Morocco, long a favored home and destination for the international creative set, seems to be “hot” again. Made more accessible to tourists in recent years by its Western-friendly king, Mohammed VI, the North African country is attracting an increasing number of visitors as it aggressively promotes its tourism and arts and crafts industries. Our guide on a weeklong tour said that “everybody comes here to shop.” Among the favored purchases: handmade pottery, rugs, jewelry, textiles, furniture, and leather goods. At the same time, more and more foreigners are snapping up “riads,” or traditional Moroccan homes, and converting them into small inns or second homes. They’re attracted not only by the country’s graceful architecture—a blend of Arabic, French, Andalusian, and Berber styles—but also by the beauty and meaningfulness of Moroccan design in general.
Stop No. 1
Fes: Mysterious Beauty
Fes is the oldest of the country’s imperial cities. The most historic area is Fes el-Bali, the world’s biggest active medieval city. Known as a “living crafts workshop,” the quarter is a sprawling honeycomb of shops and residences where four-wheeled vehicles aren’t allowed. Must-
sees include the Terrasse des Tanneurs—the largest collection of tanneries in Africa. Here, workmen tan and color the hides of sheep, goats, cows, and camels in brightly colored dyeing vats, curing the leather with pigeon droppings, just as they’ve done for centuries. At La Belle Vue de la Tannerie (64 Derb Sidi Bouaza), we found a colorful leather satchel made from an antique kilim rug. After some haggling, it was about 1,000 Moroccan dirhams, or roughly $115. (At the time, each dirham was worth a little more than 11.5 cents.) We also admired a pouf made from camel leather, which cost about $200. At Chez Les Tisserands (Tel. +212-535-63-88-28), a shop specializing in wraps and throws, I picked up a blue silk scarf that cost $7. We also visited Art Naji (artnaji.com), Morocco’s largest mosaic factory. Workers here hand-paint each piece with one of 125 patterns they learn during five years of study. Products are shipped globally. I liked a multicolored vase with silver inlay ($450, including shipping) and a tiled water fountain that carried a price tag of $13,000.
Riad Fes Hotel
You can’t go wrong at the Riad Fes Hotel (riadfes.com), a small, expensive guesthouse in the Fes medina. Built as a family “palace” in the 1880s and restored in the 1990s, the hotel is marked by sweeping arches, elegant mosaics, and a central fountain. We arrived there in the afternoon and were immediately served a snack of dates, cookies, biscotti, and Morocco’s trademark hot sweet tea.
La Maison Bleue
La Maison Bleue is the oldest guesthouse and restaurant in the city. The meal we enjoyed there was typically Moroccan, including such dishes as baked chicken “tajine” with parsnips and couscous with beef—slow-cooked per tradition in the conical tajine pot. Dessert was a wonderful pastille (a sort of pie in a puff pastry) made with sugar, cinnamon, and orange slices.
Stop No. 2
Volubilis: Well-Preserved Mosaics
Those with an appreciation for design—and history—will want to trek an hour northwest from Fes to see the Roman ruins at Volubilis, the largest and best-preserved archeological site in Morocco. Dating from the 3rd century B.C., this hot, dusty settlement—once the capital of Rome’s Mauritania province, with a population of 20,000 or so—offers an excellent example of the empire’s urban-planning smarts. Here, scattered around a giant stone arch, you’ll see the ruins of ancient public bathhouses, market stalls, and private palaces. What’s most memorable, though, are the high-quality mosaic floors that clearly show scenes from mythology.
Stop No. 3
Erfoud: Black-Marble Fossils
We were interested to discover that the landscape around the city of Erfoud—some 11 hours from Fes, across the Middle and High Atlas Mountains—contains petrified marine fossils dating back 360 million years, when the region was a seabed. These fossils are dug out of the area’s black-marble quarries and used to make all sorts of striking objects for the home. Erfoud boasts a number of fossil and marble shops and workshops, including Manar Marble. After watching the workmen slice off huge slabs of fossilized rock with a noisy, old-fashioned cutting machine, I spotted a gorgeous, black-marble coffee table for sale in the showroom. I could have had it for $5,000 (shipping included).
We bedded down at the Kasbah Chergui (hotelchergui.com), a modern, 100-room hotel that seemed to be popular with tourist groups. Many were using Erfoud as a jumping-off post en route to the nearby Saharan sand dunes.
Café Restaurant Tamounte
We enjoyed our best meal while in Morocco here. Ushered upstairs to a private dining room, we were served like kings and queens. A starter dish included fresh lettuce, eggs, rice, carrots, and beets. Then we had a plate of delicious beef and chicken kabobs, followed by a seffa-rice dessert that included cinnamon, almonds, and raisins.
Stop No. 4
Marrakech: Bustling Bazaar
Founded in the 11th century, the “Berber capital” of Morocco historically was a center of trade for all of North Africa and the Middle East. That heritage is still evident at its landmark main square and market, called Djemaa el-Fna. Once a meeting spot for farmers and merchants, the square’s bazaar teems with dancers, acrobats, fortunetellers, music, snake charmers, and vendors selling everything from walnuts and beef brochettes to potions and spices. The Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com), which was acquired and renovated in the 1980s by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, is a prime lure not least for the vivid, cobalt-blue color used extensively on the grounds and buildings. Marrakech offers a maze of busy souks (or markets), offering the likes of leather goods, perfumes, fruit, wool, spices, and rugs. In Palais Saadiens, we admired a wonderful, antique-silk Berber embroidered with silver and gold threads. Cost: $9,300 without shipping. At Miloud Art Galley (Tel. 05-24-42-67-16), we were tempted by a pair of Art Deco lamps made of white metal mixed with zinc, pewter, and nickel. The merchant said we could have both lamps for 6,000 dirhams. Visitors may also want to check out Berber pharmacy Herboriste du Paradis, which offers a selection of Moroccan argan oils (for medicinal as well as cosmetic uses), colorful pigments for painting and dyeing, and all manner of roots, creams, and spices.
We bunked down 4.5 miles out of town, in a country-club-like district called the Palmerie, at a splendid resort hotel called Palais Namaskar (palaisnamaskar.com). Part of the German Oetker hotel group, the Namaskar epitomizes European luxury, with ultra-private villas and suites, Balinese-inspired gardens, arches, and reflecting pools. It even has its own private jet service.
La Maison Arabe
We ventured into the Marrakech medina one night for a delicious dinner at La Maison Arabe (lamaisonarabe.com), where Churchill used to dine regularly. Our meal included chicken-and-almond pastille appetizers and a main course of chicken and lemon tajine. After-dinner drinks came in La Maison’s 1930s-style jazz bar, where—after spending a week in Morocco—it was easy to imagine yourself in a scene straight out of Casablanca.