The vintage van struggled up a steep road in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains en route from Taroudant to Ouarzazate. The slow pace allowed us, 16 passengers stuffed into the non-too-comfortable vehicle, plenty of time to admire the striking brown, barren, rough mountain scenery all around. Suddenly smoke, great clouds of gray, spewed from the aged Mercedes. The driver stopped. We piled out while he made an inspection, then started the engine again. More smoke. It was clear we could go no farther, and we were many, many miles from a town.
This was just one of several misadventures on my three-day journey through southern Morocco following the ski meet (see previous blog entry). But, this turned into a delightful break from the discomforts of the trip.
While our guide, Khalil Zeguendi, made calls to line up alternate transportation, we took photos. Soon a crowd of women, heads wrapped in scarves, and children surrounded us. They were all smiles, and motioned for us to follow them into their “kasbah,” a collection of coral colored buildings around an open space. They ushered us into the “living room” of a home, a large room with cushioned benches all around and a table in the center. We learned the benches became beds at night.
They seemed elated to welcome us. They sprinkled us with rose water – a Moroccan tradition. They served us the traditional mint tea and nuts. They dressed one of our group in a fancy Moroccan headdress. They laughed when we showed them their photos on the camera screens.
We were having a joyous time when Khalil came to find us, upset that he had to look for us. A new “old” van had arrived so we could continue. It was even smaller than the original one, so Khalil had to fold himself up over the luggage in the back.
The trip had begun the previous day with departure from Marrakech. The first stop was Essaouira, an ancient fishing village of white buildings with bright blue fishing boats tied up at its harbor. It’s a windy place with hundreds of sea gulls soaring above. Khalil called it a “city of celebrities” as it was popular with musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles in the ‘60s.
We wandered through the souks, crammed with shops selling everything from carpets to ceramics, slippers to jewelry. Lunch at chez Sam, a harbor fish restaurant, was a treat. We lingered too long over bounteous platters of fish and seafood, and were running late. Khalil announced we would take a “shorter” inland route to our next destination, Taroudant.
The trip was endless. The road was narrow and not in great shape. It was also the truck route. The procession of monsters crept up the long hills like a parade of snails. Passing was out of the question. It grew dark. We were hungry. I longed to stretch my legs, also out of the question. We were in the wilderness. There was no where to stop.
It was after 11 p.m. when we arrived at the hotel in Taroudant where they had held dinner for us. We ate quickly and fell into bed.
Next morning, Sunday, we were supposed to have a carriage ride around the town’s well-preserved red mud walls, then time to browse the souks, said to be among the best in Morocco. The carriages never arrived. We set off to the souks on foot, only to learn that the shops did not open until much later. So much for Taroudant.
Next stop Ouarzazate. It was on this journey that the aged Mercedes gave up. At least we were traveling by day and could admire the starkly majestic scenery. Before the disaster, we stopped to photograph goats who climb argan trees to feed on the fruit. We made another stop at a co-op where we were supposed to learn about saffron production. Alas, it was closed. Khalil rounded up sandwiches at a local grocery. While we were picnicking, someone came to open the shop where at least we could buy saffron, Morocco’s famous and pricey spice. An enterprising young boy, arms laded with necklaces of pungent smelling eucalyptus seeds, suddenly appeared. He offered three strands for just two euro. Everyone made a purchase.
It was dinner time when we arrived in Ouarzazate, a town where numerous movies, including Lawrence of Arabia and Jewel of the Nile, have been made.
To make up for the traumas of the day, we opted to splurge at an excellent restaurant in the town, Relais Saint Exupery. I tried the Moroccan specialty, pastilla de pigeon, a sweet pigeon pie made with pastry layers stuffed with pigeon morsels, ground almonds and dusted with sugar. Proprietor Jean Pierre entertained us with stories about famous customers, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who, while on site making a movie, ate there “at least 20 times.”
After the disappointments of Sunday, Monday in Ouarzazate was glorious. We toured the town’s kasbah, Taorit, then drove – at last in a newer model, roomy van — outside town to visit two other kasbahs. Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site, is “the largest complex of packed earth buildings in Morocco,” according to my guidebook.
The pile of beige/pink buildings is clustered on a hill above a river. Rather than wade through the shallow water, some of us paid a euro to hop on a donkey for the trip across. Steps and narrow passageways between the buildings climb the hill, leading to openings, rooms to explore, then up and up to the summit for an amazing view.
The trip back to Marrakech over the mountains offered more incredible scenery. Marrakech is a lively, booming metropolis. It’s easy to get lost in the huge labyrinth of souks where I weakened to sales pressure and made a major purchase, a lovely rug.
Marrakech’s heart, Jemaa -l-Fina, is a circus to be experienced both day and night. Story tellers, musicians, snake charmers, women who body paint henna on customers, and other entertainers congregate in the large space, hoping to earn from tourists who must pay to take photos. At night, food vendors set up stands offering an amazing variety of grilled meats and other treats.
Away from the crazy, pulsating throng of people and action is a haven of peace and old world grandeur, the La Mamounia Hotel, a Moroccan institution where the rich and famous hang out. From Charlie Chaplain and Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela and Tom Cruise, the guest list is impressive. The gardens, lobby, pool, terraces and fountains – all are stunning. It’s a tourist attraction, and you can visit. A guide book advises being well dressed
This trip did have its “moments.” But I’d be happy to go back and see more of Morocco anytime.
For more photos, click on "More Morocco" under Photo Album in center column.