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June 9, 2023 – Published in Design & Decor Spring-Summer 2023 issue

Morocco Bound

Words Jim Dunn

We began this particular local journey in Morocco very early on the Sunday morning of our stay. We were to visit the big event of the week the hotel said and it was a short 30 minute air conditioned drive away.

At the end of that drive we were back in Biblical Times.

We had arrived at the local farmer’s market Had Draa outside Essaouira.

Your average weekly market this is not.

Within minutes it was as if we were walking onto the set of a film in Biblical times, the difference being this ‘set’ was for real.

Our base for this short few days away was the enchanting walled Moroccan city of Essaouira right on the Atlantic Ocean and a two hour car journey from yet another big hit Moroccan city, Marrakech. 

I was last in Essaouira about 30 years’ ago. It’s still vibrant as ever but now the tourists have arrived in force.

This journey on that Sunday morning to the market was a further 30 minutes down the coast. Thousands of locals assemble there and it is the big social event of the week and a good chance to catch up on all the gossip from the desert not to mention a major selling opportunity for tribal farmers who travel miles by horse, camel and battered old jeeps to meet and sell. Some even walk miles herding their sheep for sale from the desert and nearby towns and villages. 

Their wares are animals… sheep, cows, bulls, donkeys and camels. This market is not for the squeamish nor vegetarians although it has to said that there is a huge section devoted to fruit and vegetables.

By our standards the animals looked as though they were being ill treated as they are pushed and shoved around and belted into obedience with sticks and forced into cages far too small. This is life in the raw in the Moroccan farming community.

The market is almost for men only. We saw very few women. The men stand in wide circles or huddle in corners discussing and bargaining on the price of the animals. It’s all very subdued and business-like. It’s a man’s world in Morocco at least outside of the cities. Women know their place and between you and me they probably run the show anyway.

Thirty years is a long time since the last visit to Essaouira and I had forgotten how ‘original’ this ancient walled city by the Atlantic is. It’s famed for its film locations among them an early Othello and more recently the phenomenally successful Game of Thrones and you can see that once they remove some tourist tat shops from the ramparts and the signs for some extremely chic little boutiques you are back some hundreds of years.

If you are ‘moochers’ like us you’ll love the alleyways of the old cities of Morocco… Marrakech of course now established on the world tourism map and now an international and tourist driven version of what it once was. Then there’s Fez by all accounts still retaining its ‘Moroccaness’, Assilah has been tarted up and is now pristine and smothered in second homes and then there’s Essaouira which still has that authentic Arab feel but for how long?

We bought art, pottery, shirts and hand made shoes which would have cost hundreds of pounds or euros at home and precious oils and scents. We could have bought the ubiquitous rugs but common sense prevailed.

The city might be steeped in history with its thick walls and narrow alleyways designed to ward off the invader but now enterprising locals and some from afar are creating both traditional and contemporary small hotels, as we saw, hidden down the lanes where a little door can open up to a beautiful courtyard and then further up to air conditioned designer rooms and then a reward of a cool roof terrace with a bar, music and views of the city and sea. 

We stayed at the Relais and Chateaux Blueu Palais right by the entrance to the old city. The hotel was excellent if a little formal and of course this being Morocco, very French. It’s engaging, be-scarfed general manager was extremely helpful and efficient and very visible to guests and this is not always the case from GMs in hotels.

A central courtyard has all the comfortable rooms off it. One thing we did enjoy was the vast array of the breakfast buffet where nobody would have been disappointed. It was set up in relative silence down in the courtyard early in the morning below our  rooms ready when we were.

We did not enjoy and sent it back, the pate foie gras at dinner. This arrived at our table straight from the fridge and was as solid as stone and tasteless.

When I return, and I will, I’ll choose to stay amongst the outrageous and beautiful decor and attention to detail of the Salut Maroc Built into the city walls and on the sea with a great cafe terrace for lunch overlooking the sea, (for two about 20E) this boutique residence is a labour of love of the British owner Helen Howat…

Salut Maroc is truly original. A contemporary take on Moroccan artisanal skills with a great use of vibrant colours and Islamic designs.

Eleven rooms with names like Mogador, Tangier, Berber and Fez are built into this Riad in the city walls many with sea views. The 18th century building was a former merchants house and Consulate.

Morocco has really arrived on the tourism scene and in Essaouira you can still find that elusive Moroccan flavour to a few days away.

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