La Maison du Cinema: Morocco's European-style guesthouse for film-lovers

Sophia Loren is leaning against that wall. Audrey Hepburn is in the corridor and there's Jodie Foster gazing out from the room opposite mine, whenever I walk past and the door is open, looking like she's just stepped off the set of Taxi Driver in her shorts and floppy hat.

If you love movies, arriving at La Maison du Cinema, a European-style guesthouse in the Moroccan port town of Essaouira, is like suddenly being among friends.

It's not just the black-and-white portraits of famous actors everywhere, the fact that each of the six rooms is named after a movie star or the abundance of filmmaking props such as studio lights and the row of old cinema seats on the rooftop terrace.

It's that La Maison du Cinema lives up to its name, screening movies every night.

Italian expat and cinephile Alberto D'Arco created the place in 2012, remodelling a three-storey heritage building in Essaouira's 18th-century medina in pursuit of a dream: "I was interested in the idea of somewhere you could eat good food while watching a great movie in front of an open fire [Moroccan nights can get chilly]."

A location scout couldn't have picked a better spot. Hitchcockian seagulls fill the blue sky day and night, fishermen mend their nets at the port like extras in a Hemingway adaptation and parts of Game of Thrones (Season Three) were shot nearby. Even the town's original Portuguese name, Mogador, has a Tolkienesque ring to it.

Then there's the cinematic mystique of Morocco, which led D'Arco to make this his second home.

"Morocco is a strange place, a beautiful land with many shades, full of contradictions and certainties at the same time," he says. "It welcomes you and pushes you away. It suits un lupo solitario [a lone wolf] like me. But I go back to Napoli every month or two; I need it."

Throwing open the heavy double doors of the "Marcello" room, named after Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni (there he is above the bed, in a large black-and-white photo with Anita Ekberg, his Swedish-Italian co-star in La Dolce Vita), I arrive to find rose petals scattered on the queen bed, Berber rugs on the tiled floor and sunshine streaming in through french windows overlooking the cobbled street.

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It's all so romantic that, not for the first time this trip, I wish I weren't travelling alone.

Downstairs, the high-ceilinged restaurant feels like a gentleman's club with its black-and-white decor and Berber artefacts, a place to stay up late talking art and politics and listening to jazz (sometimes live) – after the movie, of course.

The night I arrive it's Five Easy Pieces, the 1970 cult classic starring Jack Nicholson as a disaffected oil rigger and a sultry Karen Black as his girlfriend, shown in English with French subtitles.

A waiter glides between candlelit tables serving drinks and an excellent three-course "cine diner"; I have salad and soup with a basket of fresh Moroccan bread, vegetarian tagine with couscous, chocolate mousse for dessert and a bottomless pot of mint tea.

There's a different film each night and D'Arco estimates he's shown almost 1500 in five years, a mix of classics, new releases and independents of all genres from all over the world, particularly Italy and North Africa.

What does he think of the 1942 classic that has become almost synonymous with Morocco (despite being shot entirely in California)? "Casablanca is, in a way, the essence of cinema because [director] Michael Curtiz created a kind of dream: a great love affair with exotic charm and Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the people we all want to be and will never be," he says.

"We've screened it twice and both times we had a full house and we'll show it again, but it's not one of my favourite films."

Between screenings, there's plenty to do in and around Essaouira: wander the medina (it's less of a maze than those in Fez and Marrakesh), stroll the long and perfect beach that curves south from town, go surfing or learn to kitesurf (this region is famously windy) or visit during Morocco's "Woodstock", the annual Gnaua World Music Festival held in May/June.

But La Maison du Cinema is a destination in itself, the kind of place I've always secretly hoped to find: a friendly guesthouse by the sea that transports you to other worlds at night then guides you and your fellow film-lovers safely home as the closing credits roll and the night fades to black.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/morocco

essaouira.nu

FLY

Etihad Airways flies to Marrakesh via Abu Dhabi and Casablanca from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. See etihad.com/en-au/

TRAVEL

From Marrakesh, it's three hours by bus to Essaouira, which costs 80 dirhams (about $10) each way. See supratours.ma/

STAY

La Maison du Cinema has six movie-themed rooms and one apartment starting at €40 a night (€70 in high season) including breakfast. Movies screen every night except Monday and cost 90 dirhams (about $12) with a three-course dinner or 40 dirhams ($5) with a drink; the program is on the website. See lamaisonducinema.net/en/

Louise Southerden stayed at her own expense with flights by Intrepid.