Mountains to medina: the enduring appeal of Morocco

On a first-time trip to the country, The National's travel editor looks at the legendary old city of Marrakech and the nearby Atlas Mountains

Djema El-Fna, Marrakech. Courtesy Naya Traveler
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I sit down at the back of the herbalist’s shop and dab the sample of argan oil that Afaf Hargmane has given me on my forehead.

“Do you have a headache?” she says, clearing aside the shelf of teas in front of me and assembling her potions. She massages my temples and sprinkles rosewater on my hot head; it drips down, but she’s already sifting crushed nigella seeds through muslin and having me sniff the pungent dust, before dissolving eucalyptus drops in water. By the time I have inhaled its nuclear mist, she’s sprayed me with orange blossom extract and the headache has gone. But I could have sat there forever.

How well destinations absorb mass tourism are a mark of their character, and I had been pessimistic about what I would find in Marrakech. Low-cost European airlines have been flying there too long and there are simply too many of the world’s biggest hotel chains; this combined with the much-lamented hassles from shopkeepers.

Perhaps it helps that I have developed my strategies for deflecting attention, but mostly I think it’s because the medina, home to about 450,000 people, is bigger than that. Apart from a few arteries targeting cheap souvenirs at tourists, you can still find your way between medieval tanneries and metal workshops, ancient gates and herbalists such as La Sagesse, which despite being open to visitors, wouldn’t accept a single dirham for anything they gave me – including parting gifts of soap and blocks of musk.

La Sagesse herbalist's shop in the medina. Rosemary Behan

It helps if you have a guide who’s embedded into the place and knows everyone. Mine is Romari Mohamed, who’s lived in the city since 1986 and deftly navigates a path through the city in what little time I have. We arrive at Jemaa El Fna just before sunset, for example, as the call to prayer rings out and crowds begin to mill. Despite its popularity, it’s still thronged mostly by locals; tourists are vastly outnumbered. Ancient rhythms are hard to break.

In the Kasbah, the oldest part of the medina, I take a break from long days at a travel conference to sample the hammam at La Sultana, a small boutique hotel in the most extraordinary of locations. Despite feeling ragged, my system is flooded with well-being and energy again after an hour of soaking, steaming and dedicated scrubbing.

Spa at La Sultana Marrakech. Courtesy La Sultana Marrakech

It helps, too, that all the big new hotels are located outside the medina. I stay at the Amanjena, probably the best and certainly one of the most expensive properties in Marrakech, about 15 kilometres out of town. Guests each have their own private pavilions, complete with walled gardens, fountains and shuttered windows. Despite being modern, this place feels like it was built for kings.

Al Hamra Exterior

Yet even the city's most visited sites have a way of absorbing the impact of hordes. Jardin Majorelle, the botanical garden in the Ville Nouvelle, which attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year, is still one of the country's most popular destinations, and is set to draw in even more with the opening of the adjacent Yves Saint Laurent Museum late last year. An additional reason to visit the site is that following the death of Pierre Bergé in September, Villa Oasis, the cobalt-blue private second home that he shared with the fashion designer, is now open for private tours, organised by Four Seasons. The €2,400 small group tours, which are followed by a Saint Laurent-inspired dinner at the hotel, offer an interesting prelude to the new museum and library, showcasing the designer's work and helping to build a more complete picture of his influences.

Villa Oasis. Photo by Rosemary Behan

“Before Marrakech, everything was black,” Saint Laurent once said. “This city taught me colour, and I embraced its light, its insolent mixes and ardent inventions.”

Yet the first thing I notice on entering the building is how dark it is. The thick walls, low arches, marble floors, zellij tiles and a cedar-wood-lined library so dim that I find it hard to imagine how anyone can read in it, and a similarly dark French-style dining room with carved plaster ceilings, and antique furniture and artworks, fit better with the less well-publicised image of the designer as a shy, depression-prone character who often used to hide away from the world. The property’s own gardens, like a smaller version of Jardin Majorelle, are also somewhat foreboding, with huge defensive palms and cactuses.

Villa Oasis. Photo by Rosemary Behan

More uplifting is the museum's new library, which you need an appointment to visit. This features a well-edited collection of books on the Berber culture of North Africa, histories of Morocco, Andalusian influence, gardens, landscapes and fashion. There are books in Arabic, French and English, a 17th-century translation and commentary on the Quran, and Elias Canetti's compelling The Voices of Marrakech.

Key to Marrakech's existence as a Berber marketplace is its location close to the Atlas Mountains. I stay for one night at Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson's retreat near Asni, where 95 per cent of the staff have been recruited from the local area. Despite its exotic name, the High Atlas could hardly be more accessible – a point not lost on Branson, who opened his Morocco home to paying guests 15 years ago. The property was found by his mother, Eve, while he was preparing for a round-the-world air-balloon challenge in the late 1990s.

RESIZED. Kasbah Tamadot Overview. Courtesy Virgin Limited Edition

A 40-minute drive from Marrakech, Kasbah Tamadot sits at an elevation of 1,320 metres in the shadow of Jebel Toubkal, at 4,167 metres, the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, Anti Atlas, North Africa and Arab world. The hotel has just 28 rooms, and with its beautiful setting and luxury facilities including rose-petal-filled fountains and reflecting pools, large garden cactuses, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and sun deck, high-altitude tennis court and spa, plus two tempting restaurants, it’s a shame I only have 24 hours here.

Kasbah Tamadot outdoor dining. Courtesy Virgin Limited Edition

With a local guide called Osman, I set off from the Kasbah and walk across sparse, rocky ground, alternately grey, yellow, white and red, and studded with eucalyptus, juniper and oak trees. I’m here in September – it is greener in spring, when barley and wheat are harvested on the terraces, but thanks to streams and spring water on the valley floors, these areas mean clusters of apple, peach, pear, apricot, quince and olive trees thrive year-round. Many products are made and sold by women-only co-operatives, with outlets strategically stationed along the main road between here and Marrakech.

The Eve Branson Foundation is also active in improving the lives of young people locally. Osman tells me that there are about 250 villages just in the two valleys around the resort, housing about 9,000 people. Apart from the hotel, agriculture means there is work all year. "We don't have people who are poor and begging for money, unless they just refuse to work," says Osman. He adds: "The reason there has been no Arab Spring in Morocco is because we have so many Berbers. They are 40 per cent of the population. Berbers are not Arab. They are Amazigh."

Amazigh wall drawings in a traditional Berber village. Rosemary Behan

They are pretty Amazigh all right. Though rapidly modernising, some villages still have ancient, 300-year-old mud homes and operate by centuries-old codes of co-operation, while their written language, symbolically daubed in colour on the side of buildings and on doors, looks like it belongs to the Incans or Ancient Greeks.

There are various Amazigh spoken languages, which date from up to 4,000 years ago, having originated in the Nile Valley and dispersed north, west and east. Osman speaks Tamazight, and I see signs to places such as Tahnaout and Tamazirt.

We stop in one of the villages, Tacheddirt, where he takes me for coffee, nuts and cake on the terrace of a friend’s house. Osman explains more about the community system and method of water sharing. “Everybody knows which family has the water and at which times,” he says. “There is no fighting, no arguments. This is from our grandparents.” He then takes me to visit his family home, a troglodyte-type structure with cave-like rooms for the various extended family members – including, on the ground floor, a much-loved donkey. His own wife and children live in a different village.

The countryside near Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains. Rosemary Behan

It’s dark by the time we set off back to Kasbah Tamadot. The fortress-like hotel is beautifully lit at night, and dinner is served on the rampart-like terrace, where I enjoy a sizzling local tagine, before retiring to my room. Breakfast the next morning is on the terrace of the main restaurant overlooking the valley. There’s an a la carte menu and home-baked Berber breads with honey and local Virgin Limited Edition olive oil.

Following the conference that I’m attending in Marrakech, I return for another day a week later with Romari, who connects me with a local guide called Rachid, and, should I need it, a mule called Lachen.

Kasbah Toubkal. Photo by Rosemary Behan

From Imlil, we start with a delicious breakfast at Kasbah du Toubkal, a more rugged version of Kasbah Tamadot. Local breads, honey, cheese and yogurt are more than enough to keep us going for the next eight hours – almost enough to reach to top of Jebel Toubkal, I think, because it would be a five-hour hike from here to base camp and then another four hours to the top.

Trekking in the High Atlas

Instead, we take mule routes through more local villages, including Arghem, Mzik and Armed, which at 2,400 metres is the second-highest village in the High Atlas and has the impressive, picturesque look of an Italian hilltop town. We stop at a house for tea hosted by a whole family; farther along, there’s a wedding of a couple who look about 15; the atmosphere has an air of foreboding.

Walking through the village of Armed in the Atlas mountains. Rosemary Behan

Beyond the villages in the surrounding rocky plateaus, there’s a starker look to the place, and great views down to the tree line. Yet as we make our way back down to Imlil, there’s the unmistakable hammer of mechanical diggers. Roads are being carved and widened. Until now, geography has helped preserve these villages and limit development. Next time, it might be necessary to climb Jebel Toubkal after all.


The flights

Etihad flies direct to Marrakech via Casablanca from Dh2,195 return including taxes. Alternatively, fly to Casablanca and travel by road to Marrakech; the 250km drive takes 3 hours.

The hotels

Pavilions at Amanjena cost from €689 (Dh2,977) per night, including taxes.

Rooms at Kasbah Tamadot cost from Mad5,100 (Dh2,045) per night including taxes and breakfast.

The tours 

Tailor-made guided tours of Morocco can be arranged through Naya Traveler from $600 (Dh2,200) per person per day, depending on the number of travellers and the length of the trip, including high-end accommodation, all transport, most meals and guides.


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