With medinas, snake charmers, camels, desert camps, mountains, sweet mint tea and sticky dates aplenty, this North African country is a great place for a family holiday. Mike Unwin embarks on a road trip from Marrakech to Fes with his wife and daughter in tow. Photographs by the writer
can’t think of an X,” pleads my daughter from the back seat. “Nope,” concedes my wife, after a long pause. “Neither can I.” Five minutes of brain-wracking follow, while the desert melodies of Tinariwen jangle from our CD player and five more kilometres of Morocco slip past the window. The backdrop of green palm grove, rugged red escarpment and clear blue sky has not changed in hours. “Let’s move on to Y,” I suggest. “I’ll go first.”
We’re in the middle of the country, on a long desert road somewhere between Merzouga and Fes, nearing the end of our family road trip. As newcomers to this corner of Africa, self-drive has so far proved ideal. Not only has it given us a real sense of Morocco’s dramatic landscape; it has also allowed us the freedom to explore on our own terms, diverting from the itinerary or stopping on a whim.
There’s no doubt, however, that Morocco’s roads are long, especially if you venture away from the city and coast to explore the interior. The odd car game certainly helps eat up the miles — hence this round of Moroccan alphabet, in which we each try to name something from the trip so far.
Up until the dreaded ‘X’, it’s been easy. Our journey, which has taken us southeast from Marrakech over the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara and will eventually deposit us in Fes, has given us multiple options. The trickier letters have proved no problem: ‘I’ for instance, was ‘indigo’, the colour of the traditional Berber robes worn by our guide Halifa. ‘O’ was for the orange blossom that, every evening, has wafted its heady scent through our lodge gardens. And ‘Q’ was the gazelle-skin Quran, dating back to 1063, that we admired in the library at Tamegroute, a repository of ancient scholarship on the very edge of the desert.
With some letters we’ve been spoilt for choice. ‘M’, as well as being the initial of the country itself, undoubtedly stands for the Medina of Marrakech (does a double ‘m’ earn two points?), where we made our first ventures into the bustling cornucopia of a Moroccan souq. It also stands for the minarets that towered over the city walls beneath the snow-capped Atlas backdrop; for the mint tea, poured with a high-wristed flourish into our frosted glasses; and for the Majorelle Garden, an oasis of colour and botanical splendour designed by Monsieur Saint Laurent himself.
‘D’ gave us ‘date’, another pillar of the trip. Our first taste of this ubiquitous fruit came back in the Medina, where we stocked up on snacks for the long drive ahead. Musicians and snake charmers vied for our attention as a stallholder compared the merits of a dozen varieties. Once we left the city, however, winding up over the High Atlas and down into the stony desert, it became clear that the date — more than just a sticky car snack — is integral to the history of Morocco. It is, after all, the date-palm groves that extend ribbons of life into the desert. Inside these linear oases, with their mud-brick dwellings and ancient irrigation canals, life feels benign — all filtered shade and gentle pastoral activity; outside, on the arid plains, it hardly even seems possible.
It was in one such palm grove at Skoura, our first stop after the Atlas, that we found the secluded L’Ma Lodge. Behind its carved door were shaded hammocks and a terrain de pétanque. “Feel free to wander,” said Belgian owner Vanessa. And so we meandered through the palm grove and back into town, where we explored the winding stairwells of the grand Kasbah Amridil.
After a day’s drive southeast down the Drâa Valley, we rocked up outside the desert capital of Zagora and ran into Halifa. Borrowing bikes from our hosts at the Azalaï Desert Lodge, we trundled out through the ksar, past women swathed in black leading donkeys laden with alfalfa. “Seven dates a day is all you need,” Halifa told my disbelieving daughter, as he gave us the low-down on the national fruit. “That’s how the Berbers survive in the desert.”
And ‘D’ was also, of course, for desert. Although for some days we’d been driving through the stony hammada, my daughter felt that this arid, rubble-strewn plain was not what she’d been expecting. And so we hopped into Halifa’s 4WD and headed deeper into the Sahara, bumping for two hours over increasingly wild terrain and seeing only the odd nomadic goatherd, until finally the dunes (another ‘D’) swung into view. This, my daughter announced, was ‘proper’ desert.
Azalaï Desert camp — our retreat that night — would not have disappointed Lawrence of Arabia. Our huge Bedouin-style tent was smuggled into a private panorama of sculpted sand dunes. Inside, it was decked out with gorgeous rugs and a grand four-poster bed. After dark, we sat down to a starlit feast, our waiters bearing each dish in turn over the dunes, while a fire of wind-dried tamarisk logs blazed beneath a desert moon. At dawn we crested the nearest dune to watch sunrise set the desert aglow, all apricot and terracotta. The cool sand beneath our bare feet was embroidered with the tracks of the desert’s tiny nocturnal commuters: the winding tramlines of beetles, the mini kangaroo-hop of a jerboa. A hoopoe-lark delivered its piercing whistled song from a dune crest opposite, flinging itself repeatedly skyward in an exuberant display.
Essential to any desert experience — and an obligatory ‘C’ for our alphabet — is, of course, the camel. And it was at Merzouga, half a day’s drive north of Zagora, that we first made their acquaintance. Rising in the pre-dawn chill, we found our masticating beasts and their robed driver awaiting us behind the hotel. After mounting nervously, and clinging on while the huge animals got to their feet in that three-part rocking-horse lurch, we were soon making our unhurried progress to another towering dune, where yet another fabulous desert sunrise greeted us. The apathy of our camels suggested they’d seen it all before.
Merzouga, on the Algerian border, is Sahara tourism central, buzzing with camel treks, dune buggies, music festivals and other desert thrills. But our guide Moha led us to some of the area’s more surprising attractions: a salt lake — more mirage than lake — where stilts and egrets picked through the shallows; an impossibly verdant oasis, where trees laden with figs, almonds and apricots overhung a crystal-clear irrigation canal; market day up the road at Rissani, where hundreds of braying donkeys waited in a dusty area for their owners to return from the souq.
So now we’re back on the road, following the Ziz Valley northwest towards Fes. Another endless palm grove, punctuated with the red of crumbling Kasbah fortifications. More towering escarpments, carved from ancient seabed sediments. We stop for scenic snaps, dodging roadside traders who hawk trilobites and polished quartz. Our stash of dates is almost finished.
The land starts to rise. It gets cooler, greener. There are sheep, horses even. Soon we are up among the watered pastures of the Middle Atlas, winding through stands of juniper and stopping for lunch in a forest of cedars. Chaffinches flutter through the evergreens as we picnic on a springy carpet of lichens and watch a squabbling troop of Barbary macaques, the same ‘apes’ that frequent the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s hard to believe that breakfast this morning was amid sand dunes and camels.
The desert is well and truly behind us as we enter Fes, negotiating the rush-hour chaos and finally pulling up, more by luck than judgement, on the doorstep of La Maison Bleue, our bolthole at the very entrance of the Medina.
Fes, we discover, feels a little cheated by history. Morocco’s former capital and ancient seat of learning has watched the nation relocate its headquarters to Rabat and tourists eschew its ancient wonders for budget breaks in Marrakech and surfing at Agadir. Yet it is still here, explains our guide Abdoul, that you will find the nation’s cultural heart. He proves his point in the bewildering warren of the Medina, pointing out, between stalls of scented sandalwood and glittering lanterns, the ornate doorways of hidden mosques and the entrance of al-Qarawiyyin, the world’s oldest university. Devoid of motorised traffic and enriched by the stench from the famous Chouwara tanneries, the place has a truly medieval feel.
And La Maison Bleue is a wonder in itself. An old family riad and the first hotel in Fes, it embodies the traditional Islamic virtue of modesty for the wealthy. Behind its unassuming exterior — you could pass it on the street, unaware — lies a cool, tiled interior of such high-ceilinged elegance that the sweaty Medina seems a distant memory. To the intricate strains of traditional Berber musicians, we dine on sumptuous tagines and sample pastilla, a sweet-and-sour pastry pie that is the local signature dish. Breakfast merely extends the feast, with msemen pancakes dripping in almond honey, plus a panoply of cheeses and preserves.
And so it is in Fes that we board our flight home. Our game of Moroccan alphabet is left behind, unfinished, along with the hire car. We never did get that ‘X’. Perhaps, bending the rules, ‘expedition’ would fit the bill, as would , ‘exhilarating’, ‘exceptional’ and certainly ‘extraordinary’.
Survival tips for family road trips
• Bring plentiful in-car entertainment: books, iPad and Kindle et al.
• Stock up on snacks: buying your dates, nuts and dried fruit from a souq can be half the fun.
• Bring some North African music to help set the mood.
• Stop to photograph a good view as soon as you see it. Don’t wait for the designated viewpoint, where you may be besieged by traders selling tourist knick-knacks.
• Beware of different spellings on road signs for the same place.
• Plan accommodation with swimming pools.
• Don’t move on too often: allow at least two nights at each place.
• Getting there Budget airlines easyJet and Ryan Air both fly direct from London to Marrakech in just three hours and forty minutes, making Morocco very accessible. The writer travelled with Lawrence of Morocco, who can arrange 11-night self-drive trips, including flights, accommodation, private transfers and car hire.
• Where to stay There’s plenty of children-friendly accommodation in Morocco, but good options include Club Med or Fellah Hotel in Marrakech, L’Ma Lodge in Skoura, Ouarzazate, Azalaï Desert Lodge in Zagora and La Maison Bleue in Fes.
• When to go The best times to visit are in spring (particularly February) or autumn (October/November) when it’s a balmy temperature and not too busy. Avoid Christmas and New Year, when it’s crowded and expensive, and August, when it’s too hot.
• Health Visit your GP or a travel clinic to check which vaccinations you may need.
• Further reading The Rough Guide to Morocco by Daniel Jacobs and Keith Drew
A date with Morocco
No adventure in Morocco is complete without a lot of sticky dates to stave off hunger pangs on long journeys. But there’s a lot more to this scrummy snack than you might think…
The cultivation of dates goes back to 6.000BC in Arabia and has been central ever since to life throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. As well as its fruit, which plays a vital role in Moroccan cuisine, both sweet and savoury, the date palm has provided thread, mattresses, lumber, rope and countless other uses.
In Islam it is regarded as the ‘tree of life’ and its fruit ceremonially eaten to break fast during Ramadan. The Draa Valley is the finest date-growing region and known as the date basket of Morocco. Every October, the town of Erfoud hosts a three-day festival celebrating the date harvest, with music, dance and food (mostly dates, of course).
Today Morocco boasts over 100 varieties of date. The Medjool date, often referred to as ‘the king of dates,’ is the largest and perhaps the best known. Once reserved for royalty, it is typically the most expensive because its cultivation is more labour-intensive. Others include the Deglet Noor date, originally from Algeria, which is commonly used in stuffed date recipes and tagines, and the Halawi date, a small, sweet variety often served as a dessert.
During the 1920s, when its crop was threatened by disease, Morocco sent eleven date palms to the USA as a precaution. Nine survived and are responsible for the millions of Medjool dates now found throughout California.
Also by Mike Unwin.