Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Take Me to the Kasbah - Exploring Morocco's Atlas Mountains

More from No Crowds reporter, Penny, on how to explore the Atlas mountains of  Morocco in grand style. 

From our balcony at the Kasbah du Toubkal, we looked across the valley to the summit of Mount Toubkal and spent our first evening just listening to the call to prayer echoing and repeating village to village.  By day, you can walk in the mountains – with or without a guide, with or without a mule to help you on the climb.  You can walk the 10-11 km to a “nearby” lodge above a traditional village inaccessible by car (and devoid of the sounds of cars) and come back the next day.  You can arrange to climb to the summit of Toubkal itself.  

But we didn’t find it easy to leave the Kasbah – why not just sit in one of the towers (your choice again – windows or open air?  Wind or no wind?) and play chess, drink mint tea, watch the hawks and the mountain crows, listen.  By night, the candle-lit dinners, romantic or gregarious – choose the spot you prefer.  Figure out what you want once you get there – that’s what we did.  It would have spoiled the whole thing to have too many plans.

We booked through Kerrie at Discover Ltd, who was incredibly patient as our plans changed repeatedly due to work schedules, volcanic ash and whim.  And Lahcan, the ever-available concierge-and–everything-else at Toubkal made sure it all worked on the ground.  Mule?  No mule? Are you sure 20 kilometres up and down in one day with no mule?  Did you enjoy dinner?  Answer -- How could we not? (Lahcan had arranged last-minute accommodation, meals and lots besides in the village for a group of UK students trapped by Eyiafiallajokull – we eavesdropped as their teacher, finally departing, asked, all but in tears, “Is it all right if I hug you??”)

Are we allowed to say that one of the pleasures of the stay was the crowd we fell in with?  Met some interesting people from all over, great conversation, great company – Sometimes just a small crowd is a pleasure….

If you think you are going to need some liquid relaxant, you will need to bring it along to the Kasbah.  Set-up will be provided, but alcohol will not be sold or served.  We really like our wine, but we didn’t miss it at Toubkal.  There was plenty of intoxication on offer without …substances.

Also recommended:

In Marrakesh:

  • Small, romantic Riad Demueres D’Orient.   Despite our late arrival, dinner was ready – little Moroccan salads of aubergine, zucchini and chick peas followed by melt-in-your mouth pastille.  All in the candle-lit dining room, fire roaring, looking out onto the garden.  Our room was lovely and quirky, the staff welcoming and genuine.  Highly recommended.
  • Over –the-top luxury at Riad el Finn.  Can I just say that I am now a fan of leather floors?  This Vanessa Bronson-owned combination of three former houses was the venue of the birthday party that was the instigation of the trip.  Multiple garden areas, including a roof terrace for breakfast and sunbathing, a well-stocked library, hand-loomed carpets everywhere,  tea served at 4 under palms (and with terrapins), understanding bartender Abdul, two swimming pools.  Many of the  rooms are huge, with indoor and outdoor anterooms.  Ours featured 20 foot carved ceilings, a sunken marble bathtub and those  leather floors.  With all of this quiet beauty – the sounds of birds and fountains throughout – and the marvellous food, once again I was not as eager to explore Marrakesh itself as I should have been.  Just let me stay here!!

If you are going out towards Ouarzazate, we can recommend Ksar Ighnda, with the caveat that if there are any crowds there, you will be able to hear them.  If you go out the back way, you find yourself in an oasis garden.  It is less than 40 acres, but due to an ingenious and probably ancient irrigation system, you can find a typical morroccan meal growing – carrots, barley, maize, plums, apricots, irises, palms and then olives and  herbs, until it gives out onto the desert.   Overlooking all is Ait Benhaddou, a Kasbah seen most recently in “Gladiator”, and still partially inhabited.  As for the crowds, avoid room 303, which sits in an echo chamber above the bar – although once awakened, we looked up, out our door, to a deep blue sky and stars so close that it was hard to believe that we were on the ground at all. 

Recommended reading:

“In Arabian Nights” by Tahir Shah – Stories recently gathered in the medinas of Fez and Marrakech by the author of “The Caliph’s House”

“A year in Marrakesh” Peter Mayne – the year was 1952, but it’s fun to imagine the streets  as they were then, as you walk down them now.

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