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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Mud Hut With All Mod Cons

The Independent, 9 June 2002

Mud hut with all mod cons

Ethno-chic is the only way to travel, especially in Morocco. How else can you get a real feel for a place without compromising on comfort?

By John Walsh

The first thing you notice about the hotel in the lee of Morocco's Atlas Mountains is how easily you could destroy it. As you stand looking over the wall to the 30ft drop below, gazing across the village with its formless rough-and-tumble of houses and its ambling, laden donkeys, to the distant horizon where a turreted kasbah looms like a palace in a dream, your fingers idly pick away at the wall, and it starts to flake off in your hands. Bits of straw poke out of the crumbling, orange-brown stuff and come away in your fingers. You look round at the sturdy walls of the Tigmi Tagadert, its perfect little courtyards, its ruggy wallhangings and peeled-blue, weathered doors and wrought-iron shutters, its three great chimneys and upper terraces against the stately backdrop of the Atlas range, and think ? blow me down, I'm in a four-star mud hut...

You soon desist from crumbling the walls into dust because, on the whole, you prefer the place as a hotel. What's little short of a miracle is that the hotel has been created out of absolute nothingness, bang in the middle of nowhere. To say the creators have used "local materials" in the building is to pitch it a little high ? what they've actually used is pis??? or reinforced mud. The transformation they've pulled off is impressive ? it shows that, with the right quality of imagination, primitive means can be used to glamorous, sophisticated, 21st-century ends.

Welcome to ethno-chic travel, in which you can forget most of your expectations of hotel living ? things like the Ferragamo franchise in the hotel lobby, the Euro-style disco, the smartly suited bellhops, the health spa and nearby shopping mall. This is different. This is as near to real-life Morocco as you'll get while still feeling you're on a luxury holiday. Instead of flying in to the fleshpots of Marrakesh and putting up at the Mamounia ? that ridiculously over-ornate hotel whose lobby is as bare, empty and off-putting as an airport lounge ? you choose to stay in a genuine Moroccan village, and in a hotel that blends in with the local buildings. You eat the same breakfast as the village (fried pancakes with honey, made the traditional way by a peasant lady with a black pan, a bucket of smouldering coals and a lot of patience), and chill out in the evenings listening to traditional peasant music played on a three-string guitar by a seven-foot Berber in a fez.

I went to explore two examples of ethno-chicdom with my family. It was our first time in Morocco and, apart from the wholly unexpected cold weather (at the end of April?), we had a ball. Heading into the city from the airport, you're struck by its bizarre dimensions ? the great thoroughfares and labyrinthine backstreets, the vast echoing sprawl of the King's palace grounds, and the utter titchiness and squalor of the tiny 3ft-by-2ft shops you pass ? a hundred of them in a hundred yards ? in the old Medina. Driving down Avenue Mohammed V, the Piccadilly-cum-Park Lane of Marrakesh, you find yourself on a bracing odyssey from 21st-century designer-consumer globalism to the outer reaches of 18th-century pre-industrial squalor, in which signs of individual entrepreneurism are crushed by the requirement (in the souks especially) that everybody ends up selling the same teapots and geom-etric rugs and crap silver jewellery to the tourists.

But the two extremes make your heart beat faster. You want it all ? up-to-date Marrakesh and the old, the true, the authentic Marrakesh. It's this impulse towards authenticity that Chris Lawrence, the man behind The Best of Morocco, has been trading on for years. He deals in holidays for people who want more out of Morocco than that fatuous pretence of bargaining in a souk ("300 dirhams for this leather belt? Surely you joke. I, the wily foreigner from Croydon, will offer you 60. What, you shifty-eyed dog, you bring your price down to 240? Then I will offer you 100 and not a cent more..." etc) and snoozing on a beach. His son Max, who is the enterprising architect-builder behind the Tigmi Tagadert project, has run the company's Marrakesh office since 1992; they both keep experienced eyes out for the most charming, most individual and most authentic accommodation in the country.

Their pride and joy at the moment is the Caravanserai, from a word that harks back to the days when camel trains loaded with gold and silks would come to rest outside a city and put up at an inn for the night before the heavy days of trading that would ensue in, say, Marrakesh. The hotel is 11km outside the city, in a village called Ouled ben Rahmoun, an off-putting place full of tangled wire and boulders.

The hotel, though, is gorgeous ? a place where everything seems to be outside, from the armchairs and padded alcoves surrounding the pool area, to the alfresco meals taken with little birds flitting about. Every room has a living-room (with a minibar and walk-in cupboards) and a balcony, and you bathe in huge soapstone bath-tubs. The centrepiece of the hotel is a humungous gateway formed by pitching a great rush roof over four brick pillars ? from the roof hangs a vast ornamental lantern and long, long white silk banners. It's all very minimalist and severe, but in a good way ? terribly comfortable without ever becoming luxurious. It harmonises simple things ? stone, plaster, wood, bare floors, rush matting ? and assumes they'll be enough for the truly discerning traveller to enjoy. Among their 18 suites are a couple that feature their own little courtyard and ? get this ? their own pool.An ensuite bathroom I'm familiar with; having your own swimming pool thrown in with the price of your suite is dangerously close to excess.

Emboldened by the example set by the Caravanserai ? to deal in fundamentals, to explore the utmost simplicity ? you find your attitude to Marrakesh changing. You are no longer content to patrol the New Town streets buying souvenirs. You want something more than the standard itinerary of hanging out in the souks or the Djemma el Fnaa marketplace, being fleeced by snake-charmers who charge ???40 for you to photograph their slumbering cobra. Instead, you take a horse-and-trap ride through the teeming backstreets of the Medina ? and, rather than breathe a sigh of relief that this tour of the city's lowlife didn't take too long, you find yourself plunging back into it, looking for more.Official guides, who know all about carpets and the House of a Thousand Spices, aren't much use. You link up with an unofficial one, and spend a delirious hour being walked all over the unseen, reeking, backstage world of Marrakesh au naturel ? the metal beater's workshop, where a dozen glum youths sit listlessly banging bits of bronze and copper into submission, the dyer's yard where men stripped to the waist and surrounded by acrid steam from vats of boiling blue ink, dunk strips of cloth again and again like men trying to murder giant squid, or the tanner's yard where they give you sprigs of mint to wave under your nose to block out the smell of pigeon-shit (it softens the cow-hide) and sprightly young goats mince between the pits of staining fluid, heedless of their fate.

And then you're ready to try the ultimate "country hotel" as ethno-chic venues are quaintly called. This is where I stood under the Atlas mountains, picking bits off the hotel walls. It's as far from a traditional hotel as you can get. In Tagadert, you're in a village straight out of the Middle Ages. Flocks of sheep and goats are herded back and forth, their neck-bells tinkling. A wedding party wanders by, the ladies got up in what look like a dozen variants of Berber national costume. Fantastically garbed old men, in cowled jellabas and sacking trousers, men who have evidently strayed into town from the Old Testament, watch you climb the hill towards them and fling out a hand ? whether in welcome or support, or in search of money, you're not sure. As dusk falls, and the last herds are brought back to the low fields by shouting children, knots of villagers gather on the hillside ? the men sprawling at their ease over here, the women standing in a little tableau of folded-arms disapproval over there.

To get to the village, you have to drive off the road that links Marrakesh with Taroudannt in the south ? that is, you drive off the road, down an incline, and proceed across the dry orange plains as if heading into the desert. There's not the slightest indication that there's a hotel nearby. You only discover it after lugging at an enormous gate ignorantly studded with huge iron nails.

Once inside, your heart lifts. The dog-leg swimming pool is warm as a morning bath, and the whole garden area is devoted to sybaritism ? a pillared stage-set of sunloungers, rugs and pastel cushions in purple, beige, blue, red and orange, little tables for your sun-block and local wine, earthenware pots and candleholders, enough shaded, relax-and-recline zones to suggest that you're in the summer crash-pad of an especially narcoleptic sultan. The hotel's nine suites are all different, but all feature courtyards with little chill-out rooms, open to the elements, and simple cosy bedrooms with fireplaces that are lit for you at 9pm against the parky desert night air; and bathrooms with bare floors, copper sinks, a small population of bright orange earwigs and a shower which is divided from the rest of the lavabo by a screen the exact shape and size of the one that slides back to reveal the winners on TV's Blind Date.

You can take your lunch in your private courtyard, murmuring through mouthfuls of olive and aubergine tapenade and grilled lamb, as you sit in the square suntrap ? or by the pool. The evening meal is especially seductive, when the serving staff array the whole garden area with candles and bring hurricane lamps to your table, so you can see what lurks under the enormous tagine lids that seem like giant conical hats leaking delicious flavoured smoke.

So you swim, and eat, chat, drink wine, crash out, wake refreshed in the cool afternoon breeze, read your Ian Rankin, and repeat all these gruelling activities until the fear that you may soon expire from sloth persuades you to explore the region. So you summon a driver and head for the horizon, to the kasbah (which means simply "rich man's house") at Tamslouht.

This handsome palace is inhabited by a young descendant of the Sptani family who originally built it; he now lives on the ground floor, but rents the rest of the place to A-list rock stars and film companies. The kasbah is where they filmed many of the interiors for Hideous Kinky; the owner remembers, with a wistful sigh, the luminous beauty of Ms "Wins Katelet". There's a kind of epic loneliness about the place when it's not being used to the maximum, a triste quality that's epitomised by the sight of the cleaning lady inching her way, with scrubbing brush and pail, across the mighty expanse of the ballroom.

This cheek-by-jowl combination of the most fundamental, breadline village existence and the most hedonistic luxury is a little unsettling. Nursing a cocktail by the wall overlooking the fading sunlight on the village can make you feel under siege from the uncomprehending eyes of the locals ? who must wonder what, in God's name, fat-cat tourists are doing in their village. But in the brief week we were there, it felt like a bracing adventure in stripped-down living ? plunging into the reeking, variegated madness of souk and shopping mall and artisan's hellhole, then retreating from it, to the quietest, simplest hours of passing the time, in a pair of hotels made simply of mud and imagination.

John Walsh and family travelled courtesy of Best of Morocco