The word “casbah” (or kasbah) has a couple of different meanings; in many North African cities, including Algiers, it’s the walled citadel at the center of town – what in Morocco is referred to as the medina. A casbah may also refer to a fortress, barracks, or palace, and that’s what it’s come to mean in Morocco.
A riad is a style of wealthy mansion or home, wrapped around a garden or courtyard, in the vein of a Roman villa or the building on “Melrose Place.” In the courtyard of a traditional riad, you’re likely to find orange and lemon trees, and/or a fountain.
In Kelaa M’Gouna, our third stop in Morocco, Luciana and I stayed at Kasbah Itran, a cave-like dwelling built into the side of a ridge looking over the enormous Rose Valley. From the outside, Itran and the rest of the adobe structures in and around Kelaa M’Gouna reminded me of Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Funny word, “adobe.” It can be traced back 4,000 years to Middle Egyptian and Coptic, and its modern roots are Arabic – al-tub – which found its way into the Iberian peninsula and the Spanish tongue. The Spanish conquistadores brought it with them to the Americas, where it became the go-to word for “mud huts” in English as well. Today of course its ubiquity stretches into software almost anytime you open a .pdf file. The word has had other classic moments in the popular culture, as well.)
Anyway, we checked into Kasbah Itran and had an afternoon tea. (Mint tea is ubiquitous throughout Morocco, day or night, and a pretty amazing experience, as tea goes.) The kasbah has a vertical series of verandahs on its cliff side, where we took in the view of a yawning valley containing an aged and dilapidated fortress amidst green groves of (I presume) rosebushes. Kasbah Itran’s walls feature Berber inscriptions and symbols, adding to the otherworldly mystique of our surroundings. The cavernous bedroom felt dank and ancient yet inviting, and had a small balcony of its own that was perfect for stargazing. Within the hotel’s main building, a dark corridor leads to a candlelit dining room where guests seated on pillows can enjoy steaming tajine. But dinner couldn’t, er, hold a candle to breakfast the next morning, which was served on the verandah and offered scrumptious breads, pastries, dates, jams, cheeses, juice, coffee, and yes, tea.
Not surprisingly, the town’s most popular souvenir is rosewater, touted as an emollient, a perfume, an aphrodisiac, you name it. On the main street you’ll find plenty of shops selling rosewater at prices I presume are reasonable; suffice to say they weren’t prohibitive. I guess I’m not into rosewater, but Luciana brought a few small bottles home. The center of town has the usual array of hustlers, but nowhere near the number in a large city like Fes. Upon arriving in Kelaa M’Gouna, one young man promised us a cab ride to the kasbah. “Follow me to my cab,” he beckoned. After about fifty feet we put our bags down and told him that if he had a cab to bring the damn thing to us. Of course, this he could not do – methinks he was in violation of the local licensed livery. We turned around and got a legitimate taxi. This is the kind of thing that you just have to roll your eyes and laugh at when you’re traveling in Morocco – all part of the experience.