Morocco – Marrakech and the desert
April 8th: Sunshine at last
We flew from Gatwick via BA . It is a surprisingly short flight for the exoticness of the destination. We were really looking forward to seeing flowers and sunshine after too many cold, grey days in the UK .
We exchanged money at the Post Maroc to the right after exiting customs. The rate was not much different from the one in the luggage hall but it had no queue. We had booked to stay at a small hotel called Dar Nanka for our first 3 nights. It is owned by a Belgian couple and is 15km south of Marrakech city.
Dar Nanka is set in a beautiful walled garden with beds of roses, palm trees, olives and bougainvillea. Full of birdsong and the scent of the flowers.
The house/hotel is large and has a retro- modern style with a large swimming pool and outdoor spaces. Our bedroom was spacious with a sun- soaked balcony. After unpacking we enjoyed our complimentary pre-dinner cocktails. The hotel has several stylish seating areas for drinks and relaxation. Very arty and tastefully done. The atmosphere is relaxed and driven by the quests. Things are done at our pace and you need to ask for what you want. E.g. we learnt that we had to sit at a table and then our food would be served, no-one called us to a table .
Food was essentially Belgian-French in style. We had salade des chevres and cauliflower soup followed by beef stew and an excellent chocolate mousse.
April 9th - Relaxing blue gardens and chaotic medina of Marrakech
On our second day, we hired a car and driver, Ali, for 12 hours so we can visit the Majorelle Gardens, do some shopping in the city and return at night for dinner booked at La Maison Arabe. This cost 900 dirham including tip. Ali was very helpful and accommodating and spoke good English. We arrived at the gardens at around 0915. Already the crowds had started to arrive. By 10am the coaches had started coming and the gardens were too busy for good shots of the various iconic spots such as the bridge near the pond and house. Arrive early!
The gardens are wonderfully well kept and there were no objections to pictures as others have reported even with a large camera. All the staff were helpful and friendly. It’s worth seeing both the gardens and museum. After the gardens we had a quick look at the adjacent shops ( to the right of the entrance) but these are expensive and touristic.
Having located Ali, we drove into the Jemaa el Fnaa and arranged to meet at the Club Med hotel when we were finished. We set off to find the first shop on Una’s list – which we never found. The Medina is a mad maze (good maps here). The various maps we had must have gone through some spatial distortion filter. Scale meant nothing. Main roads were alleyways. Street signs almost none existent or pointed in opposite directions. Fountains were dry holes in walls. However, it was great fun navigating around with a mixture of Google maps, a guide book, compass and pop-up map guiding us roughly in the direction we wanted.
By 1230 we needed lunch and followed signs for the Terrasse Des Epices. This was two floors up in a courtyard of shops and was very classy. The food was excellent and service top class. We want to go back later in the holiday. We felt the need for some vegetables so had a plate of them grilled, a three way Moroccan salad and chicken skewers.
This proved another adventure as we went through the dying area and leather area. The streets got very narrow and various men followed us, unnerving Una. We decided to head back south to regain larger “streets” and more friendly turf. We eventually picked up signs to the museum and followed these ( once you come to the Marrakech Museum turn left as you face entrance under the inscribed arches and take the third left).
The photography museum has an interesting collection of historic portraits and the cool interior was a welcome break from the hot alleys. The top terrace has a wonderful view over the city and is recommended for sunsets – the ticket allows re-entry anytime during your stay.
Time was getting on so we called Ali to arrange our pickup. Rather than the 10 minutes we had allowed it took us 30 mins to get back to the Jemaa after a few misleading signs and wrong turns. Eventually, we located Ali and went back to Dar Nanka to change for dinner.
We had booked dinner at the La Maison Arabe which is north of the medina down a small alley – isn’t everything in Marrakech?
The hotel is famous for its guests including Churchill. After a little confusion over our reservation we were shown to the dark jazz bar to the tunes of Casablanca from the pianist in the corner. The decor was a bit Africa meets Arabia – almost tusk like uplighters, leather and wood panelling with pictures of the Jemaa and Africa. We ordered two delicious mai tais and when we’d finished these we were escorted to our poolside table in the Le Trois Saveurs restaurant. The setting was lovely, the staff friendly and efficient, the food world class. I started with pata negra with char grilled aubergine and granny smith apples. The main courses were a beautiful succulent steak for me and lamb for Una. I had crepes flambé for dessert and Una had caramelised pineapple. Once done we were escorted out. A bit of a theme, that. We never got left alone by the staff. Whether that was their way of providing a good service or because we weren’t guests I’m not sure.
April 10th McTernans resting by the pool. Yeah right.
We had debated about relaxing by the hotel pool or heading back into the souks. A grand taxi was going to cost 40 euro and we could have taken the hotel car for 300 dirham return. Given we had more time on our return we opted for the pool. 30 seconds after sitting down we were already planning what to do next. Mika offered us the use of his own bicycles and we headed off towards Marrakech turning at the canal. The ride turned out to be more arduous than we planned, though very scenic with the snow- covered Atlas on our left contrasting with the dry baked dirt and heat haze of our ride. The signpost to the Samanah golf resort we had targeted turned out to be “MB” – a little cryptic. We cycled past it for a number of miles before consulting the Google map oracle, often wrong in Marrakech, and retraced our route. The black tarmac gave way to gravel, then dirt, then a rut crossed by running water. Eventually we came to a shanty town opposite a long wall over which we occasionally spotted golf bunkers. Coming to a wire gate a brief conversation with the guardian got us admitted and escorted to the gate and on to the club house. We had a Caesar salad and salad nicoise with diet cokes to take the edge off our dry thirst. We looked over the busy immaculate course to the mountains as the babble of French golfers murmured around us.
Replete, we mounted our bikes somewhat saddle- sore and headed back. We cycled 30 km or so altogether in the heat of the day. Mad dogs and all.
We had a much needed swim in the cool swimming pool before changing for dinner and settling down with two daiquiris and another great dinner in the relaxed Da Nanka .
April 11th – Kasbahs and the road to ruins
We had arranged a private tour of the Sahara with Wild Morocco staying in a luxury camp. The plan was to drive from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou, 30km before Ouarzazate by traversing the High Atlas mountains via the highest main road pass in Morocco, at 2260m altitude. We would then overnight near Ait Ben Haddou at a guest-house inside a restored kasbah - Kasbah Ellouze.
Yahya, our driver for the journey was taciturn but informative when asked. He was an excellent and safe driver. The drive through the high atlas was very scenic with plunging valleys and snow covered peaks. There are many photo opportunities.
En route we passed many small villages and towns with a kasbah. Most of these had started to melt back into the mud whence they came, looking like sandcastles in the rain.
We stopped at a ruined Glaoui Kasbah called Telouet. Entry fee was 20 dh each and well worth it once we found the tiled rooms on the second floor. The building lacked any signs or explanations and is in a sorry state as legally ownership is spread across all the Glaoui’s descendants and the government doesn’t want to invest in it due to the family politics.
Our stop for the night was a small village with a couple of friendly camels. No one horse town this. Kasbah Ellouze was tucked down an alleyway with white arrows showing the way.
It sat next to the usual melting Kasbah, another of Glaoui’s possessions. The French owners were very friendly and our room was spacious and rustic. The pool was cool and welcoming. Before dinner we went to Ait Benhaddou to catch the sunset and walked over the river on stepping stones. The town itself is given over to a tourist trap but worth a quick walk through. We returned to the Kasbah for a pre-dinner drink followed by a simple but very tasty dinner created by the owner – an ex-chef at a hotel they used to own in the south of France. We enjoyed a wonderful chicken tagine here, scented with cinnamon and slow- cooked with figs and dates. The best tagine of the trip.
April 12th – 500 camels and two happy campers
Todays plan was to drive from Ait Ben Haddou to the desert camp at the Erg Chigaga dunes via Foum Zguid, arriving in the afternoon.
We felt a little overcharged at 140 dh. A short ride out of town we set off across a landscape not out of place on Mars. Large black rocks scattered across the sand as far as the eye could see. We saw a number of lizards and stopped briefly to look at a fossil bed. We bounced along for a few hours until we hit a dried out lake (due to the new dam) and sped along for 14km passing a few tatty restaurants.
Finally we entered the dunes and passed some of the 15 camps along the 50km dunes. In all about 80km off road and feeling a little like the contents of a concrete mixer. However, well worth the bouncing. Part of the desert was in bloom and over it munching away was a herd of camels maybe 500 strong with many babies.
The camp is amazing. We were the only 2 guests on the first night so very attentative service. To stretch our legs we wandered up to the top of the largest dune we could find to take pictures of the sunset. Una found some bones possibly from a small desert fox and also a reptile spine.
Dinner was set out by the fire – a table for two under the stars. Very romantic and civilised for the desert. The starter was Moroccan soup followed by the ubiquitous chicken tagine alongside a vegetable version. This was followed by fruit and yogurt washed down by a nice Moroccan red wine.
We inspected the various insect life that descended or rather arrived in the bar tent. Huge burrowing spiders, a version of the scarab beetle and its assorted cousins and friends. We amused the staff trying to take pictures. Now we wonder what awaits us in our tent and bed….more of the same. A huge biting spider hung over the bed waiting for moths to come near the light. Various scrabblings and scuttling continued to the wee hours. Well, this is the desert after all.
April 13th – Ships of the desert
A leisurely start to the day. We had arranged a two hour trek by camel into the dunes at 9am so sat down to a sumptuous multi-course breakfast. Coffee, fresh fruit, yogurt, Berber bread, cereal, Berber donuts (very moreish). They knew Una liked lizards and showed us a huge beast they had found the day before. After it had been given a cuddle they took it back and released it into its hole.
We were introduced to the camels by name along with their driver Brahmin. The kindly camels were 8 and 12 years old and very stoical. Seen it all before. We mounted up and set off. It is very easy to become disorientated in the dunes especially when looking for animal tracks and wildlife. I tried getting some interesting pictures of the dunes on the move but no idea yet whether these are blurred. The camels were very obliging for photo-shoots… And didn’t ask for money.
The rest of the heat of the day was spent relaxing. We wanted to play boule, a game Una can beat me at, but the heat was intense…38+.
We were offered an evening drive to an oasis, something we had wanted to do by camel and to see the sunset from on top of the dunes. We saw the oasis, now private, and a natural spring complete with frog and leeches. Off across the Mars-scape and up some steep dunes we climbed the last 20 feet and settled down on cushions to watch the sunset. It couldn’t have been complete without the reminder of home in the form of rain drops. Yes. It rains 3-4 times a year and we were lucky enough to get a few drops which were rapidly sucked into the sand.
We returned to the camp which now had the requisite Australian couple plus a Canadian/American couple and an English family. Dinner was laid out under the stars with soup followed by beef tagine. Rather good Moroccan wine washed it down. Having tried a few star trail photographs it was time for bed with our friendly insects. On first name terms now.
April 14th – Route of the 1001 Kasbahs
Today we drive to Agdz – around 6 hours. We re-join the sealed road at M’hamid, continuing northwards beyond Zagora & along the Draa Valley. Overnight in a kasbah guest-house at the palm grove of Agdz, Kasbah Azul.
The morning started bright and we decided on a pre-breakfast stroll up the dunes as you do in the Sahara. Some very nice dune patterns in the early light. We returned covered in fine sand to a somewhat depleted breakfast compared to the first day though they did knock up some more pancakes for us.
The wind really picked up over breakfast until you could only see around 10m away. Our tent door was open so our possessions were gradually disappearing under a fine layer of sand. We decided to depart after breakfast so we could have a swim and proper, much- needed, shower in the Kasbah Azul.
We stopped at a pottery co-operative to have a brief tour of the works, which was quite interesting .
Then a stop for lunch in Zagora, the home of the famous Timbuktu sign which we detoured to see. La Fibule du Draa provided a basic lunch and watering hole.
We arrived at Kasbah Azul which is down a dusty track next to the obligatory decaying kasbah by around 1630. Quite a surprise to walk into the beautiful gardens replete with fountain, donkey and a multitude of bird song amongst the date palm.
Our room overlooked the inviting pool. After a quick swim and a little poolside relaxation we returned to the shower which was quickly filled with sand from our clothes and most orifices. Feeling more human we went for a walk around the local area.
We were fortunate to see a local wedding celebration though the local Berbers didn’t want any pictures taken when politely asked. We wound our way back through the dirt streets in time for a pre-dinner drink and dinner. Dinner started well with some excellent tapenade on bread, a spoon of spicy aubergine and a little salad. The main course was a pleasant chicken tagine but the desert was the best so far – ice cream and apple crumble.
April 15th – The return to Marrakech. Civilisation of sorts
We started the day with an early constitutional through the palm groves and plantations at the back of the hotel aiming not to get lost amongst the branching paths. All the locals said bonjour and generally we have found the people friendly.
Today we had to drive from Agdz to Marrakech, crossing the Anti-Atlas mountains, before Ouarzazate, and then once more joining the route across the High Atlas mountain range.
The drive was uneventful and the High Atlas beautiful in bloom with yellow flowers covering the mountain sides. The occasional field of wheat was laced with poppies and bordered by the yellow flower. Very picturesque but not captured on the windy road.
Our guidebook said that Marrakech would seem like New York compared to the desert and the dusty kasbah towns we had been in and indeed, it appeared thus. All the noise and people.
We had some trouble finding the Riad Le Clos Des Arts and at a square close by our driver succumbed to local assistance from a man with a van or the Marrakech equivalent with a wheelbarrow. He offered to take us to the hotel and Yahya promised to check we made it. We went around the houses a little and the man then demanded 50 dh – we offered 20 which he accepted but as we had no change had to give him a 50 note which he then argued about the change. The riad provided assistance and we settled on 30. Expensive but we had little choice. The riad owner had gone to meet us at the parking nearby and he said the barrow man had taken a circuitous route to avoid meeting him.
The Riad is beautiful and Massimo very knowledge and welcoming. Within 10 minutes we had a complete orientation and set of recommendations. We went for a short orientation walk to locate the restaurant for dinner and the Medina spa for tomorrow. We went to the second floor of the Cafe de France for a view of sunset and all the action in the Jemaa. Never seen such heaving crowds.
Dinner plans had to modified as Una did not feel like eating that evening. Massimo kindly fitted me in for a solo dinner. He also sent out for more rehydration salts as we had run out. The dinner started with a lovely spicy pumpkin soup followed by yet another chicken tagine though this was very flavourful. Tasty Moroccan home-cooking.
April 16th - Souk it and See
We decided on a day of targeted shopping. I say we, Una had a list. We headed to the souks, making a note to stock up on dirham – it was going to be a costly day potentially. We didn’t find a working ATM until mid-afternoon and then like buses a group of them arrived near the walls of the palace (a guard pointed us in the right direction).
We had an impromptu tour of the dying area. We were both initially very reluctant to accept the offer due to stories of demands for money. However, the man showed us the starting wool, where it was dyed and the finished product. All for 10 dh which he was happy with. The dyer also asked for a fee which was OK as I got a great shot.
We had looked at a number of hammam treatment options but decided on the Medina Spa on the grounds of the cost and package offered. We booked the Oriental spa package for two for 650dh (about £55 ). This was what I would call a classic spa rather than outright Western luxury. The building was a modified riad and the decor simple and clean. We changed into our costumes and towelling robes before being led to our first treatment where Una’s top was whipped off. The hammam consisted of a cool wash and then the temperature was ramped up to a tagine cooking setting whilst we were firstly given a honey scrub then oil finish. We rested in the steamy heat for ages until our masseurs were ready. We were then led upstairs to a private room with dual tables where we were laid out and given a very relaxing, oiled massage. A very happy ending to a long shopping day. After mint tea we were almost horizontally relaxed and headed back to the riad to get changed for dinner.
We headed out to the Kosybar south of our riad and opposite the Palais El Badi which is now overrun with nesting storks. According to a local legend, a blasphemous imam was transformed into a stork by an angry God. It is an offence in Marrakech to disturb a stork and they are also quite handy as they eat ” les serpents ” from a nearby river, according to our waiter. The imam may have been familiar with the Kosybar mojito cocktails as they were extremely potent!
After the sunset we headed for the La Sultana riad for dinner – reservation essential. It was slightly hard to find as the only sign can be seen heading north not south. After passing the mosque and the stork on a tower take the first left alley.
We asked for a quick tour and it was absolutely gorgeous. The five riads composing the hotel are all decorated differently. This is definitely 5 stars. We were then led up to the roof terrace for our final dinner in Marrakech. Then service was excellent and food wonderful. The beef in Maison Arabe had the edge but this is definitely a place to go even if the location is very much run down with no tourists to be seen.
We walked back up to the Jemaa to see the food stalls and the banter is great fun. I almost got 1000 camels for Una.
April 17th – Masalaama, Marrakech
I thought we were going to have a relaxing morning before heading to the airport. Well, Una had sight-seeing and shopping plans. We started off with the Bahia Palace – go when it opens as it has coach loads of visitors. It is worth a visit for the tiles and marble work.
We then sought out the babouches shop as recommended by Massimo.
The artisan was tucked away in a hole in the wall and he was extremely helpful and friendly. He sells high quality hand stitched ones and we came away with 3 after some negotiation. He also supplies the King and has three certificates to prove it.
We then went to Un Dejeuner a Marrakesh where lunch was excellent in the air conditioned salon. We headed back to the Riad to finish packing and wash. The owners had very kindly let us keep the room till our departure.
We would thoroughly recommend a holiday in Morocco. We had a wonderful time and saw so much. The people almost invariably were friendly, helpful and honest.
Hints and tips:
- If hassled then place your right hand on your heart briefly, smile broadly and give a slight bow. This shows respect and mostly they back off quickly.
- When someone gives you a price without a currency then ask if this is the Rial price which has a factor of 20 compared to normal.
- Took me a while to realise this. “Rue” are “main” streets whilst “Derb” are the many side streets of the “Rue”.
- The Time Out Guide to Marrakech was very helpful
- For shopping and walking around the souks this book was excellent
- Always be gracious and say thank you or please.
Larger copies of the pictures with better processing will go here when I have time.