A personal account from Morocco
We arrived in Marrakech late afternoon, and it took no time at all to reach our Riad – a true oasis set in an otherwise hectic city. We felt immediately at home in our unique, beautifully furnished rooms and rushed to the plunge pool which offered welcome respite from the afternoon heat. After a delicious dinner we felt ready to brave the famous souks. As we stepped out onto the cobbled streets and made our way towards Jamaa el Fna square, it didn’t take long for me to realise why the friendly staff at the Riad insisted we take the handy mobile phone and call them in case we got lost – now it seemed essential! The winding souks really do bombard the senses – hawkers call out selling their wares, local delicacies are being fried filling the air with smoke and mouth-watering aromas, shops fill every available space with beautiful guilded lamps and carpets of every colour. We were there on a Saturday night and jostled for room with local families eating meals and watching the endless options of entertainment. Dodging the scooters speeding through the alleyways became second nature and after wandering the never-ending alleyways (and getting lost several times!) we were glad to return to the sanctuary of our Riad where we closed the heavy wooden door on the busy medina shutting out the noise and chaos.
The next day we saw another side of Marrakech. We rose early and strolled through the almost-empty streets, visiting Bahia Palace and the Saadian Tombs before the swarms of visitors. The highlight was Majorelle Gardens – stunning landscaped gardens with towering bamboo trees, succulents, cacti and vibrant colours throughout, another tranquil setting away from the busy streets. Lunch was at La Mamounia; the most stunning hotel I have set foot in.
The drive to Casablanca gave us our first taste of the Moroccan countryside and we kept our eyes peeled for the famous tree-climbing goats! Although we didn't see them (yet!) we were excited to arrive at the Hassan II mosque – the largest Mosque in Africa set against the backdrop of the Atlantic. As is the case with most sites, pictures really did not do this justice. The sheer size of the minaret was amazing and although the mosque was closed this was clearly a place for friends and family to socialise and we soaked in the lively atmosphere. The glittering marble brought back fond memories of the Taj Mahal and I won’t be forgetting this place in a hurry.
After a whistle stop in Rabat we drove through more countryside to Moulay Idriss, a charming hillside town where the most common mode of transport is by donkey! From here we could see the well-preserved ruins of Roman Volubilis, something I didn’t expect to see in Morocco! We continued to Fez, the cultural capital and arrived just as the sun was setting over the countless rooftops and went to bed looking forward to spending a day exploring the largest medina in Morocco. We woke early and made our way to the highest point in the city to get our bearings and from here we really could see the sheer scale of the medina. On the way back down we stopped at a mosaic factory – we were all mesmerized by the intricate process involved in each mosaic. We began our walk through the souks, each alleyway offering something new and we could tell that we were getting closer to the infamous tanneries. Our guide warned us about the smell but we were insistant that we wanted to witness this ancient tradition of cleaning and dyeing animal skins; so we climbed the spiral staircase to the rooftop where the tanneries are best viewed, and the smell took our breath away, despite the mint leaves our guide gave us to hold under our noses! The view was magnificent, though; whilst we looked down on a rainbow of brightly coloured pools, with men standing in them up to their waists shouting instructions to one another, our guide explained the process the animal skins are put through to turn them into bags, coats and shoes, it was fascinating. We left shortly after, our stomachs not able to stand any more, and rushed back down the staircase wondering aloud how the men were able to stand the smell all day long! We wandered the medina for hours, trying our hand at some haggling and visiting the many mosques and palaces on the way.
The next day offered a scenic drive through the Middle Atlas to Erfoud, the edge of the Sahara. Desert, mountains and the odd oasis were the view of the day and after the long drive we were grateful to arrive at our Kasbah-style hotel. We piled into our jeep and ventured into the desert for sunset. We raced up the dunes, eager to get the best view, not wise in 40 degree heat, but very much worth it! As we sat on the orange-tinted Merzouga Dunes watching the camel caravans pass by we reflected on how much we had already seen and what was yet to come.
We began our journey to Boumalne Dades, stopping at Todra Gorge on the way, a 300-metre ravine with a crystal clear river running straight from the High Atlas, we couldn’t resist joining the locals splashing in the shallows. We travelled through tunnels carved into mountains, stopped at oasis’ to admire the view and through blank desert with nothing to see for miles around, (except the odd stall selling meteorites!), finally arriving at our hotel nestled atop the desert town offering fantastic views.
We travelled along the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs to Ouarzazate, a filming location for many of our favourites - Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Gladiator to name a few – and it was easy to see why. The barron desert dappled with towering kasbahs was certainly dramatic. We continued to Taroudant and our accommodation for this evening was the tranquil Riad Dar Zitoune, charming bungalows set amongst stunning gardens filled with every flower, vegetable and fruit imaginable and they served the most delicious red wine from a local vineyard. Another surprise for me, who knew Morocco had fantastic wine?! This hotel really felt more like a home and we rested well for our big day ahead!
The best was saved until last – Imlil. We had all heard fantastic things about the quiet hillside town and we all knew this would be a highlight. We asked to leave early, hoping to make the most of our time, the desert scenery we had become so used to gave way to fields of argan trees and we were rewarded when we finally got to see goats on a tree next to a highway! Our fantastic driver had his work cut out – for hours he drove us up winding roads with sheer drops on one side and hairpin bends climbing higher and higher until we were above the clouds. The opportunity for photo stops were endless and we made several stops to drink in the breathtaking views – and take some time to settle our stomachs! We were soon in the High Atlas and driving among lush green trees and shrubbery, along a river bed dotted with small towns. We passed Richard Branson’s famous Kasbah Tamadot and we knew our final stop was near. The road came to an end and we found ourselves in a village with only a handful of shops and restaurants centred around the roaring waterfall and dominated by the forest and mountain range with only a handful of shops and restaurants. Before we could take it all in our luggage was being loaded onto a mule and off he went! We dutifully followed and began our steady climb up to the Kasbah du Toubkal. This hotel doesn’t feel like a hotel at all. It is a haven, a retreat and a sanctuary set on its own at the top of a hill and against the most stunning backdrop of the High Atlas mountains, with the river and villages below. As we ate dinner on the terrace and watched the sun go down we listened to the call to prayer echo around the hillside. In true retreat style there is no alcohol served and no TV’s in the rooms – whilst they do still have wi-fi, so you are not completely cut off from the modern world, we truly appreciated the chance to take time out from technology and enjoy our surroundings. The next morning we set off early with our fantastic local guide for a walk to his village as the sun was rising over the mountains. As we walked through the forest he explained to us that each family is given their own terraces on the mountain with which to grow their own fruit and vegetables to sustain a living, really putting their way of life into perspective. As we made our way down to the waterfall the sun illuminated the highest mountain in North Africa, Mount Toubkal, which our guide told us he conquers more than 4 times a year! We reluctantly carried on our (much easier) route that took us back to the Kasbah in order to collect our bags to leave. We all agreed that we would have loved more time at this beautiful retreat and were sad to leave.
Morocco offered more than I could have imagined and was a world of contrasts - it is one of the most scenically diverse countries I have visited. Even after seeing so many different aspects of the country there is still so much to discover and I hope to return one day to see the port city of Essaouira and the blue town of Chefchaouen.
Join us on of our Morocco tours.