Long way down: a journey through the Atlas mountains

Fashion designer Jacques Azagury enjoys visiting Morocco, the land of his birth, as a break from the hectic pace of life in London. He tells Ian McCurrach about his recent road trip

Sunday 10 February 2008 01:00

I spent my early years growing up in Casablanca in Morocco. Back then, in the late 1950s, Casablanca was very French, very European. My parents, like the city, were glamorous and dressed really beautifully. So it came as quite a shock when we moved to the East End of London when I was eight. London seemed so bleak – dark and cold, the people looked so grey, nothing like the pictures of elaborately dressed Victorian women I had seen on the tins of Quality Street that my father brought back from business trips.

These days I return to Morocco to take a break from my busy London life, which revolves around the demands of my design studio and boutique in Knightsbridge. And though it takes under three hours to fly there, once I arrive my London life seems light years away; Morocco submerges visitors into a completely different and exotic culture.

On my most recent visit I took a road trip from Marrakech, looping down through the Atlas Mountains to Essaouira. I began my journey at the Riad Dar Al Sultan in Marrakech, a small traditional riad with modern, minimalist interiors – white, bright and totally unfussy. It has a great cook who prepares fabulous food which she serves on the roof terrace: I recommend the couscous with caramelised grapes and baked fish with lemon.

The riad is in the heart of the medina and within walking distance of the famous Djemaa El Fna square. There, I smelled something that immediately transported me back to my childhood. It was grilled female locusts, piled high on one of the stalls. Delicious. They are a real delicacy; crunchy, salty and smoky. I loved eating them as a child.

The square is filled with snake charmers, jugglers and Bambara men from West Africa, who tour the square swinging tassels above their skull caps. You can also see Chleuh dancing boys showing off – this is Morocco, so tradition would be against girls providing street entertainment. As dark falls, the square fills with dozens of food stalls and the smells are intoxicating. This is where you find real Moroccan food at its best, like my mother makes. For a treat sample some herira soup with harissa, and to be like a local, squeeze lemon into it.

One of my favourite restaurants in Marrakech is Le Tobsil. It is difficult to find, at the end of a narrow

derb or alleyway. But a man with a fez hovers at the entrance to the alley near the time of your booking and collects you from your taxi. He then accompanies you through dark winding alleys to the restaurant. Just getting there is quite an adventure. Inside, it's an Arabian palace scattered with Persian rugs, with rose petals strewn everywhere. You sit low down at little round tables or banquettes. Gnawa musicians play ambient trance music and the set traditional meal (many meze dishes and a tagine and couscous dish) just keeps on coming, but the portions are quite small and utterly delicious.

If you want to reach the coast in a hurry, Essaouira is now connected to Marrakech by a new motorway, making it only a two-hour drive. This is thanks to the vision and ambition of King Mohammed VI, the young prince who came to power in 1999, who, along with liberalising the political system, has put initiatives in place to improve the infrastructure and exploit the opportunities for tourism.

But I set off south on the rough and dusty road to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, which soar through layers of pink mist. It is there that you can see some of Morocco's most startling mountain-desert scenery; sinuous canyons and lush oases. The area is mostly deserted but occasionally people appear from nowhere carrying vast square bales of scrub on their backs. I stopped at Imlil, a tiny mountain village where there are many small agencies offering adventure and trekking services – you can book on the spot.

I arranged an English-speaking guide, a cook and a mule (to carry the bags and food supplies) for a three-day trek through the High Atlas around the base of Jebel Toubkal, which at 13,670ft is the highest mountain in North Africa. The trek itself was relatively easy – I took it a bit at a time, slowly making my way up to the snowline. The guide arranged for me to spend the first night with a local family in a traditional stone Bedouin house – a real taste of Berber country, away from French influences.

These houses are cool inside – a relief after a long day trekking in the hot sun. The cook prepared simple but delicious meals – mostly tagines or couscous – and after dinner I sat on the terrace and watched dusk turn into night over the Atlas. There is no electricity, so the mountains were suddenly illuminated with hundreds of oil lamps from the houses. At night the temperature dips, so I snuggled under a mountain of rustic blankets.

The circular trek took me back to Imlil where I picked up the car and drove on towards Taroudant. On the way, I went through the Tizi'*'Test pass, a range of lush valleys and arid gorges, peppered with small Berber villages, consisting mainly of pink and yellow houses surrounded by olive groves. The pass is 6,500ft above sea level, so the views are sensational.

Coming out of the pass into the Sahara, I stumbled across a dusty uninhabited village of adobe sun-baked houses. There I saw an amazing vision. Suddenly, from out of a windswept alley and through clouds of dust came a man on a white stallion. He was wearing flowing white robes and a white turban: it was like something from Biblical times. Soon after, I reached a valley where there were lots of goats perched in trees. It's a common sight in areas where there are argan trees because goats love eating their pulpy fruit.

My next stop was the walled city of Taroudant. I stayed just outside at the Gazelle d'Or where I enjoyed a little light pampering. I indulged in some body scrubs that were particularly invigorating. The property is set in 200 acres of orange groves and gardens. Its interiors are modern with big open spaces – very calming and relaxing. Dinner in the evenings is eaten around the pool terrace or in a tented pavilion and much of the produce is locally sourced from the property's organic farm. The ruggedly beautiful sub-Sahara is at its best if you loop south of Taroudant to Tiznit. This is a really isolated part of the country and takes you past more camel trains than cars. The desert here is amazing and the rock formations look as if they have been painted – vast swirls of terracotta, cream and turquoise undulating in wavy lines.

My final stop was the Villa Maroc in Essaouira. I have just produced my first fragrance, called Azagury and the perfume was inspired by some very strong cedar notes that I smelt at the villa during my stay. Villa Maroc is decorated in white and electric blue and was one of the first riads to be converted into a hotel. It has a laid-back boho chic feel – it's like staying in someone's home. I love having breakfast on its roof terrace overlooking the port and old town.

The villa dates back to the 18th century and is just inside the medieval ramparts of the old town. In the past, Essaouira has been mainly a hot spot for backpackers and windsurfers but is tipped to be the "new" Marrakech since the opening of the motorway. From the villa you can walk to the beach and rolling dunes in less than five minutes. There you can take a camel ride along the vast stretch of sand. It sounds tacky but it's not; it's a great way to reach the south end where there is a great sense of space and isolation.

There you'll find the ruined fort, Bordj El Berod, said to have been the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix's "Castles made of Sand". Hendrix spent much time in Essaouira, so references to him crop up all over town. The fort provides an excellent viewing spot for the offshore Iles Purpuraires, home to a disused jail, several forts and a bird sanctuary for Eleonora's falcon. In the late afternoon, wander back to town fish stalls on the port. I adore the fresh crab and sardines.

On my last evening I watched the sunset from the Skala rampart at the port as the fishermen laid out their nets. The town walls melted into crimson, families appeared and promenaded in the cooler air of dusk, and, for the briefest of moments, I seriously considered taking up fishing. That's Morocco's magic.

The fragrance Azagury will be available in Jacques Azagury's Knightsbridge store and in Selfridges in March (jacquesazagury.com)

Compact Facts
Where To Stay: Villa Maroc (00 212 24 47 31 47; villa-maroc.com); Riad Dar Al Sultan (00 212 24 38 67 83; daralsultan.com); Le Tobsil (00 212 24 44 40 52); La Gazelle d'Or (00 212 28 85 20 48; gazelledor.com).

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