Nestled in the heart of the ancient walled-in city, or medina, glowing lights twinkle in a busy city square. Smoke and steam and mouthwatering smells billow forth from vendors offering hot Moroccan cuisine and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The cacophony of chattering locals mixes with the laughter of a nearby crowd witnessing a belly-dancer placing a chicken on someone’s head. Hypnotized serpents dance slowly skyward as a bearded snake charmer controls them with the song of his flute. Change jingles and jangles as locals purchase goods and a group of sitting musicians expertly wield exotic instruments to a captive audience’s delight. It’s a normal evening in this Moroccan square, abuzz with art, food, camaraderie and joy.
“I fell in love with Northern Africa. The people were lovely, really beautiful, and eager to share their culture and heritage,” says Paige Albright of Paige Albright Orientals, recounting her buying trip and adventures in Morocco. She joined a group of 23 like-minded rug and textile buyers and enthusiasts on a tour of the country, organized by premier London-based antique oriental rug magazine, HALI. “We began on the coastline in Casablanca and drove up through forests of oak and cork trees to Moroccan cities and onto the arid High Atlas and then down to Marrakesh. We drove through farmland, hills covered in wheat that moved with the wind. Morocco was very green and rural. We saw a truck filled with watermelons that looked like something right out of South Alabama! The rural houses, each with serene rooftop gardens, were painted the color of the terrain.”
Recalling her journey from her Birmingham, Alabama shop, Paige wears a beautiful blue Moroccan caftan, her hair elegantly swept back, and she radiates a sense of newfound energy and excitement as she describes not only the beauty of the terrain, the people and the culture, but also the arresting singularity of the Moroccan rugs.
“The artisans learn through generations of women passing down the art, and there are no large factory productions. It’s all tribal, so it has a different feel and aesthetic. It comes from their heart,” says Paige. “It’s a form of expression and a language all its own, and they are so artistic and expressive and unique. They are like nothing I’ve seen in New York, nothing I’ve seen in California, nothing I’ve seen overseas. They are entirely one-of-a-kind.” She notes that with Moroccan rugs, no two are alike. “They are always a little quirky, because Allah didn’t make anything perfectly, so there’s always at least one imperfection in every carpet.”
Kirstin Hoff, artist of Chick4aCause and Paige’s longtime friend and travel companion, agrees, saying, “They didn’t fear using colors that I would have been nervous about putting together. I just get chill bumps looking at their rugs, just the different mix of textures and colors. I think it’s a combination of the heart and soul that they put into it, and they are not ‘trained’ on certain designs — it’s almost like the rugs take on a feel of the whole country. They reflect the country’s mix of different cultures and people — the African, French, European, Arabic and the Berber tribe — and foods and smells and sounds,” says Kirstin. “It was such an invigorating, mentally stimulating and eye-opening experience.”
Led by Austria natives Wilfried Stanzer and Gephardt Blazek — the foremost experts in Moroccan carpets and textiles — the Alabama duo joined an impressive roster of travelers, including a third-generation rug dealer from Australia, a writer for Vogue Australia, a New York-based designer of custom lampshades, a cartographer from Miami who hand-paints maps, an author-buyer-curator specializing in Japanese textiles, several collectors from DC, Connecticut and New York and a London-based couple with a specialty textiles shop that rents out their textiles for costumes and sets on period movies.
Let’s follow this merry band of creatives on their journey through Morocco, from the coast of Casablanca through the breathtaking mountains of the High Atlas and down into the bustling modern city of Marrakesh.
Casablanca Into the Capital of Rabat
“Since this region and culture was all new to me, I really wanted to see, hear and experience the country. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew Marrakesh was supposed to be sublime,” says Paige. “So, we really immersed ourselves in the history and the culture, and we didn’t do any carpet-buying until we got to Marrakesh, because it is so important to understand what you are buying, the history and culture that influence each piece.”
In Casablanca, the group enjoyed a private audience with Leila Mezian Benjelloun — well-known chairwoman of the BMCE Bank Foundation, wife of Morocco’s richest businessman and avid supporter of Berber tribal arts and traditions — touring her collection of Rabat carpets and folk-art pieces. Then, they were treated to a tour of the country’s second largest mosque, the breathtaking and modern Hassan II Mosque, a massive marble structure beside the ocean that can house 100,000 worshippers and has a retractable dome, like the Super Dome, that opens to the starlit sky.
The group moved to the capital city of Rabat, trading in their quaint little coastal hotel in Casablanca for thoroughly modern digs in the Sofitel, which included suites with King-size beds, huge marble bathrooms, and balconies overlooking the hotel’s signature Andalusian rose garden, a spot Paige and Kirstin savored with wine at the day’s end.
In Rabat, they witnessed the exquisite architecture of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. Then, the group wandered through the Chellah Gardens, the site of a Roman ruins now converted to a garden and necropolis for saints in the Muslim religion. “There were these huge, bathtub-sized storks’ nest atop the ruins,” recalls Paige. “We walked through the gardens on a Sunday morning, and it was just beautiful and mind-blowing. You just felt this sense of peace.”
The rug-and-textile enthusiasts’ adventures in the capital would not have been complete without a private tour of a museum’s textile collection, complete with waiters in white gloves serving mint tea and cookies. “The textile collectors were really excited,” says Paige. “They brought out their magnifying glasses and lights and were inspecting the weaves. For me, it was a real learning curve, because textiles is a whole different industry.”
In Fez, the group stayed in the Palais Amani, a riyad — which is like a more charming and personal bed-and-breakfast — which was within the city’s medina, or walled-in old city. “You enter this unassuming wooden door, and inside, there’s this beautiful courtyard with a fountain and fruit trees, palm trees, plants and birds, and the central courtyard is bordered by all of the rooms. And there’s a second floor and a third floor, and a rooftop, where we’d gather every morning for breakfast,” said Paige. “We sat on pillows under a tent, and they’d bring fresh juice and these little cornbread-like pancakes that you’d put fresh fruit and honey on. It was just wonderful!”
The group then hit the winding, maze-like streets of the souq, or the bustling Moroccan marketplace. “It’s these little narrow streets filled with mopeds and donkeys and bicycles, and you’re just navigating your way through this busy labyrinth. And there’s a food section, where they’ve got fish and eels and dates and nuts and pastries and beef, herbs, spices and anything you can imagine. And then there’s a leather section where they have all the poufs and the shoes and the bags, and then there’s a jewelry section, a carpet section, a silver section, a wooden box section, a pottery section,” recalls Paige. After the whirlwind shopping excursion, the group gathered for a rooftop celebration with live music and champagne overlooking the rooftops of Fez against the backdrop of the Northern African mountains.
The following day was filled with sightseeing throughout the medina and museum tours and, finally, what Paige called “the most magical place.” Paige recalls approaching a little wooden door. “We walked in, and it was like a movie set. There were tables and rugs and upholstered chairs and a grand piano and portraits and an open ceiling, and we were the only people there. It was like something out of the ‘40s,” says Paige. The group enjoyed a private lunch — and the ambience of an Old Hollywood film — in this riyad-and-restaurant, the Dar El Ghalia.
After a mentally invigorating yet physically tiring day, Paige was set on experiencing the riyad’s hammam, or traditional Moroccan spa, an experience she had to forego on previous buying trips to Istanbul. She booked a session. “It was this dark, candlelit, steamy stone room,” recalls Paige of the cavernous spa. The spa treatment has a meditative focus throughout and is comprised of placing the hands and feet in buckets of warm water, an Argan oil massage, poured buckets of warm water over the body, followed by an intensive full-body Argan-oil massage heated stone slabs. In a word, Paige described it as “fabulous.”
The High Atlas Mountains
The travelled through the mountains and into the High Atlas to the town of Afourer, where they stayed in a rustic village hotel with a beautiful garden, pool and peacocks everywhere. But, the highlight of their time in the mountains, was the visit to the family home of Mustafa Hanseli, lead designer of Jan Kath, a world-renowned rug designer. “Mustafa showed us his personal collections of antique Moroccan pieces from different tribes. And his mother, who is this beautiful little Berber lady with the traditional tattoos on her chin, cooked us a homemade lunch,” said Paige. “She brought these gorgeous tagines with home-cooked lamb and couscous and vegetables — it was just amazing. And their home is way up in the mountains, so you have this gorgeous view of the mountains and lake, and it’s just breathtaking.”
Mustafa’s mother promptly returned to her loom to weave after serving the 24 visitors, and Paige jokingly gave Mustafa a hard time for making his mother work so hard, but the sweet Berber woman insisted she simply loved weaving. She took fellow artist Kirstin inside to show off her work. “She didn’t speak English, but she spoke through her hands and her eyes to me,” said Kirstin, “She took a lot of pride in the rugs she made for her home.” Mustafa shared this pride in his culture and its art and traditions. As lead designer of Jan Kath, he has travelled the world, communicating and educating people about the company’s collection, the Moroccan people and tribal weaving.
“That was something I saw with Mustafa and everyone there — they are proud of their heritage and they want to preserve it and share it. They are really focused on their own country and how to bring up the next generation,” says Paige. Kirstin agrees, adding, “ We’re such a mixed country with so many different cultures, but in the Atlas mountains, it is still tribal in many senses. And you feel it — you feel that sense of family and unity.”
The following day, the group departed via tour bus, travelling down through the mountains and into Marrakesh. They had missed their original lunch reservation and the party was too big to accommodate without advance notice. “So, we are driving through this rural area and looking for a place to eat — it would be like winding through the back roads of South Alabama — and we stop at a gas station, and it was one of the best meals we had,” said Paige. “It was just interesting to be out in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden, 24 people show up at a gas station on a bus, and they bring out all of these homemade roasted chickens and homemade flatbread pizzas. I mean, we ordered whatever they had, and we all shared, and it was all delicious.”
The group arrived in Marrakesh, a modern city with world-renowned restaurants and high-end shops. Donkeys carted their luggage to the hotel and the group walked the path to the medina, the walled-in old city, which housed shops, the souq and the group’s lodgings, the Riyad El Cadi, which was formerly owned by the late Ambassador to Germany, who happened to be a voracious carpet collector. “So you walk in, and there is this Turkish Caucasian Seventeenth Century fragment, and I am coming unhinged. And, I mean, they were everywhere, the most amazing textiles you have ever seen — museum-quality; they should be in the V&A in London or in the Met,” said Paige. “I just looked at Ben [Ben Evans, the Istanbul-based editor of HALI magazine], and I said, ‘I am speechless.’ And of course, he said, ‘Oh, I doubt that very much.’”
The interiors were also stunning. Each room had its own eclectic and elegant mix of rugs, antique books, lamps, leather chairs and art. Paige and Kirstin enjoyed their own private pied-à-terre with a sitting room, fireplace, bedroom, extra twin bed and a gloriously spacious bathroom. They offered Kirstin a secret little rooftop hideaway, which she happily took advantage of, and the two enjoyed most of their time in the suite with the occasional evening glass of wine enjoyed on their little private rooftop enclave. “It was like Ralph Lauren-meets-Morocco,” says Paige of the Riyad El Cadi. “I was literally in heaven.”
And when they weren’t in heaven at the luxurious Riyad El Cadi, Paige set about buying, gathering a little taste of everything. “I really focused more on colorful pieces that were interesting and tribal and expressive,” said Paige, who not only considers color, pattern, construction and size, but also her clients’ tastes and collections. “And I also found this new tribal production that just blew me away. These modern Moroccans they are weaving are just incredible. And they are well-priced, and the wool is beautiful, the weave is lovely, and the texture and finish is really great. It’s a completely new production, and I’m excited to be the exclusive dealer of it in the Southeast.”
“We’d heard all of these travel warnings, like ‘Be careful — don’t look men in the eye’,” says Paige. “So, I think it was most surprising that the country and the people were so open and accepting.” A culture that was initially painted as potentially dangerous or closed-minded proved to be refreshingly friendly and forward-thinking. It seems the openness of the Moroccan people and the freedom of their artistic expression has, in turn, opened something up in Paige: a renewed creative energy and newfound passion for a heavenly little corner of the Earth that now has a piece of her heart.
Thank you to Paige Albright and Kirstin Hoff for sharing their travel stories and images of their adventures in Morocco. Visit Paige at Paige Albright Orientals and witness her vast collection of rugs for yourself!