Keep your eyes on the road, the view is strictly for passengers
From souks in Marrakech to hairpin bends in the High Atlas, Katy Guest takes the wheel and discovers a harsh landscape and a warm people
Sunday 10 April 2011
It never occurred to me, when I was painfully reciting French at school, that it would all come flooding back 18 years later as I stood on a sand dune, at sunset, surrounded by Berbers in the Western Sahara.
"Il fait du vent," our Berber host had helpfully pointed out. It certainly was windy: I had sand in my eyes, my ears and my teeth; the heat was overwhelming; the spectacular dunes under the livid pink sky even more so. The Ch'gaga Dunes camp, two hours' drive beyond where the road ends in eastern Morocco, is so far removed from Le Mistral of my French classes – so far removed from anything within my experience – that all I could do, through gritty teeth, was laugh.
A night in the desert with the charming guide, Rashid, was the pinnacle of a mind-blowing two-week trip arranged for me and my partner Jon by the specialists at Best of Morocco. In just 14 days, we ate lamb mechoui amid the spiced barbecue smoke of the Djemaa al Fna in Marrakech; haggled for clay tagines on a hairpin bend at the top of the High Atlas mountains; rode a donkey to a kasbah in Skoura, pulling dates and pomegranates ripe from the trees; and fell off a horse on the Star Wars set in Ouarzazate. (Our amused guides dubbed the unfortunate horseman "le cascadeur", meaning "the stuntman".)
We argued and cajoled in Arabic and French, and learnt the rudiments of the Tashelhit dialect from two brothers called Mohammed and Mohamed. We ate oysters with surfers beside an Atlantic lagoon in the west, and befriended a soppy camel in M'Hamid in the east. We ate lamb tagine until we started baa-ing – and still asked for more.
The journey started in Marrakech, with a four-night stay in the fashionable French quarter of Gueliz. The upmarket Majorelle Suites are just steps from les Jardins Majorelle, restored by Yves Saint Laurent in 1980. Not only are we just around the corner from these cool-in-every-way gardens, with their vivid primary colours and shaded waterlily ponds; our two-bed, two-bath, marble-tastic apartment also has a maid, Saida, who cleans and cooks breakfast and prepares a dinner party (lamb tagine, of course). We feel quite magnifique.
As a hippie traveller in my student days, I'd heard worrying rumours about Marrakech: would I be judged for travelling with a boyfriend; would I have to wear a hijab to avoid hassle from men; can you really not buy alcohol for love nor money? It turns out that I was worried about the wrong things. My boyfriend kindly became "mon mari" for the purpose of travel in a strict Islamic country, and the only hassle I received from locals was their trying to persuade us to make many baby Mohammeds, asap. My baggy trousers and big cotton shirts made me a lot more modest than many of the schoolgirls in Gueliz. And yes, you can buy alcohol, but not around the main square. Trust me: it's a crazy and intense enough experience without it. One good tip is to buy a bottle of spirits in duty free, and drink it sur la terrasse of your hotel or apartment with a mixer. It works a treat, until you're overheard sneakily clanking gin bottles in the walk-in closet, and find yourself saying, "Darling, the maid thinks that we drink."
What I should have worried about instead was the traffic. In Marrakech, it seems, there are no rules, except: if you see a space, drive into it quick. Pedestrian crossings are ignored by drivers and pedestrians alike. Traffic lights are Gordian knots of cars. Scooters weave around the main square, Djemaa al Fna, in a cat's cradle of diesely near-misses with henna-wielding women and monkeys on strings. There's only one way to cross a road: find a local and stick to her closely, ignoring the galloping donkeys, the overloaded lorries spilling melons, the scooterist in a lilac satin burqa losing a stiletto heel while making a sharp right, and the man riding two bikes down the central reservation. Then sit down astonished, drink ice-cold Fanta Limon at one of the cafés, and marvel that there is a free ringside seat to all the action. Is this why the Moroccans pray so much?
A lot of time in Marrakech is spent trying to catch your breath. Palaces, such as the extravagant Bahia, to the south of the medina, will catch the breath and take it away. But the Ensemble Artisanal, on Avenue Mohammed V, is differently educational, and free to enter. Here, you can examine some souvenirs, find out their fixed prices and realise that you actually don't want them after all, before plunging into the souks, immersing yourself in sales patter and emerging four hours later with several marquetry boxes, half a dozen mismatched painted bowls, gold, frankincense, myrrh, an alleged aphrodisiac, a small wooden camel, and sore feet. Equally calming is La Maison Arabe hotel and restaurant, down an olive tree-lined retreat from the scorching souks, where you can eat monkfish (tagine, obviously) beside a candlelit pool and listen to lute players.
A relaxing interlude before ... the hire car. I can't say that I can offer a lot of advice about safe driving through Marrakech. Hold hands? Focus? Swear, scream, pray? If you see a space, drive into it, quick? But don't bother giving way to the old lady who's halfway across a zebra crossing: she'll only look at you as if you're insane.
Driving in Morocco is a cartoonishly spectacular experience. There are the long, straight, empty roads. There are mountain tracks, where small boys leap out from behind boulders brandishing tourist knick-knacks, and old ladies carry man-sized sacks of potatoes and barely look up. And there are the knuckle-biting, pant-wetting, Road Runner-esque sheer drops. Around almost every corner is a lorry wobbling under a wad of hay bales twice as large as itself.
When we arrive, dusty and gobsmacked, at Les Jardins de Skoura, four hours from Marrakech, we feel we deserve a prize. It takes the form of a cool, exotic suite with a roof terrace exposed to the stars, and dinner in a garden of vegetables, herbs, olive, pomegranate and argan trees. (This last is an olive lookalike, its nuts providing the distinctive oil that's an essential ingredient of all those tagines.)
In the morning, we take "the grandmother donkey" and look around la palmerie. Our guide, Kemal, is only 23. He gives us a tour, a donkey ride, handfuls of dates, two kinds of pomegranate, several figs and life advice ("Come back here, learn more Arabic, stay for years, raise children ....") all for 150 dirhams each.
The drive from Skoura to M'Hamid, bordering the desert at Morocco's eastern edge, takes five hours exactly, much of it on single-track roads. The novelty soon wears off those endless roads when it's 40C, you need a wee, and the clutch on your white Fiat Punto is making a sound that could be Arabic for "please stop!".
So, Vincent, the proprietor of Dar Azawad, seems like the answer to our prayers. He relieves us of our whining Punto and takes it to a trusty mechanic; leads us to a fridge filled with ice-cold water and fruit; and phones the car-hire company to explain the damage for us. The car would only have lasted another 20 miles, he later relates, gravely, and offers us the frayed clutch part as a souvenir. Then, as we sit on our terrace admiring the wind-rippled sand and crooked palm trees in the brutal heat, he gestures east and declares: "Ceci le désert." No kidding!
Lovely Vincent, with his attention to detail and his "passion for doors", epitomises Best of Morocco's hands-on proprietors. He designed the hotel and gardens: outdoors are a soppy camel and a donkey called Madonna, and there's a bar that stretches to Scottish single malts – for a price.
Outside, the heat is a monster, waiting to pounce. A row of cats lines up at the bottom of a door, catching the air-con draft. A man vacuums sand from the pool: a Sisyphean task. The heat is immense. We might as well jump in a bone-shaking 4x4 and drive into the desert. At least there is a sandy breeze from the four open windows.
Two hours after the road stops and the desert starts, arriving at the Ch'gaga camp as the sun sets is an experience so breathtaking it could make you cry. And it might be worth it, just to get the sand out from behind your contact lenses. Four modern tents (with chemical toilets and "Berber showers" – a bucket) sit among the dunes with a traditional, Hessian, Berber dwelling, like the ones in which Rashid's father's generation grew up. In several languages, he tells us about his life and family, and sings us mournful Berber songs about love, Allah and the desert. We reciprocate with "Land of Hope and Glory" and "The Wombles", before creeping outside to point out constellations to each other, drawing scorpions and ploughs in the sand. Waking up to a sunrise and a boiled egg has never been more weird, or more spectacular.
We leave the desert, Vincent, Rashid and Madonna reluctantly – and not just because we know how long and scary the journey back to Marrakech is. On the way, we find an oasis. Just outside Ouarzazate is Les Tourmalines hotel, owned by a French couple, Damienne and Christian. Nursing our grumbling Fiat, we arrive at an avenue of rosemary bushes leading to a blue infinity pool overlooking an enormous lake. "The English like it cold," laughs Damienne, as we dive in, delirious at the mere prospect of so much water. Later, she recommends horse riding at the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, and later still, dinner for the brave cascadeur who hopped straight back on to his skittish stallion after his dramatic fall.
Le Mogador in Ouarzazate is owned by Christian and Damienne's son, who also seems to be in on Best of Morocco's trick of providing exactly the right thing at exactly the right time as if by some coincidence. Don't get us wrong, we tell him: we like lamb tagine. But the steak au poivre and spaghetti carbonara that he cooks for us could not be more welcome if it came served by angels on camels. The brave cowboy has a banana split, and makes a remarkable recovery.
We limp back to Les Tourmalines astonished, cared for, and absolutely blown away by the harsh Moroccan landscape and the warm Moroccan people. After another sunset and another swim, and with two of Damienne's magnificent cheese sandwiches wrapped up in a hanky for the journey, we're even up to braving the drive back to Marrakech.
How to get there
Travelzest's Best of Morocco (0800 171 2151; travelzest.com) offers a 10-night trip, with four nights' B&B at the Majorelle Suites in Marrakech, two nights' half board in Skoura, two nights' B&B in M'Hamid, with dinner and an overnight in the dunes, two nights' B&B in Ouarzazate, from £1,344 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London, transfers on arrival, and car hire.
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