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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Land Of Souks And Shopping

The Daily Mail, 31 Dec 2001

Land of souks and shopping

by PAUL MANSFIELD, Daily Mail

A checked cloth and a bottle of chilled rose sat on the table. The chef stood outside in his whites, warming himself in the sun, and the aroma of wood smoke wafted from the kitchen.

On the terrace, the only sound was the trickle of the mountain stream running through the valley.

Where was I? Some quaint hideaway in the Dordogne? No. In the Moroccan village of Ourigane, in a restaurant called Aux Sanglier Qui Fume (The Smoking Boar) near the fascinating, but equally exhausting city of Marrakesh.

Travelling in Morocco can be a tiring business. Places like Marrakesh pulsate with hives of activity that can quickly overwhelm you.

The city's Djemaa El Fnaa square is occupied every evening by musicians, acrobats, snake charmers and storytellers. This unmissable spectacle, for me, is one of the world's great sights. But after a few days, the hustle and bustle can fray the nerves of the most hardened traveller.

For peace and quiet - and a glimpse of a Morocco few tourists see - head for the country.

This is still largely a rural land. Leaving Marrakesh, you drive through a landscape of shrub and desert flanked by ochrecoloured mountains, passing scenery that has remained unchanged for centuries.

Berber children stand in fields, tending herds of goats or cattle. Camels plod across the dusty ground. There are sunbaked villages where old boys sit outside sipping from tiny glasses of mint tea - the Moroccan national drink.

The roads are excellent, thanks to the French who ruled Morocco for half of the last century. They also left a legacy of wine-making and cuisine which, even now, makes Moroccan food and drink some of the most interesting in North Africa.

I discovered Ourigane and its excellent restaurant almost by accident. The village lies in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains - which give Marrakesh its dramatic backdrop.

I had driven out early, and spent the morning walking in the hills, descending to Aux Sanglier Qui Fume for lunch. The drive back to Marrakesh, along near-empty roads, took less than an hour.

Because Morocco is so rich in history, visitors tend to overlook the pertinent fact that it is also a fast-developing country.

On the outskirts of Marrakesh was the Marjane, an out-of-town superstore that would not have been out of place in Northern Europe. In its calm, airconditioned aisles I picked out fresh baguettes, French cheese, a bottle of local Guerrouane wine, and set off for the coast.

A couple of hours' drive through stunning desert scenery brought me to Sidi Bouchta where I had the pristine sand beach to myself, and picnicked happily as the Atlantic breakers rolled in.

Half an hour to the north lies Oualidia. The first sight of this beach resort with its lagoon of glorious turquoise sea and golden sand is simply exquisite.

Setting off the sea's natural colour, a strip of white buildings also fringes the shore, topped by an abandoned, peeling palace and a 17th-century castle.

Marine birds wheel. The Atlantic, choppy in the distance, is flat and calm in the lagoon. The sun forms changing colours on the water.

It's as if you have fallen into another world, far removed from Morocco. Yet Oualidia (pronounced Wa-lid-ia) is as Moroccan as it gets.

The Hotel Hippocampe had plain but comfy rooms set in tiered gardens overlooking the beach. A blazing log fire in the dining room took the chill off the cool evenings.

Friendly waiters bought fresh seafood and local dishes such as harira (thick bean soup) and tajine (lamb or chicken stew), accompanied by excellent (and inexpensive) Moroccan wine.

Oualidia's weekly souk was a strictly local affair. A tangle of stalls was thronged by men in flowing djellabahs and women in veils.

Cobblers hammered on nails as food stall holders cooked fried fish or doughnuts in huge clouds of steam. In a 'tea shop' tent, half-a-dozen men sprawled on a mat on the floor as two musicians, with tambourine and stringed instrument, sang in high, reedy voices.

As a foreigner I was politely acknowledged, but never hassled. After the hard-sell energy of Marrakesh, this proved to be a pleasant surprise.

That afternoon, I took a boat trip with Rashid and Sahid, two local lads who steered their wooden boat up through the lagoon, stretching for miles along the coast.

Oualidia is also an important stop for birds migrating south from Europe. Perched on the sandbanks - among many other birds - were egrets, cormorants, ducks and waders. Best of all, a beautiful pair of flamingoes stood in the shallow water, surveying the late afternoon with serenity.

We drifted slowly back to the Hippocampe at twilight. The tide was out, and the three of us sat on the hotel terrace with a glass of mint tea, watching the sun slip over the horizon. Morocco never seemed so easy.