Sunday 8 October 2017

A Fortnight in Morocco

I spent two weeks in Morocco way back in May; taking advantage of the Easter holiday bank holiday bonanza, we headed off to explore beyond Marrakech.

We started off in the coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced Ess-a-where-a). It's easy to mooch around here; there's a laid-back feeling to this windy town, protected by sandy ramparts. It was a perfect and easy introduction into Morocco, and we acclimatised well with warm days and chillier nights. While wind surfers dominated this part of the beach, we went on a camel ride.

Inside the medina, a UNESCO heritage site, shops lined the streets selling colourful pottery and tableware. Shopkeepers gently cajoled us inside to begin their bartering, and for a crockery addict it was incredibly difficult to resist.

Given it's coastal location, seafood was in abundance. Down by the port trays of ice hold fish and seafood, ready for you to select for cooking. It's simple and straightforward. 

It's a little hard to find restaurants that serve booze. Caravane Cafe was one that did, and set within a huge space, with many rooms and art on any available space on the walls, nooks and crannies we were bamboozled with a menu that served mango sorbet on top of ceviche (yes, the raw fish one) and vanilla with fish. We swerved chicken with pineapple and cashew nuts and mercifully my lamb chops with mashed potatoes were exactly that. It came highly recommended several times and while the setting was certainly lovely, it's easy to order badly. For the rest of my trip my friend kept incredulously muttering "MANGO SORBET!"

A couple of days was all we needed, before we headed off to Taghazout for some surfing. Or, we would have except it was as flat as a pancake all week. Every morning we'd leap out of bed and peer at the sea, but alas. 

No matter. We were staying at Amayour Surf, and we couldn't have asked for better hosts. Shiraz is from London, and she and her Moroccan partner, M'Hand opened Amayour a couple of years ago. There's a couple of private rooms and a shared dorm, and they offer surf lessons and day trips. It's down to them and their team that in the 4 days we were there it totally felt like home. The food was also some of the best we had on the trip; breakfast was tagine-cooked eggs, basted in spiced butter and topped with herbs, to be scooped up with bread. Yoghurt, fruit, and an incredible nut butter made from almonds that everyone became obsessed with, as well as jams and honey was also offered. 

We were told in advance what was on the menu for dinner, and apart from a deviation one night to satisfy a lasagne craving (don't judge me), we feasted on seafood tagines - octopus, sardines - and chopped Moroccan salad. Everyone ate together, everyone boozed together, and the one day we actually had some surf, we leapt into shared cars and attempted some waves together. As someone who isn't brilliant at making new friends - I dunno, something about a resting bitch face - it was incredibly easy at Amayour. 

When there was no surf, we went to Paradise Valley. First we stopped off at an argan oil cooperative, where we watched the ladies who worked there crack the argan nuts with smooth sharp movements, stone on nut. We had a go and I bashed my fingers in. Loaded with elixirs that will definitely make me lose 10 years from my face, we pulled up at the waterfalls. It was HOT. As we clambered over rocks further into the valley, it's easy enough to stop at the first pool like everyone else had - but we pressed on, sweating away, deeper into the valley. Here, just the sounds of splashes and cheering spectators dominate; the rocks here reach high, the pools are deep. A 10 metre jump is a real life-affirmer. Just point your toes on entry.  

The Atlas Mountains were beckoning us. I passed my driving test last year, hadn't driven since and was about to do a 7 hour mountain pass drive on the opposite side of the road - it was safe to say I was feeling a little nervous. Before we headed off to pick up the hire car, Shiraz gave me a quick driving lesson in her car around the village.

The Moroccans have a very laid-back driving style. The towns are hectic, and horns beep a lot; cars are keen to overtake and signalling is often ignored, but it is not aggressive. It's rare in Morocco to see a woman driving with a man in the car - my friend and I were a bit of a spectacle, especially in our baby blue car. When I would go to park, be it in supermarkets or the street, men would gather to watch, sometimes offering welcome advice in which way to turn the steering wheel.

As far as my research goes, there are two ways to get into the High Atlas; the road from Marrakech takes roughly an hour and a half, and the Tizi-n-Test pass, which you can get onto by heading south from Agadir, and it reaches 2092m. It's a hairpin-strewn road, and can take more than 5 hours - indeed, it took us 7 - but what a drive! I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The road wiggles around the mountains, up and down, often with sheer drops off to the side, often single lane. But it was exhilarating, and we spent a lot of time saying "WHOOOOOOOAAA" as we rounded corners to a new view (or an on-coming truck approaching at 60km / hour).

We arrived in the mountain village of Imlil, popular with hikers as it's the kick off spot to many long treks, but also pretty in its own right, surrounded by mountains. The temperature got cooler and cooler as we approached, and the 30 degrees + days we had been experiencing suddenly dropped  to the early teens. Shops line the main street selling woollen wear and loan-out trekking gear, while the ubiquitous tagines lined up neatly on the walls. Here, we stayed in Riad Atlas Prestige, at something silly like £30 per night and it was a lovely place. A donkey had to take our luggage up to the riad itself - accessibility is limited to the fit and able only, due to its position on a rocky outcrop, but once we got there the back doors opened out to this incredible view. 

After a long day's drive, we were offered dinner; lamb tagine with golden sultanas, topped with buttery potato hit the spot. Hearty and comforting, we sat back and patted out bellies while the manager talked us through things we could do. "You could climb Toubkal? Tallest mountain in North Africa?" 

"Okay!" We were an easy sell. 

The next day, he took us down to the hire shop to get us kitted out, since our on-the-whim decision meant we had absolutely no gear. We headed off to the market for spare socks and rucksacks. 

As we set off, our guide told us that we would be stopping off at base camp to spend the night there, to acclimatise to the altitude and then we would be heading off at 3am to get to the summit for sunrise. Alarm bells quietly twinkled as this sounded terribly like That Volcano Hike. An hour in, the soles started to flap off my hire boots. A grim sense of foreboding took over, but we pressed on. 

We passed several parties making the hike up Toubkal. Donkeys passed us on rocky rubble, shouldering all the equipment. Wooden shacks built into the mountain side sold drinks and refreshments, and we stopped at one for a surprisingly hearty lunch of meatballs and salad. It's incredible what can be rustled up in a remote mountain shack. 

As we neared base camp, the snow appeared. SNOW. In Morocco. I suddenly realised why we needed cramp-ons. I was feeling a little light headed, which I attributed to hunger and later found was the altitude. 

I'd love to say I bounded to the top of the mountain and got a cracking view but what happened was that apart from the blisters that were developing, the altitude sickness only got worse (obviously - we were going upwards) - and around 6 metres from the summit the guide looked at me nervously, my friend asked me if I'd just fallen asleep mid-step and I had to admit defeat. My mood lifted every step we took downwards, and by the time we returned to our riad at the end of that day, I was in positive spirits. And completely in pieces. For the next three days any step up or down warranted groans and whimpers from us. We rewarded ourselves with a glass of wine or two at Richard Branson's place, Kasbah Tamadot - if you have a spare £600 to spend on a night there, I'd say you should because it was GORGEOUS - before we headed off to Marrakech to connect to the second leg of our trip. 

Our internal flight took us to Casablanca, where we drove the 6 hours or so up to Chefchaouen on decent roads. The further north we drove into Morocco, the more we noticed the switch from French Arabic to Spanish and Arabic, due to the proximity of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and indeed, only separated by 14 miles from mainland Spain.

Chefchaouen is a photographer's dream; the walls of many buildings in the medina are painted blue. There are several theories behind why, including the theory that when the Jews were hiding from Hitler they painted the walls blue to feel closer to the sky, heaven, and their god. Whatever the reason, you can't help but walk through the streets with wonder; the blue has a very calming effect. Overshadowed by the Rif mountains, where it's reported Morocco's cannabis is grown, we saw more tourists here than anywhere else.

We stayed at Dar Dadiclef, which couldn't have been more in the middle of the medina. Of course this entailed humping your luggage up and down long steps and hills, and with achey legs it was very... challenging. Billed as a hostel, we had a private room that could have been any hotel. Abdul, who runs the hostel couldn't have been nicer to us, offering us maps of places to go and things to do. There was a beautiful garden, and the breakfast was plentiful.

Many go trekking in and around Chefchaouen, and since we were all trekked out we spent a couple of days wandering around. Abdul, with a bit of a shrug, told us that the only decent place to eat was at Bab Ssour, round the corner from our hostel. Their tagines arrived to the table sizzling and were incredibly sweet with dried fruits, rich and meaty; meze-like starters, such as an aubergine dip were very popular too. From eating mediocre meals elsewhere, we could see where Abdul was coming from.

Onwards to Fes, Morocco's captial city. Happily, one of the people we met surfing had done our trip backwards to us and he advised us to stop off to see Volubilis, a place that had never come up in any of my research. A part Berber, part Roman excavated UNESCO World Heritage site, it was pretty mind-blowing. And hot. Very very hot. We wandered around the ruins before retreating for an ice cream.

We arrived into Meknes and we were immediately overwhelmed by the bustling city. Smoke wafted from street food stalls, and we stopped off for grilled skewers, bright with spices and stuffed into bread. It really amazes me how all the way up and down the country the bread stays exactly the same. We wandered the streets of the medina for some rotisserie chicken before continuing our journey south.

I loved Fes. I loved the old versus new architecture, and I loved the feeling of the working city. The riad we stayed in was insane - Riad MV, such an unassuming doorway to such a breath-taking room - and was so new we were the only people staying there. The cook was the nicest lady; we'd come back in the afternoons for a sit down and to read before dinner, and delicious biscuits scented with cardamom, and mint tea would appear for us.

They killed us with kindness with an incredible spread for breakfast, including spiced buns, dense honeyed cakes and french toast. Eggs were offered but we were fit to burst by this point, and waddled off into the medina instead. It so happened that we'd hit Fes on a public holiday, and most of the shops were closed, allowing us to navigate the maze-like streets unbidden. A few offers of tannery tours were made, and we spent a while peering into forbidden mosques.

Fes has some serious tile game. I think that's why I fell in love with it.

In the evening, we witnessed the most spectacular of thunderstorms from our riad. We had to wait it out, before we legged it over to another riad for dinner. A huge spread was put before us of spiced, cooked vegetables - carrots, spinach, aubergines, lentils - before the tagines arrived. Tender lamb, sweet, melting prunes. We then finished with pastilla - spiced pigeon wrapped in paper-thin pastry, dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar. It was... interesting. I'm not sure I want my dessert to have pigeon in it. 

Knowing me as only I would, I knew we were likely to be quite tired by the time we spent our last night in Casablanca. I'm not good at sitting still. I booked us into The Four Seasons. We turned up to the valet in our dusty Kia Picanto, and were scorned until I produced our reservation triumphantly. We settled around the pool to find that the hotel was booze-less. No little beers in the sun. Ice lollies were offered. Afternoon tea - beautiful little French pastries and sandwiches, glossy cakes and delicate constructions went some way to pacifying us. 

We went for dinner at Taverne du Dauphin. The waiters rescued us from a would-be rip-off taxi merchant and ushered us before a tray of seafood on ice to pick our dinner. Giant red prawns, full of prawn flavour and grilled just with salt, parsley and garlic made us incredibly happy. 

Morocco and its people stole my heart. The food didn't; tagines and bread were ubiquitous, with waiters seemingly reluctant for us to veer off-course. One day in a tiny village I pursued a huge simmering pot the locals were eating from, and after much cajoling got what I wanted; tripe stew stuffed into bread pockets, one of the best things I ate from the trip. But the scenery, from seaside to mountains to ornate architecture in the cities, many feeling like sets from Game of Thrones, gave us food for our eyes. I'm only sad we didn't have time for the desert.