Entering the walled city of Marrakesh, the road narrows. Turning onto an even smaller side street, our shuttle suddenly stops. We are asked to get out. It is midnight. Warm air washes over jet-lagged bodies in desperate need of sleep.
“I can’t go down there,” the driver says, motioning ahead toward the darkened alleyway. “He will take you from here.” A man moves out of the shadows, grabs our luggage, and starts walking away. We follow. Our Moroccan adventure is definitely on!
Making the Most of Marrakesh
Waking inside the thick, comforting walls of Riad Noor Charana after a beautiful night’s sleep, we were ready – ready to explore this chaotic, exotic and amazingly complex city called Marrakesh.
“Watch out,” my husband yelled for the third time. Walking down the narrow streets packed with pedestrians, donkeys and carts, mopeds, motorcycles, two-wheeled vans and cars was a challenge. It was almost a breath of fresh air to reach the narrower side streets where cars couldn’t fit. Walking the streets of Marrakesh is an adventure of its own.
We pulled into the souk near Place Jemaa-el-Fna, the main square where drummers, storytellers, comedians, hawkers, water sellers, police, military officials and even acrobats held court. The souk [marketplace] was its own little world with merchants shouting, “come in, come in” in constant chorus.
Our riad owner had told us to get lost. What she meant was, you are going to get lost, so just enjoy the adventure. Wandering the souk was all that and more. Row upon row of shops with jewel-toned slippers and caftans and baggy pants and leather purses began to meld into a big beautiful blur. “I know where we are,” one of us would pipe up. “Umm… maybe not.”
Eventually finding our way back to Place Jemaa-el-Fna, we gratefully grabbed a window seat high above the square and watch the steady stream of humanity flow past the snake charmers, around the food stalls and past the carts piled high with fresh fruit. Breathe. Breathe deeply – we’ve only got another day in Marrakesh before we head out to hike the High Atlas.
Hiking through Morocco’s High Atlas
If Marrakesh is full speed ahead on a superhighway, the High Atlas is first gear on a winding road. The small town Imlil, near the base of Toubkal (North Africa’s tallest peak), was a one-lane version of the hustle of the city. After a couple of blocks, even that bustle disappeared and mules hauling gear up hillsides became the norm.
We followed mules carrying our bags up to Dar Ardar. It means “mountain home” and sitting on the tiled terrace with a cup of mint tea, we felt like we were home. It was here we met our guide, Hamid, for Atlas Mountain Trekking. He reviewed a map with us, showing our hike and gave approximate times it would take us to complete a circuit up passes, down valleys and through Berber villages over the next three days.
The next morning, we left extra gear behind, loaded small bags on the mules and were off, swapping life stories with Hamid as we began the 700-metre climb up to Tizi n’Mzik pass. The route was narrow, but the grade was gentle and the pace left room for conversation. We’d stop often to let mule trains come and go.
At one narrow spot, an oncoming muleteer stops for us. Everyone scampers past, but as I start to climb out of the way, the mule decided to move on. A massive, overhanging, blue-tarped pack hits me and suddenly I’m under the mule and scrambling like mad to avoid being trampled. Scraped shin and a little shook up, but otherwise unscathed, we keep moving.
Lunch just off the pass is our first glimpse into the luxurious side of mule-assisted hiking. Our cook, Moustaffa, has already set out a colourful plastic rug with long, lounging cushions and has hot and sweet mint tea waiting for our arrival. We stretch out, binoculars in hand, and watch the antics of goat herds scrambling nearby cliffs.
A massive salad is placed before us – full of red onions, green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and couscous. The main meal is an egg dish. We sit in silence, bellies full, eyes half-closing as Moustaffa and Hamid begin repacking the mules.
Another climb after lunch takes us on a side trip to a waterfall, one of the back routes to Toubkal’s summit. The blissful cool mist of the water is a balm to the heat of the afternoon sun. From here, the trail descends into the Azzadene Valley, full of waterfalls, walnut groves and traditional Berber villages. We pass women carrying blankets carried down to the stream to wash. Others haul stacks of green hay piled high on their heads, a sharp scythe hooked casually across a shoulder.
Tizi Oussem is our home for the night. Our host at Gite D’Etape, a 90-year-old gentleman in a long white caftan, welcomed us in French. He appreciated the fact that our 23-year-old was still wanting to travel with her parents and wished us a good journey. The cool, tiled dining room was long and narrow, with several small round tables in front of long cushions on a raised level. The separate sleeping rooms had fireplaces and thick blankets in a similar arrangement as the dining room, without the tables.
Day two, we settle into the routine of lunching beneath walnut trees,
listening to the song of the goatherder, the flutter of the wind through the walnut trees and the call to prayer. We pass another village where children ask for stylos and bonbons, climb a pass-through patch of wild lavender and descend to our gite (pronounced “jeet”) in the orangey-red adobe village of Tinzert.
The day’s hike complete, we sip mint tea steeped with fresh lavender before dining on a steaming vegetable tagine, watching the sunset glowing over fields and listening the sweet song of a Berber woman as she lays laundry to dry over a rock from our makeshift beds on the banquets of the dining room.
From Tinzert, we wander up the path strewn with wild thyme and over a low pass to “futbal” fields cleared of rock. Cuckoo birds are calling, and sheep herders ply the hillsides. One could wander forever in this land.
From French Cuisine to a Bedouin Tent Camp and Back to Marrakesh
Back to civilization, we pick up the rest of our gear and load into a van for the journey to the desert. Like most tourist routes, every roadside pullout and viewpoint is lined with souvenirs – in this case, fossils, quartz crystal, tagines, pottery and jewellery.
Lunch is in the town of Ouarzazate. The name means without noise. The original nomadic Berbers, when travelling through this area, were a quiet few. Lunch in this tourist stop – not as quiet as it was in the past – is not the same as lounging beneath walnut and oak trees, but the view of a red adobe Kasbah – or palace – across the road reminds us we are still in an exotic land.
From Ouarzazate, we stop in Rose Valley before pulling up to our hotel in Dades Gorge. We left Imlil at 9 a.m. and it’s closing in on 6 p.m. “A short hike?” Hamid asks. After dropping bags in the massive rooms at Chez Pierre, we wander along the creek to a small slot canyon up the road from our hotel. It feels good to unwind after a day in the van – and when dinner is served, we are doubly glad we went for a walk.
The meal is served on the terrace, with soft lighting on stone walls. Frogs croak from the riverside. A glass of white wine is the perfect match for the cheese, tomato and artichoke pizza in a pastry base. A melon mint gazpacho soup comes with bread, olive oil and olives.
The beet salad is laced with oranges, almonds and goat cheese.
Chicken stuffed with mushroom cream is accompanied with potato au gratin, a tomato zucchini medley and grated carrots. It’s hard to pick from the three choices of dessert (crème brûlée, panna cotta or cognac cream with fresh fruit) when we are so full.
Up early, we are back in the van for another long drive to Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara Desert. Pink dunes float in the distant haze. We, along with a mother/daughter duo, a few Brits and a couple from Spain are ready for our trip into the Bedouin camp.
The camels went to their knees under protest. The short saddle had a metal handle that oddly reminded me of being on a carnival ride. I was grateful for that handle as my camel lurched forward to stand. Hamid walked beside us. He rode a camel, once. After we dismounted, I understood.
The small tent camp – equipped with flush toilets and full-sized beds – was an odd sight in the shifting dunes. We played on the sand slopes, even tried sandboarding, before climbing to the peak for sunset. The light glimmers as it fades, turning the pale pink dunes into priceless works of art. I don’t want to come down, but the wind turns cool and the campfire is beckoning.
We could end there and be happy, but the return drive took us back through valleys laced with abandoned Jewish villages, past the Hollywood star that is Aït Benhaddou and on to the crumbling palace of Pasha Glaoui – where the art of tile and woodwork of his quarters still stand in stark disparity to the simple buildings in the adjacent town.
Morocco – a study in contrast, a land of adventure.
IF YOU GO:
In Marrakesh, we stayed at Riad Noor Charana, www.noorcharana.com
The owner, Elizabeth arranged transfers to and from the airport. We booked a combined Atlas Mountain trek and Sahara Desert tour with Aztat Treks, www.atlastrekshop.com