Moroccan Adventure through Mountains, Deserts and Souks

May 2016

So it’s been a while since my last travel blog but this one is worth the wait! We’re in Marrakech, Morocco! Read on to see what happened when we got stuck in the Atlas Mountains overnight…

Day One

I’m not alone on this trip as I am with my boyfriend Phil and we’ve come here for a week. I had heard it’s best to come with a male so that you don’t get harassed. So far I’ve only had one guy put his hand near my bum in the crowded square, and to be honest it may have been accidental from being so packed. Actually the men haven’t been as annoying as they were in Paris (although I was more naive then and tried to be polite with everyone). The offers are mainly for directions or selling goods, to which we just respond with a head shake.

When we arrived our airport transfer dropped us in the medina and the riad owner lead us to our riad. Because of plumbing issues in our bathroom we got to stay in a different riad and had very hospitable owners. Our new bathroom was huge and I felt like some kind of Moroccan Queen.

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We tackled the souks first because I needed a satchel. I bartered 25 dirham off the bag, which was only like 20% off. Apparently you’re meant to try for 50% off by the end of the haggle, which can go on for 15 minutes if you desire it to. I did not. So I just said fine and paid that, which is worked out to be about £6. Fine with me!

After that, we saw the snake charmers in the square and Phil gave a VERY uneasy laugh as the snake’s assistant spotted him. Phil wasn’t having any of that. Now that I’ve teased him about this fear of snakes he’s claiming that he wants to see the snake now. All talk. Seeing the monkeys on chains is very sad. They’re even wearing football shirts.

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For dinner we went back to the square and got vege tagines. It was actually a really affordable place overlooking the crowds at the square whilst listening to the drumming going on nearby. It turns out I really love vege tagines too.

We went to sleep easily as the riads are so peaceful. The only thing is that at 4am a call to prayer sounds which rings out across the city. I went back to sleep after 30 minutes while Phil amazingly slept through it.

Day Two

The next day we set off early on a tour of the mountain village of Imlil. We went with another couple from England and were driven out to the Atlas Mountains. On our way we stopped at an Argan Oil shop to see how they made the oil. I wanted to buy some but I only had enough dirhams for lunch and the tour. Once we got to Imlil the local guide Hussein took us on a two hour walk through the mountain to stop for mint tea and see waterfalls. It was fascinating to discuss his life there with him. He had just met his wife at a nearby village and got married last year. He also showed us photos of the intense snowfall from last winter. Hard to believe we were in the same hot 28 degrees place now. It’s amazing how connected to technology they are up there. People get mules to carry loads of grass for their pet sheep and goats and yet they also have smart phones and credit card machines at the shops along the mountain track.

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After that hike we had a really good berber omelette, Moroccan salad and melon. I  may spend this whole blog writing about food.

For dinner we went to a rooftop terrace to eat more vege tagines and couscous while watching the sunset. The waiters had a joke they’d concocted in which they told Phil his meal was a fish tagine. As a vegetarian we tried to explain that’s not what he ordered. Then, with a flourish, they lifted the lid and announced “Vegetable Couscous!” Oh how we laughed. We even got to see them try the same joke on another couple. They let it go longer this time with the woman getting a bit angry. Luckily they also saw the funny side as the waiters revealed the correct meal! Moroccan humour ay?
So overall a pretty good day!

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Day Three

We walked to the Majorelle Gardens which is stunning with its cobalt blue accents, followed by strolling to the Gueliz and finally back to our new riad for a dip in the plunge pool. I see why they call it “plunge”. It’s rather cold so that’s the only way to get in it!

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Some thoughts I have about Marrakech so far:

  • We’re generally confused in every conversation with others. So now we’re just used to being in a generally confused state.
  • The longer and louder you toot your car horn the more likely you are to get to move forward in the traffic jam. It doesn’t seem to annoy fellow road users. It just let’s them know you are more eager to move than others so they’ll get out your way happily. Cue incessant horn blarings all day.
  • There are pedestrian crossings in the new town but drivers ignore them so you just wait for a gap and run!
  • There are so many cats and kittens in the lanes that are really cute.
  • Leave any sense of self-entitlement at home. The lanes in the medina are crazy and scooters zip past all the time, opportunists want your money as a tourist, it all would be a bit unsettling if you let it be. But really you just go with it. The hospitality and service here is generally excellent but even if it’s not, you’re not at home so just go with whatever happens. I’m amazed how some people can write on TripAdvisor that a restaurant was “nothing special” when they serve tagines. Clearly that reviewer aka self-appointed restaurant connoisseur has no idea how lucky they are to get to travel here…
  • Wearing full length clothing to be modest is really hot and I feel really sorry for Muslim women!

Another highlight so far is that I poked Phil in the eye after a rather large finger pointing gesticulation. He’s ok luckily. We just go with it.

For dinner that night we met up with friends and both realised that we were headed to Ouarzazate the next day!

Day Four

We met our driver, Yuseen (though I’m not sure on spelling) who was the same guy from Monday’s trip and headed out to Ouarzazate. Who should we happen to see on our first coffee stop? Our two friends! It turns out that our driver Yuseen was friends with him so we combined our two tours into one and spent the day with them. We started at the Ouarzazate film museum in which you could see film sets and props from a lot of religious films. Then we got lunch and went to a Kasbah tour. This is where they filmed Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, lots of desert scenes for Game of Thrones and some other deserty films!

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By then it was about 4pm and we had a four hour drive home so we set off back over the Atlas Mountains. The clouds were getting darker and we suddenly felt huge hail stones hit the car. We pulled over and waited. Once it cleared we set off again but the storm had already caused landslides onto the only road on the mountain. We got blocked by one and waited for the car to try getting across. It was tricky having to drive over the huge rocks and then not get stuck in mud or sink into the flooded water. Eventually we made it across but we realised that we still had 3.5 hours to travel across this windy mountain road… We weren’t sure it would be easy or even possible. After many more tricky landslide crossings the storm worsened as the sun set. There was rain, thunder, lightning, wind and full cloud cover from being up so high.

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By 8:30pm, as it was getting dark, Yuseen called it and pulled up into a restaurant when another hail storm hit. We got out the car to hear people screaming looking at the power pole which was violently waving in the wind. I looked up and realised the wire could come crashing down on us if we didn’t move. Yuseen and Phil stood ahead of me on the other side of a flood and called me to them to get out the way. I hurriedly ran over to them and we huddled together. We weren’t wearing the warmest gear since we had dressed for a hot day in the desert. I was grateful for the Muslim respectful dress code as it meant I was wearing a Cardigan to cover my shoulders and beach trousers to cover my legs.

When the wind calmed down we ran into the restaurant and were immediately treated to top knotch Moroccan hospitality. We got blankets and mint tea. Then we sat while other tour parties arrived and their tour guides all talked together discussing their game plan. Phil and I can’t speak French so we just sat patiently, happy to be indoors!

It was decided that we’d stay the night as it was too dangerous to try tackling the rest of the journey in this extreme weather, in the dark when landslides were still occurring. Amazingly, because we’d stopped at their restaurant, they offered us a menu and we got vege tagines. Yuseen heard me mentioning that the fries on the other table looked nice so he ordered me those too! By 10:45pm we’d had a really good meal and many of the dining chairs were actually long sofas so we decided to sleep on them with our blankets, using the big moroccan cushions as pillows. I had a surprisingly good sleep!

Day Five

By morning the storm had cleared but there was a bit of uncertainty about whether the road ahead was clear. We heard that we may have to turn back go via Agadir, which would take probably 10 or more hours. Everyone still spoke French so it was hard to know what was going on. Then our friends arrived in the restaurant car park. We hadn’t seen them behind us since crossing our last landslide last night. They explained that their car got stuck behind us and eventually a guy from the Army went over to them to get them out as it wasn’t safe to stay in the car. So they got out to walk to the nearest restaurant 5kms away. As Alex was only wearing sandals her feet sunk into the mud so Ryan carried her through, but then they both fell and she cut her arm. A first aid kit was on hand in the car so she got treated. When they reached the restaurant it was midnight so they got a hot soup but as Phil and I listened we felt even more grateful for our comfortable night. Alex and Ryan had a much rougher night than we did.

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As we waited this morning, some cars pulled up from the direction we were intending to go and said the road was clear! So we set off through the mountains for Marrakech. As we went we could see where diggers had worked through the night to clear the landslides and we still had to drive cautiously over them. We also saw where chucks of road had just broken off, forcing the road to one lane. Yuseen signalled to oncoming cars to alert them to expect it. And if we hadn’t had enough incidents already, the blinding glare of being up in the clouds meant Yuseen couldn’t see properly. Fortunately we had sunglasses he could borrow!

Finally by 12:30pm we made it back! We were really grateful not only to be alive, well and back in Marrakech, but to our driver, the restaurant owners and everyone else caught up in this incident who made us so feel comfortable. When we were planning our trip a few months ago, Phil had said he’d like to do a tour where you spend a night in the mountains, but after considering the itinerary, we decided to book the day trip. He ended up getting his wish though!

As we drove into the medina, Yuseen asked us “we were still up for our day trip to Ouzoud Waterfalls on Friday?”

You bet!

When we got back we were a bit knackered from the whole ordeal so we rested until the evening. This meant we didn’t get a chance to see the Palaces or for Phil to get his Hammam but I didn’t really mind because we had still packed in so many activities into the trip regardless. For dinner we went to the only vegan restaurant in Marrakech and had a rice and lentil dish (which went really well with sugar free mint tea). And then through a walk in the Souks where Phil got a fez. Not sure when he plans on wearing that.

Day Six

Our last day in Marrakech was a trip to Ouzoud Waterfalls! Our guide took us to all the lookout points and then we got a boat across the river and past the waterfall. It was neat to get so close to it. On the other side we got lunch which was a vege tagine again. Can’t complain though because they are delicious and you get bread, salad and olives to start followed by melon to finish.

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We were hoping to spot a few monkeys in the trees so were amazed to discover them all sitting on the paths jumping on tourists! There were many locals putting peanuts on people’s shoulders to get the monkeys to climb up on them. It was so cool to see them in their natural habitat rather than a zoo or chained up in the square. We found it really hard to leave them behind!

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That was a brilliant end to the holiday and we went back to the medina afterwards for dinner and a final wander through the souks.

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Farewell Marrakech and thank you for looking after us!

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