Riad Ines Home
We chose to stay in a riad in the Medina. A medina is the old historic part of a city; it is typically walled and contains narrow streets, fountains, palaces, markets and mosques. A riad is a guest house created from a traditional courtyard house.
The taxi from the airport dropped us off just inside the Medina at the limit of four-wheeled traffic. Excellently for us, a young man from the riad, Yassine, was waiting at the curb. He led us down winding narrow alleys to our riad. As we were walking with him, making conversation, we were concentrating on memorizing each turn.
Down at the end of a dusty alley that was part narrow construction site, Yassine showed us through an impressive metal door. A couple steps later and we emerged into a relaxed Moroccan-style courtyard.
Yassine led us up a winding tiled stairwell to our rooms. To our surprise, we found two sitting rooms, a bedroom and a mezzanine bathroom — all for us. Typical for a riad, all the guest rooms open onto the courtyard only.
Yassine was charming and enormously helpful. In his early 20s, he told us that he had grown up in a Berber part of the country, in the land of nomads and adobe villages.
He works at the Riad from evening to morning. He sleeps in a little room off the front door, ready to wake at any time to help the guests. He was there when we came back from dinner; he was there to set up and serve breakfast.
During the day, he goes to German language classes. Curiously, he doesn’t speak French, which is what you expect in Morocco; he speaks English, Arabic, a Berber dialect, and beginning German. There’s a story there! For about four years until recently, he was in a relationship with a young German woman. They had met when she was on holiday in Morocco. Yassine wasn’t clear with us about how much time she had spent in Morocco with him, but eventually she had to return to Germany. The two of them had tried to get Yassine a visa so he could emigrate to Germany, unsuccessfully. After a while, the young woman broke off the relationship. But Yassine has kept his determination to get to Germany. He wanted to make sure we understood that he didn’t want to get back together with his former girlfriend; but he did like the idea of showing up at her doorstep to show that he had made it to Germany.
In addition to working to master German, he had a plan for getting to Germany. He told us that he would be working at the riad for only a few more weeks. Then he would fly to Istanbul; he would join a friend of his who had recently traveled to Turkey from Morocco. Yassine envisioned folding into the masses of refugees trying to enter Greece. We tried to conceal our alarm at his strategy. But he is a young man, full of passion, perhaps not quite over his girlfriend, and overflowing with youthful optimism and confidence. Good for him!
During our few days in Marrakech, the borders started closing between Morocco and France and other countries. We were preoccupied with figuring out how we were going to get home. Yassine was preoccupied with finding a flight to Istanbul. On the morning of our departure, as he was helping us negotiate a fair taxi fare to the airport, he announced, a little sadly, that he would have to wait to go to Istanbul. We agreed that trying to enter the EU as a refugee would be a big challenge in ordinary times. Add the barriers of the pandemic, and it would likely be impossible.
At least in the context of a pair of older tourists, Yassine was thoughtful, generous and full of life. We wish him all the best as he finds his place in the world.
The 19 kilometers of walls that delimit the Medina were first built in the early 12th century. At more than 6 square kilometers / 2.3 square miles, this Medina is the largest in North Africa. UNESCO includes the Medina of Marrakech among its world heritage sites.
All these statistics translate into a fascinating, challenging, disorienting, colorful warren of narrow streets.
In the part of the Medina between our riad and the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, vendors for tourists line the streets. Walking through these endless malls is a combination of visual seduction, hawking vendors, smelly scooters and laden carts dragged by humorless men.
One evening, we walked out of the Medina into the modern part of Marrakech to have dinner at Al Fassia restaurant. Between our riad and the walls of the Medina, we walked along more narrow commercial streets. But this time, these were shops and vendors for Marrakech residents. Stalls and storefronts full of eggs, produce, prepared foods, home appliances, breads, meats, clothing, and much more.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is the granddaddy of tourist market spaces in the heart of the Medina. Youtube travel videos always seem to start here. This is a huge dynamic jumble of market stalls, acrobats and performers, the famous snake charmers, and lots and lots of people. Including pickpockets and all sorts of scammers. The nice staff at our riad told us many times that, if you are asked if this is your first time in Marrakech, say, “Oh no, I’ve lived here for quite a while.” Or better yet keep on moving.
Marked by a huge banner not far from our Riad is Le Jardin Secret. Not secret any more. From the second half of the 16th century until 1934, this site was home to various palaces and gardens. But between 1934 and 2008, the palace and garden were abandoned. A few generations of 20th-century Marrakech residents had no idea there was anything behind the walls. Hence the Secret Garden. It took from 2008 to 2016 to restore the buildings and open courtyards to the lush gardens we can visit today. (An interesting video about the reconstruction)
The first garden courtyard hosts a diverse collection of plants from around the world, all of whose original habitats are very similar to the Marrakech ecosystem.
18th century Islamic gardens inspired the design of the second garden courtyard. The source of this type of garden goes back to ancient Persia. Then and now, this type of garden is a metaphor for heaven. It expresses the order of the Islamic universe in contrast to the disorder of wild nature.