This summer I led a travel writing retreat based in Marrakesh, Morocco — the city where I lived for two years. Last week an earthquake took thousands of lives in the Atlas Mountains, one of the places we explored, and left thousands more Moroccans homeless. My heart breaks for families who are hurting there. Thankfully, my friends in the video below who live in Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains are safe, but former students and friends I’ve talked with are still in shock.
I appreciate friends on social media who have showed concern and asked about ways to help. I’ve worked with Amal, Project SOAR, and Education for All, below. They’re run by people who will be sure your donations provide relief.
A great way to support Morocco is tourism. The country has taken hits from pandemic border closings, lockdowns, and the earthquake. Marrakesh is up and running. If you want the epic adventure of a lifetime, start planning a trip for 2024. Message me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help. Please see just a bit of what a stay in Marrakesh is like in the video below. If you book at Riad Mur Akush, our home base for the retreat, within the next 4 weeks, the riad is donating 20% to Amal Center for Earthquake Relief Fund. To help in this way, you must useTHIS LINK.
And if you’d like to join a community of creative explorers like the incredible women who joined me last summer, reach out. Morocco has been inspiring artists for centuries. Contact me at email@example.com regarding writing workshops online, in Morocco, and beyond.
From the first year that I lived in Marrakesh, I dreamed of leading a travel writing retreat there. No country has been a muse to me like Morocco. I wanted to share inspiring experiences with women who also need to write and explore. The pandemic postponed my dream. But while waiting for borders to reopen, I wrote a memoir about my years in the Red City.
Meanwhile, a woman named Laila Krattiger was trying to fulfill her dream — a haven for travelers that offers Morocco’s warm hospitality, Switzerland’s pristine precision, and Italy’s dramatic style. She opened the doors to Riad Luciano in Marrakesh… and pandemic slammed them shut. The world was on lockdown. As she discusses in the interview below, she shook off the shock with optimism and then used the time to make a major renovation and assemble a dream team.
The word quarantine is derived from the Italian quaranta giorni which means “40 days.” During the Middle Ages, passengers were detained on ships in ports for this length of time to quell the spread of bubonic plague. The Black Death killed one-third of the world’s population. However, in the next era, survivors celebrated life and were more creative than ever before. During the Renaissance, which means “Rebirth,” art flourished.
Likewise, post-pandemic we’re traveling like never before. We recognize our need for adventure, beauty, and connection. Riad Luciano reopened and is a work of art even more beautiful than before. Laila’s tenacity paid off, and her vision was realized. I’m so glad I could experience it.
My writing retreat finally happened. Before it started, I set aside three days of solo stays in Marrakesh. Since becoming a caregiver to my mom over a year ago, I’ve valued solo travel more than ever. Since 2013, I’ve featured my favorite resorts, boutique hotels, and Moroccan riads on this blog. Every property has an essence — the souls, the people who are the brand. A place of beauty has heart. It’s the product of hard work, tears, and tenacity. The realization of a dream.
I read websites and reviews on about a hundred resorts and riads before choosing Riad Luciano for my first night back in Morocco. It promised Moroccan warmth, Swiss precision, and Italian style… and delivered. I still dream of living in Italy, and I fell in love with Switzerland on my first trip to Lucerne. The stay was even better than I anticipated. Take a tour of Riad Luciano below. Meet Laila who lives her life in Zug, a city between Zurich and Lucerne, and Morocco. We talk about living cross-culturally and she gives must-dos in her cities. Hear her advice to younger people on seeing the world.
If you prefer listening to the podcast, the audio is here. You can book Riad Luciano on the website link above or here.
Disclosure: I was a guest at Hotel Luciano. I only recommend accommodations I’ve stayed in personally and HIGHLY endorse. As always, all opinions on this blog are my own.
Disclosure: Some posts on this blog have affiliate links to offset my cost at no additional fees for the consumer.
Below are photos of Laila in Morocco and Switzerland with family and colleagues with whom she designs excursions.
Choosing accommodations when you’re a solo traveler in a new city is especially important. And yes, a vital consideration is location, location, location. As Laila points out in our interview, guests aren’t forced. to stay in their rooms or go out when there are plenty of public spaces for relaxing. As in any large city, I don’t typically go out alone on foot after dark. Having a balcony and rooftop allows me to enjoy city lights, cool breezes, and full moons.
Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Do you need time away to jumpstart or finish a writing project? Do you have travel tales you need to tell?
Did you vow in 2020 pandemic lockdown that you would make travel a priority? Do you need to feel alive on new adventures… meet kindred spirits… fulfill new or old dreams?
Whether you’re a novice writer or pro honing your craft, on this retreat you’ll journal your journey with proven tools, inspiration, and a creative, supportive community in an exotic land. You’ll tell your best story and leave with the ultimate souvenir (remembrance). Your personal essay or memoir chapter will transport others and you back to Morocco (or whatever place you need to write about and never forget).
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco has provided me as much rest, adventure, creative energy, and beauty. While living there, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. For me, the time was a life reset. If you follow this blog, you know that I returned to Marrakesh during the summer of 2018 and began planning this retreat. The pandemic placed it on hold, but in 2023 it finally happened! See the video here and stay tuned for the next one!
Journaling to the sound of courtyard fountains and on outdoor terraces of a private riad. Reading your work at a literary salon by the sea.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for some of my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs.
4 Workshop Sessions: Craft Study & Workshop with Feedback
Private Transportation to Essaouira, High Atlas Mountains, and Palmeraie
Mule trek and lunch in a Berber village
Luxury Resort for Lunch, Botanical Gardens, Pools, and a Camel Ride
Medina Guided Tour, Bargaining Assistance, Photo Walk, and Entrance to Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef
7 Breakfasts, 2 Lunches, 2 Dinners
*Does Not Include:
Travel Insurance (required)
3 Group Meals (order from menu): Rooftop Lunch in Medina, Dinners in a Former Pasha’s Palace and on a Rooftop by the Sea
Free time options and transfers (Suggestions: Amal Cooking Class, Lunch at Museum of Confluence, Hammam/Spa Day, Jardin Marjorelle, Lunch at other locations with gorgeous pools and gardens, volunteering if possible)
Reflect, then project. For those of us who thought we’d be farther along in 2020 in some area(s) –education, career, relationships, health, finances, savings, freedom, peace–think again. Rather than be discouraged, let’s look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come! Make a list of what you did accomplish in the last decade. Identify steps you took in the direction of where you want to go and what you’ve learned along the way. Just as important as getting to destinations/ outcomes for the lives we want is moving closer to the people we want to be.
What words best sum up your last ten years? For me they were change, journey, faith, and let go. Before 2010, I spent 17 years in the same house 3 streets from the school where I taught/my children attended K-12. After 2010, I fled my too-silent, empty nest; lived in 2 countries abroad; traveled to 15 more; taught at 7 schools; and became a travel blogger, writing coach, and full- time university lecturer. During this time of transition, I thank God most for relationships; for my time in Morocco; and for other travels–Christmas with my children in Marrakesh and London, New Year’s Eve in Venice, Easter from Prague to St. Petersburg, and springs and summers in Spain.
Our Maker customizes journeys each of us need for seasons of life. Whether they require us to cross continents or make discoveries in our own backyard, all lead home– to the people we were uniquely created to be.God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4) so He can fulfill them. He delights in giving us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). What dreams has He given you? In ten years, where do you want to be? What’s your word for 2020 that expresses what you most desire to be or do? Is it a noun–courage, strength, laughter, vulnerability, hope–or a verb–enjoy, explore, create, focus, dream?
I share some lessons I’ve learned/relearned/am still learning over the past decade as invitations to reflect on your own. Please share in a comment what life has been teaching you on your journeys and where you hope to still go in the new year and decade ahead.
Lesson #1: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”–George Addair
When, like heroes in books and movies, we set out on a quest, we meet Fear spitefully guarding the treasure– joy, confidence, freedom–whatever it is that we seek. Sometimes the dragon looms large before us, stradling our path with the breath of a blowtorch trying to force us back. Angst and Anxiety, fear’s more subtle forms– can be harder to identify although more people than ever say they suffer from both. Stress can also ambush us from within, threatening our mental and physical health. It can literally short-circuit our nerves, causing them to burn through our skin. This Christmas I experienced this condition for the second time — “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, SHINGLES all the way!” (I also learned that this can happen at any age. Three of my friends were diagnosed with shingles while in college.)
When anxiety gets me down, I get frustrated with myself because it seems by now I should have mastered the whole fear thing. Maybe that’s because over the last decade, I was more determined than ever to slay fear once-and-for-all.
In 2013 I booked a bedroom in a Costa Rican jungle beach house owned by Lisa Valencia, an expat who’d left her empty nest in Montana for a more economical, adventure-filled life. Her book, like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to believe I could change my life, too. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and with an empty nest and bank account I was curious about a place where healthcare might actually be affordable. I’d traveled with students and done service trips in Europe and South America, but this time I’d go it alone.The trip didn’t go as planned, but it prepared me for an expat life a year later. Steps we take in faith toward a dream can lead to unforeseen, scary territory, but rather than detours, they are necessary legs of the journey. They don’t throw us off course but help us stay the course and find the desired destination.
Over the years my friend Sherry, who I visited in Ecuador, and my friend Sally, a nurse who raised her family in Niger, sent me Matthew 11:28-30: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. I wanted that.
I also wanted to be the woman in Proverbs 31:25: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. In Morocco, like few times in my life, I fully experienced both. Moving solo to Africa sight unseen and trusting my most precious gifts–my grown children and other family members 4400 miles away– grew my faith. I had to trust God with all because (other than our choices and despite our best efforts), we humans control little. Most days, I felt my faith cutting through fear like a lightsaber. Even when blind-sighted, I was able to sing in the dark and when sad, I could find joy.
I thought I’d defeated fear for good. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic. I felt I was drowning in two tsunami waves–one the first month after I landed, the other the last month before I left. After moving home to Nashville, I also felt afraid. The supernatural peace I felt in Morocco couldn’t be sustained. Life is seasonal, and I realize now that this side of heaven, we will never be permanently fear-free. Just when we think we’ve beaten fear like in a video game and moved onto the next level, a stronger version of the monster appears. But with each bout we can grow stronger. Grace enables us to ride fear Queen Daenerys-style. In darker seasons I find peace in the 365 forms of “Fear Not” in the Bible, and test my thoughts with 2 Timothy 1:7: “God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I trust His character and protection, the One who over the last seven years sustained me through earthquake, illness, a mugging, a van accident, a hurricane, and an assault. We can’t see what lies in wait, but He can.
Lesson #2: Each of us has a life story and gets to be the leading lady or leading man of it.
In the movie The Holiday, an elderly friend and famous Hollywood producer, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), advises Iris (Kate Winslet) to let go of a man who doesn’t love or respect her.
Arthur: So, he’s a schmuck.
Iris: As a matter of fact, he is…a huge schmuck. How did you know?
Arthur: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.
Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well.
We are free to live our own story– to choose where to live and how to serve others with the gifts God gives us. I’d taught Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for years, but it wasn’t until teaching Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist while in Marrakesh that I recognized each stage in my own journey. Like heroes in books– Ulysses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Mulan–we real folk are sometimes called to adventures that require us to leave everything familiar. Unchartered territory is daunting and can cause us to refuse the call. Coelho, in his introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, gives four reasons why: 1) We’re told since kids what we want is impossible. 2) We fear the defeats we’ll experience on the path. 3) We fear success. 4) Love–for me, the obstacle.
Coelho explains: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream. We do not realize that love is just a further impetus, not something that will prevent us going forward. We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” I am forever grateful to my daughter and son who supported me 100% when I told them I wanted to apply for teaching jobs abroad, my sister and brother-in-law who gave me a sendoff party with family and friends, and my Mom who kept in constant touch the three years I was gone.
One of my greatest struggles has been with the empty nest. Moving abroad forced me to create a new normal so I could outrun it for awhile. School breaks–that Christmas in London and summers at home–we spent quality, intentional time together. I wasn’t prepared for the delayed pain that hit full force when I returned to Nashville–the place we’d lived together. Releasing my children was HUGEbecause, as a mom, I’m a Stage 5 Clinger as much as a Gypsy Soul. The last decade I’ve also learned/am learning to let go of…
Expectations of how life and people “should” be. Plans are great, but life can derail them. How we react is the only thing we can control. Decades earlier, divorce made me let go of my idea of a “perfect family.” For years I feared my children and I weren’t just on Plan B but benched for life as the B Team. We realize now how close we became as the 3 Musketeers. I’m also learning that basing our happiness on how others act and react is a setup for frustration and disappointment. We can know our limits, respect other people’s boundaries/choices, and choose with whom to be in relationship and to what extent.
Judgement–Travel teaches us flexibility. Living cross-culturally makes us let go of rigid constructs of what life should or should not be. I’ve taught behind what some, sadly, would call in my polarized home country ‘enemy lines.’ Working over the last decade with colleagues, students, and families in a Bible Belt Christian high school and university, a Caribbean Catholic high school, an international high school with coworkers from 20-something countries and students who were mostly Muslims, a liberal public high school, and a public community college and university has taught me one thing. Our same Maker creates us more alike than different. Regardless of where we live on the map, most people love their families, value faith, and want to live happy and free.
Material things–Downsizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives clears space for what we really want. Living out of 4 suitcases for three years taught me how much I really need. I like Thoreau’s approach to minimalism and simplicity: The cost of a thing is how much of life I’ll be required to exchange for it– now or in the future.
People–Family is forever but time spent with friends can be seasonal. This is especially true in the expat community where friends bind fast and furious. International teachers by nature want to see the world, so after serving a two-year contract, many move on. Likewise, while expats are abroad, friends at home are also transitioning through new seasons. Priorities, addresses, interests change. Thankfully technology can keep us in touch, and I was able to reconnect with these friends when I returned to Morocco Summer 2018.
Old Stories–Some old stories–the ones we laugh about– keep us connected, and some connect us in shared pain. However, some stories we tell ourselves or others tell about us are unhealthy. They block us from moving forward. People can victimize us, but unless we are physically restrained, we can break free. Once we do, internalizing what the perpetrator did still holds us hostage.
Assumptions–We all have bad days or seasons when we speak or act from a place of pain. As discussed in the The Four Agreements, our lives are happier when we only believe what we know to be true and refuse to take things personally.
Perfectionism–Though some life experiences follow the journey model, most are not linear. They spiral. We find ourselves confronting over and over our most challenging issues, and sadly, we still sometimes fail. Growth is learning from past mistakes, knowing our triggers, and adding to our skill set so we can better handle adversity. When we do mess up, we can make amends and treat ourselves with the kindness and patience we extend to others. We can lean on God and give ourselves what we need when depleted– H.A.L.T. when feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired–rather than demand others fill these needs.
Lesson #4: Embrace.
Once we’ve let go of what we don’t need in our lives, we have free hands to hang onto what we do. Hang onto…
Beauty breaks for the soul. Most of the women I know live with passion and purpose. They are what southerners call steel magnolias–curious, creative, courageous. They contribute and grow. I know, too, they often feel overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stretched to the limit. Whether in our backyard or on an extended getaway, we need time to listen to our hearts–to explore, breathe, just BE. Self-care was foreign to me until I became a single mom with two young children. Wise women advised me to take timeouts–to put on my own oxygen mask– when my son and daughter were away. The solo travel and moves abroad I did in the last decade wouldn’t have happened had I not learned how to make the most of time alone decades prior. I started with baby steps– lunch out with a book on a pretty patio, exploring a museum, or seeing a film in the theater alone. In the 2000s those moves became strides–an annual overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad. Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers I needed as a mom, teacher, and creative. All of those mile markers moved me to Morocco. Wandering and dwelling in beauty creates calm. So do centering practices like yoga, meditation, prayer.
Creative Community. Spend time with people who inspire you to do what you were put here to do and realize fully who you were created to be. Releasing a book or album or any other project creatives feel called to do can be a long, lonely process without traveling companions to remind us of our mission and cheer us back to the path when we lose our way. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and in The War of Art advised well— stay away from chaos and ‘crazy makers’ who distract us from our work.
Curiosity. T. H. White in his The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur Legend through the lens of WW2, explains the gift of education. In it, Merlin tells young Arthur: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Online courses, podcasts, and audio books make learning-on-the-go possible. Exploring new territory, like Josephine Baker’s Moroccan home, taught me about a woman who is now my hero.
Your True Identity/Value. My friend-since-I-was-five Sally, created a jewelry line based on photos of my adventures. She knew me when high school dances ended with Chicago’s “Color My World,” and we prayed that one day someone would be our happily-ever-after. After both of our marriages ended, we saw God make mosaics from the shards of our lives. An Italian friend told me once I was meant for a grande amore. We all are. God calls us to a love story–one with Him full of adventure. The jewelry line she created is calledChérie, which in French, the language of Africa, means “cherished by God.” Thanks to Sally, women can wear the lessons I learned on my journey–Choose Adventure,Walk in Faith, Seek and Find, Follow Your Heart– and feel connected to a global, cross-generational sisterhood of seekers. See the line here.
Lesson #5Expecting the unexpected, enjoy the moment. Our health and that of our loved ones is not a default blessing. Without health, our dreams— like travel— can die. Take your shot when you have it. For many of us, that’s between when kids leave the nest and parents need our help. Most things cost more than the price tag, but experiences, unlike things we eventually Goodwill, we take to the grave and are priceless. And that old adage—“You find love when you aren’t looking”— for me proved to be true. I am thankful someone I hadn’t laid eyes on in over 30 years found me, has made me laugh like no other, and also values roots and wings.
For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.
The house is a metaphor for the self, of course, but it also is totally real. And a foreign house exaggerates all the associations houses carry…. And, ah, the foreign self. The new life might shape itself to the contours of the house, which already is at home in the landscape, and to the rhythms around it.–Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
I love a love story, a happy ending, a dream come true.
In 2016, three weeks before I left Marrakesh, I received a message from a blog reader, a woman from Kerry County, Ireland. She’d lived in London twenty years, eleven as a flight attendant, and was then working in the Middle East. She reached out as a kindred spirit:
I have visited Marrakech every year for the past five years and am totally in love with it. I stay in the same riad, eat in the same restaurants, Pepe Nero, Le Foundouk, and relax in the same spa. Why change somewhere you love going? I am convinced in a previous life I lived in Morocco. Anyway, I am thinking of buying a renovated riad in Marrakech…
She wondered if I had European friends who had bought riads there as well. She wasn’t buying as a business venture but as a holiday home for herself, friends, and family. We bonded over our favorite films, Under the Tuscan Sun and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, stories of women who restored houses and made new lives in faraway lands. She finished:
…actually felt the need to email you as you remind me so much of one of my friends, Jo, who is just so like you with her outlook and is always taking herself off to Italy.
PS I adore Italy. Tuscany & Venice are too of my favorite places.
And with that, we were friends. I connected her with homeowners in Marrakesh who had fulfilled the same dream. Over the next two years, we stayed in contact.
I looked forward to her photos and updates:
It was so much fun house hunting in Marrakech online in my living room. After much research, I contacted Chic Marrakech, an estate agency, and viewed options on my visit in October 2016. The moment I crossed the door at Maison No. 71, I knew it was the house for me. The house was in good condition, but I could imagine vividly how beautiful it could be…
When I set foot on the rooftop terrace I could see the snow- covered Atlas Mountains in the distance. It was idyllic. It just felt right. I could see the potential, and immediately I made an offer on that day.
Realistically if you are going to buy in Marrakesh, you need to evaluate the state of the dwelling. Many of us fall in love with the property and we don’t want to suppose that the water tanks could burst or that there could be a damaged chimney. In my case I had no roof or canopy over the courtyard and of course when I returned in February 2017 to sign the paperwork for the house and collect my keys, it rained and rained and rained. It was cold and wet and I was not prepared for the wave of emotion which came over me. It only then dawned on me, “What have I done buying a house with no roof?”
Luckily I had a friend with me who calmed me down. The next morning the sun shone and everything fell into place. The seller was a very talented Italian man named Adriano who actually restores Moroccan properties and was so generous. He shared his workers with me and also gave me his valuable time and now it has lead to a wonderful friendship. I had to rely on photos of the work which was going on, especially when I decided to replace the doors and entrance tiles.
She forwarded me photos documenting the restoration, a labor of love.
From February 2017 to present I lovingly restored the house, from furniture to tiles, everything I sourced locally. I wanted to keep it traditional with pops of color as Marrakech is bright and colorful. I replaced my doors with glass doors to let in more light which is really lovely in the warm days to open the doors and hear the Medina sounds around.
There were some mad impulsive buys like the brass princess bed which I bought without thinking it through. However it is now a much admired bed by many of my guests.
In the souks many purchases were made from Zouak artisans who made colorful Moroccan wooden tables and other crafts.
Everything was done slowly and I decorated room by room. Hours were spent in Bab El Khemis, a huge antique flea market, sourcing everything– Indian paintings, French chandeliers , Moroccan lanterns and furniture which I restored. Rugs, cushions, and blankets I purchased from a local shop on my street, of course bartering which is key in Marrakech and which I enjoyed.
Since Spring 2018 my friends have visited Maison 71 and I celebrated my birthday there. They all love it as much as I do.
I focused on finding a home, a project to work for, a focus and that became Maison 71. Passion and persistence is what really matters. Dreams are achievable with hard work and focus. I made my dream my reality in my early 40’s. I found and bought my haven in a foreign land. My dream holiday home.–Caroline
Last June, Caroline invited me to stay in her riad as a writing retreat. It was truly an honor and blessing. More on that in the next post…
I’m thankful for modern-day Pen Pals. Women who share their journeys, transform houses into homes, create beautiful spaces for the soul to breathe.
Maison 71 is in the heart of the Marrakech Medina and occasionally allows guests to rent the full house for retreats or long weekends. If interested, reference this post and make inquires here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Summer is my favorite time of year. An invitation to breathe, relax, explore. After living in Morocco and the Dominican Republic, I don’t dread winter as I once did. I appreciate changing seasons.And yet… when the cicadas’ song crescendos from a low hum heralding summer in May to a hiss screeching summer’s end in September, I have trouble letting go.
This is my salute to the longest day of summer where I escaped to a beach house in Asilah, south of Tangier. The ocean is where I feel God’s power most intensely, especially on the northern African coast.
I returned to Marrakesh in June to see students I’d taught graduate, reconnect with old friends, and collapse for a reset. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor at my friend’s place grounded me again.
My first year back in the US had been harder than expected. Everything had changed. I’d come back focused on writing my memoir about the time away, feeling positive about getting a full time university position for which I’d applied, and expecting to buy a home near work and my daughter. When the position didn’t happen, I continued job searching though thankful for adjunct positions in the fall and an interim position in the spring. Housing prices in Nashville kept rising; my kids were busy with lives of their own (as it should be but as a Stage 5 Clinger I felt lonely at times no less); and Mom became ill and moved from Kentucky into my apartment with me. At times we both felt lost (more on podcast), but God, as always, never let go.
Mom made a miraculous recovery and celebrated her birthday in April in a new apartment. We’re all so happy she’s finally living in Nashville. One day after the summer term ended, I boarded a plane. I met my Spanish friend, Moni, in Madrid, then headed to Marrakesh.
After resting until mid-month, I headed north with my Aussie friend, Kate. We stayed in the old city of Asilah, the cleanest town I’d ever seen in Morocco. Whitewashed in preparation for the annual Moussem Culturel International d’Asilah, a mural/art festival, the medina was as quiet, pristine, surreal as a movie set.
Below was the Airbnb respite —a dream writing space. I felt protected within the 15th century ramparts built by colonial Portuguese. I fed on seafood. I felt free. From the rooftop I watched the waves rumble. On the second floor, I wrote as the sun rose and fell with the tide. I didn’t know then that I’d teach full time for a university this fall. That I’d have benefits again and a schedule that would give me time to write. But I knew the One telling me not to fear. I recognized the way He moves–the way He moved me while I lived in Morocco. The unforced rhythm of grace. I remembered a promise that led me here in 2014. A promise extended to all…
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”—Matthew 11:28-30
Smoother than Nora Jones, He’d again called, “Come away with me.” I did, and though I had no idea what fall would bring, He knew. And it was enough. I knew my only job at that moment was to give thanks in the summer sun.
From the moment I walked into Riad Melhoun in Marrakesh, I was treated as an honored guest and friend. Maybe I loved the experience of this stay because the blend of Arabic- Andalusian architecture and music felt so familiar after living in Morocco and visiting southern Spain often. Like Santiago who traveled from Andalusia to Tangier in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I’d journeyed to this mysterious country where dreams and destiny converged. As I was warmed by the traditional welcome, mint tea, I gazed into the shimmering pool which reflected a silver service, an exotic hookah, and a woman forever changed by two years in this place.
Maybe I loved Riad Melhoun because it, too, is a reflection of art and history– wood carvings, stucco, and design inspired by the Bahia Palace nearby and the Medersa Ben Youssef.
Maybe it was being shown to the superior Amessan suite, making any woman feel like a princess with the canopied bed and decorative doors opening exclusively to the courtyard pool. On the second floor were seven other sumptuous rooms.
Maybe it was the attention to detail–matching tile sinks, arched doorways and alcoves, stained glass windows, bedding, lanterns, soft robe and slippers, and a spacious shower.
Maybe I felt at home because I wrote for hours under the arbor on the rooftop. Being outdoors is paradise to me despite insects that love lush gardens, too. If you enjoy camping out as I do everywhere I go, repellent is a suggestion.
Truly taking pride in the details, the staff plans excursions with guests. I stayed on the property and Riad Melhoun delivered my Big 3 —beauty, adventure, and new friends.
Life is better on a rooftop where we’re closer to heaven. I loved the view while writing in Riad Melhoune’s garden above the city.
I met guests waiting for the sunset on the rooftop. This gentleman showed me how drones work. I loved seeing the city from a drone and have wanted one for taking photos ever since.
As the night grew dark and lanterns were lit, I went down to dinner and found my table set at the end of the pool. Thrilled, I took my seat. On the pristine cloth, to my delight, were red rose petals. Again I thanked God for blessings as I’d done that afternoon in the memoir I am writing about moving to Morocco. It’s called Roses in the Desert. Solo travelers are accustomed to tables for one. Here attentive staff makes the dining experience special and you don’t feel alone.
The next morning I found my place on the rooftop. Local honey is loved here by Moroccans, tourists, and bees.
Riad Melhoun has a spacious spa where massages and hammams can be booked. I miss hammams in the U.S., Morocco’s signature treat, so enjoyed one before leaving. This ritual originated in public bathhouses separated by gender for those with no indoor plumbing to bathe weekly. Women socialized here. Recently on tour with a local guide in Tétouan, I learned the three most important mainstays of the medina are the mosques, hammams, and bakeries.
I love private hammams performed by a lady who instructs clients to disrobe and lie on the hot stone bench in a marble room with dry heat like a sauna. She poured water over me from a silver bucket and smeared me on both sides with savon beldi (a blackish looking soap made with olive oil). She left me ten minutes to relax allowing the heat and oil to soften my skin. When she returned, she scrubbed away the top layer of dead flesh (which peels off in rolls) with a kess (a mit akin to sandpaper). Next, she covered me in argan oil by Sens of Marrakech (a local, organic, fragrant line of products), and left me again to “bake.” She returned, washed my hair, and rinsed my body. Finally, she massaged lotion into my then-baby-soft skin. She wrapped me in a robe and sat me down in a cooler room for mint tea.
The only problem was, I felt so relaxed after the experience I could barely walk downstairs. Thankfully, I was packed up so all I had to do was tumble into a tuk-tuk to be whisked away to another adventure. I am so thankful to Riad Melhoun for making dreams come true.
Thank you to Manager Mr. Mohamed and his wonderful staff for their hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Riad Matham offers guests the magic and mystery of the Marrakech medina. Built in the 16th century by a wealthy Berber family, the traditional Moroccan home provides an intimate courtyard with seven comfortable rooms–some with private salons– named for Moroccan dynasties.
Novice nomads who lack time or energy to caravan by camel across the Sahara Desert can lounge in wide, open spaces on the roof. On pristine couches, friends sipped wine as I climbed the lookout for sunset watch with the doves. The panoramic view is one of the best I’ve experienced–perfect for stargazing, too.
Though tucked away on a narrow street , the riad is close to shops and major landmarks (three minutes to Museum of Marrakech, Medersa Ben Youssef, and Photography Museum of Marrakech; ten minutes to Jema El Fna square). Julien, owner of Riad Dar Kleta and manager of Riad Matham, gives great directions for navigating the area and makes guests feel welcome.
I recommend wandering through nearby La Jardin Secret Marrakech (50 Moroccan Dirhams/$5 USD) where fountains and fields of lavender soothe on a summer day. The property, dating back more than 400 years to the Saadian Dynasty, recently opened for the first time in history to the public.
The view for sunsets here is incredible. I climbed the lookout for sunset watch with the doves. Stargazing is also highly recommended.
Thank you to Riad Matham for their hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Stepping from a tunnel of the Medina into a passageway to a massive door… crossing the threshold into a lush courtyard garden flanked with singing birds… climbing the spiral staircase to three levels of heaven.Exploring Riad Dar Kleta is a magical adventure.Being inspired by the creativity of its owners, Julien and Francoise Gaumont, who treat guests like family, is unforgettable.
My friend, Kate, and I were greeted with mint tea when we arrived, asked to name whatever Moroccan dishes we wished to have for dinner, and told to relax. “You are home,” said Julien.
So many choices… to sprawl on the lush, shaded couches of burnt orange and earth tones overlooking the courtyard, to nap on wine-colored sofas by a cacti garden, to wind up the second spiral staircase to loungers for watching the sky change colors at sunset.
The night was a little cool for dinner on the rooftop–unusual for June in Morocco–so we were served in the beautiful salon below. We sat down to a refreshing drink before dinner, wine, and a delicious meal prepared that afternoon from local, fresh ingredients.
The lamb and prune and vegetable tagines were wonderful, as was the fresh mango and cherries that followed. The next morning we enjoyed breakfast in the courtyard. Francoise had made the homemade orange and strawberry jams.
Francoise left her career as a nurse and Julien as a concierge on Oléron, an island off the west coast of France where they lived nine years. They fell in love with Marrakesh, as did their daughter, Lila, on holidays in Morocco. Now fifteen, Lila told her parents when younger that Moroccan adults notice and speak first to children. Loving the attention, she turned down a trip to the beach in Essaouira with them, preferring instead to stay behind with the Moroccan ladies working at the hotel. She now loves attending school in Marrakesh.
For Francoise, it was a natural move as well. Her parents were French expats who had moved to Casablanca for her grandfather’s health and there she was born. She’d lived in Morocco until she was nine. The first trip back was with Julien nine years ago when she told him it felt like home. Now hotel owners, the couple rents two rooms of their home to guests, making an intimate experience –one reason John Brunton named Riad Dar Kleta in The Guardian as a Top Ten place to stay in Marrakech. In Creuse, they still have a family home and visit their four older children and nine grandchildren living in France.
The couple is following another dream. In addition to tag-teaming as managers of Riad Matham and Riad Dar Kleta, three years ago they became designers. Their chic French style and love for Moroccan vintage textiles led to their creating furniture, clothing, and handbags sold in their hip boutique, Bazarkech , located in the shops below medina landmark, Terrasse des épices. Kate and I visited their shop supported by tourists, the community, and fans afar. They shipped locally made stools upholstered in their fabrics as far as to a restaurant in St. Barts in the Caribbean.
It was a great stay. I left inspired by new friends–Francoise and Julien who are beautiful examples of embracing new, exciting seasons of life–and their cool cats who know how to relax.
Thank you to Riad Dar Kleta for a peaceful haven. As always, the opinions here are my own.
I adore Europe, but it turns out after living two years in Morocco, that Africa is my second home. I found more beauty, adventure, and relationships (especially in Marrakesh) — the three things I seek most in life —than I ever imagined. Sharing this place with my children, my friend, Moni, and former students was a privilege I’ll never forget. Likewise, I was thrilled when my niece, Emily, and Andres stopped by for a couple of days after Emily’s work trip to Turkey and some time in Italy. If you’re in Europe and want a taste of Morocco, 48 hours in Marrakesh can be an unforgettable experience.
For $45- $100 roundtrip on RyanAir, you can fly to Marrakesh from Milan, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, London, and many other European cities. (Arriving on a one-way ticket from one European city, then departing to another is a way to see more, but note that you will pay for all baggage above the size of the smaller-that-standard carryon allowed for free.) If you have the time, in Marrakesh you can relax by pools at regal resorts and riads (many featured on this blog), take cooking classes, or volunteer. You can also do excursions to Essaouira, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, Chefchouen, Agadir, or Casablanca. But even if you have only two days, the trip is worth it because you will definitely experience some Marrakesh magic.
Here’s what these two did with 48 hours in Marrakesh …
After dropping off bags at my apartment, we were joined by my artist friend, Jon, who walked with us to the medina where we had lunch at my favorite daytime restaurant with a rooftop view of the Koutoubia Mosque.
Emily is a textile designer, so our first mission was checking out intricate tile patterns and woodwork and shopping.
The Ensemble Artisanal(see gorgeous entrance below) sets the standard for the highest authentic, quality goods made by the superior local artisans selected to work there. Here you can see them working and teaching apprentices, and it’s a great place to check out fair pricing before bargaining in the souks.
El Badi Palace
Giant storks greeted us as we entered the remains of El Badi Palace. Began in 1578 by Arab Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the complex, built with ransom money from the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings, exhibits the architecture of the Saadian Period. For tour times and more information, go here.
No trip to Marrakesh is complete without hanging out with local friends at a riad, the traditional style of home in which all doors and windows open to an inner courtyard with a fountain and/or pool. My friend, Kate, arranged a riad rooftop breakfast for us at the location she managed, Riad Mur AKush. The November weather was perfect for a panoramic view of the medina. Mustafa’s morning music ended their 48 hours in Marrakesh on a high note.
Palmeraie Camel Ride
Though Emily and Andres had a 3 PM flight to catch, Ismail, my driver, hooked us up for an hour-long camel ride after breakfast in the Palmeraie on the way to the airport. It was Andres’ first time on a camel, and he had a big time. They felt the Marrakesh Magic, and having them there, was a double dose of magic for me, too.