortie into the souk or pulsating central square is another core ingredient. Often a swimming pool or hammam is also be part of the mix.
If any type of building could be said to have turned its back on the world outside, you would say it of the riad. ”Like the heart, the house looks inwards,” as one riad owner told the traveller and writer Anthony Gladstone-Thompson in the 1960s. The same Marrakesh resident also warned Gladstone-Thompson against going up to his home’s flat roof in daylight, since this would ”upset any women on adjacent rooftops, traditionally considered their preserve as they gossip across the alleyways”.
This is one way in which times evidently have changed in this seemingly timeless city. The only rooftop gossiping I observed during my stay was among the hotel guests. And although clothes-lines were a feature of the surrounding roofs, the first thing I noticed was the profusion of satellite dishes.
My own riad - the Perle Riad Lotus - was tucked away down an unassuming alley just past some well-provisioned greengrocer’s shops and a hole-in-the-wall fishmonger. I sensed this was my sort of place from the moment the directrice from Nantes greeted me on arrival with mint tea, very much the local staple, and petits fours. This notion was reinforced when I noticed a copy of Kafka on the Shore by hip Japanese author Haruki Murakami in a small guest sitting-room. By the time I had spotted a small photograph of the 1902 England cricket team, moustachioed to a man, displayed, eccentrically I thought, on my bedside table, I was feeling almost ludicrously at home.
Next morning brought, I think, my first ever rooftop breakfast, including a plate of delicious sweet, buttery pancakes. Actually, this aspect of the riad experience was even more memorable at my next bolt-hole in the comparatively laid-back coastal resort of Essaouira. For one thing, I had an ocean view. For another, the menu included a small dish of argan oil, a local specialty. It tasted to me of slightly smoky almonds.
*”The Voices of Marrakesh” by Elias Canetti (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1982)
David Owen stayed courtesy of the Perle Riad Lotus