A colourful spice souk in the Moroccan town of Rissani

Colours of Morocco | the bold & the beautiful | artisans at work

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From the vibrant medinas of Marrakech to the riads of Fes and the ochre sands of Erg Chebbi, Morocco’s colour palette is the gift with purchase

Colour plays a starring role in the architecture, craftsmanship, food and culture of Morocco. Even taxis play the colour card in this strategically located North African country with the Atlantic to its west, Mediterranean to the north, and the Sahara Desert to the southeast. Cabs are red in Casablanca, blue in Rabat, yellow in Marrakech, and hot pink in the town of Boumalne Dades, in Tinghir province, a nod to Rosa damascena, an intensely perfumed rose that inspired several Yves Saint Laurent fragrances and the annual Festival of the Roses.

Marrakech is where Yves Saint Laurent discovered the power of colour. He found the purple jacaranda, red hibiscus, orange clivea and pearly white waterlilies intoxicating and was dazzled by the local style – that glimpse of saffron lining a green kaftan, those headscarves with borders of jet-black fringing…

The French couturier, who lived in Morocco for more than 40 years, was also drawn to the colours of the ubiquitous mosaics (zelliges), painted woodwork (zouacs), and djellabas.

“The boldness in my work,” he remarked, “I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervour of its creativity…”

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The El Yacout riad in Fes with its touches of cobalt blue and dazzling interiors

Morocco is known for the sacred Islamic green of mosque tiles and the cobalt blue of just about everywhere else. Jacques Majorelle, the French artist who in 1924 created the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, even trademarked a ‘Majorelle Blue’, an ultramarine cobalt blue inspired by Moroccan tiles, the Berber burnous (a hooded woollen cloak) and the colour’s ubiquity in the local kasbahs, those fortified houses built by a king or village leader.

Blue walls, door, shutters and pots feature, for example, in the 12th Century Oudayas Kasbah in Rabat, where young boys do handstands against ancient walls, women take trays of dough to the bakery, and craftsmen ply their trade in tiny dark studios on elbow bends. Cats that tread fearlessly across wooden scaffolding that stops buildings falling into one another are no doubt lucky to have escaped the paintbrush.

Blue on blue in the 12th century Oudayas Kasbah in Rabat

The Chouara Tannery in Fes might be one of the stinkiest places on Earth, but it produces the softest leathers in colours derived from natural dyes. Poppy flowers make red, indigo makes blue, saffron yellow; mint makes green, rose makes pink, henna orange, and cedar wood makes brown.

Natural dyes from poppies, saffron, indigo, mint, henna and cedar await their leathers

In this, the largest of three tanneries in the Fes el Bali medina, the skins of sheep, goats, cows and camels spend a few days in urine (cows’), quicklime, water and salt before being softened in an acid bath of water and pigeon poo. Specialist craftsmen then take over, shaping up your next jacket, wallet, handbag or a pair of traditional babouche slippers.

Most tannery showrooms will perfect the fit of a new leather jacket and ensure its wearer’s current electronic device or wallet can be accommodated. It will be delivered in just a few hours. 

Morocco has been telling a tale of craftsmanship for centuries. Mosques, palaces and tombs are the ultimate showcase for the colourful zellige work, geometric tile shapes individually chiselled and set into a plaster base. Among the grandest are the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, worked on by 10,000 artisans; the Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace in Marrakech; and Bab al-Mansour in Meknès, regarded as Morocco’s grandest and best-preserved gateway. 

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Zellige in close-up at Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

From little things big things grow. At Art Naji, in the industrial quarter of Ain Nokbi, near Fes, craftsmen use chisels and special hammers to create more than 300 shapes for mosaics, from lightning bolts to stars. These turn up in fountains, tables, decorative tagines and trinkets. On the day we visit, one artisan is decorating a glazed black urn with “threads” of pewter. At another work station, a master painter dips a fine brush into a lilac paint ready to apply to a freshly baked tagine.

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A painter’s arsenal – Art Naji in Fes

“Geology was so generous to us,” notes our Art Naji guide. “The grey clay of Fes is perfect for mosaics. And also perfect for skin, which is why it is used in cosmetics.” (Although muscling in on the latter is the local argan oil and the pricey oil of prickly pear.)

There is as much colour under Morocco as there is above it. The region is rich in iron ore, lead ore, copper, silver, rock salt, phosphate, a marble and lustrous anthracite coal. Which explains the doors. The 13th century Royal Palace of Fes (Dar El Makhzen) is notable for its seven intricately patterned brass doors. The opulent Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca has several giant doors of engraved titanium. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat boasts breathtaking sliding bronze doors.

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Pattern upon pattern in the Saadian Tombs, Marrakech

In the medinas, see bronze, iron, nickel, chrome and silver beaten into jewellery, plates and platters, or fashioned into lamps, lanterns and pendant lighting.

Morocco is a paradise for collectors of coloured stones, and the souks are full of minerals, crystals and conglomerates from localities that are a holy grail for mineralogists: Toussit, Mibladen, Bou Azzer, Ouijda and Aghbar. Intriguing, too, are the tables, platters and fountains embedded with fossils. Manar Marble, in Erfoud, uses a machine from the marble capital of Carrera to slice rock that’s said to be 380 million years old, exposing fossilised ammonites and orthoceras. These slabs, also with unique skeins of colour, are then shaped, filed, sanded and waxed to a marble-like finish.

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The earth yields hidden tabletops and fountains

NO-ONE COULD ever accuse Moroccan interiors of being “beige”. Riads, especially, are a flashdance of colour. These were once the homes of merchants and noblemen, many now restored as hotels. Reached via a maze of disorientating passageways, step through the unassuming front door of a riad to be blindsided by dazzling mosaic-tiled floors and walls, pattern upon pattern, hanging gardens, fountains bleeding rose petals, painted willow wood ceilings, and stained glass.

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Even the stairwell at El Yacout riad in Fes is perfection

Life in a riad centres on the internal sun-lit courtyard where Moroccan textiles, too, come into their own, in upholstery, cushions, curtains, table napkins. Riads are where tassels go to die.

Carpets, rugs and mats are among the country’s most popular takeaways, whether pile woven, hand-knotted, embroidered or woven from recycled rags. Many are made by the Amazigh (Berbers) of the Atlas Mountains, using traditional designs and colours.

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Mementos of Moroccan craftsmanship in the High Atlas mountains

At the Moroccan dinner table, colourful vegetables over-achieve: expect dishes of caramelised pumpkin, grated carrot sweetened with raisins and orange juice, and zaalouka, roasted eggplant pounded with garlic, cumin, paprika, oil and coriander. Bring home from the medina signature spice mixes: ras el hanout, a powerhouse of more than 20 spices, and blends curated for chermoula or harissa paste.

Indeed, add pink pepper to the ras el hanout and you might arrive at the colour of the sea of sand dunes that is Erg Chebbi, on Morocco’s south-eastern flank, a gateway to the Sahara Desert further south. The sand is a soft powdery ochre colour, and a night in a desert camp is the best way to embrace it.

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Smoko in the Sahara, enroute to the Auberge du Sud desert camp, Merzouga

Arrive by camel, soaking up along the way a sound of silence that layers the whisper of white butterflies, a scuttling of black beetles and the sinking of hooves into silky, rustling sand. With luck there’ll be a starry sky. Stay awake to hear tall, white-robed Gnaoua musicians play hypnotic drums and metal krakebs, a kind of iron castanet, around a campfire. In the morning, apologise to your calf muscles and climb to the top of a sand dune to see the sun rise on another Moroccan day – a dawn dressed in layers of pink with an orange caramel wash.

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The silky ochre sands of Erg Chebbi,  near Merzouga

Sleeping luxe 

From riads and kasbahs to luxury tents in the desert and smart hotels in the city …
Morocco has a sleepover to suit

Riad El Yacout
9 Derb el Guebbas Batha, Fes
+212 (0)5357-40020; riadelyacoutfes.com

Once the home of a judge, this 16th century riad oozes opulence. Its courtyard is a mastery of mosaics, stained glass, lacy ironwork, alcoves of ambience. Designer pool, rooftop terrace, authentic Moroccan food, hammam. Even the stairwell is tiled. Suite Zoubida is a study in plush red satin, tassels and fringing, carved and painted wood. Blue and white tiles line a deep, circular bath that reminds you why you travel.
From A$204 per night

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Plush red satin and tasselled curtains at Riad El Yacout

Kasbah Hotel Xaluca Erfoud
Enroute from Erfoud to Errachidia
+212 (0)5355-78450; xaluca.com

The 144-room Kasbah Xaluca in Erfoud, inMorocco’s east, is hippie chic – all rustic and ‘60s groovy with weighty cotton fabrics and a palette of stripy burnt orange, tan and yellow, lots of tiles, carved wood, and bead-fringed lamps. Huge swimming pool, 10 massage rooms in the hammam, an outlook of palm trees and a milky desert landscape beyond.
From A$102 per night.

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Casual luxury in Erfoud, on the edge of the desert

Auberge Du Sud Hotel Desert Camp
Ras el Erg Chebbi, Merzouga
+212 (0)6612-16166; bivouaccafedusud.com

The rallying point for the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi is the Auberge Cafe du Sud, in Merzouga. 4WDs deliver you, fast, to the camel caravan and a two-hour meandering to the camp, led by nimble nomads who get Instagram. Spacious tents, lined in burgundy velveteen and braid, have their own bathroom. With a tiled sink!  There’s electricity. A queen bed has sequinned cushions and a throw rug flecked with gold. Outside, on the sand, rugs and cushions are abundant, as is the food, ambience and wow factor.
Camel trekking and luxury overnight desert camp start at A$165

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Luxury tents for a night in the desert

Opera Plaza Hotel Marrakech
Boulevard Mohamed VI, Marrakech
+212 (0)5243-51515

Let’s talk about the breakfast because you’ll need that to shop the medina. Lift red-glazed tagine lids on fresh dates, prunes, raisins, hot-out-of-the-oven biscuits, honey, jams. There’s a Moroccan doughnut station, an omelette station, and another station for mseman, square Moroccan pancakes. Eat by the pool. Opera Plaza is more international than intimate, but it’s near the railway station, the Theatre Royal, Harti Garden, cafes and banks.
From A$121 per night.

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Red tagines do the breakfast reveal at the Opera Plaza Hotel

Susan Skelly was a guest of Collette. For full details of Collette tours or to book a trip, call Collette on 1300 792 195 or visit gocollette.com.au

This feature was first published The Australian newspaper’s Travel & Indulgence section, December 2018


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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