Morocco is the closest place to London where you can feel the furthest away. Just a short three-and-a-half-hour flight and you are transported to an ancient and exotic land, rich in culture and with an eclectic and complex heritage – a huge melting pot of Arab, indigenous Berber, Sub-Saharan African and European influences. By Amanda Gaydon
Somewhat spoilt with previous holidays in Balearic Island villas, Kenyan safaris, Maldivian diving and South African road trips, I wanted to do something a little different with my husband and two teenage daughters last year, so booked a week in Morocco, dividing the time between the noise, bustle and craziness of Marrakech and the quiet, serene beauty of the Atlas Mountains.
Touching down in Marrakech before lunch, having had breakfast in London, the contrasts become immediately obvious. The over-enthusiastic passport stamping of the overzealous customs officials and a row of camels alongside a row of taxis on the airport concourse indicated we were definitely not in Luton. Thankfully we had arranged for a driver to meet us, who confidently guided us through the sea of porters, cabbies and general mayhem into a waiting, gratefully air-conditioned, vehicle.
Winding our way through a surprisingly smooth-flowing jumble of donkeys, lorries, pedestrians and street vendors, we arrived at the edge of the famous medina within the walls of the fortified old city. Here a wonderful old Moroccan gentleman with an enormous smile and a somewhat rickety man-drawn cart met us. He proceeded to load our bags into said cart and promptly disappeared into the maze of narrow alleyways. Our driver indicated we should follow him but we struggled to keep up with the remarkably nimble-footed chap as we were immediately distracted by the total sensory overload one experiences on entering the Medina for the first time and feared that would be the last we would see of our luggage.
Thankfully, we did manage to catch up and were expertly guided to our chosen accommodation: the magnificent Riad Africa. Entering through a small door down a quiet back alley beyond the heat and bustle, we emerged into a cool oasis of calm and tranquility. Beautiful courtyards adorned with luscious plants, plunge pools and elegant staircases leading up to the bedrooms and delightful roof terrace offering a superb view over the rooftops of this fascinating city. While chilling out on the roof with a freshly brewed mint tea, we first witnessed the incredible noise of hundreds of ancient PA systems attached precariously to the roofs of every mosque sounding the call to prayer. This was something we were to get very used to as it happens five times a day, with the first call being a nice early alarm clock at around 5:30am.
Wandering around the souqs within the medina we soon got swept away with the sights, smells and sounds that greet you around every narrow corner. Herbs and spices piled up in enormous circular mounds, delicately balanced mountains of baked eggs, tailors busy stitching away and churning out highly ornate clothing and leather bags, and the exquisitely painted pottery for which Marrakech is deservedly famous. Eventually we gravitated towards the huge central square, Djemaa El-Fna, just as sun was setting. Settling into one of the many cafes with terraces overlooking the square, we witnessed the daily transformation as the hundreds of food vendors, snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists and pickpockets descended into the area. A truly amazing spectacle.
As my daughters wondered around, wide-eyed, my husband and I fended off multiple offers of marriage or to simply exchange them for a dozen goats each. We were obviously tempted but decided it may be better to keep hold of them. All the banter and bartering is all done with good humour and firmly tongue in cheek. We moved through the multitude of street food vendors, each trying to outdo the other with their elaborate sales pitches sprinkled with hilarious references to British TV characters and footballers, eventually being coaxed into a bustling stall. Squeezed onto benches surrounded by a colourful mix of locals and tourists all speaking different languages and dialects, we were served incredibly delicious kebabs and seafood all cooked in front of us, fragrant smoke billowing all around from a hundred charcoal barbecues. We felt pretty clever being able to navigate our way back to our riad without too many wrong turnings and were grateful to be back in the calm surroundings and slept solidly until the sound of a hundred singing imams woke us at 5.30am.
After a couple of days in Marrakech during which we took in the breathtaking Majorelle Garden and had a fun-filled day-trip to the pretty costal town of Tarifa, the nimble-footed cart man ran off with our bags again and we joined our driver again for the three-hour trip into the Atlas Mountains. As the roads became gradually quieter and rougher, the scenery grew ever more spectacular until we arrived at our second destination: Kasbah Africa. Operated by the same company as our accommodation in Marrakech, our high expectations were well and truly met as we stepped out of the taxi. The location is spectacular. Perched on the steep sides of a deep valley with incredible views all around, this place is more reminiscent of some of the more traditional lodges we had stayed in on safari in Kenya. Rustic stone buildings connected by leafy paths leading down to the restaurant, terrace and stunning infinity pool.
After the hectic pace of the Medina, we were more than happy just to relax, soak up the sun and flop into the pool when it all got too much. Our enthusiastic host had other ideas, however, and when the sun had cooled in the late afternoon he asked us to don our sturdy shoes and join him on a hike into the mountains. Taking us up the side of the valley to a local Berber village where, apart from the occasional sighting of a mobile phone, we were transported to a distant ancient past. Buildings made entirely of red mud, elaborate irrigation systems supplying water to the fields, wizened old women laden with huge piles of firewood, children staring curiously at our pale skin. Well worth the hike and we were rewarded with a delicious tagine on our return to the lodge.
The remaining few days of the holiday were spent in a similar way: leisurely days by the pool making friends, practising our French with a wonderful Moroccan family, hiking, learning how to ride Dongle the Donkey and feeding the resident tortoise family. Reluctantly we headed back to Marrakech and boarded a plane back to Luton. It was raining when we landed and suddenly everything felt very grey, cold and bland. I suppose I’d better get on and book our next African adventure…