Meet me in the mountains of Morocco

By | Category: Travel destinations
tea and tagines in Marrakesh

tea and tagines in Marrakesh at the start of my journey

Marrakech, a former imperial capital of Morocco, was set to be my base for a week-long exploration of the city and the surrounding Atlas Mountains, home to quaint Berber villages dotted along valleys or clinging precariously to steep slopes. Marrakech itself could arguably be deemed two different cities; the medina dating all the way back to the 11th Century, full of dark and mysterious alleyways, with men in traditional djellabas, souk haggling and tiny cafés serving traditional mint tea; then the Ville Nouvelle and the modern parts of town, with broad and bright boulevards, modern shops and posh eateries, in stark contrast to the old medina. Although the latter is impressive, it’s within the walls of the medina that the Morocco of old reasserts itself and remains very much alive.

dried fruit and nuts at Jemaa el Fna

dried fruit and nuts at Jemaa el Fna

The place to observe everyday Marrakechi life is Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in the old town. Unimpressive in daylight, with numerous vehicles often speeding across it, come sunset, after the twilight call to prayer from nearby Koutoubia Mosque and the square turns into a night-time circus. At first it’s just mildly chaotic, but after awhile everyone turns up and there’s that blessed change of pace that occurs when a place ruled by vehicles, is taken over by people. Everyone mingles as dusk turns into darkness and, although undeniably touristy, this is also a place for the locals to meet, chat and, of course, eat. Come evening the barren square turns into what is surely one of the world’s best outdoor food courts, assembled from scratch each night and serving up everything from the ubiquitous tagines and couscous, to tasty merguez sausages and the local delicacy of sheep’s heads.

Suitably fortified on couscous and lamb, I headed off into the mountains the following morning after my introduction to Marrakech by night. Only an hour’s drive out of town the arid, flat scenery was changing rapidly and I found myself in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, a range stretching some 1,500 miles with Jbel Toubkal as its highest peak at 13,671 ft. My destination and starting point for the day’s hike was Asni, a large Berber settlement, on the outskirts of Toubkal national park. Following a dry river bed from Asni, up to another Berber village, Tassa Ouirgane, I stopped for a refreshing cup of traditional mint tea.

a colourful door in one of the Berber villages through which I passed - Torord

a colourful door in one of the Berber villages through which I passed – Torord

All Moroccan homes serve this brew and refusing it would be seen as a great affront, but why would you want to? Although exceedingly sweet, it’s gloriously tasty and restores the spirits after a brisk mountain hike. All sugared-up, I set off through a series of Berber villages on the other side of the river, this one flowing freely unlike the dried up remnants I’d originally been following. This was Berber country – the pre-Arab inhabitants of Morocco, with a culture and language very different from their fellow countrymen’s – and in many of the smaller villages the only language spoken was Berber. Although non-too-strenuous, my first day’s walk was a good intro to the sometimes uneven terrain and loose stones of the paths. I was happy to return to my abode in Marrakech overnight, before any more Atlas exercises.

The next day, after a sound sleep in my blessedly alcohol-free hotel (alcohol is best avoided at heights, I find) I headed out on my second, and possibly most spectacular, walk of the trip. The Ourika Valley lies just over an hour from Marrakech, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The sun was blazing down from a clear-blue sky as my vehicle rolled into Setti Fatma, the main village at the heart of the valley, to start the day’s trek. This turned out to be by far the most “hardcore” of the walks, zigzagging steadily upwards for an hour and a half.

looking down over the Ourika Valley

looking down over the Ourika Valley

I was suffering something of a Moroccan malaise that day, sadly and only by taking constant breathers could I make it up that hill, but the stunning views of Jbel Toubkal and its snowy brothers and sisters made it all worth my while. The views extending all across the Ourika Valley as I gingerly made my way back down again, were also to die for and I did, quite frankly, feel pretty dead by the time I made it back to Setti Fatma. Not even mint tea could revive me properly and the following day I opted for a day off in Marrakech before attempting any more hikes.

For my last hike of the trip I decided on something slightly less taxing – a hike along Kik (or Kiq) Plateau, at some 4,300 ft. Luckily it was possible to drive quite high up, so there was less need for scrambling uphill before starting the hike. The landscape here was quite different from before, much more arid and flat with shepherds herding their goats and sheep. It all looked so timeless I might as well have accidentally wandered back into biblical times. In the first village I passed through, a woman was taking out her ewe and two newborn lambs, adding a huge dollop of cuteness to my hike. I stopped for a mint tea at a Berber house in the area and then continued my ramble along the high plateau with beautiful views over Jbel Toubkal, before turning downhill, walking down to where my vehicle awaited me, quite a trek.

the Kik plateau

the Kik plateau

Back in Marrakech, after three long hikes in four days, there was only one place to be – the hammam. It was a small, nice and quiet female bathhouse, with two ladies taking turns in splashing, scrubbing and bucketing down all us females. Sitting on the ceramic floor I had water poured all over me until one of the “resident scrubber ladies” brillo-padded me rather violently with a black glove. I thought I’d got a bit of a tan, but it all came off in the scrubbing along with what felt like most of my skin. Once I’d been scrubbed while sitting up, I had the chance to lie down on my back, front and sides while the scrubbing continued relentlessly. More water splashing followed and then it was time to lie down on said floor for a rather brisk, but thorough and very hard, massage. That finished, my hair got washed as well, more buckets of water were thrown over me and I was done. For some bizarre reason I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When the mountains of Morocco weren’t beckoning, the hammam certainly did.

For more information about Morocco, click here.

Images and story © Anna Maria Espsäter


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