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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Jelly And Jellabas

The Telegraph, 24 Jan 2001

Jelly and jellabas

Jeremy Seal took a typical toddler to Morocco and returned with The Couscous Kid. Confounding his fears, three-year-old Anna, with Teddy and Hippo, proved anything but a liability

Morocco basics

SOME people claim it's sleep and romance that you lose with parenthood; I say it's the Air Miles that suffer. Except for the masochists who endure the long haul to Orlando for Walt Disney World, it sometimes seems that few British parents with young children attempt to travel anywhere beyond Brittany or, at the outer limit of their holidaying ambitions, the Balearics.

When Anna - now three - was six months old we did essay a long weekend in Istanbul, if only to remind ourselves of a world beyond children's farms and gnome reserves. On that occasion, she threw up all over me at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport just as it was confirmed that the holdall containing all her clothes, baby food and nappies had been mislaid in transit. It was, in boxing parlance, a cruel combination which largely counted me out on the question of family holidays abroad, even if I did come away with the Turkish, learned double quick, for "Please believe me, the sick's not mine".

Now, with Anna a toddler, we had resolved to try again. This time round, there would be no baby backpack, no sterilising kit, nappies, powdered milk or baby food to bother with. But, although Anna came with less baggage, it was now the case - strangely - that the prospect of travelling with her seemed far more daunting than when she was an immobile bungle.

She eats real food now, too, so a shower of vomit seemed like a passing inconvenience compared with the likelihood of that Moroccan rite of passage, the stomach bug, or worse being visited upon her. Then there was the fact that she could get about perfectly well on her own, which evoked the spectre of losing her, Hideous Kinky style, in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakesh. There were also the local, possibly rabid, dogs and cats which, despite our repeated cautions, Anna was liable to confuse for the cuddly mutts and moggies back home.

We remembered Marrakesh, furthermore, for its predatory would-be guides. Surely nothing would expose us more completely to their torpedo-like approaches than dawdling, at which Anna excelled in the manner of all toddlers?

It turned out, of course, to be nothing like that. Anna's Morocco began with a late-night welcoming kiss at Marrakesh's passport control, the first of many such kisses that she would garner, where the officer scooped her up before asking, in French, if Teddy and Hippo - her beloved soft toys - had their travel documents with them. Just 10 minutes later Anna was looking down from the balcony of our room at the Hotel Es Saadi in the French-built new town. "Big paddling pool," she gasped with pleasure.

But the pool would have to wait, for it was way past bedtime - which was when it was discovered that I had not packed nappies. "But she doesn't wear nappies," I argued. "At night she does," my wife reminded me, twisting one of the hotel towels into what I hoped was an inventive nappy substitute rather than a noose for my neck.

I was still cuffing myself the next morning when Anna and I set out on what I feared might prove an arduous nappy trail. The concierge directed us to a hypermarket called Marjane in the city's brand new and very first shopping mall. Our lugubrious taxi driver seemed haunted by Marjane. The prices were exorbitant, he told us. People dressed up for the place, and visited merely to be seen.

He dropped us in the mall car park where the view to the horizon was of a classic desert landscape, with goats and a few peasants walking off into a Saharan infinity. Inside the hypermarket, the shelves were brightly lit and stacked high with frozen croissants, catering packs of couscous, wide-screen televisions - and even jelly. But old Morocco intruded even here where ladies in chadors and Berber men in cowled jellabas, unfamiliar with such places, parked their trolleys across the aisles or drove them against the prevailing traffic, much as if they were negotiating the crowded lanes of the medina.

The nappies, when we finally reached them, were stacked to the roof in such a rampart as to leave me slack-jawed. So much for my fears that we might not find any. Here, besides, were infant products I'd never encountered in my years as a parent, including duck-shaped children's bottles and even inflatable airline-style cushions to support the lolling heads of car-seated children.

Then, just as we were done and the real Marrakesh finally beckoned, Anna's face lit up at a familiar sight. "Old McDonald," she squealed with delight. So it was that lunch on that first day in Marrakesh was Chicken McNuggets.

After that, things could only get better. We swam back at the hotel, then hired a cal�che in the warm afternoon, Anna riding up front alongside the driver so that she could watch the horse. We disembarked at the Djemaa el Fna, where the crowds thickened with the onset of evening among the gas-lit food stalls and formed inquisitive circles around the performing acrobats, snake charmers and storytellers. Solitary minstrels scraped rough notes from the strings of their makeshift violins. Barbary apes strained at their chains. Water sellers in bell-laden harlequin's outfits posed for a few dirhams while henna tattooists thrust their patterned hands at passing tourists; a convergence of mountebanks, mavericks, musicians and mystics creating an unparalleled street show to lend the city its very pulse or, as Anna put it rather more succinctly, "a big party".

We ducked into the souk the following morning where our remaining misgivings soon evaporated. Molesting tourists is a crime in Morocco these days, and the guides carry licensed identity cards. Those who approached us seemed more interested in Teddy and Hippo than in making concerted plays for our business. Anna proved an equally effective distraction when it came to the ceramics and metal lanterns, carpets and textiles, spices and rose petals and olives which interested her parents.

She gave us a vital few seconds to case each joint so that we were either bearing down on the unfortunate shopkeeper, settling on a bowl that had caught our eye and a price we would not budge from, or moving on by the time he had finished introducing our daughter to the chameleons with which Marrakesh is combating the flies. We now began to realise that Anna was no holiday liability. Our daughter was actually working her passage.

Like most Moroccan hotels, ours offered a thoroughly affordable baby-sitting service (150 dirhams) which we might have taken advantage of to dine out at one of the city's lavish medina restaurants. Most evenings, however, it suited us better to enjoy the action across the Djemaa el Fna before eating early en famille. In the usual push-pull of parent and child, we sampled everywhere from Pizza Hut (where Anna loudly questioned the identity of "the man with the big ears" in the wall portrait; "The old king, darling"), to the excellent and suitably relaxed evening buffet at the Hotel Ali, an institution among visitors to Marrakesh costing just 60 dirhams a head.

Here, Anna soon developed a taste for couscous and meatballs, and stews of vegetables and potatoes. She also worked out that the ice-cream vendor in front of the hotel stocked Magnum ice creams.

A two-and-a-half-hour drive brought us to easy-living Essaouira. Outside the town's whitewashed walls was a long beach where the menfolk gathered on the falling tide to play soccer on the wet, compacted sand. Anna paddled in the shallows and fell for Blanco, one of the camel crowd offering rides to tourists.

When the wind got up, we idled over Moroccan cakes and th� la menthe (mint tea) or hot chocolate in the patisseries on the town square, strolled down to the port to watch the fishing boats come in, or wandered in the medina where artisans worked silky-dark thuya wood into all manner of things. At the Chalet de la Plage restaurant Anna learned about fresh, grilled sardines and threw five-dirham coins to the Berber musicians serenading her from the beach.

Our daughter came home safe and well, and delighted by Morocco - though there were times when it certainly confused her. On the road to Essaouira, she thought that the Atlas Mountains - distant pink ramparts rising to sunlit snow peaks - were "big sand castles". And one afternoon, looking from the window of our Essaouira medina hotel across a scruffy roofscape featuring a single upturned dustbin, she took time to figure out the whereabouts of the muezzin and his rising moan calling the faithful to prayer. "He's in the bin," she finally exclaimed. "Getting dirty."

Anna's journey undoubtedly taught her a great deal; it taught her parents the value of pushing back those shrunken horizons.