Travel: Here's some we didn't do earlier
The film Hideous Kinky has triggered a rush to Morocco. Guide- book writer Barnaby Rogerson offers the latest insider advice
Saturday 30 January 1999
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 snowstorm 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 the release of Hideous Kinky, Esther Freud's warm and funny evocation of a hippy family in existential crisis in mid-Seventies Marrakech, that has been made into a movie. 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". It is 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 By their nature, guidebooks are already out of date by the time they are printed.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 during the last 12 months.
One new but gorgeous small hotel to report is in a converted courtyard townhouse deep within the old walled city of Marrakech. La Maison Arabe is reclusive but fairly easy to find on your second or third attempt. It stands on one of the alleys opposite the great 16th-century Bab Doukalla Mosque. It is as removed from the tourist throng as a visit to this city in the Thirties.
During my childhood it was a famous but seedy restaurant, and was run by the ex-cook of the Glaoui Pasha, who either cooked beautifully or not at all. On one such latter occasion, I remember, as an impressionable teenager, eating a candle-lit cheese omelette 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 a morning outside the Bab Doukalla in 1957. The chief henchman of the fallen Pasha had been dragged through the streets, rubber ringed, and was then burned alive on the rubbish dump. The mob's vengeance even extended to the Pasha's fleet of motor cars.
The restaurant was closed on my next visit and now, some 20 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 wolfhounds 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 11 rooms and serves no meals, aside from breakfast and tea. It has no pool but instead boasts a succession of elegant, well- connected guests.
The only other major event in the Moroccan hotel world 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' 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 that were 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 100-year-old townhouse of a distinguished old Fassi family, the El Abbadi's, has become an opulent 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 paseo, and opposite the walled garden of the Batha Palace Museum, could hardly be bettered.
From the cafe 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.
La Maison Arabe, 1 Derb Assehbe, Bab Doukkala, Marrakech. For a reservation speak to Nabila Dakir, tel 00 212 4 39 12 33, fax 00 212 4 44 37 15. Prices are between a pounds 120-200 for a room.
La Maison Bleue, 2 Place de l'Istiqlal, Batha, 30,000 Fes, tel and fax 00 212 5 74 18 43. Prices start at pounds 150.
Barnaby Rogerson is the author of the `Cadogan Guide to Morocco' (pounds 12.99)
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