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Secrets of the Souks

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A foray beyond the tourist hotspots reveals genuine Moroccan style and craftsmanship. By Tara Stevens


Sewn together in rich colours and heady smells, exquisite craftsmanship and intriguing ornaments. For visitors, it's a true assault on the senses and wandering around with no particular plan is all part of the fun, although it can get overwhelming if you become the target of one of the country's notoriously committed salesmen. Remember that traders are often looking for interaction as much as a sale, and that hospitality is one of the great qualities of the Moroccan spirit. Enter into the fray with an open heart and a sense of adventure, and at the very least you'll have a great story to share when you get back home.


Marrakech is a natural crossroads where traders from the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains and towns in the north converge, putting Moroccan design and craftsmanship in context. The narrow, covered lanes of the souks seethe with life - and, unfortunately these days, young Moroccans whizzing through on mopeds making it a more stressful experience than it used to be – but it's well worth dedicating a morning to mooching around the North Medina admiring traditional crafts such as colourful textiles, daffodil yellow babouches (leather slippers), basketwork and leatherware in the Souks Sebbaghine, Chouari, Haddadine and Cherifia.


In contrast, the Guéliz district of the Ville Nouvelle is cool and calm, and strong on contemporary fashion and interiors reflected in the 'new' souk. 33 Rue Majorelle (www.33ruemajorelle.com), is situated right opposite Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Majorelle and is a one-stop shop that showcases the work of some 60 young designers, the majority of them Moroccan and Middle Eastern, offering everything from cocktail dresses and men's silk pyjamas, to butter-soft leather handbags, fine tableware and one-off pieces of furniture.


The Rue des Vieux Marrakchis has become home to several smart boutiques and art galleries recently, while the Rue de la Liberté is good for new fashion. Check out Lalla Studio (www.lalla.fr) for highly covetable bags and accessories by former personal shopper Laetitia Trouillet, who counted Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelia Jolie among her clients, and the aptly named Kaftan Queen (www.kaftanqueenmorocco.com) for beautifully tailored kaftans and ghondora.


HILL TRIBES AND CARPETS


After the frenetic pace of Marrakech, the hill town of Azrou in the Middle Atlas is a good place to stop and catch your breath. The cool mountain air and emerald green, pitched roofs could make you believe you're landed between Switzerland and the land of Oz, but the sizeable Amazigh Souk held every Tuesday is reassuringly traditional. If you're in the market for antique Middle Atlas carpets, this is the place to be. Bargaining is less bullish than elsewhere and prices are considerably lower than anything you'll find in the country's main cities.


Look out for the striking red carpets of the Beni M'Gid Berbers who founded the town, colourful Zemmour Tribe woven pillows and Handira (sequin encrusted Moroccan wedding blankets and shawls). If you miss the Tuesday souk, pop into the Ensemble Artisanal off the Avenue Mohammed V, which has a fixed price shop. Or head for Dar Neghrassi (Rue de Tapis). The friendly father-and-son team have an excellent kilim and carpet collection ranging from antique treasures to new village designs, and their stories make for interesting chat over glasses of hot mint tea.


Moroccans will tell you that the finest craftsmen come from Fès whether you're talking intricately filigreed brass lanterns, hand carved woodwork or delicate zellige (hand cut tiles).


Embrace the notion of getting pleasantly lost in this labyrinth of streets and alleyways. The best way to orient yourself is by heading downhill from the Bab Boujloud via either of the two main streets: the Talaa Kebira (big slope) and Talaa Seghira (small slope). Kebira has more by way of traditional crafts, some good carpet shops, traditional cooking utensils and the celebrated Honey Souk (stop at Hicham's stall – the first when you enter – for a choice of 20 different wild honeys such as carob, coriander or fig). The Talaas converge at the start of the Attarine souks where you'll find four key areas of the old medina. The Henna Souk (good for local ceramics and traditional cosmetics), the Kissaria cloth market, the tanneries and the Plaçe Seffarine, distinguished by the tik-tok-tak of the copper-beaters' souk. L'Art Traditionnel (8 Derb Boutouil Karawin) sells the most exquisite brass lanterns in the country.


Near the Foundouk Nejjarine Museum (the woodwork museum) the carpenter Abdelsalam Abbad (Derb Il Rom s/n) specialises in hand carved and painted wooden furniture, and mashrabiya (ornate wooden lattice work). Les Mystères de Fès, (53 Derb Bin Lemsarri) is a fascinating antiques store brimming with curios lovingly collected by the owner, including beautiful pieces of jewellery and antique water kettles. For beautifully stitched table linen look no further than the Maison de Broderie, (Derb Blida s/n) bearing in mind if you want to order something bespoke you'll need to give them a few days.


If after several days in Morocco you are yearning for a slice of modernity, take a stroll along Rabat's glamorous Mohammed V Avenue, which mixes luxury local boutiques with international brands, before heading for the country's most laid back and compact medina. It's a good place to pick up modern wool blankets such as the waffle weave version sold at Abdellah El Ouazzani (115 Rue des Consuls) – ask to see the working looms at the back. If you're in the market to ship large pieces of antique furniture such as 15 ft doors, entire painted ceilings, giant wooden bowls or huge beaded side tables from Cameroon, check out the stores along Tariq al Marsa.

 

ART DECO JUNKYARDS


Casablanca, the most European of Morocco's cities, has a small, not particularly interesting medina unless you're looking for socks and tee shirts made in China, but the junkyards and flea markets are a joy for collectors and aficionados seeking treasure from its art deco past. The author Tahir Shah, who lives in the city, often cites the Soco de Moina in the middle-class neighbourhood of Hay Hassani as one of his favourite spots for bagging a bargain be it a roll top bath, a baby grand piano, some wrought iron window frames or a collection of lead crystal glasses from the 1920s. All you need is a keen eye, sharp elbows and a bit of time.

WAY TO GO

Best of Morocco

Tel. 0800 171 2151/www.morocco-travel.com

Puts together bespoke holidays, including flights, accommodation
and excursions in all areas of Morocco, covering every special interest from camel trekking
to stargazing, museums and cookery, featuring riads and kasbahs as well as hotels.

 
Kirker Holidays

Tel. 020 7593 1899/www.kirkerholidays.com

For tailor-made short breaks with flights and transfers and themed tours to Morocco, including Marrakech, Fez and Casablanca, try Kirker Holidays.


Specialist Morocco

Tel. 020 7193 2461/www.specialistmorocco.com.

Features a wide selection of riads, as well as desert safaris and camps and activities like cookery classes or hot air ballooning. There's even a Christmas shopping-themed weekend in Marrakech, including a personal shopper to help navigate the souks.

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