ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO
The North African kingdom where Mick Jagger partied hard with Agnellis and Hermès heirs in the late 20th century sizzles anew, luring a new generation of global nomads to captivating contemporary boutiques within timeless souks, vibrant cultural diversions and some of the continent’s finest hotels.lingers in the cities of Fes and Marrakech
Ith its bejewelled camels and belly dancers, ancient walled cities and vast windswept deserts, Morocco has long lured foreigners to the vast continent’s northern rim with these first tastes of Africa’s exoticisms. Enticingly visible from Spain across the cerulean Straits of Gibraltar, the kingdom reveals its juxtaposition of medieval and modern to those who take the time for an in-depth exploration. Travel first back in time to Fes then dip down south to indulge in the latest sybaritic pleasures of Marrakech.
High in the fabled Atlas Mountains, Fes is actually three distinct towns. The world’s oldest extant medieval city, Old Fes was founded in 792 AD. New Fes is a relative babe, established in 1273, while Nouvelle Ville is the French colonial town that sprung up in the 20th century when France controlled Morocco as what was patronisingly known as a protectorate. Lanes barely wider than the mules that still work them snake through the medina, or walled city, of Old Fes. That’s of course the most interesting part, but the city’s most in-the-know tour guide, Salim Abdellatif, recommends starting from the top, literally, by visiting Borj Sud, a fort built by slaves in the 15th century. From this austere southern vantage point, one quickly goes dizzy trying to count the densely packed rooftops within the medina’s 10-kilometre encirclement of stone walls. Built between the 12th to 15th centuries, that high enclosure was enough to keep out invading Turks.
Around 250,000 people squeeze inside the medina today, roughly 60 percent engaged in cottage craft industries such as ceramics, leather and carpets, for which Fes is rightly famous. En route into this walled world, stop to see the descendents of transplanted Andalusian artisans continuing their ceramic tile traditions in the Potters’ Quarter. Most of Fez’s signature blue-and-white pottery gets fired here, beginning as colourless clay from the sea. Craftsmen train until they can mould the clay without measurements. Peek into the painting studio to watch that painstaking process carried out with single horsehair brushes to best absorb the organic pigments. After completing the genuinely educational tour, why resist stocking up in the Aladdin’s Cave-like showroom brimming with impossibly inexpensive, dishwasher-safe treasures and staffed by eager experts in international shipping?
Thick stone walls keep Old Fes pleasantly cool even on the city’s hottest days. Toothless vendors here offer chewy camel meat and steaming sheep heads, both local specialities. Instead, sample stacked pyramids of honey and nut cakes fried in oil called shubakiya, or fluffy Berber pancakes that taste even yummier laced with sugar. Both go better still with Moroccan mint tea. Forge on to Medersa Bou Inania. Built in 1350, this religious school still functions, with believers coming to pray while visitors run their hands along magnificently intricate wood and tile carvings, some etched with Kufic script, the world’s oldest known calligraphy.
Back in the warren of narrow lanes, watch out for the thousands of donkey carts that share these close quarters. Feel your way through the fabric souk, where even the most modern brides still come to stock their dowries, and walls appear lined by tactile rainbows. At Univers des Herbes, ancient remedies get concocted from the brightly coloured herbs and spices lined up in jars alongside organic perfume sticks and natural dyes. Best known among the stock here is argan oil, made only in Morocco from seeds spat out by tree-climbing goats. Locals swear by the appealingly earthy scented stuff for skin softening, hair shining and even dripping some in while cooking to intensify the flavour.
Although serious collectors insist Persians are superior, Moroccan carpets have their admirers. Dar Zaouia is a 14th-century haremhouse-turned-carpet-cooperative, stocked with Arab and Berber carpets, tribal rugs and antique kilims. Dapper salesmen in Fes’ signature yellow slippers explain how the co-operative works: carpet-weavers produce at home throughout Morocco, then bring finished pieces here for sale. Prices are controlled by the government, they patiently explain, while holding up a well-worn list of prices per square metre and educating each arrival that the finest wool comes from sheep living high in the surrounding Rif Mountains.
Shopped out, sink onto the plush banquettes at Restaurant Asmae for a standard serving of 16 plates of Moroccan salads, including baba ganoush and fried eggplant, followed by the flaky pigeon pastilla at this ornate eatery that dates back to 1324. Moroccans traditionally take their meals on padded banquettes that allow sated diners to stretch out and sleep, but for overnight accommodations, check in at Riad Fes, a traditional courtyard house reinvented as a 17-room inn furnished throughout with locally sourced antiques.
Next, head south towards Morocco’s stylish present with a few fleeting glimpses back at its fabled past. Not long after its founding by desert Berbers in the 11th century, Marrakech was mostly gardens. Today, visitors still enter that medina by passing the sacred olive trees of the Agdal Gardens en route to the 19th-century Bahia Palace. Jaws drop on sight of its ornately carved cedarwood walls and intricately painted ceilings.
Next, leave the crowds behind to explore the medina’s newest cultural attraction, La Maison de la Photographie. Opened last year, the three-storey courtyard house holds more than 1,000 photos of old Morocco from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They include the first one snapped in the country, in 1862, as well as haunting images of Berber traders, Jewish women (because Muslim women could not be photographed) and young slaves, many by famous European photographers drawn to the Moroccan desert’s stark beauty.
No one leaves Marrakech empty-handed. Serious shoppers skip the souks and head to a handful of standout addresses inside the medina. The Australian duo behind Kasbek Kaftans drives 18 hours across the North African desert in search of tribal embroiderers for their one-of-a-kind kaftans available at Aya’s (11 bis, Derb Jdid Bab Mellah; 212-5-24-38-34-28) in the ancient Jewish quarter. The socially conscious young Moroccan owner works with nearby village women to raise their standard of living, while creating simple, sophisticated frocks and sandals suitable for the beaches of Koh Samui and St Tropez.
Moroccan carpet scraps are reinvented as black-tie-worthy evening bags at the closet-sized Lalla, conveniently positioned across from Stephanie Jewels, a bling box filled with delicate hand-wrought gold pieces as light as fairy floss. Refuel one flight up at Terrasse des Epices, a gourmet rooftop escape from the medina’s narrow confines.
Fashion maven Isabelle Duchet-Annez combines her French fashion sense with African and Indian fabrics at Akbar Delights in Place Bab Fteuh, off the medina’s teeming central square Place Jemaa El Fina, where fruit-sellers line up alongside snake charmers day into night. The second cinematic installment of Sex and the City was filmed in front of the festive turquoise door that leads into KiS, a new, by-appointment-only lifestyle showroom stocked with ornately embroidered frocks and diamond-encrusted baubles from sultry Brazilian designer Adriana Bittencourt, who splits her time between the beaches of Trancoso and a stunning antique-filled riad in the medina. When Bittencourt is out of town, hire her personal driver, Benzi Abdeslam. His spiffy Mercedes is the safest, cushiest and most reliable ride through this city’s intricate maze.
After dark, Bittencourt makes stiletto tracks to Azar, the hippest eatery outside the ancient ramparts. Also a favourite of young African royals, this Lebanese brasserie serves classic mezzes plus playful fusion dishes such as thyme-and-mint-topped pizza. Stick around for the after-hours underground lounge where top European DJs spin until sunrise.
Choosing where to recover from all of the above proves a burgeoning challenge. On a sublime spot where the city meets the palm trees, Amanjena remains the Asian brand’s only African outpost. Its 32 sunset-red-hued private pavilions bestow the finest Oriental service inside limestone walls with vast interior spaces under soaring domes, lengthy plunge pools and sunken wood-burning fires. Watch the sun set behind the surrounding palms while lounging on cushy pillows and listening to Moroccan musicians.
As dusk turns to night, turn off all lights on the romantic pillared gazebos to gaze up at the starry sky before settling into seriously plush slumber. In some suites even the pillows are gilded. One night should be reserved (well ahead of time) for a traditional feast of tanjine and couscous in Aman’s authentic Caïdel tent, attended to by fez-topped waiters and entertained by swirling belly dancers. A few kilometres away in the oasis-like Palmeraie, Marrakech regulars soak up the laid-back charms of Jnane Tamsna, a celebrity favourite thanks to owner Meryanne Loum-Martin’s tropical-chic architecture and seemingly endless organic gardens.
Before heading home, spend at least one night inside the medina at one of the six courtyard houses that comprise the Angsana Riad Collection Morocco, scattered around the Bahia Palace. Each restored building boasts unique attributes, such as the rooftop garden with unobstructed view of the medina’s towering Koutoubia minaret at the 19th-century Riad Si Siad, intricate Berber motifs that line the 14th-century walls of Riad Tiwaline and the traditional Moroccan hammam at Riad Bab Firdaus, which translates from Arabic as “gateway to heaven.” The Singapore-based hotel company makes sure its guests arriving from afar see more than just Marrakech by offering tours into the Sahara desert on camelback, trekking in the High Atlas Mountains and even skiing just 90 minutes from this dense urban jungle. A most delightful throwback in ever modernising Morocco, skiers still ride up the snow-covered mountains on a mule.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI