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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - A Vision Of Green Oases And Golden Sands

New York Times Magazine, 19 Nov 2000

A Vision of Green Oases and Golden Sands


In the shimmering journey from city to desert, everything gets less. Less building, less landscape, less humanity, less weather: at the skirts of the Sahara, only sand remains.

My partner, Peter Graham, and I collected our rental car in Ouarzazate and, with our 2-year-old son, Wilf, in a car seat in the back, drove east along the Dads Valley, once a caravan route linking Morocco with the African heartlands. The bleak red rocks merged with predesert semiscrub, all of it punctuated with small, unexpected eruptions of green. The villages tucked away in vertiginous gorges were mostly inhabited by Berbers cultivating olives and dates. Up there they had a handful of fig trees, some rosebushes and a verbena or two, and pink oleanders clustered round the waterbeds. But down below there was nothing but clumps of alfa grass and the odd sagebrush.

After some hours, we entered the oasis region of the Tafilalt, frontier territory and the last region of Morocco to succumb to French control (hence the construction of the garrison town of Erfoud, where French troops kept an eye on the recalcitrant tribes). A few miles before Erfoud, blue-cheeked bee eaters perched on the telegraph poles as the mineral tang of the desert crept into the tepid air. The pavement ended (usually a good sign) two dozen miles before Merzouga, a small, baked hamlet squatting on the very edge of the Sahara. The day we arrived, it rained for the first time in four years (everyone else was pleased). There was little to do but cuddle up on the low couches of our casbah hotel, the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua, and sip syrupy mint tea as the lamps flickered in the wind and the whiff of burning olive wood seeped out from the kitchen quarters.

The southeastern edge of the Tafilalt oases ends abruptly at the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi. In the middle of the imperceptibly shifting hills of sand, Berbers wearing Pocahontas T-shirts (advertising the Disney film) under their djellabas run a huddle of adobe cafes of monastic simplicity. When it stopped raining, we sat in one called Les Dunes d'Or for a day, but I could have stayed till next summer. Nothing had happened there for some years. Besides our generous, easy hosts, themselves frequently forced into a supine position by the lambent heat, the couches were occupied by a couple of permanently flaked-out blue-turbaned camel drivers and an extended family of tweeting desert sparrows. The walls were washed in cornflower blue and salmon pink, and the small, glassless windows looked for miles onto a luminous biblical landscape complete with an endlessly wheeling Egyptian vulture. If you wanted to check out of the planet for a few days, nobody would find you here.

We did raise ourselves to ride farther into the sands on camelback. We paid a small sum for the use of two one-humped dromedaries who looked sadly moth-eaten after their spring molt, but after a lot of grunting at the outset, and savage threats from the Bedouin camel man who followed us on foot, they swayed across the dunes without complaint. (The camel man helpfully showed me how to tuck Wilf between me and the pommel of the saddle.) On our way back, the gritty Saharan winds whipped up a sandstorm, obliterating all but the tail of the camel ahead. It was not quite darkness at noon, but it warned us how capricious the desert can be.

At dusk the desert exhaled, and shrouded figures drew their djellabas close. The deep blue night was spotted with pools of light from distant ksour (fortified villages made of mud). The vast, empty plain beyond eventually turned into Algeria, but the border was closed in anger in 1994, and not for the first time.

In the souk at Rissani, the heart of the Tafilalt, Wilf was enchanted with the crusty ocher salamanders the vendors allowed to climb up his shirt and into his pocket. When the lizard show was over, a pink-and-orange lollipop was invariably produced from behind the stall. Moroccans light up when a child appears, and a fair-skinned, blond-curled, blue-eyed boy instantly warrants princely status.

Rissani is a hot, heartless town where the Ziz Valley peters out into desert in a miasma of sienna. Between the riverbed and the 17th-century ksar where most people live, we walked among the ragged ruins of the mysterious Sijilmassa, once a glittering Berber capital. Sijilmassa was founded in the dying years of the eighth century, when thousands of camels regularly rested in the Tafilalt on their trek from the bleached African interior to the shores of the Mediterranean.

If you wanted to check out of the planet for a few days, nobody would find you here.

Morocco is a long, thin country curving from southwest to northeast over the left shoulder of Africa. With the Atlantic down one side and the Mediterranean at the top, Morocco -- about the size of Texas, including the disputed territory of Western Sahara -- shares a land border with Mauritania in the south and Algeria (more than three times its size) in the north, with the Sahara blazing between them. It is a country with roots in Africa and branches in Europe: Spain is a nine-mile hop away, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Its topography is dominated by the mountain ranges that slash diagonally across it, and, like most mountainous places, it has resisted the forces of homogenization longer than flatter lands.

Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, and remained so until independence in 1956. Despite this relatively short colonial regime, there is a remarkably tenacious Frenchness about the country, manifested most notably in the widespread use of French as a second language -- and in the croissants. Since 1975, the disputed territory of Western Sahara has accounted for more than a third of the Moroccan surface area. It was occupied in November of that year, when more than a quarter of a million unarmed Moroccans walked into the former Spanish Sahara, a controversial event now known as the Green March.

The rains re-turned with alarming vigor and, driving out of the desert, we became trapped between two collapsed bits of road that had been washed away by racing wadis of milky brown water. Marooned in the small village of Fezna, between Achouria and Tinejdad, we and four other stranded tourists were ushered into a house belonging to the most important man in the village, not a hotly contested position on the edge of the Tafilalt, where almost everyone has almost nothing. It was a two-story, clay-brick building and inside a long corridor led to a windowless room apparently kept for special occasions. Around three sides were red velvet sofas, and at one end a dresser displayed an impressive array of gleaming tin pots and platters as well as -- these behind glass -- a television set, a VCR and a food processor, none of them functional.

In the afternoon we ate pillows of bread produced by a huddle of women in the makeshift kitchen next door (Wilf was quickly beckoned into this inner sanctum, but neither his father nor I were permitted to enter). Before the food appeared, a jug of water, basin and towel were passed round for hand washing, and then the bread was served, by men, with honey, a tub of margarine and a small bucket of mint tea.

Most people loitered outside in the warm rain, mooning around until something happened, but of course, nothing did. The irony of the flood was that Morocco's big problem is drought. Four years of it has devastated the largely agricultural economy, driving many poor people to urban centers with the usual dire social consequences.

When the sun ventured out, a gang of small boys with toothy grins led us to their secret water hole behind the village. Among a tightly compacted clump of old palm trees, asphodels nodded in the faint breeze and greening tendrils of shoots curled over the lip of the hole. The water itself was a deep, glassy green. The air was filled with the scent of crushed dates, and fat bunches dangled invitingly from the high lower branches (a tree can yield a thousand dates in one bunch). The boys instinctively took Wilf's hand and led him carefully to the water's edge to scoop out a small iridescent beetle -- probably the highlight of Wilf's Moroccan experience.

Resigned to a night on the couch, at dusk we shared a mound of mutton couscous with our host. Although there was a commercial undertone to our stay in Fezna, the episode was typical of the relaxed hospitality we experienced everywhere in Morocco, and a characteristic example of how easy it can be to veer off the tourist trail. Nothing was said about payment or prices, but as we were saying our grateful goodbyes, Peter tucked some dirham notes into the top pocket of our host's robe. The gift was acknowledged with a small, dignified nod.

The 400-mile-long High Atlas range divides the fertile coastal regions of Morocco from the desert interior, and, after the rain stopped and the wadi quieted (it took a day and a half), we crossed the mountains over a pass that had once funneled gold and slaves from West Africa. The arid mountainside was spotted with sprawling, half-ruined ksour, somnolent in the buttery sunlight. The rocks got redder as we ascended and at one point, near the top of the pass, all visible surfaces, including the pressed-mud houses, were a deep cerise. On the western side, the slopes were wooded with oak and walnut, the dramatic escarpments and plunging ravines a blaze of mottled reds and greens threaded with convolvulus and Barbary nut iris. Around the scattered settlements smallholders had carved terraces from the wilderness, slim ledges of wheaty yellow against the red earth.

After a hot, punishing drive we arrived in Marrakesh at night, and drove straight to the Targa district of the new town. At our hotel, Dar Zina (Beautiful House), the perfumed garden was lighted with torches, and the smooth, biomorphic shapes of the porches and roofs were rippling on the surface of the pool in front of clouds of moonlit bougainvillea. In the salon, a waiter stole soundlessly over the caramel tiles to bring us drinks, olives and a spinning top for Wilf. We celebrated our escape from the unseasonal flood with an unimaginably delicious pastilla -- surely the king of Moroccan cuisine -- an envelope of phyllo pastry stuffed with wild pigeon, lemon-cooked vegetables, saffron and almonds, the whole baked parcel coated in cinnamon and sugar.

The vogue for things Moroccan in the international fashion and design world (everyone from Parisian couturier stars to old English banking tycoons has a restored villa in the medina) and the attraction of Marrakesh for travelers have resulted in an abundance of small, palace-style hotels featuring the best of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship. Most of them combine simple Berber style with elaborate Moorish design, and most are situated in the old town or in the Palmeraie, the extensively developed palm groves on the city's east flank.

Dar Zina, opened in September of last year and not yet in the guidebooks, was until recently the owners' family home. With only five suites, guests are encouraged to feel at home themselves: it is not so much a hotel as a maison d'h???te. Targa is an odd setting: only a 10-minute drive from the center of the old town but the scene of an explosion of residential building as the Marrakesh middle classes seep outward. But when you're inside Dar Zina, it doesn't matter what's outside. The swing seat in the garden was the perfect place to doze, and in the dazzling light of early morning, the pool was so blue it was vulgar.

The hotel was furnished largely with wooden Berber pieces, brocade couches and richly colored kilims; clay pots bellied out of alcoves and brass candlesticks clustered in corners. In the middle of the airy salon a large urn, poised on a tripod and filled with roses, caught the light spilling from the octagonal cupola roof. We were ministered to by Hassan, a genial and endlessly obliging host. Short in height, he had a long face with long teeth to match, and was permanently attired in a pearly white silk suit with trousers baggy to the knees, white stockings and white, pointy soft leather slippers. He came to work on his moped from his home near the Bab Debbagh (Tanner's Gate) in the heart of the old town, and sometimes smelled faintly of cured hide.

Each morning, I left Wilf with his father and slipped out to the local hamam, or public steam bath. Inside the unmarked entrance two shriveled women were always stirring porridge over a small gas stove. After I had disrobed, one of them stripped herself and pushed me through a pair of squealing swinging doors into an arched chamber where a dozen women were sitting on the tiled floor, turbaned in steam and surrounded by buckets with which they were dousing themselves, the watery sound effects echoing loudly. A sequence of holes in the blackened ceiling admitted tubes of light alongside warm stalactites of condensation. My new friend, who turned out to be my masseuse (the first morning, I had no idea what was going on), laid me on the floor in a corner, filled a couple of buckets and poured very, very hot water over my head. She soaped me, applied ghassoul, a traditional clay hair treatment, and, with relish, set about a good deal of pummeling with a rough glove.

All around, small children were being hosed down, one clutching a Barbie doll and cleaning her teeth while her mother shaved her legs.

South of Marrakesh, toward Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, we went for some gentle treks along mule trails, astonishing man and beast with our trusty three-wheel Baby Jogger. We were staying at the R???sidence de la Roseraie in Ouirgane, a small mountain village set among olive groves and captivating semiwild, semicultivated countryside shaded in dusty Tuscan colors. A couple of hours' walk upward, past terraced wheat fields and a bony horse or two tugging wooden plows, we chanced upon a curious white-walled enclosure about half the size of a football field. The oval walls were spiked with shards of broken glass carefully set in concrete round the top. As we circled the outside, a villager appeared with a key.

It was a synagogue, and with it was a small, abandoned settlement, fitted out with streetlights, neatly tiled outdoor tables and an elaborate drainage system. At the southern end, underneath a sprawling fig tree, was a chilly mausoleum containing two enormous tombs. A rivulet of candle wax curled a signature in the corner of one of them. The community had been so self-contained that all inquiries in the villages nearby as to when it was founded or why it was abandoned were met with a negative shrug. Outside, we found a child's shoe.

Back in Marrakesh, we ventured beyond our small Dar Zina paradise to the old-fashioned ice cream parlors on the side streets of the new town.

Under the watchful eye of the ubiquitously framed King Mohammed VI, waiters in bow ties served us ice cream coupes with squiffs of Chantilly cream (all displayed in lurid photographs above the long metal counter) in a fluorescent-lighted room with leatherette banquettes. The all-male clientele talked low over tiny cups of coffee and cigarettes.

At the sunset hour, like everyone else, we eddied round the teeming magnificence of the Jemaa el Fna square in the old town. Here, in the exuberant focus of the magical city of Marrakesh, you really do still see traditional storytellers among the tourists, as well as acrobats, snake charmers, clowns and healers. The souks smell of coriander and kerosene, their goods ranging from carpets to live rabbits and children's toys made in China. Spreading north and east from Jemaa el Fna, the narrow lanes of the medina, horribly overexposed and jammed with supplicants, nonetheless offer a glimpse of what was, as well as what still is, in a country living so visibly through the reverberating collision of Africa and Europe.

Couscous and Tajines

Moroccan food is excellent, inexpensive and easy to find. We ate at a variety of simple establishments for $10 or so each (without alcohol). The pi???ce de r???sistance is the tajine, a fragrant stew cooked slowly over a charcoal brazier in a shallow dish with a characteristic wigwam-shaped lid. Tajines can be made with almost any kind of meat or fish and are delicately flavored with a range of herbs, spices and vegetables according to the season and local availability.

Other staples include steamed couscous, traditionally made from coarsely ground wheat but now often rolled semolina granules, served with a spicy stew that might be vegetarian and the hot red pepper harissa sauce; harira (a thick soup usually made from lamb stock, with chickpeas, vegetables and spices); and daja mahamara (chicken stuffed with almonds, semolina and raisins).

Delicious mint tea is available everywhere, liberally sweetened. Both French and sticky Moroccan pastries are popular, the latter flavored with almonds and cinnamon. Fruit is abundant and usually flavorsome.

We ate from street stalls and had no stomach problems. Brochettes are widely available on the streets: chunks of skewered lamb, mutton or beef barbecued over hot coals and served with salad and bread; likewise minced meat kebabs, called kefta. If you are feeling adventurous, try the stewed snails in the Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh.

There are a number of excellent, international-standard restaurants in Marrakesh serving Moroccan food in stylish surroundings and at international prices (upward of $50 a person).

Morocco Bound

There are many travel agencies that specialize in trips to Morocco; Sara Wheeler used the Best of Morocco