Example of mosaic tiles in a Moroccan medina
The medinas of Marrakech serve up stunning examples of mosaic tiling. Image via Flickr.

Global Style: Morocco

by Alexia Biggs

Design month guest style editor Alexia Biggs snags some bargains in the bustling souks of Morocco.

One of the most diverse countries in Africa, Morocco has always inspired, with its colourful energy, fascinating history and a melting pot of influences from Berber to Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

The country’s physical makeup is extraordinary: its rugged Mediterranean coastline with the whitewashed fishing port of Essaouira; the cocoa-coloured high mountain ranges; the sweeping deserts inhabited by the Taureg; and the Saharan dunes, where night skies are radiantly lit with a universe of stars. Then there are the winding alleyways of ancient medina cities of Marrakech, and the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city, Fes, which has been bestowed World Heritage status by UNESCO.

Marrakech

The hypnotic city of Marrakech mixes Islamic artwork with souks stacked high in spices, leather handicrafts, carpets and intricate handmade lanterns. There’s a lot to do here, and you could unwind in a traditional hammam, or spend the day soaking up the environment on the motley street-theatre of the Djemaa el-Fna with fortunetellers and snake charmers. But the ‘Red City’ will eventually call you towards its markets. The ancient charm and frenetic energy of the tight labyrinth of streets in the medina is exotic and intoxicating. Marrakech is paradise for the shopping addict! Food tempts en route – think steaming, sweetly flavoured mint tea, colourful mountains of spices and olives, delicious dates and figs. Carts along the streets selling fresh orange juice will have you returning daily. It will be the sweetest, most delicious orange juice you will taste in your life.

Spices in Marrakech souk
Souks are lined with leather handicrafts, rugs and mountainous piles of spices. Image via Tumblr.

At the heart of Marrakech are the souks, mile after tightly knitted and overwhelming mile. Alleys are devoted to everything from ironwork, to babouches (leather slippers) to jellabas (embroidered gowns). When bargaining, stallholders will start high and negotiate. Decide what you’re prepared to pay, and stick to it, though you’ll probably end up paying around half the original asking price.

Serious shopping can be done at Mustapha Blaui’s shop Trésors de Nomades on Rue Bab Doukkala, a warren of small rooms piled to the rafters in Moroccan textiles, leather, camel-bone inlay and traditional arts. By appointment only, visit Kulchi (meaning ‘everything’ in Arabic), run by Australian Cassandra Karinsky who has a collection of around 5,000 Moroccan carpets on display, including Beni Ouarain carpets which are knotted by Berber women that are used as bed blankets or enormous wall hangings. Atelier Moro, in Place de la Fontaine, has locally made accessories from embroidered cotton kaftans and furniture, to enameled coffee spoons. Mustapha Blaoui, is an Aladdin’s cave packed with treasures, from lanterns to candlesticks, pots, and bowls. L’Art du Bain has beautiful handmade organic soaps scented with local flowers and spices. The legendary Herboriste Avicenne is a century-old herbalist with shelves lined with oils, fragrances, herbs and spices. Then there’s Akbar Delights for embroidered and beaded clothing, notebooks and bags; Aya’s where Sarah Jessica Parker buys kaftans in linen, cotton and silk. Across the street from the iconic Jardin Majorelle, 33 Rue Majorelle is a modern concept store with a homewares section that focuses on local craftsmanship. Fashionable boutiques have opened along Rue de la Liberté in Gueliz, and David Bloch Gallery on Rue des Vieux Marrakchis has become a platform for up-and-coming French and Moroccan artists.

Fez medina
The iconic Chaouwara tanneries of Fes offer beautiful leather handicrafts such as purses, sandals, jackets and pouffes. Image via Flickr.

Fes

The medina in the north-eastern city of Fes (or Fez) is also a great drawcard. Seemingly blind alleys with unpaved streets that lead up and down, end in squares with exquisite fountains. Donkeys squeeze past in urgency on dark narrow streets, with their drivers calling “balak, balak (“watch out, watch out!”), and covered bazaars fit to bursting with aromatic food stands, craft workshops, mosques and an endless parade of people.

The two main shopping streets in Fez-el-Bali (Old City) are Rue Talaa Seghira and Rue Talaa Kebira, which both run between Bab Bou Jeloud and the heart of the medina. Here you can find whole streets of artisans devoted to just one specific trade – woodwork, leatherwork, pottery, mosaic tiling, cotton and silk weaving, and more. Place Seffarine is the metalworkers’ souk, where the air reverberates with the sound of copper and brass being beaten into a thousand objects, such as coffee pots and mirror frames.

The Chaouwara tanneries are one of the city’s most iconic sights (and smells). Dozens of workers toil over open vats, dipping skins in to treat them before hand-dyeing them in bright yellow, red and white, then stomping them under the hot sun to distribute the pigment. After that, they’re on their way to becoming colourful purses, jackets or pouffes. For antiques, objets d’art and a taste of genuine Fessi hospitality, call on Au Petit Bazaar de Bon Accueil, 35 Talaa Seghira.

Moroccan rugs
Moroccan homes are filled with decorative had-woven rugs and textiles. Image via Flickr.

Essaouira

Essaouira, famous for its laidback charm, and world music festival, is a smaller town and slower-paced than most. Found here are authentic ceramics and colourful rugs made from recycled fabrics. It’s also a great spot for raffia shoes and sandals, old textiles, silk kilims and beautiful leather bags.

Morocco is a collector’s dream and local wares can be found absolutely everywhere. Should shopping not be your choice of activity, then do nothing more than sit in a cafe waiting for your mint tea to brew and watch the world go by, taking in the sights and sounds, history and tradition.

Get the Morocco look

Get the Moroccan look

  1. Moroccan leather ottomans, $199.99 each
  2. 20-piece Fez turquoise fine bone china dinner set, $332.50
  3. Hand-loomed cotton towels, $50 each
  4. Clarence the Camel print, from $55
  5. Leather satchel bag, $190
  6. Lovisa nail brush, $19
  7. Argan shampoo & conditioner duo, $39.95
  8. Moroccan cowhide rug, from $1,575
  9. Handmade Moroccan-inspired silver necklace, $142
  10. Chan Luu gold mix beads on henna leather, $225
  11. Extra virgin olive oil soaps (set of 3), $34.50
Guest style editor Alexia Biggs
Guest style editor Alexia Biggs. Photography: Cath Muscat.

Alexia Biggs is a freelance stylist and interiors editor, plus an expert in scouting for all that’s new and stylish in homewares within Australia, and around the globe. She knows the best shops online and on the streets, and for the past four years has delivered the all that’s great in design in her weekly column, “The Source” in Spectrum, in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

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