Marrakech and Beyond
From Ensemble Vacations Magazine - Winter 2019
When my friend Diane and I traveled to Morocco, we met up in Fez where our friend Kim lives in the center of the Medina. We checked into the 17th-century Riad Idrissy, which was restored by English expat Robert Johnstone, a former maître d' at The Wolseley in London. According to Johnstone, the painstaking restoration took “five donkeys five months.” The riad is immediately inviting with cozy interior courtyards, stained glass windows, tiled floors, ornately painted ceilings, and vibrant handwoven textiles. The restaurant, The Ruined Garden, is set in a prettily dilapidated courtyard. It serves delicious home-smoked salmon, and if you order in advance, slow-roasted Lamb Mechoui that falls off the bone.
We wandered through the 9,000 winding alleys of the ancient quarter visiting artisans who were crafting copper tagine pots and weaving rugs as their ancestors had. I purchased a traditional ras-al-hanout spice blend and orange blossom perfumed Argan oil. Our guide, a compact cheery fellow named Momo, led us through the narrow alleys to the Berrada Family Restaurant, a hole-in-the wall where the grandfather takes you into the kitchen and gives you three spoons so you can taste the lamb, beef, and meatball tagines. Diane and Kim had lamb and I had spicy vegetable stew. Both were delicious. After lunch, we stopped by the Medina Children’s Library during story time and saw the kids faces light up as a volunteer read a book in Arabic. The library was founded by ex-pats (including Kim) and is supported by donations from visitors.
From Fez, we took a day trip to the whitewashed hillside city of Moulay Idriss, second only to Mecca as Islam’s holiest city. The sacred city was once closed to non-Muslim visitors and Edith Wharton, who visited in 1919, claimed she was the first foreigner to witness the town's moussem religious festival. Muslims who are unable to make the pilgrimage to Mecca are allowed to substitute six visits to Moulay Idriss. From Moulay Idriss, we went to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis and then to Meknes, where we toured the vineyards of Domaine de la Zouina and had a tasting with the French owner, Christophe Gribelin. The vineyard’s most interesting wine is vin gris, a traditional Moroccan pale rosé that pairs beautifully with spicy food.
The next day, Diane and I took our leave from Kim and met our lovely driver Rashid, who would spend the next week with us. Our first stop was Ifrane, a small town in the Middle Atlas Mountains. At 5,460 feet above sea level, Ifrane, is known as “The Switzerland of Morocco” because of its alpine-style chalets and ski slopes. We spent the night in Merzouga, the gateway to the Sahara, as the next morning, we had an exhilarating yet terrifying hour-and-a-half camel ride to Ali and Sara’s Desert Camp. Camels are very sure-footed but when you’re bouncing on their back as they navigate sand dunes, it doesn’t always feel that way. As we arrived, Diane’s camel leaned down on its forearms and my camel followed suit causing me to tumble off. Fortunately I was uninjured and we enjoyed a Moroccan feast, after which we joined Berber drummers in a sing-a-long around the campfire. Just as fortunately, we drove back to catch up with Rashid by 4x4 rather than by camel.
We drove through palm orchards to Ouarzazate. The city’s rugged landscape is one of Hollywood’s favorite sets and both Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones were filmed there. Diane and I spent the night at Dar Ahlam, a boutique hotel set in a renovated kasbah located in a palm grove on the edge of the desert. Dar Ahlam means “House of Dreams” and its concept centers its experience on the idea of surprise, so guests never know where their meals will take place. We had cocktails on the rooftop
as the sun slipped below the horizon and dinner in a stone grotto lit with hundreds of candles.
Leaving the desert, we passed through the High Atlas Mountains en route to Marrakech, where we checked into the legendary La Mamounia Hotel. It’s easy to see why this elegant Moorish-inspired palace was one of Winston Churchill’s favorite hotels. As dusk fell, we headed out to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square of the ancient, walled Medina that comes alive at night with snake charmers, monkey tamers, and food vendors selling everything from fresh vegetable salads to boiled sheep’s heads. (We both had salads.) Last year, two museums devoted to the life and work of Yves Saint Laurent opened; one in Paris; the other in Marrakech. Diane and I visited the Marrakech outpost which showcases stunning pieces from Saint Laurent.
From Marrakech, we drove to the fortified 18th-century port city of Essaouria on the Atlantic coast. We saw Morocco’s famous tree-dwelling goats who perch precariously in the Argan trees. The walled city of Essaouria, with its whitewashed, blue-shuttered houses, is known for woodworkers who create exquisite inlaid pieces made from the mahoganylike Thuya wood that grows only in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. From Essaouria, we drove up the coast to Oualidia where we enjoyed sensational oysters freshly plucked from the ocean in a Berber tent at La Sultana, an exquisite hotel set in a Neo-Moorish fort.
Our final stop was Casablanca where we visited the world’s third largest mosque, built to commemorate the 60th birthday of the former king, Hassan II. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Moorish-style mosque is dominated by its 700-foot minaret (said to be the world’s tallest). It was built by over 10,000 craftsmen and took over six years to complete.
That night, as Diane and I toasted our trip with a bottle of vin gris, we couldn’t believe it had only been ten days. We drove through the majestic Atlas mountains, walked through souks and palm groves, and sunbathed on sandy beaches. We haggled with craftsmen, giggled with young children, enjoyed fantastic food, visited vineyards and ancient ruins and all in all, had the time of our lives. And yet, we didn’t get to Paul Bowle’s adopted home, the Mediterranean port city of Tangiers. We didn’t travel far south enough to see Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain. And we didn’t get to experience the ethereal blue city of Chefchaouen. I can’t wait to go back.
For more information on booking a trip to Morocco, connect with me by phone (602.540.7338) or email to get started.
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Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder