My trusted travel companion Grace and I decided to spend a few days in Morocco. She loves to browse the soukhs and to look at all the wonderful and colorful things (and also buy a few) and I love the variety of landscapes from mountains to desert to powdery beaches which one can cover within a matter of hours. And we both like the food and architecture.
So, the obvious starting point was Marrakesh. We couldn’t have chosen better with a beautiful boutique hotel called Riad Altair. It’s located in a tiny side alley of the Old Town and not easy to find, but, once you get the hang of where you are it’s conveniently close to all the wonderful sights.
As the name indicates, Riad Altair is a converted riad with only a few rooms, but each and every one appointed like a story right out of 1001 nights. Ample bathrooms with hammered silver sinks and racks of the finest lotions, soaps and oils, wood carved four poster beds and roses everywhere. The front door opens onto a typical Moroccan courtyard with a fountain and cushioned seats along the walls. Breakfast is served on the roof terrace with a fabulous view over the town which spread out below.
The first day was dedicated to wander around Marrakesh and get our fill of the smells, sounds and colors of the soukh, buying soft embroidered leather slippers, a few handmade silver bracelets and bottles of rose water, followed by dinner in a ‘hole in the wall’ where we had the best chicken tagine we have ever tasted. Sitting as the only foreigners among the locals on a rickety little table, a bit of newspaper as tablecloth and napkins we enjoyed our food with our fingers like everybody else, even as the considerate owner rummaged around in his drawer and came up with – one! - fork to make it easier for us. So as not to offend him, we alternated, sharing the fork between us and helping matters along with our fingers.
The next day however called for adventure. I wanted to visit the desert town of Ouarzazate, famous for its red Kasbah as well as having featured in many Hollywood movies like Laurence of Arabia, The 10 commandments and more. Even better than Ouarzazate itself was the way of getting there, which leads south/east from Marrakesh through the highest peeks of the Atlas mountains, some of them snow covered year round.
The hotel hired a car and driver for us as we both are not great fans of organized tours. We like to stop where we want, see what we like and to deviate from tour routes whenever we see something interesting along the way.
Our driver was a Berber and they of course make up the majority of the mountain population. It must be something in their blood which makes them familiar with the territory so that they can find their way with their eyes practically closed. There is no other explanation how our driver could (often one handed) manage one of the most hair raising, winding and – yes- dangerous routes of the entire country. The road starts harmlessly enough in a straight line out of Marrakesh, but as soon as the foothills of the Atlas mountains hove into view, the rollercoaster begins. Hairpin turns which make you think that you are going over the edge any moment, drops so steep, you can’t even see the bottom, in short, an adventure trip of the first order. All rewarded by absolutely fabulous views, mountain villages with the typical red mud houses and Oleander bushes and trees in a sin fin of colors along the river Draa.
Four and a half hours later we reached Ouarzazate and recovered at the pool of the Berbere Palace Hotel where you can buy a day pass for approx. $30 and enjoy the pool and other facilities as well as a delicious lunch and soft drinks.
The Berbere Palace is also a point of pilgrimage for movie fans. Original props from the movies made in Ouarzazte as well as pictures and costume are exhibited in the foyer, the hall and even in the beautiful gardens.
After our swim, we visited the huge kashbah and then embarked on the rollercoaster back to Marrakesh, the last part of it in the pitch black dark. Our driver sang happily along and we just thought: maybe we will get back in one piece, Inshallah.