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by Barnaby Rogerson
on Travel Intelligence
The English Season in Morocco
Barnaby Rogerson, reveals the latest travel secrets.
It is, as they say in Morocco, the "English Season". Like some strange breed of bird that migrates to its own discordant calendar the English have taken to visiting Morocco in February and March. These are the very months that the country is considered to be off season by the rest of Europe. For an islander that is another bonus even if the climate is unpredictable.
The relish with which we tackle the prospect of a bit of weather is our last remaining national characteristic transcending the divisions of class, age, race and fashionable intelligence. The chance of being delayed by the odd flash flood in a desert wadi or by a snow storm at a pass in the High Atlas mountains excites rather than diminishes the interest. This year the English season will be even more pronounced due to "Hideous Kinky". Esther Freud's warm and funny evocation of a hippy family in existential crisis in mid 70's Marrakech, has been made over into a movie ( release date February 5th) . Kate Winslet, who plays the mother, is set to revive our passion for all things Moroccan, starting of course with its men.
It is also "my season". I get invited to tea, to dinner and get charmed on the telephone by a spreading nexus of friends of friends who want to talk their Moroccan holiday plans through with me. It is flattering to be wanted. They want routes, they want restaurants, they want hotels, they want a three week forecast on the weather, they want telephone numbers. So I talk numbers, my numbers. "Look at page 528 for the Palais Salam", "look at page 175 for the Mahdi in the mountains" in a sad and obvious attempt to boost the sales of my guide and history books.
But they want more. They want special things, yet unwritten tips, unknown restaurants and undiscovered ruins. It is no good pretending that you have held nothing back, you must produce a plum, one juicy bit of intimate travel advice offered up in a hushed tone, a whispered piece of 'for your ears only' confidence. It is an easy task. By their nature guidebooks are already out of date by the time they are printed. Such and such a hotel has closed or opened while restaurants change with the wind or the chef. In the words of Saki, "she was a good cook as cooks go, and as good cooks go she went".
So here it is, the inside track on Morocco in the last 12 months. One new but gorgeous small hotel in a converted courtyard town house deep within the old walled city of Marrakech to report. La Maison Arabe is reclusive but fairly easy to find on your second or third attempt. It stands down one of the alleys that are opposite the great 16th century Bab Doukalla Mosque. It is as completely removed from the tourist throng as a visit to this city in the 30's.
It was a famous but seedy restaurant in my childhood. It was run by the ex-cook of the Glaoui Pasha, who either cooked beautifully or not at all. On a latter such occasion I remember, as an impressionable teenager, eating a candle-lit cheese omlette in a magnificent, dark, cold dining room huddled beside an enormous bronze charcoal burner. I have never really recovered from the experience and have been searching for uncomfortable grandeur ever since. The old chef needed to drink to chase away the memories of that morning outside the Bab Doukalla in 1957. The chief henchmen of the fallen Pasha had been dragged through the streets, rubber ringed and burned alive on the rubbish dump. The mobs vengeance even extended to the Pasha's fleet of motorcars.
The restaurant was closed on my next visit and now some twenty years later it has been beautifully renovated by Fabrizio Ruspoli. Fabrizio is an Italian prince, or if he isn't, he could be. In the hotel hall there hangs a portrait of his grandfather Edmondo outdoing any mere Gainsborough boy in the elegance of his ruffs and lace. Ruspoli is in any case part of the expatriate landscape, his grandmother was a redoubtable figure in Tangier's highly competitive society, his aunt kept wolf hounds on her farm in the Ourika valley and all the great restaurants nearby, such as Charles de Poso's Villa Rosa, seem to be run by his devoted friends. La Maison Arabe has just eleven rooms and serves no meals aside from breakfast and tea. It has no pool but a succession of elegant, well-connected guests. For a reservation speak to Nabila Dakir, tel (212-5) 39 12 33, fax 44 37 15, the address is 1, Derb Assehbe, Bab Doukkala, Marrakech. Prices are between a £120-200 for a room.
The only other major event has been the sale and closure of the celebrated Palais Jamai Hotel in Fez for a much needed renovation. This once acclaimed hotel, the unsung star of Paul Bowles's novel The Spider's House, has been disappointing visitors for years. Hopefully the new owners will cherish the splendid old dining room and the remnants of the old palace garden not destroyed when they built the swimming pool.
The central role of the Palais Jamai has anyway been usurped by such places as the newly opened La Maison Bleue. This, the hundred year-old townhouse of a distinguished old Fassi family, the El Abbadi's, has become an oplulent courtyard restaurant where the food has won plaudits even from the fastidious locals. The upstairs, its corridors lined with old lawbooks and leather bound commentaries, has been converted into three suites, each complete with dressing rooms, a sitting room and cavernous bathrooms. Its position, just off Place de l'Istiqlal, one of the centres for the evening passeo, and opposite the walled garden of the Batha Palace-Museum could hardly be bettered. From the café on the rooftop you can look out across the massed roofs of the three component cities of medieval Fes. It stands on the edge of the 13th-century walled quarter of Fez el Jedid within five minutes walk of the Bab Boujeloud gate into the ancient alleys of Fes el Bali. It is owned and managed by Mehdi el Abbadi, the grandson of the Cadi, the Muslim judge, who first built the house. The address is 2, Place de l'Istiqlal, Batha, 30 000 Fes, tel and fax (212-5) 74 18 43.
It would be unfair of me not to mention that what book you carry is as important as where you stay. An essential component of the English Season is a battered copy of the Cadogan Guide to Morocco judiciously supplemented by the Traveller's History to North Africa. Turn to page 132 of the former for a traditional penis enlargement technique and look at page 100 of the latter for Hypatia's patent cure for lovesick pupils.
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by Barnaby Rogerson