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A Moroccan Experience

A Moroccan Experience    

By Ginny Leonard

It was late, gone 10pm, by the time we emerged into the airport arrivals hall, and all I wanted was my bed, so it was a relief to see the Inntravel placard being held up by a smiling man by the door. He loaded our cases into the boot of his taxi and headed off through the streets. It may have been late, but the streets were thronged with people, both on foot and on bicycles, and the general bustle and the newness of it all (it was my first visit) soon had me wide awake again. Reaching the medina (walled old town), where the bustle was just as lively, our driver parked the car and led us along a narrow street, stopping outside a sturdy wooden door that I wouldn’t have looked at twice had I been passing by myself. He knocked and we were ushered inside by a member of staff. As the door swung closed behind us, so the noise and bustle disappeared, and we were struck by the sudden silence. I slept like a log.

It wasn’t until next morning that I took in my surroundings. Riad Daria is one of several riads (intimate converted townhouses with at least one courtyard) that Inntravel offers in Marrakesh, and it has a pleasant atmosphere, the high ceilings and light colours of the décor giving a feeling of space and elegance. We breakfasted on pancakes and fresh fruit, then went back to our beautifully decorated bedroom to collect our things – the timing of our flight the previous day meant that we were doing things slightly differently, and much as we wanted to explore, Marrakesh and its many delights would have to wait until the end of the week.

Never having been to Morocco before, I was expecting a rather bumpy ride into the mountains, but the roads were wide and well surfaced, and we were able to sit back and watch the subtle changes in scenery as we headed further into the High Atlas.

No words or brochure description, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for arrival at Douar Samra in the Berber village of Tamatert. Owner Jacqueline Brandt was expecting us, and was waiting for us at the door as we walked the 200 metres from the end of the road at the edge of the village to Douar Samra. Excited children walked the hotel’s mule to the car to collect our cases for us, and several smiling faces appeared at secluded doorways. As we were ushered indoors, we were somewhat taken aback to realise that even the village elder, a fluent French speaker, had come to greet us, eager to meet the latest arrivals.

In case you hadn’t yet guessed, Douar Samra and its owner are a little unique. Asked by my colleague back in the office which words she could use to describe Jacqueline – ‘visionary, pioneering, impassioned?’ – I had to answer yes to all of them. Jacqueline came to Morocco from Switzerland, wanting to set up an authentic guesthouse which would give guests a real insight into Berber life and at the same time give something back to the village. (She is also currently setting up a shop that will provide villagers with an outlet through which they can sell local crafts.) For their part, the villagers have adopted her as one of their own and helped her to build the inn using traditional methods and materials. Just like the other village houses, it is built of pisé and stone, the floors covered with woven grass mats and the walls hung with tapestries. There is no electricity (but each bedroom’s small shower room does have running water), so the rooms are warmed by open fires, and when the light begins to fade at the end of the day, the man who lives next door comes in to light the countless candles. Meals are cooked by another villager, Rashida, who delighted us each night with superb dishes. Given the choice of eating by ourselves or with other guests, we opted to sit down with everyone else, and Jacqueline joined us at the low table. The dinner which sticks in my mind the most was the first, probably because at that stage I didn’t yet know what to expect. Rashida brought out a patterned earthenware dish piled high with ‘angel hair’ pasta decorated with differently coloured spices. In among the pasta were chunks of tender chicken, and there was a thick chicken stock to pour over it all. Delicious.

After a dessert of cake and fruit, we headed up onto the rooftop terrace to survey our surroundings. The tiny settlement had fallen silent, and we realised that we could hear nothing at all. With no light pollution, the sky was wonderfully clear too, and the moon the brightest white I have ever seen. In the silence, I slept soundly that night – and every other night.

Breakfast the next morning was a simple but filling affair: pancakes or muffins with home-made jam. Unlike other Inntravel walking holidays, those in Morocco are led by your own private guide, and we had arranged for ours to come and meet us at 9am. Turning up promptly, with food for our picnic, he introduced himself as Mobarrak, married with two young children and proficient not only in French and English, but also in German and Spanish, all of which he has taught himself. It is Mobarrak who will guide most of our customers, and we couldn’t have wished for a more courteous and patient guide. Though he always walked in front, Mobarrak never rushed us, and walked at our pace, happy to let us stop as frequently as we liked to take photographs, admire the views or simply have a short rest.

That first walk took us to the Tamatert Pass, winding steeply uphill through thin pine woods. As we ascended, the lush green vegetation of the valley floor gradually gave way to more arid, reddish scenery until we were suddenly at the top, over 2,000 metres above sea level, with amazing views into the next valley far below.

The next two days followed a similar pattern, starting with a relatively early breakfast, after which Mobarrak would collect us for another walk. The second was the longest in the programme and, in my view, the most rewarding. The route took us to the large village of Imlil, then alongside a rushing river, and uphill through woodland to Aroumd, the houses of which are all seemingly piled one on top of the other. After taking time to visit, we then descended along a dry, rocky riverbed before rising once more on well-trodden mule tracks for ninety minutes to an area on which huts have been erected rather haphazardly and filled with souvenirs and crafts, fresh fruit and cold drinks. One of the traders even cooked the lentils and sardines Mobarrak had brought with him for our lunch. The third walk was probably the most demanding (there is a fourth walk that your guide may suggest as an option instead), rising constantly along a narrow path up the side of the mountain to the M’Zik Pass (2,664 metres), with fantastic views all the way of Imlil and the other villages scattered across the valley.

I honestly couldn’t say which walk was my favourite, as the scenery was so impressive on all three. The peaks that surround North Africa’s highest mountain, Djebel Toubkal (4,167 metres), provide a spectacular backdrop and were all so close that I sometimes felt that if I stretched my arm out far enough I’d be able to touch them.

From Douar Samra, we moved on to the Ouirgane Valley, the base for Inntravel’s easier, grade 1-2 walking holiday. Normally your luggage would be transported on the back of a mule to the taxi pick up point a kilometre or so away from Douar Samra, but we were doing things slightly differently, so I can’t tell you what that experience is like. What I can say is, given that all the other arrangements – the taxi transfers, meetings with guides etc – went so smoothly, I’m sure it all works like clockwork, with a taxi ready waiting for you at the next village.

The Tatfi de l’Atlas is another tranquil retreat, colourfully decorated in traditional Berber style, with hand-made carpets, rich fabrics and local ceramics. I couldn’t fault a thing – the traditional regional dishes (which you can enjoy on the roof terrace or beneath a pergola in the garden, illuminated by flickering lanterns) were delicious, and the views towards the High Atlas from the terraces were inspirational. There is even an outdoor pool in which to cool off.

Living midway between Tamatert and the Ouirgane Valley, Mobarrak was also our guide for the second part of our trip. Had we had the time, we would have loved to have done all three walks from the hotel, because the scenery was so different, being at a considerably lower altitude than Douar Samra. As it was, we only completed one of the routes, but what a delightful walk it was. We ambled past peach and orange groves, waving back to the many farmers who stopped their work to shout hello to us. The scenery was noticeably redder and drier than the landscapes we had explored at the start of the week, and was dotted with tiny settlements. We marvelled at the fact that seemingly every last inch of land that could be used had been planted with cereals or fruit trees. Our target was the Tin-Mal Mosque, the only one in Morocco whose peaceful, intricately carved interior can be visited by non-Muslims, a fact that made the experience all the more special.

It was quite a shock to return to Marrakesh. This time we stayed in the Riad Noga, another real oasis of tranquillity and, I have to say, my favourite place. The bedrooms are brightly coloured and the attention to detail is superlative, not just in terms of the décor (I loved the hand-carved shutters) but in terms of the facilities – our room had a television, DVD player, stereo, twenty or so books and a selection of magazines, while the bathroom was full of goodies such as a bathrobe, slippers and sweet-smelling moisturisers. The roof terraces offered great views over the city, the swimming pool was big enough to swim in rather than just cooling off, and the peaceful courtyard in which we savoured a fabulous tagine was pleasantly shaded by an orange and an olive tree.

The next morning, Abdullah, our city guide, picked us up from the riad for a half-day’s orientation tour, something which we always include for our customers. In excellent English, he told us a little about the city’s history and traditions as he showed us round the outside of some of Marrakesh’s mosques and led us through a couple of the exotic gardens that provide welcome relief from the bustle of the city. Beautiful and inviting as they were, I was eager to experience for myself the souks which I’d heard so much about. I had expected a huge building with well organised rows of stalls, but instead we found ourselves under low canopies that let in just thin shafts of light. It was almost like entering another world. As we explored the different souks (each one is dedicated to a specific product or trade), my nostrils were filled with different smells, sometimes exotic spices or shiny, ripe fruit, at other times the smoke from the blacksmiths’ fires. The noise of traders selling their wares, craftsmen wielding their tools and buyers bartering was constant. It was mesmerising.

So too was Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s focal point. After the low canopies and narrow alleyways of the souks, to be in a big, open space was a great contrast. However, the square was packed with dozens of orange juice sellers and every type of entertainer you can think of, from snake charmers to fortune tellers, and it gave me a real buzz to be surrounded by so many people of so many backgrounds – there were so many nationalities represented on that one, heaving square. It’s a memory I’ll certainly never forget and the experience – and, indeed, the whole week – can be summed up in one word: incredible.

 

Note: given her time constraints, Ginny followed a tailor-made itinerary based on Beneath Djebel Toubkal (grade 3) and Through the Foothills (grade 1-2).