TRAVEL UPDATE: Susannah souks up Morocco’s exotic charm
A short 4 hour hop from Edinburgh on Ryan Air (from just £80 return!) takes us from the snowy streets of Edinburgh to the seductive exoticism of Marrakech’s busy souks, where we spent a couple of nights of shopping and sightseeing before recovering in the mountains and by the sea. A particularly appealing destination in our colder months, Morocco’s climate and total change of culture makes you feel like you’ve travelled much further.
Immediately in a different world, where mopeds squeal around narrow streets, mountains of olives beckon from tiny little shop fronts and young Moroccan families promenade five or seven abreast, hands held tightly, as dusk falls. The famous main square, Djemma El Fna, comes to life at night, when snake charmers scout for unsuspecting tourists to wrap their slithery pets around, storytellers draw crowds to hear their folklore brought to life in words and music, and fresh food sizzles temptingly from dozens of stalls enjoyed by Jamie Oliver on his Moroccan sojourn. One night we ate dinner in a restaurant run exclusively by women, which was stranger than anticipated in a culture where men are more often seen in the workplace. Another night we ate delicious traditional home-cooked tagine in our riad. In recent years Marrakech’s riads have really stepped up a level with increasing investment from European settlers. Old ruins are given renewed life and personality, beautifully restored, and perfectly combining the charm of a small guest house with the interior design and service of a boutique hotel. Most are found behind the most unprepossessing walls and doors, and are a welcome haven from the busy streets of the old Medina.
It’s far too easy to get lost in Marrakech, all walls and doors looking like the ones seen just a few minutes ago, so a guide is essential for at least one day. Not only do they bring the history and character of the city to life (which is fascinating), as well as pick you up and deliver you safely back to your riad, but they keep hustlers at a distance and they’ll take you to the right places to buy your leather slippers, argan oil or Kilim rugs. If the busy Medina appeals only for a short while, the lovely hotels of the Palmeraie, an area on the outskirts of Marrakech covered, as the name suggests, in palm trees, are the place to stay. No early morning calls to prayer or scooters to run you down as you leave your riad door. They usually have a swimming pool, a smart hammam and an air of grandeur that is perfectly disposed to relaxation and restoration, and you can still enjoy the medina by day.
After a few days in Marrakech, you will probably be ready for some open space and fewer people. We headed up to Imlil in the High Atlas mountains. As we drove up the hairpin bends, we were greeted with biblical scenes of shepherds in their djellabas herding their flock up mountain passes, some carrying a small lamb in their arms. The arid mountains, bubbling rivers and feral livestock only enhanced the timelessness. Tourists come here to trek, and, as we discovered, just to ‘take the mountain air’ in short bursts between long sessions by the open log fire with a good book. We stayed for one night in a traditional-style Berber guest house, Douar Samra, an old Berber home re-built with love by the Swiss Jacqueline, an artist who was first drawn to the area for its artistic inspiration, with the local villagers. Imbued with the warmth and colour of its owner, its bedrooms are authentically and cosily decorated, and dining is a sociable affair around low tables in a candlelit snug. It is run day-to-day by Rachida, a local Berber lady, who cooks traditional meals with ingredients fresh from the kitchen garden and fills you with sweet herb tea. The service is local and charmingly erratic, and, best of all, it gives you an insight into Berber life and hospitality. The Douar is a fantastic homely base for exploring the surrounding mountains.
Kasbah du Toubkal is another excellent example of tourism working in tandem with the local community. Perched on high above Imlil, this former home of a feudal caid has stunning views and comfortable rooms scattered around the gardens and walls, all with the comforts of big baths, big beds and hotel extras. It again is an excellent base for treks of all lengths from 45 minutes to overnight, and has a hammam where you can ease away the aches, cleanse and then refresh in the freezing plunge pool afterwards.
After our intake of mountain air, we went in search of sea air and seafood in Essaouira, a busy fishing port and fashionable haven for artists on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Its battered medina walls give it a sense of medieval charm, and it’s easy to see why it’s been a popular location for films such as Orson Welles’ Othello. Smaller and less daunting to navigate than some of the imperial cities, it has great shopping and history. A walk along the ramparts is a must, as is watching the fisherman come in with their morning catch. An incredibly impressive example of positive chain reaction, boats three or four out unload their fish across all the other boats, the first scooping the sardines into a bucket, passing it down the line of several men - the bucket often in mid-air between each man - for the final man to empty into crates on the dock which are then packed into ice-filled lorries for the city restaurants and export. Then you can head to the fish stalls for lunch. You select a huge pile of fish and shellfish fresh off the boats, which is then barbecued on the spot and served with fresh bread and salad. Scrupmptious for the experience alone!Our final stop was Oualidia, a lovely lagoon a couple of hours’ north of Essaouira, famous for its oysters. There are limited accommodation options here, but for complete R&R, La Sultana offers wonderful luxury with an infinity pool blending into the lagoon, stylish bedrooms, a full spa and tantalising fresh, local seafood. Very busy during Ramadan and good for birding during the migratory season, there is little other than the odd boat trip or walk along the beach to distract you from relaxation in Oualidia, and this quiet, self-contained oasis is a lovely place to pause in a busy schedule.
With cheap flights from a number of regional airports, Morocco is more accessible than ever, and is an ideal short break for sun, shopping and seafood. Though with so much to see, from the imperial cities to the huge deserts and dramatic gorges, you can easily spend three weeks here. Whether a short city break or a longer adventure, the mix of landscapes, traditional Moroccan hospitality and European chic in the burgeoning hotels and riads is irresistible, especially for those seeking something just a little bit exotic and different.