Tales from the bazaar

Faithfully restoring an ancient - and hexed - townhouse on the Moroccan coast is no easy task. Lucky then, that British owner Alison Macdonald has `the eye', reports James Sherwood

"ESSAOUIRA IS the witchcraft capital of Morocco," says Alison Macdonald. On cue, her housemaid, Fatima, wafts a golden bowl of smouldering charcoal, laced with incense, through Macdonald's two hundred year old four-tiered ryad (a townhouse built around a courtyard). Fatima repeats this ritual weekly to keep Djinnoun, the spirits, away. A Moroccan workman found an hundred year old hex buried under the courtyard tiles of Macdonald's ryad. "The curse was written in Arabic and directed at anyone who tried to buy the property," says Macdonald. Jandal, the exorcist, believed Macdonald buying the ryad was preordained.

"I had visited Essaouira four years ago. It is literally a magical place," explains Macdonald. I asked Mohammed Badra, a local business man who had helped me source Moroccan antiques on previous trips, to look for a property for me. He found The Tea House. My home in London is two hundred years old and four storeys so when I viewed the ryad on Derb Laalouj, I saw a pattern."

The house, built by Jewish tea merchants, is a rabbit warren of stone staircases and candle-lit salons crowned by a roof terrace overlooking the sea and all the neighbours. From the fountain in the courtyard, one can see each balconied tier rising up to the open sky. The suite of rooms off each balcony is surprisingly dark and cool even during the heat of the day. Macdonald had fireplaces built in the two dining rooms and filled each room with candlesticks and concealed wall lights. The overall effect is soft, dark and really rather sinister. It is a house that begs for intrigue. Macdonald has been respectful of the Moroccan interior, using local craftsmen to renovate the house. The walls are decorated with tadlacht, a plaster technique with the colour pigment mixed into the plaster itself. With the help of Mohammed, she has sourced pieces of furniture from Marrakesh, Fes, Rabat and the southern towns of Rissani and Erfoud on cross-country buying trips lasting up to six weeks. The French colonials not only left their language as a legacy; the markets of Morocco are still littered with colonial interiors pieces. Next to piles of recycled glass bottles and bicycle tyres, it is still possible to find nineteenth century French Colonial pottery and individual decorative tiles from 1910.

The Bab El Khemiss in Marrakesh is a market no Europeans see or would dare to visit. On one of their regular visits Mohammed and Macdonald pulled out rare pieces of stained Moroccan glass, tea tables and nineteenth century glazed tiles. They were followed by a little boy and his wooden cart. The street urchins provide a service, be it carrying furniture or fetching mint tea - in exchange for two dirhams (six pence). Macdonald is wise to Moroccan beg and barter etiquette. She also has what Mohammed calls "the eye" for antique tea trays or shards of coloured glass to replace those broken by Fatima from original skylights in the Tea House.

European lovers of Moroccan interiors fail to understand that the true- style Maroc is spare, elegant and minimal. In Moroccan light, the colour does the decorative work without too much embellishment. Macdonald has carefully chosen French colonial brass beds, embossed leather chests, faded silk and velvet cushions and nineteenth century bathroom suites. Richly woven silken cords and tassels hang from heavily carved Moroccan thrones in the dining salon. Macdonald's Macedonian housekeeper in London, struggling to articulate her admiration, called the tassels "golden puffkins".

The Teahouse stands on Derb Laalouj, one of the main arteries in the labyrinthine-walled Medina of Essaouira. The district, La Skala, is the oldest part of the city. All women are veiled and the men wear traditional Burnous, full-length hooded capes, and leather babouches (slippers). Mohammed Badra is one of the few men in Essaouira to wear western clothes. He is a shrewd businessman while also understanding the complexities of the mystical Islamic culture. Together, Mohammed and Macdonald are converting another property on Derb Laalouj into a restaurant called Le Grand Maroc. Mohammed explained that, in Arabic, Le Grand Maroc means "the mighty Morocco" - hooking into Morocco's deeply nationalistic fervour. Next to Allah, the King of Morocco is the most worshipped being in the country.

As "creative director" of Le Grand Maroc, Macdonald masterminded the interior of the restaurant. Broken, brightly coloured tiles and crockery bought from the slums of Marrakesh have been set into the walls of the restaurant in relief patterns. The iron tables and chairs were wrought by hand in Marrakesh by specially commissioned craftsmen. The overall effect is an adulterous marriage between mad Spanish architect Gaudi and 30s society decorator Syrie Maugham.

Eighty percent of properties inside the walled medina of Essaouira are currently being bought by Europeans. As home to the Villa Maroc, Essaouira has always had an allure for sophisticated European visitors. But compared to the louche and cynical Tangier or westernised Casablanca, Essaouira is raw and relatively unchanged. Macdonald spends roughly half of her year in Essaouira and intends to let word of mouth bring house-guests to The Tea House. "There is a tradition of Europeans in Morocco," she says, "but I think only a certain type of European will thrive - or survive - here."

For details of The Tea House contact Morocco Made to Measure on (0171) 235 0123 or fax Le Grand Maroc on 0021-24475150. For details of Moroccan tours contact Royal Air Maroc on (0171) 439 8854. The Moroccan National Tourist Office is at 250 Regent Street, London W1. (0171) 437 0073.

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