Make Marrakech and High Atlas Mountain Your Next Adventure
Baby boomers would remember the 1942 comedy movie “Road To Morocco” starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. It typified the Hollywood cliché of Morocco, a land of exotic culture, colours…and camels. Well my close encounter with Morocco was all that and more. It was a mind-blowing experience of senses overload. After our amazing adventure in Essaouira in the coast, we head to the High Atlas Mountains for a highland escapade and conclude our journey in the city of Marrakech, the pulsating heart of Morocco.
A Highland Sanctuary
The High Atlas Mountains stretch for about 1000km across central Morocco from the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the east at the Moroccan-Algerian border. It is the source of river systems that form the bloodline of an otherwise arid landscape. Chiselled valleys clad in pine trees and shrubs form dramatic landscape painted by nature with vivid ochre and bright terracotta red.
We spend a day travelling through the mountainous region on vertiginous roads to capture the spirit of the Atlas Mountains. Adobe houses with flat roofs seem to sprout from the mountainside blending into the landscape like natural earth sculptures carved out of the red rocks. This is the heartland of the Berbers, the indigenous tribe who have lived in Morocco for centuries. These hardy people have managed to tame the dry wild terrain for agriculture using traditional wisdom to tap in the water system in the rocks.
We stop at various viewpoints to admire the stunning scenery with sharp in-take of breath at their beauty. The highlight is reaching the Toubkal National Park with its highest peak at 4,176 meters at Jebl Toubkal, known as the Roof of North Africa, its peaks dusted with the last remnants of snow. A large flock of crows are circling over the rugged terrain while a lone Berber clad in the traditional hooded djellaba robe is standing at the edge of the peak in quiet contemplation, ignoring our presence. The vista of the jagged ranges and the ski resort of the snow covered Oukaimeden plateau nearby are breath taking. From the dazzling sand of the Sahara to the snow-capped mountains, Morocco is a country full of surprises.
We pass through many rustic villages and stop for lunch on the roof terrace of a traditional riad in the village of Imlil. The friendly landlord serves us some delicious lamb tagine and salad, wash down with hot mint tea, locally nicknamed Berber Whisky, and finished with oranges and dates as dessert. The Moroccan hospitality we encounter everywhere is heart-warming. Imlil is the starting point for treks to Toubkal National Park to explore the amazing wild terrain of the Atlas Mountains.
A Room With A View
From my Pool Suite at the Kasbah Bab Ourika, perched on a hilltop at the peak of the Ourika Valley, the panoramic vista of the dreamy mountain ranges with the dazzling snow-clad peaks in the distance is out of this world. Down in the valley, olive groves, lemon and orange orchards among earth-hewn villages form a living tapestry of the Berber community.
Kasbah Bab Ourika is a fabulous hide-away with its own garden of Eden of exotic plants, lemon groves and a vegetable garden that overlook the mighty Atlas Mountain. The gorgeous garden has sequestered hideaways where guests can relax in seclusion to read or just chill out to enjoy the 360˚ view of the valley.
Each of the 26 rooms is uniquely styled in Moroccan chic with modern touches. My romantic suite has a fireplace that add a special touch while the private pool on the terrace is to die for with the splendid view of the Atlas Mountains. This is the ideal retreat that tempts you to stay in and just enjoy the wonderful amenities of spacious courtyards, cosy common rooms with fireplaces, and a fine dining room, not to mention the jaw-dropping view.
Mayhem In Marrakech
After the tranquillity of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is quite a cultural shock. It is heaving with chaotic traffic and huge crowd of people in perpetual motion in the souk and medina. At the main square of Jemaa El Fna, it feels like the whole world and their wives and animals are there to shop, entertain or joining in the joviality. This is the beating heart of Marrakech where Moroccan traditional lives are played out in the food stalls, entertainers, women henna painters, dancers and hustlers. Monkeys dressed in costumes are made to perform for tourists while snake charmers with dopey cobras and pythons invite tourists to pose for photographs for a fee. I only hope the animals are well treated.
The souk is a labyrinth of narrow streets with little shops clustered cheek by jowl jostling for the attention of tourists. All kinds of retail paraphernalia of Moroccan souvenirs, leather goods, arts and crafts are on sale here. As we throng our way through the crowd, vendors tout their wares and try to catch our attention. We are more concerned about trying not to be run down by the motorbikes that ride through the crowded market. Haggling is encouraged but only haggle if you are serious in buying. The cacophony and the crowd are doing my head in and I could not wait to get back to our tranquil accommodation at the Riad Hikaya.
Restful Riad Retreat
Behind closed doors in the peaceful sanctuary of the amazing Riad Hikaya, I regain my sanity within the fabulous setting of this Riad. It is like being transcended into a different world away from the madding crowd in the medina. It oozes with style and showcase the best of Moroccan aesthetics beautifully decorated and furnished with wonderful artefacts, artworks and furniture. It is a riot of colours that liven up the ambience. A plunge pool graces the courtyard adding to its charm.
Our cosy bedroom is like a dream filled with quirky and fabulous furniture and artwork. But the piéce de résistance is the rooftop terrace with intimate lounges where we could have breakfast and dinner. It is also the favourite meeting place for the neighbourhood cats that would congregate here in the morning to have a pow wow. As a cat lover, I quite enjoy watching them watching us in their supercilious manners.
Marrakech On The Hooves
One of the best ways to see Marrakech without breaking a sweat is to go sight seeing on a horse carriage. We hire a carriage pulled by a beautiful black horse and a lovely white horse whose mane has been dyed with orange henna. We trot round the city outside the medina through Gueliz, the new town in the French quarters with modern buildings, a sharp contrast to the medina. Marrakech is a quite a charming city that manages to marry traditional Moroccan architectural style with modernity.
Old palaces and parks are dotted around the city. We visit the 16th century ruined Badia Palace, which is now a museum with its ornamental pool and pavilions. It was built in the Saadian period (1549 – 1659) during the reign of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. The ancient walls that enclose the palace have become a favourite roosting place for the local storks. They build nests all along the top of the walls and on the towers. It is quite fascinating to see them perched in their nests oblivious of the historic palace they have adopted for their home, where once a sultan had resided.
One of the most visited places in the city is Jardin Majorelle, a garden created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886 – 1962) who took forty years to create this dream garden. It opened in 1947 with a large collection of exotic plants including cacti, bamboo and palm trees in a 2.5acre land. A striking feature of the garden is the cobalt blue colour scheme known as “bleu Majorelle” named after the founder. It is a vision of blue everywhere among the manicured garden of fountains, ornamental pools and a bamboo avenue. The garden was left in a ruinous state after Majorelle’s death.
Today the garden has been restored to its former glory and is now the property of the “Fondation Pierre Berge -Yves Saint Laurent”. A museum is being built by the garden to house the collection of Yves Saint Laurent due to open end of 2017. When Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in his beloved garden and a memorial column is set up in a peaceful corner of the garden.
It is easy to be seduced by Morocco’s alluring wild beauty dominated by the majestic Atlas Mountains; the fascinating culture, artistry, and warm hospitality of the Berbers and free spirit of the country. I left my heart in Morocco.
This is the second Blog Post on Morocco. This first being 8 Enriching Enticements To Visit Essaouira