It’s a far cry from the days of Paul Bowles writing in Tangier, the young Sebastian Flyte dying in an opium fug in Marrakech and Gavin Maxwell searching for a lost Berber boy amid a scandal of international intrigue. Today, Morocco is both more tamed for the democratic tourist, but has hardly lost its exotic mystique.
But you have to be ready for travel, rather than simply a holiday.
It’s thrilling, scary, colourful, intense, maddening and above all foreign. For despite any appearances of similarity, this is Africa, these are Berbers and Arabs and, although tending towards the secular, it is an Islamic nation, underpinned by those traditions and beliefs. It is not a dirty country, but you will face poverty and peasant culture close up in cities like Fez, Meknes and Marrakech. This is indeed what makes it real. Unlike European cities where we push the poor out to the hinterlands, here they inhabit every corner and shadow and are the lifeblood of this bustling, ancient trading place. And this of course brings with it the potency of an authentic culture writ large; market stalls full of sheep heads, black tongues jutting out; pyramids of strange spices; the sound of the muzzein through the tanoi; apes on chains doing somersaults; ancient hands reaching out with intricate henna patterning; endless haggling; the acrid smell of urine tanned camel leather.
On the coast at Essaouira you’ll find the fish market under the cloistered walls of the medina, nearby the silversmiths still hammer out the jewellery and the spiced tea sellers will provide you with a mentholated concoction to rouse the dullest spirit. On the beach, the camels ferry tourists around and boys play football or offer hashish cakes. It’s true that if you are holidaying in Morocco and touching the people in only a general way, you are almost always being sold something. Because they are poor. But if you reach into the culture in some way, then you will learn about this extraordinary country, find out about its food (only something you can really do by visiting people’s homes), history, politics and most importantly, aspirations. Then you are travelling – engaging with the place in a real way. And particularly if you are alone, when you’ll meet real people with particular lives and a personal take which they’ll share with you, as you do them.
Morocco is a vast country so if you want to really get under its skin, you’ll need a month and this article will only offer you some ideas amongst much richer and more varied possibilities. I only had ten days and so had to decide how to organise the trip. In the end we opted for a few days in Marrakech, down to Skoura on the other side of the Atlas for some enforced relaxation and then over to Essaouira for the sea. With little to go on, where to go? Despite the wonders of the web, it doesn’t always make travelling easy. One has no idea how much money to spend on getting decent accommodation or what expectations one should have of those places. So many people will give you different advice, in the end you just have to find your own way.
But if you are travelling to Morocco, and end up in any of the same places I visited, here are my recommendations:
Riad Tizwa, Marrakech
Richard Bee and his brother Danny are from Edinburgh. You couldn’t really get further away from the distilled elegance of Scotland’s capital than Marrakech. Though in days gone by the vennels and closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town must have seethed with the same frenetic commerce, personal melodramas and sleight of hand as the souks of the Medina.
The boys bought the Riad originally as a holiday home and it really has the feel of a place designed for love. Of course this is the secret of all really good hotels and restaurants. It’s about people first. And here you’ll be greeted and treated with restrained attention to detail, left to relish the beautiful surroundings and pass away the hot hours above the city from the canopied roof terrace. It’s a little way out of the heat of the medina but well placed for getting around – and easy access for luggage (worth considering if you are in a place close to Djemaa El Fna). There are different rooms available, my recommendation is to book Room 2 which opens out on to the roof and gives you the perfect romantic privacy for a holiday.
Dar Attjamil, Marrakech
This is another delightful oasis in the madness of Marrakech, owned by Lucrezia Muti, an Italian who has also just opened a guesthouse, Lalla Abouch, on her working farm outside the seaside town of Essaouira. A Dar is a smaller house than a riad though both are designed with internal courtyards to allow the air to circulate. Here a vast banana tree adds to the share, and here there are four lovely rooms to choose from. Lucrezia offers cooking classes for up to four people, takes you to the market to choose the ingredients and then you sit down to lunch on the roof or in the cool salon below.
Casa Lalla, Marrakech
This is quite simply the most wonderful place to stay and certainly some of the finest food in Marrakech. It’s in a street just off one of the souks next to Djemaa El Fna. Owned by Richard Neat, a former Michelin starred chef in London, you can stay here without eating dinner, which gets pretty booked up in advance. But you’d be a fool to miss it. Each room is distinctively decorated in ways that compensate for the restricted space, using creative lighting and the right mix of modern and authentic. The bigger rooms have fire places which in winter (the best time to visit) can bring some extra joy to your holiday. Meals are served in the courtyard.
Les Jardins de Skoura
This hotel, set in the palm grove oasis of Skoura, is a labour of love of its owner Caroline Lecomte. The old mill has been completely restored using local craftsmen and traditional building techniques. The walls are entirely constructed from mud and straw, which are cooling in the summer and retain the heat on cold winter nights. Caroline ran her own travel company in Paris for many years and it shows. It’s as if all the things people wished for in a boutique hotel have been considered. All the space you want, shared and private in the gardens and by the pool, hammocks under the acacia trees, tiny gazebos in which to sip a sun-downer and play backgammon, meals under the pomegranates and all managed by her gentle hand and a thoughtful team. Her chef Hafid cooks wonderful Berber food and provides a varied dinner menu. If you stay in the day he will cook you what you’d like for lunch. Skoura is the ideal place from which to launch a trip into the desert, tour the amazing Kasbahs in the area or to head over to the Dades Gorge or Vallée des Roses. Frankly I had no desire to leave her refuge for four days. It is perfect rest and relaxation, the way it’s meant to be. Make sure that you ask for Mohammed to take you on a tour of the oasis. You can see that once it must have looked like a Cecil B de Mille Old Testament movie. And at one time this was one of the most important trading centres for the camel caravans loaded with spices, gold and silver on their way to the ports of Morocco. And rather fascinatingly there was a huge Jewish population here. The poor farmers still dig up ancient scrolls from time to time. Life is hard here because the young have left and many people are still on the brink of subsistence but Caroline has dedicated herself to more than her guests, training and working with locals and their communities to ensure that they benefit from the tourism in the oasis. She has shown attention to detail in developing this quiet retreat from the world. Indulge yourself in some of this, at very reasonable prices.