Mountains, city and sea: The magic of Morocco

Exploring historic medinas, quiet coastlines and mighty climbs, local expert Alice Morrison uncovers new experiences to be had in Marrakech and beyond...

I strapped my helmet on, settled my Biggles goggles firmly on my nose and looked up at Felix, my guide from Insiders Experience. “Let’s go!” I yelled. With a satisfying roar the Second World War-era motorbike took off to cheers from the assembled audience and with me sat snugly in the sidecar.

At the first corner, two horses drawing a calèche (carriage) eyed us disdainfully and trotted on with their harness bells jingling. “Shall I pull a wheelie?” asked Felix as we zoomed past the National Theatre and up the wide French boulevards of the new town. The air was scented with orange blossom and the roses for which Marrakech is famous. I clutched my helmet and rode the thrill.

To the city

I have lived in Morocco for eight years and am always looking for new experiences to share with people, as well as enjoying old favourites. That is particularly true after Covid. Morocco managed the pandemic well in many ways, keeping death rates relatively low and instituting an excellent vaccination scheme – the best in Africa. However, it has suffered horribly from the two-year hiatus in tourism.

Before the pandemic hit, travellers flocked to the country, and Marrakech in particular. You would often face long queues for the more famous sights, such as the Majorelle Gardens. They are well worth visiting, but there is so much more to explore. With relative ease you can do city, beach and mountains in one glorious trip; and as well as ticking off the major sights, there are a host of non-mainstream options which offer a different view of the country.

Enjoying the ecstatic reactions from children when they spotted the side car, we blasted on to the Palmeraie, the extensive palm groves on the edge of the city, where you can still see people living the traditional life of the countryside. Kids play Subbuteo in the local mud-built cafés while their mothers milk goats and churn cheese and fresh buttermilk.

We came across a new-born camel calf, wobbling on its long legs and carefully guarded by its blue-eyed dam. He was resting by a wall of earth that I was curious about.

“It is part of an ancient irrigation system which brings water from the mountains to irrigate the date palms,” Felix explained. “It uses a clever combination of gravity and underground channels.”

Back in the medina, we squeezed through the streets on a mission. It was a luxury to be able to peer into the little shops and restaurants without being asked to come in. Eventually, we arrived at the tanneries. I first visited these for my BBC Two series, Morocco to Timbuktu, and spent a day working with a man called Mohammed cleaning and curing hides. This time, he greeted me like a long-lost friend.

 “Alice, peace be upon you. How are you? You have come back. Did you miss the smell?” he laughed. Mohammed’s family have worked in the tannery for over a hundred years. Learning how the pretty leather goods you find in the markets are made, and what animals they are made from, gives a deeper understanding of their worth, but it can be an eye-watering experience.

Pigeon poo is one of the main ingredients used to strip the hair off the animal skins. It stinks and it burns, but the process is fascinating: tanners beat and strip the hides in different vats sunk into the ground, then the end products are transformed into exquisite bags and soft slippers dyed yellow with pomegranate seeds. The men are always willing to explain the process, and if you don’t mind the smell and arrange your visit in advance, they will give you a go in the vats too, although you will have to wear old clothes and protective gear, and you’ll definitely need a shower afterwards.

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Morocco’s food is one of its many attractions, and Friday couscous is a sacred ritual. Couscous made in the traditional Moroccan way takes at least three hours of steaming and re-steaming, so it isn’t viable for most restaurants. I usually eat it at home with my neighbours, but I have discovered the real home-cooked taste at the Amal Co-operative, who do a Friday special.

Amal is no ordinary restaurant; it’s a not-for-profit operated by Nora Belahcen. As well as the restaurant, it runs classes in which she trains young women from poor communities in cooking and catering skills so they can get work. She also gave out thousands of free meals to those who really needed them during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Pre-pandemic, 80% of the women who graduated from our six-month training programme got jobs,” Nora told me. “By the time they leave, my greatest hope for each woman is that they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they deserve to be here: here at Amal, here in this society, here in this world taking up space and resources. I don't think this message is exclusive to our students... I myself need to internalise that, as do many women. We are often taught to make ourselves as small and accommodating of others as we can.”

After the smells of the tannery, I was ready for a feast of the senses rather than an assault on them. An enormous plate of fragrant couscous topped with vegetables, chicken and crowned with fried onions and sultanas was carried to my table by a beaming young woman called Fatima.

“I want to learn to be a cook for a restaurant so that I can help my family,” she explained, then showed me how to squish the couscous into a ball and flick it into my mouth the traditional way. Even after all these years here, I am still clumsy. “Shame on you, laughed Fatima, as in my haste (greed!) I burned my fingers. 

It’s not just women who get a raw deal. One of the things that I and many visitors to Morocco find difficult is the way in which some animals are treated. My next destination is Jarjeer Donkey and Mule refuge, where abused or abandoned working animals are taken in. It is just a 25km taxi ride from the edge of Jemaa el Fna, passing through the plains of the Agafay desert – a taste of the true Sahel.

Jarjeer is set within a grove of olive trees. It is a little paradise of peace, and perfect for a morning away from the madness. As I arrived, I was welcomed by a rescue dog who may have lost the use of her legs but could still show her joy at human contact by shaking her entire lower body. Susan, the refuge’s founder, let me in to the paddock and within seconds I was surrounded by soft noses nuzzling me. I stroked fluffy ears, scratched chins and was firmly butted if I became lax in my attentions.

“They have missed humans because of lockdown,” Susan told me. “They love company – watch out for Poppy, she won’t leave you alone.” Susan rescues animals from across the country; she also runs education programmes and gives free veterinary services. When my hands became actually tired from petting donkeys, I relaxed with a glass of orange juice at a little café in the garden and listened to the birds singing.

To the coast

Marrakech is a fantastic city but it moves at a frantic pace. Essaouira, only three and a half hours away on a Supratours bus, is its mirror opposite. Walking inside the Bab Marrakech, the walled fort that wraps the centre, the city’s laid-back vibe hits you straight away. No-one accosts you or asks you to buy anything, even though the shopping is excellent; bicycles, rather than deadly motors, whisk past occasionally ringing a genteel bell. It’s a whole other world.

Essaouira has a vibrant fishing harbour and a great little medina where you can buy the best olives in the whole country, but its main attraction is its beaches. These are long and white and usually almost empty. The exception is July and August when the whole of Morocco comes to the seaside and you will be wading through piles of abandoned nappies. Even then, if you go a couple of kilometres out of town, you can escape the crowds. The sea is chilly but not freezing, and filled with surfers and kite surfers riding the waves. There are lots of stretches where you can swim straight out from the beach, although I would recommend not going too far out of your depth as there’s the occasional rip tide.

I had set aside a day on this trip to do a long coastal walk. Essaouira is famous for the strength of its winds, so I kept my eye on the weather forecast. On a day that it wasn’t too strong, I set off to walk the 16km to Sidi Kaouki, which lies further down the coast. This is where the best surf waves are, and the town has some nice little cafes as well as abundant transport to take you back to Essaouira.

Treasures are sometimes cast up by the sea here, and in recent low tides a shipwreck from a couple of centuries ago was uncovered. It was fascinating to explore it, jumping over the remaining wooden planks and marvelling at the decorations on the cannon shaft. One of the special things about Morocco is that there are always so many things to discover.

Fishermen’s shacks dot all along the coast. They look like something from a Mad Max film, as they are made with debris rescued from the sea. One fisherman saw me and came down to chat. “I live up there,” he said, pointing to a ramshackle house up on the dunes and surrounded by long seagrass. “My family is in Essaouira... but I stay here so that I can easily fish for octopus and other shellfish, then sell it in the town.” He opened a bag to show me his catch, then I strode on past a couple of donkeys who were waiting patiently as their owner harvested mussels from the side of the rocks.

The weather was perfect: sunny but with a cool breeze. Flocks of seagulls – called “sea goats” by the nomads – took off as I got closer; they headed shrieking for the water. For about ten kilometres, the sand stretched out unbroken, glinting silver. There was almost nobody there, just the occasional fisherman. Striding along under the sun, with the beach and the music of the waves to myself, I felt as rich as a queen.

Later, back in Essaouira’s bustling fishing port, I strolled the sardine stalls that lay along the walkway where they grill up fish straight from the boats, the smoke from the charcoal rising from the braziers. I ate my fill and then nipped over to Café Délice on Orson Welles Square for an ice cream as the sun started to set. A young Moroccan with gorgeous dreadlocks was playing his guitar and singing ‘No Woman No Cry’. Not to be outdone, a more traditional musician with a red fez and striped robe circled the café singing gnaoua music (the traditional sound of the region) and playing his two-stringed mandolin. An insane musical play off ensued. I think the gnaoua singer won.

To the mountains

Marrakech and the coast gave two very different experiences of Morocco but, for me, no visit is complete without a trip to the Atlas Mountains. Just an hour and a half from Marrakech, they lie in Amazigh (Berber) territory, and for the past three years I have lived in Imlil, the heart of hiking country.

A cluster of red villages grip onto the slopes around Imlil valley. These are built of local clay and stone, and many homes use the mountains as a natural wall. The valley is full of walnut and cherry trees, and in spring it is a mass of blossoms. Men, dressed in striped jellabas (robes) over their hiking kits, lead mules down to the mule park behind the gendarmarie. During Covid, they set up an association for the muleteers: “It is so that they can fix fair prices and make sure that everyone gets a fair share of custom,” Lahcen Id Belaid, one of the mountain guides told me. “You know, Alice, life in the mountains is hard. We live together as a community, so there are associations and co-operatives for everything.”

Imlil is the gateway to Mount Toubkal (4,167m), the highest mountain in North Africa. If you have a reasonable level of fitness and the weather permits, you can do it in two days. It is obligatory to take a guide up Toubkal, and you also have to register with the gendarmerie at the bottom of the river valley, which is the last bit of flat you will see for a while.

The sense of achievement when you reach the top, knowing that you are as high as you can get in North Africa, is extraordinary. I have climbed it several times and it is always different. This time I went up with fellow Scot Gordon, and with Lahcen as our guide. The climb started easily as we headed up to Sidi Chamharouch, a shrine nestled into the rocks. We passed pilgrims going up to seek cures for a variety of maladies and wished each other peace and health.

We stopped at a small stall for an orange juice. “I’ve seen you on TikTok,” the owner told me. “Welcome, welcome! Come and eat tajine with me. I made it myself and it’s good. It is lamb – the best meat from here, from my own herd.” It was no good protesting that we had ordered lunch for further up; he insisted on hosting us.

We had been taking the pace quite easy, so had to step it up for the next stretch to the refuge. The mountains rose sheer on either side of us and there were some big step ups on the rocks. The scenery reminded me of the far north in the Highlands of Scotland – barren and wild and glorious. By now the air was getting thinner and colder and we were breathing heavily. The refuge was a welcome sight and was surprisingly full. There are two refuges and we stayed in the top one, which was blessed with three wood-burning stoves.

Early to bed with earplugs and eye mask in the dormitory, I surprised myself by getting a couple of hours sleep before we woke at 3am for a 4am start. The mountains are magical at night, and as we climbed we would stop periodically to switch off our headlamps and look at the stars, undimmed by any light pollution. One of the great benefits of climbing at night is that you can’t see how far you still have to go. “I was just watching your green trainers go up ahead of me and wondering why the heck I was doing this,” Gordon confessed later.

Dawn had broken and my headlamp was off. Lahcen yelled down: “Hurry, hurry, run. You must get here or you will miss it!” Panting ferociously in the thin air, we obeyed and broke into a jog for the last two hundred metres to the first ridge. It was worth it. We reached it just as the sunrise exploded, bathing us in gold and red.

After the ridge, the wind picked up and it was freezing. We still had around an hour to the top and I put on all the extra clothes I had brought with me. We slogged on, focussing on our goal of the summit, and then suddenly we saw it, the triangle which denotes the peak. I whipped out my Scottish and Moroccan flags and took lots of photos.

“You made it,” Lahcen shouted in glee, hugging us and beaming with pride. “Well done, my Scottish friends. I know in your country you don’t have mountains as high as this.” It was so clear that we could see right down to Imlil – a day’s walk away. Around us chuffs circled and screeched, waiting for their share of our sandwiches.

From the heat of the Rose City to the soft air of Essaouira, and now the icy winds of North Africa’s highest mountain, Morocco has many faces, and I glimpsed them all as I stood there looking out across the wide stretch of the Atlas.

 

Alice Morrison is an adventurer, TV presenter and author, and the first woman to walk the Draa River in Morocco. Her new book Walking with Nomads, named by the Financial Times as one of the best summer book for 2022, is available to buy now.

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Photographs and footage: Alice Morrison; Shutterstock