VILLA MAROC, ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO
The Villa Maroc is small and beautiful. It is the most stylish hotel in Essaouira, undoubtedly Morocco's most alluring - and small and beautiful- town. It has everything you could wish for: a beach, a fishing harbour, an untouched hinterland and a thriving tradition of crafts and trade which keeps the elegant arcaded streets full of life. Over the last two thousand years the town has seen it all: Punic merchants, Orson Welles, an offshore Roman villa, Sir Francis Drake, Saharan arms-smugglers, Cat Stevens, a convict isle, Jimi Hendrix, Portugese Crusaders and bales of ostrich feathers. It has also in the last decade become a focal point for Morocco's young contemporary artists and the home of the Gnawa music festival. Whether you come for a night, three days or a month there is something ineffable about Essaouira that will make you want to return. To prove the point a growing expatriate colony of artists, mystics and wind-surfers has settled in the town, doing up some of the houses beside the sea-walls or in the old Jewish quarter.
Owned by, Managed by
Created about ten years ago by James Whaley, an imaginative and Englishman, who bought up two adjoining houses (which the rumour mill loves to describe as brothels) to create the Villa Maroc. James subsequently sold up his share in the business but later had a hand in developing Sidi Kaouki, just south of Essaouira, as a wind-surfing centre as well as creating the Hurricane Hotel in Tarifa (the Spanish town closest to Morocco). The ownership is now in the hands of the resident manager Ahmed and his European wife, Cornelia Hendry, who run it with a rare combination of efficiency, quiet charm and style. Their generous support behind such events as the Gnawa music festival underlies many a local success story.
If you want Islamic sensations the approach to the Villa Maroc is near perfect. There is not a whisper of a carpark, let alone an illuminated signpost. You find the big gateway in the city wall, pass through, stop before the clocktower and dive left through another archway, take a sharp left turn and follow the foot of the wall for some 60 paces, passing street kids and cats chewing fishbones, until you reach a low iron studded door. You have arrived.
The Villa Maroc is a gem of a Moroccan hotel but it is the genuine thing, as creaky and as curious as an old Scottish tower-house. If you are looking for a pool, a garden, 24-hour room service, lifts or a chrome and marble space-station of a bathroom reverse straight out of here. The hotel occupies a labryinth of rooms that criss-cross between two traditional four storey town houses. A traditional Moroccan town-house has no external windows, so that all the rooms are neatly arranged around two internal courtyards which are the light source and the internal telephone system. If you want to look out to see the wind, the waves, the weather, the streets and your neighbours go up on the roof. The courtyards are mainly whitewashed - offset with bold colours to pick out the details. There is no designated breakfast room, bar or dining room. The hotel is instead designed to be an almost seamless succession of beautifully furnished and almost stage-managed sitting rooms. These are filled with antiques, the floors draped with killims and textiles, and the odd corners furnished with cushion filled sofas or backgammon or chess sets.
A genuine mixture of nations and lifestyles fill the two dozen or so bedrooms, though they tend to be more creative than professional or conspicuously opulent. I have met art-dealers, pucker British bankers, poets on a binge, quiet gay couples collecting a tan on the roof, well healed wind-surfers and a raft of magazine media kids. In line with an observable trend in Moroccan travel, the British tend to predominate in March and April, the French, Spanish and Italians through May and June, students in mid-summer with the Germans and Scandinavians coming in strong over October and November. Peak season is Easter, Christmas/New Year but watch out for full bookings during French half-term school holidays.
There is no need to mingle with other guests, especially as there is no dining room. Breakfast is served in your room, outside your room, on the roof or at any other designated site of your choice. There is no lunch and two thirds of the guests eat out in the evening. The hotel is a base from which to explore the town not an isolated oasis. However if you want to chat an evening or after dinner drink provides an easy opportunity.
The whitewashed bedrooms are all different, ranging enormously in size and atmsophere. I must have stayed in half a dozen different rooms by now, snug secretive places tucked in beside a stairwell, a cavernous double room down on the basement floor, a light flooded suite on the roof and a room with a pair of elevated double beds each modestly furnished with linen curtains. All have been enchanting in their own way, filled with Maghrebi textiles and ceramics, imported luxuries, candlesticks, carved wooden tables, a fresh bowl of flowers and bags of style. The first rooms to go are on the top floors, the last are those in the basement which have a whiff of the chill and damp of the cellar about them. However these can be rapidly cheered up by a blazing fire fueled by aromatic cedar wood shavings.
The bathrooms are perfectly adequate by European standards. You have either a bath or a shower, a single basin and a water closet the whole ornamented with shelves full of fluffy towels, the walls often decorated with 1920's coloured tiles or older patches of zellij mosaic. For all their charm they do not always meet with the approval of a fastidious American brought up on 5* hotels. I witnessed the arrival and speedy departure of two sets of forceful Mid-Western ladies who demanded to be returned to the Mamounia immediately.
Special features in rooms
Open fireplaces in the ground and first floor bedrooms. The carefully chosen Moroccan details in each room become an encitement for shopping.
Own space factor
A friend of my father once complained to me that they he had been awakened by the noisy sexual athletics of a gay couple in the neighbouring bedroom. His reponse appears to have been a good one, for he amorously set about his sleeping wife, whose suprised squawks soon masked all other external noises.
It is a good place to bring kids. The otherwise hard-working maids treat you as a person not just a customer. Breakfast in or around your room is a great boon for those who have struggled to make children behave quietly in a dining room. You can walk straight out of the hotel onto traffic-free streets filled with friendly cafés. At dusk the town square becomes alive with colourful knots of Moroccan women and their elegantly turned out children. The hotel is a fantastic place for explorings and in the evening you can arrange to have dinner within reasonable hearing range of your sleeping offspring. The one big drawback is no pool to frollic around in.
The breakfast, good coffee, hot milk, fresh squeezed orange juice and a basket of fresh bread and croissants from a nearby bakery can hardly be improved upon. No lunch is ever served which keeps the hotel free from passing tour groups and the smell of mass cooking. Dinner which is good traditional Moroccan cooking (the eternal harmony of harira soup, salads, tagine stew and couscous) should be ordered in the morning. The principal choice being whether you want a fish, chicken or lamb tagine.
Sparingly few thank God. No pool, no garden, no tennis court, no bogus night club just a dead central location.
What to do
Explore the town, swim in the sea, shop until you drop, eat your way through a rich card of seafood at such great fish restaurants as Chez Sam. Hang out in cafés and at beachfront bars. For the site-driven traveller there is the woodcarver's souk, a local ethnographic museum, the sea battery, the consuls graveyard, the Jewish cemetery, the ruins of the Ain Diabat palace, the koubba of Sidi Migdol and the fishing harbour. To an extent the whole town, created in the 18th century, is a place of exceptional architectural interest, a fusion of Islamic and classical European forms that was forged by an enlightened Sultan working with a French renegade architect. With a car you can set about exploring the hinterland of the Jebel Hadid hills and Haha province.
The town groans with the displays of the local thuja wood carvers: boxes, desks, bowls, backgammon boards and the tabletops so prized by the haute monde of ancient Rome.
Good collections of killims and carpets are on display from the Middle Atlas, the Arab tribes of the Plain and High Atlas districts.
Antiques from Jospeh Sebag's Galerie Aidia. Books and pamplets about the mystical Sufi brotherhoods from Jack's kiosk on Place Moulay el Hassan.
Moroccan contemporary art from a host of galleries more or less following the pace set by the Danish dealer Frederic Damgaard.
What clothes do you need?
Suits are unnecessary but bring a linen jacket, plenty of sharply pressed shirts, neat trousers, elegant skirts and as much jewelry as you like. Please avoid drip dry Rohan travelling gear and too much of a Saharan or Safari look. If in doubt try to look like an Italian. Essaouira can be decidely cool in winter, while the steady breeze keeps it refreshing even in mid summer, pack at least one warm sweater and a shawl.
What to take with you?
Paul Bowles's Collected Short Stories 1939-1976 in the paper covered Black Sparrow Press edition, Morocco That Was by Walter Harris as re-printed by Eland Books and A Traveller's History of North Africa by the Windrush Press. Stout shoes, a cigarette lighter, sketching/notebook and the Cadogan Guide to Morocco.
Ideal time to spend
Three days or three weeks.
Best Time to Go
Easter is the peak season but too much should be made of this. The town has a remarkably equable climate, with a hot sun and a cool offshore breeze throughout most of the year.
The Villa Maroc is always booked up though in practice if you turn up unannounced in the early evening there is often some last minute cancellation. The Hotel Riad Al Madina, the old hotel du pasha, makes for an honourable though slightly over decorated alternative.
Essaouira is traditionally combined with Marrakech which is just a two hour or so drive away. The drive north up the coast road through Safi, El Jadida, Oualidia and Casablanca is not nearly so popular but under the right direction can become a quite exceptional sea-food odyssey. The drive south to Agadir along the coast road and the lee of the Western High Atlas is pretty, though the twisting road is constantly under assault by the elements in the rainy season. The international package atmosphere of Agadir can be skirted, in favour of a trip into the mountains, or inland to Taroudant or further south into Tafraoute and the Anti Atlas mountains.
How long does it take to get there?
A small local airport, only served by Air Maroc via Casablanca, now offers direct access. Otherwise easiest route is to Marrakech followed by a two hour drive. No time difference, no jet lag.
The Villa Maroc is not the most famous Moroccan hotel. It is difficult to imagine that the Mamounia and the Gazelle D'Or will ever be eclipsed, not even by the Amanjena. The Villa Maroc can however claim to be the most photographed, talked about and influential hotel in Morocco. The mass of press clippings, fashion shoot clips and reviews in a dozen languages now fill volume after volume.
The Villa Maroc almost single handledly turned local attitudes to hotels around. Previously all the new stylish hotels had to be out of town, purpose-built, easily accessible by car and usually sited in the most boring French designed administrative suburbs. Suddenly the Villa Maroc, placed in a pair of old houses down a dark alley in a traditional Moroccan quarter became the hippest thing to happen. The back to back bookings, the massive press coverage, the championing of things Moroccan and the comparatively small start-up price were all noted. Other equally exquisite house-hotels have since started up in most major towns, such as the Maison Arabe and the Riad Enija in Marrakech.
Watch out for
Do not get involved in a conversation with any American traveller who shows too great an interest in hygiene.
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by Barnaby Rogerson