I wonder if there’s a name for my peculiar psychiatric condition—a pathological love for old hotels that aren’t part of impersonal global chains, but remain strictly local, personal, and rare. Actually, it’s not a bad condition to have, it just takes a bit more effort to track down the perfect hotel, but once I find it, I can usually be sure that I’m getting an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime holiday. Some countries have a better stock of such forgotten gems and recently, as I toured Morocco, I found myself in heaven.
At sunrise, the Hotel Continental looks golden, like a ruminating camel perched lazily on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Tangier. I’d heard from people in the know about the late 19th-century, 70-room hotel, and found the bargain rate of 400 dirham/Rs2,900 online, and seeing its palatial grandeur in reality instantly makes travelling all the way to North Africa seem worth it.
According to a sign, the hotel was built in 1870, and prides itself on being a “hotel musée”—which I understand to mean hotel museum though my Moroccan is not so good—and it certainly looks the part. Despite the stained-glass windows that let in colourful morning light, the lobby is gloomier than the Dark Ages and filled with things one would expect in a museum: an antique telephone switchboard, a bulky radio cabinet, a battered samovar, a concierge who never smiles. It extends into a spooky antiques shop with a creepy proprietor. There are smoking rooms with upholstered benches and faux oriental embroidered cushions, and a forlorn dining hall with crystal chandeliers, dark-wood sideboards and heavy drapes, where nobody ever seems to be eating. It’s like something out of an exotic period movie—and was in fact the setting for Bernardo Bertolucci’sThe Sheltering Sky (1990), starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger as depraved American tourists.
I’m led up labyrinthine corridors to a bright, second-floor room that’s quite the opposite of the rest: thoroughly modern and, on the plus side, overlooking the sandy Tangier beach and the Strait of Gibraltar. Apparently Edgar Degas used to paint the vista from one of these rooms. Back in the day, the hotel was a mandatory stopover for anyone who was anyone visiting Africa—kings and queens; two of my favourite writers, Mark Twain (“Tangier is a foreign land if ever there was one, and the true spirit of it can never be found in any book save The Arabian Nights,” he wrote in The Innocents Abroad), and W. Somerset Maugham; singer Amy Winehouse; and architect AntoniGaudí. I wish we could have all checked into the same room at the same time. What a party!
The historic quarters with their cafés (such as Cafe Colon in Rue de la Kasbah, which due to its 1940s ambience features prominently in Bertolucci’s film) are around the corner, and Tangier’s enigmatic relationship to time becomes clear as I GPS my way through the maze to Rue IbnBatouta, where the celebrated globetrotter and original travel writer was born in 1304, and where he is buried too. After a few days of blissing out on Tangier, it feels like a major tragedy that I haven’t booked a longer stay.
Where 36, Rue Dar el-Baroud; www.hotel-tanger.com; doubles from Rs2,900.
Foodie Facts Restorante al Andalus, a seven-minute walk from the hotel in an alley off Petit Socco, is a family-owned eatery founded ages ago by Italian expatriates. It has a reputation for serving the town’s best seafood, and I sample an excellent grilled swordfish with finger chips and shish kebab (100 dirham/Rs730).
From behind the Tangier bus station, the gareroutière, I catch a shared grand taxi as they’re called: ramshackle Mercedes vehicles that provide convenient, cheap travel from city to city (about 20 dirham/Rs145 per trip). My taxi is crammed and I’m flattened like a roti in a chapati-press, but luckily it’s not far to Larache.
Larache, a Spanish colony till 1956, is the most distinctive remnant of Spain in this part of Africa. I check into the 1930s vintage Grand Hotel España, where an airy, top-floor room costs 600 dirham/Rs4,400 and has balconies on two sides—the front one overlooking a roundabout with palms and a fountain. At night, I spy families taking in the cool air and children playing until late, while people watch football and cheer in the lively cafés; it’s a perfect perch for a voyeur.
The breakfast in the cute dining hall is sumptuous. A merry waiter covers my table with a petit déjeuner that includes Moroccan flatbread, a spicy omelette, grilled cheese sandwiches, sausage, olives, fruit salad, juice, and excellent Moroccan milky coffee.
A charming thing about Larache is that there are few other tourists, so no “tourist prices” and all that. I stroll about the neat, blue-painted alleys to a flea market and browse: everything is for sale, from vacuum-cleaners and spring mattresses to straw hats, guitar amplifiers and tagine cooking pots. Afterwards, I chill with a soda pop in Café Jean Genet, which is named after the French author-slash-jailbird immortalised in David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” who lies buried in the Spanish cemetery outside town. It is appropriately a favourite haunt of young hashish smokers.
Where 6 Avenue Hassan II, Plaza de España; phone +212 5399-13195; doubles from Rs4,400.
Foodie Facts Larache being a pleasant fishing harbour, there’s a superb seafood canteen, Puerta del Sol, with tables set in an alley right behind my hotel. A mixed platter with the odds and ends of the ocean—squid, prawns, a tuna steak, fried flatfish, deep-fried cuttlefish and a small shark complete with teeth and eyes—served with sides of meaty lamb sausages, finger chips, seafood paella, olives and a tasty bean stew, costs 130 dirham/Rs950.
In Casablanca, the thing to do is to stay in the art deco quarters built by the French around a hundred years ago, which remain remarkably well-preserved. I’ve tracked down Hôtel Guynemer as its facade is mentioned as one of the sights in town, and booked a 450 dirham/Rs3,350 room via email. It seems like a good deal.
Guynemer opened its doors in 1909, and the lobby doesn’t show signs of having been renovated ever since art deco went out of fashion. The concierge tells me rooms are 650 dirham.
“But in the email you wrote 450.”
“We have no such rooms. There is a room for 360 but it is dirty.” It sounds like a typical tourist scam.
Checking the rooms, it turns out the more expensive one is completely modern and unappealing. The cheap room oozes charm, but is shabby, and the bathroom bulb is broken so it’s impossible to see where to pee. I ask the concierge if he has another cheapie. He grumpily gives me a key to what turns out to be a neat chamber with a high ceiling, kitschy art and the largest bathroom I’ve seen in Morocco—as big as the room itself.
And I have the heart of the city right outside my doorstep. Here, French architects were given free reign and so they tried to create a paradisiacal version of France: a neo-Moorish dream fantasy of wide, endless palm-lined boulevards dotted with charming small eateries, sidewalk cafés and smoke-filled bars.
Where 2, Rue Mohammed Belloul; guynemerhotel.net; doubles from Rs3,350.
Foodie Facts Trotting past the slightly dilapidated Marché Centrale, I contemplate hitting the fishmongers’ hall to gobble up basketfuls of fresh oysters, but decide to instead save my appetite for Taverne du Dauphin, the well-known 1958 seafood bar (115, Boulevard Felix Houphouet). It turns out to be the type of quiet joint one can easily love. A few other leisurely customers sit at the counter and the attentive bartender immediately serves me a half-bottle of chilled Moroccan white wine and a plate of spiced olives. Soon enough my food arrives, piquant pil-pil mussels, deep-fried smelt (which tastes a bit like Indian Bombay duck), and a lean umbrina fillet with pan-seared veggies. Since the fishing port is just across the road, everything feels eminently fresh and worth the 315 dirham/Rs2,300 (inclusive of the wine and a couple of local beers).
After Casablanca, I head into what might be termed Moroccan Morocco, deep into the deserts at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, where the railroad ends, in Marrakech. While waiting for the train, I buy a packed sandwich as the trains don’t have restaurant cars, just the good ol’ snack trolley. The compartments are crammed with travellers but I find myself a seat. My chatty co-passengers from Ohio, Jack and Jill, are on a tour of Africa and tell me that they have a world map on their wall (at home in the U.S.) into which they put little pins for every place they visit. They’re trying to pin down Morocco now.
From Marrakech station it’s a short taxi ride to the old town and—typically for this touristy city—the driver demands five times the meter rate to drop me near the main square, Jemaa el-Fna, known for its flamboyant show of street food and busking musicians. Hotels in this area are rather tricky to find, as they are hidden deep inside winding alleys. Eventually I discover the extremely unassuming lane off the main pedestrian Rue Bab Agnaou that leads to mine. Once I walk down Rue de la Recette, it turns out to be an oasis of calm compared to the madness of Jemaa el-Fna.
Although there are luxury hotels aplenty, savvy visitors check into riads, traditional palatial homes built to shut out the hustle-bustle with rooms facing inner courtyards. Most riads have been bought by moneyed foreigners, who restore them to their former glory and decorate them with Berber textiles, ethnic mosaics and brassware—plus all the mod-cons and then some. However, riads tend to be over-the-top pricey (Rs40,000 per night is not unusual for a “budget” stay) so I select something in between a full-blown riad and a pension, the 1929-built Hotel Le Gallia. This family-owned guest house has some 20 rooms along a maze of corridors overlooking the greenery of its two courtyards with quaint fountains. My spacious ochre-painted room (470 dirham/Rs3,500) is like a cottage on the roof with views over the neighbourhood, perhaps my finest stay in all of Morocco. There’s no breakfast included, but on the other hand Jemaa el-Fna is just around the corner with cafés for people-watching—Café de France perhaps being the best pick with its terraces and balconies and variety of combo breakfasts for 40-55 dirham (from Rs300 and up). Try the Moroccan options, such as a pancake called m’semen, spicy omelettes, and great coffee.
Within walking distance there are as many souvenirs to buy as one’s bulkiest luggage can handle. Stop for a drink at the most luxurious hotel of Morocco, La Mamounia, which was built around the same time as Le Gallia and which has hosted everybody from Edith Piaf to John Lennon and Jennifer Aniston (Avenue Bab Jdid; www.mamounia.com). Not to mention Winston Churchill, who was kown to sit in the garden and paint when he wasn’t drinking at the bar. I avoid the “Sir Winston cocktail” (rather expensive at 320 dirhams/Rs2,400, nearly the cost of my room in town), and instead go for a glass of the brilliant house red wine (190 dirham/Rs1,400).
Where 30, Rue de la Recette; www.hotellegallia.com; doubles from Rs3,500.
Foodie Facts For dinner, hardcore carnivores would do well to try Chez LamineHadj Mustapha in the alley north of Jemaa el-Fna. Their speciality is méchoui du four (170 dirham/Rs1,250 per kg), which is typical of the Atlas Mountain tribes and consists of a whole goat slowly baked in a hole in the ground. It gets crowded ever since the tiny eatery has been featured on BBC, but the meat does not disappoint—it certainly melts in the mouth.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).