A Taste of Morocco
BY SARAH WHATMAN 01.10.2013
Morocco often conjures up images of bustling souks and exotic landscapes; my first visit more than lived up to my expectations.
My journey started in Fes. One of the four imperial cities of Morocco (the others being Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat) Fes continues much as it has done since medieval times, with busy workshops producing pottery, metalwork and leather goods, all available to buy in the lively souks. As I wandered around, hunting for bargains and soaking up the intoxicating atmosphere, I had that rare feeling of having stepped back in time. The city is also home to Morocco’s best-preserved medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although well worth the visit, the pungent smell of the tanneries and copper workshops inside its rambling walls can be a little overwhelming. I’d recommend holding a bunch of fresh mint under your nose for the duration!
Fes is well-known throughout Morocco for its culinary traditions and I was lucky enough not only to taste some Fessi specialties but also to learn how to create them during a cookery course at my hotel, Riad Fes. Under the careful instruction of passionate head cook Fatima I set about making my own lunch: a tangy Moroccan artichoke salad followed by a delicious (if I may say so myself) chicken and olive tagine, and seasonal fresh fruit salad. If you have a sweet tooth like me then I would recommend trying the traditional Berber dish Pastille: a filo pie usually filled with chicken or pigeon and finished with a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar.
Leaving Fes behind, I headed into the Middle Atlas to a small town called Ifrane, which resembles a Swiss mountain village rather than a North African town. With fresh, cool air, alpine vegetation and houses with sloping, terracotta roofs, it presents a striking contrast to the rest of the country. From here I sat transfixed all the way as the road dropped south to the town of Erfoud and from here into the Sahara Desert. The dramatic change in landscape is simply spectacular. The private Abercrombie and Kent luxury camp awaited me, as did a trusty steed – though not a horse in this case – I had a camel ride to enjoy, taking me to the top of a dune for sunset aperitifs. On my return to camp, dinner was served around the campfire, followed by a soothing cup of mint tea. Dining under the stars, in the middle of the vast, silent desert, listening to the tales of my guide has to be one of my favourite moments of the trip.
The next day, feeling refreshed, I returned to civilisation, where I stayed at the magnificent Dar Ahlam near Ouarzazate. Located in a small village the hotel offers a fabulous retreat - there’s no reception desk, and no televisions or telephones in the rooms- it’s very tranquil and feels like a private home rather than a hotel. Here I enjoyed a traditional hammam treatment – the North African equivalent of the ancient Roman and more modern Turkish baths. I can safely say that afterwards I was squeaky clean.
The final stage of my journey took me over the Tizi n Tichka Pass to Marrakech. En route I visited the now world-famous Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. World-famous because it has been used as a set and backdrop in many a film, including Gladiator, which was filmed here in 2000. It is one of Morocco’s best-preserved kasbahs – small fortified villages or compounds, which are dotted around the southern regions of the country. With vertiginous drops and switchbacks for several kilometres, the Tizi n Tichka Pass is not for the faint-hearted. Thankfully my experienced driver knew all the twists and turns, as well as the best places to stop for the most jaw-dropping views. Along the way, we passed Berber villages and people working on the land - a reminder of the different cultural influences which have helped to shape modern Morocco.
Known as the Red City, thanks to its ochre-red walls, Marrakech is a city of endless, winding souks, captivating sights including the Koutoubia Mosque and Djemaa El-Fna square, wonderful restaurants and a brilliant choice of accommodation. I spent the day exploring the medina, putting my haggling skills to the test and sampling the delicious street food. There is an abundance of beautiful things to buy and relish but if you find that hustle and bustle is too much, then it’s easy to find quieter places in the city – Marrakech has a number of gardens, some of which have been in existence since the 12th Century.
There is so much still to see and do in Morocco that I am already planning my next visit! I would like to visit the north of the country and the coastal towns of Oualidia and Essaouira, as well as to enjoy the trekking opportunities in the Atlas Mountains. Morocco is a captivating destination and is within easy reach for a short break, but I would recommend an extended trip with time to take in all of the country’s many, varied landscapes and cultural highlights.
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