SAHARAN ADVENTURE

food stallsMarrakech is a fascinating mosaic of cultures and traditions, desert landscapes, authentic Kasbahs, spice bazaars and sumptuous palaces.  For decades, it’s been  attracting artists,  writers and — more  recently — travellers in  search of the exotic  STORY 8 PHOTOS BY  ANDREW MARSHALL  t’s late afternoon in the centre of  exotic Marrakech, founded more  than 1,000 years ago with its  Andalusia-inspired arches, ochre  ramparts, souq  marketplaces and  distinctive skyline of mosques set  against the majestic snow-capped High  Atlas Mountains. I find myself thoroughly lost in the medina, where narrow passageways seethe with human activity. Covered bazaars are crammed with spice stalls and workshops of every kind, with artisans at work fashioning slippers, weaving rugs, dyeing textiles and hammering metals.

spices

In the heart of the city is the world-famous Djemaa el-Fna, a town square named by UNESCO as part of Humanity’s Universal Heritage. This cultural and artistic crossroads is a meeting place for locals and a stage for storytellers, acrobats, musicians and snake charmers. I grab a seat and a chilled drink at Le Grand Balcon overlooking the square and watch the drama unfold.

As the orange sun travels across the sky and the minarets and palms gradually fall into silhouettes, chefs begin to cart in their food stalls and before long the aroma of barbecued meats and  kebabs fills the air. When the sun finally sets, all the music in the medina ceases for one of the most evocative of travel sounds, the muezzin’s call to prayer.  Soon, another muezzin in another mosque starts up, and then another until the entire city is filled with these fervent sounds.

In addition to street eats, Marrakech offers some wonderful fine-dining opportunities at palace restaurants, most of which are converted riads (a traditional house or palace with an interior garden).  An excellent example is the Narwama, hidden away down a narrow alleyway covered in Berber rugs, a short stroll from the medina. Situated in a glorious 19th century riad with 21st century Zen décor, the Narwama offers an award-winning combination of Moroccan and Thai cuisine with the best Mojito in town.  “The food we serve here is Fez cuisine, the finest in Morocco and one of our house specialities is lamb tajine with pears,” says the owner Ali Bousfiha. “The tajine is Morocco’s most famous dish and the name refers to the conical-lidded pot in which it is prepared, as well as  the intricately spiced stew of meat  and vegetables, sometimes with dried  fruits and nuts, cooked very slowly over  a charcoal fire.”

DID YOU KNOW?  Marrakech gets its nickname of ‘red city’ from the city walls, which are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk that give them their colour.

5 THINGS NOT TO BE MISSED

* Go haggling in the souqs of Marrakech for carpets, slippers, ceramics, leather ware and more.

* Eat traditional spice-laden Moroccan food from a restaurant in the Medina.

* Go skiing or trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

* Relax at the Cascades d’Ouzoud (167km northeast of Marrakech) where the three-tiered falls drop 110m into the river below.

* Go to a hammam for a traditional Moroccan bath or massage.

TRADE  CENTRE  Marrakech has the  largest traditional  Berber market  (souk) in Morocco,  and you can find anything from  traditional Berber  carpets and  slippers to  consumer  electronics and  much more at the  several souks there

The following morning I’m up early to be ready for a three-day High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Tour, which I had arranged the previous evening with my hotel tour operator. It’s 7am and I join a small group, made up of four Brits, an American couple and an Australian, standing outside the Hotel Ali in Marrakech. “Could be the perfect recipe for a cramped weekend,” I think to myself, as we all crowd into the minibus, and hit the P3 1 road towards the mountains.

kasbah under atlasFrom Marrakech, the 70km climb to the Tiz n Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains is a clutch-grinding series of switchbacks, offering fantastic views.  The first stop is a wind-blasted pass poised between the two worlds of the High Atlas Mountains and the sub-Sahara. We head towards the Dades, Draa and Ziz Valleys, blessed in this arid land with life-giving rivers. They are indescribably beautiful, lined with palmeraies, ancient Kasbahs and towns that have changed little in centuries. Historically, tribal feuding and banditry were a way of life for the Berbers of the region, and as a result, hundreds of Kasbahs (defensive forts constructed of red baked clay) were built throughout these valleys.

Thirty-eight km before Ouarzazate is the exotic Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, a location favoured by filmmakers. Over 20 movies have been produced here including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. We enter the Kasbah through a broad arching gateway that leads to the living quarters of the village, pass through courtyards of homes adorned with colourful Berber rugs and enjoy expansive views that demonstrates the Kasbah’s once strategic strength.

In nearby Ouarzazate, the minibus grinds to a halt in a tight knot of laneways where our driver jumps out and leads the group through a labyrinth of passage- ways to a dim doorway where Mohammed spreads his arms wide in welcome.  “Hello, what are your names? Where are you from? Please, come in and see some magnificent carpets.” After being encouraged to make ourselves at home, Mohammed reappears carrying a silver tray with an elegant metal teapot packed with fresh mint leaves, tea and sugar.  While he makes a spectacle of pouring  the fragrant golden liquid from a great  height into small decorative glasses, his  brother Ali brings in some rugs to “plea-  sure our eyes”, and with great flourishing flicks rolls them out before us. After  haggling hard and stocking up on carpets, we drop down from the High Atlas  Mountains into the Dades Valley and  the spectacular Dades Gorge with its  glowing red gorge walls, startling rock  formations, more Kasbahs and finally  our bed for the night.

The next day, with the mountains far behind, the surrounding stony landscape gradually changes into windblown sandy plains. Ahead, begins the Great Erg Chebbi, an immense dune system that sweeps south into the Sahara. Nearby, several camels stand masticating, waiting to carry the tour group into the desert sunset.

In single file, we ride into this vast sea of sand, where the dunes rise and fall like waves. The setting sun casts shadows of the camels and riders across the rippling sands, a more romantic image than the reality of the camels’ jolting motion and foul breath.  Fading pink clouds have been swallowed by the night sky as we finally reach our camp consisting of two tents of camel hair slung over low poles in a depression in the dunes. As we all sink gratefully into rugs thrown over the sand, the camel- handlers, Brahim and Mahjoubi serve mint tea followed by delicious tajines.  After dinner, Mahjoubi takes out his drum and he and Brahim begin to sing an ancient song of love. One of the travellers plays a didgeridoo, another pulls out his harmonica, while the tummy grumbles of the camels add another musical dimension to this magical atmosphere under a star-studded Saharan sky.

Courtesy – K.T

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: