Two young English girls loose in the Moroccan maze. At least that's the way it felt with 80 weather-beaten faces turned to scrutinise us. Squeezed onto a bench on a crowded bus, knees rammed tight against the back of the seat in front, my sister and I were on our way to Essaouira. A small fishing town on the west coast of Morocco, it has long attracted poets, musicians and artists from around the world, drawn, like us, by its reputation as one of the country's most relaxed and cosmopolitan destinations. The strong coastal winds that make sunbathing and swimming a near impossibility (and windsurfing conversely popular) mean only a handful of tourists venture here.

Our accommodation was, we discovered the next morning, a tourist attraction in its own right. Hailed as one of the most beautiful hotels in Morocco, it was two renovated 18th-century villas joined together, housing an eclectic mix of traditional Moroccan furnishings and contemporary art, each room breathtaking and imbued with its own particular character. Its stunning interiors and indoor landscaped gardens earn it a regular spot in the pages of top-notch European design magazines.

After breakfast on the roof terrace, it was time to explore. Essaouira proved to be everything our guidebook had promised: "narrow lanes, whitewashed houses with blue-painted doors, tranquil squares, friendly cafes, artisans in tiny workshops beavering away at fragrant thuya wood [a famed Essaouiran product]". Our meander through the old town came to a halt, though, when we neared the souk and turned into a street flanked by carpet shops and kebab stalls. Young street traders began calling from their shop doorways, others stepping out to block our way.

"Come and look at our things... where are you going? Are you English?" At almost every shop door, a man leapt out with a smile to beckon us in. We swerved continually to avoid them, making our way like two drunkards.

For a moment's relief we slipped into what looked like a curiosity shop - shelves crammed to the ceiling with lotions and coloured powders. The owner gave us a guided tour while his pet chameleon sat on my hand, gazing intently at me with its bulbous, twitching eyes.

"An aphrodisiac," the old man chuckled, showing us his collection of dried, dead flies. Hand-written labels on a top shelf of jars caught my eye; "magie noir, magie blanc"

"Black magic and white magic. Moroccan women concoct potions to keep their men from straying... or to capture the heart of a stranger." He offered us some.

"Try slipping that into some guy's pint in Battersea," I told my sister. Maybe our time as single women was at an end.

Back outside in the glaring midday sun, the souk - endless rows of tiny pale blue shutters along a maze of streets and alleys - beckoned. We stopped at one stall.

"This makes your lips red," the vendor explained in French waving a chunk of red rock at us and wetting it with one finger. "Or maybe you like black eyes. Or red hair." Wooden kohl sticks, pink and blue pots of powdered eyeshadow, blocks of solid perfume; jasmine, rose and lemon grass were thrust under our noses or rubbed on our skin. He pointed to a neat pile of green powder.

"This is neutral henna. It conditions your hair but gives it no colour." I was sold and haggled for a bag. (Two weeks later, I was the proud owner of a full head of sparkling tangerine hair - in good condition, mind).

Our first evening, we dined on harira, a lentil-based soup, and a surprisingly palatable mixture of hot milk and mint tea at a cafe on the Place Prince Moulay Husseinsquare. Things livened at the arrival of three travelling Berber musicians. Expecting to hear the strains of traditional Moroccan ballades, the singer, surprised us by breaking out into a tribute to the king of reggae "Whoaaah Bob Marley", while his sidekicks frenetically bashed at their tambourine and drums.

Numerous trips were planned for the rest of the week, a trip to the Berber market that takes place every Tuesday three miles out of Essaouira on the main road, and a homage to the whitewashed town of Diabat, a former stamping ground of Hendrix and his followers. But Essaouira' s soporific ambience had soon taken a hold on us and everything was scheduled for "tomorrow sometime".

The only thing we did make tracks to was one of the town's local bathing houses, or hamams. Here, we lounged naked in a tiled, crowded steam room, scrubbing ourselves down with loofahs and buckets of boiling water. From time to time, when the tap ran cool, the women would rap hard on the walls with their buckets, shouting to the man in the room next door to put more coal on the furnace.

As we spent longer there, we became lazier and lazier. We pottered around the souk, and explored the backstreet alleys, admiring the doorways, simple, curved arches, mosaic tiling - little details that constantly caught the eye. We had our hands painted with henna by shop vendors while drinking mint tea on cushions. But most often we sat in the squares, watching the walls turn from dusty pink to burnt sienna thoughout the day.

Comments