The cartoonish sound of an off-brand Vespa horn fills my ears. I jump to the right just in time for it to teeter by.
The old man driving shouts something indecipherable to a man lugging a sack of dried mint leaves and then reaches back to adjust the overflowing pot of couscous strapped haphazardly on the backseat. He’s followed immediately by a lazy-looking donkey pulling a cart of pink pomegranates and overripe limes.
From the store on my left, a shopkeeper beckons me to browse a room filled with handmade shoes of every color, shape, and size. In the background, a chicken squawks moments before he meets the butcher’s blade.
My nostrils sting with the pungent scent of black Savon and orange blossom.
I let out a sigh.
No matter where I turn, I am always blocking some form of traffic and always being ushered down the nearest sales funnel. But in the souks of Marrakech, you accept the chaos and become a part of it.
Marrakech, the fourth largest city in Morocco, has long lured tourists to its bustling souks – or dense markets – nestled in the heart of the medina or “old town.” But when you’re not busy haggling for a lower price on camel-hair carpets, handmade bowls or freshly tanned leather, refuge and relaxation can be found in a Riad, a traditional Moroccan guesthouse.
The Riad Star — named as such for Josephine Baker, the French jazz singer, revolutionary, and starlet that used to reside here — feels like a chic, but cozy home away from home. As one of four Riads in Marrakech owned by the British couple-turned-hoteliers Lucie and Mike Wood, it has a mix of contemporary luxury and traditional charm.
The hectic cacophony of noise on the streets seems impossibly far away once you step into the quiet serenity of the Riad. From the intricate white facades of the center courtyard to the earthy brown and black tiles lining the wading pool, every corner of the space is graced with thoughtful details. The handmade silver lamps, soft-patterned carpets, and beaded blankets immediately spark the urge to re-decorate my flat like a Moroccan palace.
Upon arriving at the Riad, we’re greeted with a steaming pot of mint tea, a basket of coconut biscuits, and the warm smile of Abdou, who has been taking care of the Riad for the past decade.
“Relax girls, you are home now,” he says as my friend and I sink into the plush grey velvet cushions. His soft brown eyes and reassuring smile could unwind even the weariest of travelers.
Traveling to the Middle East and North Africa can feel daunting for Western women (especially given the negative stereotypes that are often perpetuated in mainstream media), but the typical fears of getting lost, harassed, or simply feeling out-of-place are all quelled by the care and consideration of the Riad staff. (Some flowy, conservative wardrobe choices don’t hurt either.)
You can wander through the markets and back with confidence thanks to a custom smartphone app that guides you around the area. On the off chance you do get lost (as we did on our first night) Abdou or Aziz will happily come and find you and walk you home. On his “rescue” mission, Aziz makes it a point to tell us that he used to get lost himself when he first started working at the Riad.
Both the start and end of each day in Marrakech is languid and peaceful at the Riad, which is especially important considering our afternoons are spent bargaining in the bustle.
Our mornings consist of waking up to the natural light streaming in from the center garden and then sitting for a leisurely breakfast of fresh yogurt, fruit, eggs, a pancake-meets-roti pastry slathered in butter and honey, and spiced Moroccan coffee. (Also, a small dish of this heavenly caramel-esque sweet potato spread that I am still dreaming of.) We chat with Mohammed about our plans for the day and proudly show off our bright orange palms covered in henna.
After breakfast comes the hammam, a treatment that involves sitting nude in a candlelit stone sauna while being scrubbed, washed, and oiled. Sensual, but not sexual, relaxing, but still invigorating. My first hammam experience is foreign and unforgettably blissful. Post-hammam involves basking in the sunshine in an oversized robe and admiring my newfound baby-soft skin.
When the sun sets over the orange-tinted rooftops in the evenings, we curl up in the tented lounges on the rooftop terrace and indulge in traditional fare. With no menu to choose from, whatever we want to eat is prepared. We opt for a huge tagine filled with tender lamb, dates, and potatoes, couscous piled high with chunks of soft sweet potato and carrots, and little plates of aubergine salad, mixed fruit, and olives. Ripping chunks of bread and using it to sop up the mess of spices is as tactile as it is delicious.
Days later (and I predict weeks and months later), I’m still relishing in the colors, textures, and tastes of my time in Marrakech. The nights spent in the Riad Star came and went almost as quickly as the man on the scooter.
At least next time I’ll know to walk on the right side of the street.