We have love on the brain this week, and everything good that goes with it. Like sneaky getaways to drippingly romantic hotels, like L'Heure Bleue on the sea in Morocco. A report of an illicit affair gone good.
ESSAOUIRA, Morocco – I am married. But my lover kidnapped me, and we awoke at L'Heure Bleue in Essaouira.
The French refer to this town as the Moroccan Brittany. Post-colonial translation: wide beaches with wild winds, furious waves beating a sun-drenched community which remains — rather pleasingly for the those who detest feeling tourist-trapped — self-absorbed. The beach is better suited for handheld walks rather than nudie sunbathing. Bask in beach bliss elsewhere. Camel ride if you must.
Since the beginning of second intifada preceding the Arab Spring, I have had the luck of visiting most of the gloriously oozing, wondrously smelly souks of the Middle East. And Essaouira has the one that has absolutely most captivated me. (The souk in disputed and dirty Tripoli in Lebanon, tunneled near its crumbling crusader castle ruins, is a close second.) I am not interested in expertly distressed South Asian wares being sold as antique Middle Eastern trinkets, nor in nifty Chinese finds. I always find the food markets the most compelling.
Trip into the Essaouira livestock souk. You cannot ask for it. Just go deeper and deeper — filthy, pulsating, baroque, and heartbreakingly beautiful. You're transported to a place that travel no longer offers us. It's hot, live, animal-shit stinking. Mothers dreaming up dinner shoving you, bugs biting you. You will worry about the bumps, those suspicious and icky red bug bites. Divine color cacophony, feathers floating by now and again. The experience is not mediated or ticketed. Not canned, not in English. And, no, I did not dare take out my camera.
The rest of the souk is kitsch touristy, and rather fun. (By the way: no harassment to speak of.) The ramparts around the city are awe-inspiring. I accidentally wandered into a real hammam with no sign, but I speak some Arabic, so it was okay. I left though. It was not for tourists; it was the real thing, where fat Moroccan grandmas get scrubbed, and I was not welcome. These places, with fountains and naked ladies scrubbing each other, like the pre-civil-war hammams I saw all over Syria, are all but disappearing.
I am a jewelry addict, and there is one single jeweler amongst hundreds that carries what I would classify as noble pieces. The dealer is Jewish, relatively exceptional in the neighborhood, and her shop is not in the jewelry souk but along the main street leading to the port from the old city. She has antique pieces that at once make a bold design statement and carry a pedigree, in case a snob cared. In another shop, I saw antique fabrics that almost made me weep for their integrity and rare magnificence.
Indulge in the local breakfast specialties, the best of which are m'semmen, doughy crepes that you can slather with sticky local honey, full of strong, complex personality. Gorge. (Splendid figure for lover be damned.)
The best table in town is in the hotel restaurant, and we ate there every night. Ask to be seated in front of the fireplace. They will move around the entire place to make a table for you there if it's chilly. After trying the other well-reputed rooftop place, Taros, on Place Moulay Hassan, you will come back to L'Heure Bleue Palais for delicate saffron-flavored plates and soups that are highly sophisticated and enchanting. That may seem like a stupid sentence, but if you try one, you may agree with me.
The hotel is a Relais & Château hotel, with service beyond all expectation. Ask for a room on the top floor, and be careful if you are going to have loud or saucy sex, because many rooms have open moucharabieh woodwork onto the courtyard. Ours had a properly closing door, and the two of us could nearly swim in our candle-lit, skinny, long bathtub.
The rooftop pool overlooks the smashing sea. Plenty of private corners in which to snuggle with a book. The weekend brunch is a bit smoky and smelly, but if you have staked out the perfect terrace refuge spot in advance, it doesn't matter.
The spa is earthy and cleansing and a pleasure, but not refined. If you want a splashy, steamy, unbelievable body scrub for women, go. But it's not a spiritual, divinely relaxing, zen, pretty spa experience. For men, the experience is not distinguishing, but it is certainly the most luxurious in town. Go for a session, if only so you can pad back upstairs in an oily, argan haze.
This place is an ultimate one-time romantic getaway. Don't go for swank social sunshine. If you love your lover, your book, and honeydripping deserts, you will remember this place with as much affection as I do.