We’re back! The Hubby and I have spent 11 fab days visiting Morocco from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, to the windswept coast and then onto Marrakech. This was our fifth visit to the country so you may well have guessed that we totally adore it. Someone asked me recently why we love the place so much and it was quite hard to answer: maybe it’s the weather (glorious in our winter months); maybe it’s the food (delicious and fragrant); or maybe it’s the sheer thrill of stepping into a technicolour world like nothing you can see outside the African continent and yet it’s only a 3½ hour flight from the UK.
When we first started venturing to Morocco we could only get there via London, but now there are direct flights from Manchester, albeit they’re not the most comfortable of budget seats. I was grateful when we landed and it was so nice to be greeted with warmth after our very long British winter. We were met at the airport by our driver, a chirpie chappy in very striking canary yellow Babouche: “My name is Chem, you are very welcome to Morocco.” How very kind.
That Ourika moment
Although we arrived in Marrakech, we were soon on our way to the Ourika Valley. Chem expertly negotiated the last stages of the journey along precarious mud roads (thank God for a 4x4). Up and up we went until we reached Kasbah Bab Ourika, a traditional Berber style building with a rammed earth exterior. Fortress like it sits majestically on top of a hill guarding over the verdant valley below with the High Atlas Mountains looming in the background.
Our days at KBO (as it’s fondly known) were spent exploring the valley and the tiny Berber villages such as Timalizen, Tamzendent and Tourirt. The villages often look desolate and the buildings appear too ramshackled for anyone to actually live in them, but the sounds of family life emanating from them and the mass of satellite dishes suggest they do.
Here life goes on as it always has: women chat to their neighbours whilst hanging out the washing, men herd goats and sheep, whilst children play football or pretend to be would be shepherds:
Some, more entrepreneurial youths, decided to become our unofficial guides. They didn’t ask, they just walked with us stopping each time we did and being even more patient than me as we waited for the Hubby to get that perfect shot. They ensured we got back safely; for a few Dirhams of course!
As a result of the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, French is widely spoken in the north of Morocco but, I found it really weird to be trekking through Berber villages and being greeted with “Bonjour” by ladies carry shopping on their heads and then being followed by children shouting: “Stylo! Stylo!” or “Bonbon!”
Essaouira - a breezy charm
From the Ourika Valley we drove 3½ hours to the coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced ‘Ess-ow-ear-a’). This is our second visit to the charming seaside town; I just love the fact you have the old medina with its ramparts, dusty alleyways and seagulls swooping over crumbling white washed houses with blue shutters. Then a few steps away you have the glorious wide sandy beach to escape to. Essaouira also have a real laid back vibe; maybe it’s the sea air that does it or maybe it’s down to the fact that during the 60s regular visitors included Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones - get the picture?
The walled medina is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and as you meander around you can see why; normal life continues and much of the 18th Century flavour still remains. Secret doorways occasionally open for you to sneak a glance into real Moroccan life.
Late afternoon brings a different feel as families and courting couples make their way down to the main square, Place Moulay Hassan, to sit and chat or have dinner at one of the fish stalls with their blue and white awnings. From here you can explore the port with its bobbing blue boats and the local fishermen getting ready to take to the sea for the next days’ catch.
Let’s not forget the fabulous beach. It can be a bit blustery which makes it a haven for wind and kite surfers. I love taking long walks as far as the eye can see, expertly dodging the men trying to sell you camel rides. We stayed in a converted Riad on the edge of the medina which had a roof top terrace. Here you got a panoramic vista of the beach and could catch a few rays, sheltered from the wind – bliss!
Essaouira is also home to some of what I think are the best restaurants in Morocco: from seafood (obviously excellent), to Italian to traditional Moroccan, every meal we had was delicious. The best place in my view is Elizir. 4 years ago when we ate here we were the only diners. Now the place is packed and rightly so. The food is great but it’s the kitsch interior that steels the show. Ornately painted Moroccan tiles on the walls and floors frame a plethora of 60s paraphernalia and original Tulip chairs. It shouldn’t work but it so does.
Manic Marrakech - souks you sir!
The final leg of our trip was a four night stay in absolutely mad, bonkers Marrakech. As you hit the very outskirts of the town the noise increases and then becomes incessant as a frenzy of people, cars and mopeds whiz by from every direction. But don’t let me scare you. It’s a happy frenzy and one you’ll being embroiled in.
As we’ve visited Marrakech quite a few times, the Hubby and I decided to stay 15 minutes drive out of the old medina in the Palmeraie, a lush oasis of grand houses with perfectly manicured lawns hiding behind high walls. Here you can grab some calm before whipping up a storm in the souks. For first time visitors however, I’d recommend a stay in a Riad in the medina where you are just a stone’s throw from the action.
When I say action, most of this takes place in the main square, Jemaa el Fna. During the day it’s filled with orange juice stalls, each owner trying to use his charms to persuade you to buy his juice and not his neighbours. The stalls are interspersed with pushy (and sometimes a little too aggressive) Hennaed ladies trying to get you to be tattooed too. From here you can wander into the labyrinth of alleyways that form the souk. Teeny tiny shops house everything from colourful Babouche to glass wares, rugs, pottery and jewellery. Merchants show off their perfectly formed cones of multi-coloured spices, whilst men weld lanterns and others polish wooden boxes. The name of the game here is to haggle, and to haggle hard, something I’m still trying to master. The Hubby just leaves me to it, popping back ever so often to see who’s winning!
To really appreciate the magic of Marrakech you have to visit the square in the evening. As the sun sets, the scene changes. Out come the myriad of open-air kitchens, neatly lined up with communal benches, the smoky barbeques filling the air with the smell of grilling fish, meat and a fine line in sheep’s heads. Children and adults alike gather round story tellers, acrobats and wise old men promising to improve your virility. There’s a cacophony of sounds with musicians vying for air space alongside flute playing snake charmers trying to lure their beasts out of baskets, whilst in the distance there are cries to prayer from the minarets; everyone from locals to tourists cannot help but be intoxicated by the sights and smells.
Any good guide book will tell you the other “must sees” in Marrakech and you really should see them. But for me it’s all about losing yourself; in the souk, the narrow alleyways and the overall hustle and bustle of real Moroccan life. Let loose and be totally absorbed by your surroundings.
This is just a snippet of the exciting things we got up to in Morocco. There's just so much to see, do and experience which is why this was our fifth visit! If you’d like to hear more about our adventures or are not sure if Morocco is for you, then please leave a comment or contact me, I’d love to share my Moroccan travels with you.
(Images: Lesley-Ann Birley and Julian Curnuck)