Through the senses
Morocco offers incomparable richness, its beauty soaring as high as the mountain passes you will traverse as you cross the Atlas Mountains during your visit. This country, at once delicate and harsh, lustrous and dusty, flowering and parched, will delight your senses and challenge your understanding of the way people live, think, and interact with their histories. The itinerary I have planned for you embraces the notion of authenticity: I have provided you with chances to interact with those who live here, walking the streets they walk, braving the desert passages they brave, and experiencing the music they play.
Day 1: Casablanca
You will be met at the airport in Casablanca by Omar, your driver, and guide. Drive towards Fez, stopping en route at Volubilis, the site of some wonderful Roman ruins lying at the foot of Jebel Zerhoun. Volubilis was the residence of King Juba II who reigned between 25BC and 23AD. Most lovely about the site is the quiet and emptiness of it, an unusual environment in which to appreciate the wonderfully elaborate and fanciful mosaic floors, still remarkably intact. After lunching at the site, you will continue on to Fez, the oldest of Morocco’s former Imperial Cities and, to this day, a city with great gravitas and sense of self. Check into Le Jardin des Biehn, a luxurious riad created by the Provencal master of interiors.
Day 2: Fez
You will start your day in the early morning when the light is at its best. By car, leave the modern city and take the scenic drive along the high walls of the medina. Stop at the Merinid Tombs which, at the highest point in the city, offer you a superb view and the opportunity to grasp the layout of the city.
After this overview, return to your riad for a light lunch in the garden and to prepare for the onslaught of the Maghreb’s largest medina. With the aid of Omar’s guidance, you can feel free to lose yourselves in the labyrinth of narrow streets, swirling in sounds and color and smells. There are few landmarks that will stay with you, so simply enjoy the throbbing tempo, the sometimes overpowering, always fascinating press of life that makes this ancient city one of UNESCO’s world cultural treasures. You will most certainly pass through the spice market and the tannery quarter. Keep your eye out for the blue and white ceramics for which Fez is renowned. Enjoy the carpets tenting the narrow alleyways and notice the finely carved doors and lintels of merchant workshops and shops.
A word of advice: Stay together and move with purpose. The moment you dawdle, look confused or bewildered, the children and young men descend on you, to guide you to the best deal or, simply, to try out their English. Of course, this also means that interactions with locals will not be hard to come by! Return to the hotel and have a hammam this evening. Rest and in the late evening, head to La Maison Bleue in the medina for dinner.
Day 3: On to Marrakech
You will fly this morning into Marrakech. There, you will be met by the staff of Jnane Tamsna. Meryanne and Gary Martin own this glorious property in the Palmeraie, the palm grove, 15 minutes from the city proper of Marrakech. Meryanne is the doyenne of interior design in Marrakech and has a huge sense of style, grounded in deep knowledge of the iconography and artisanry of Morocco. Jnane Tamsna has charm and grace, splendid gardens (Gary is a renowned ethnobotanist) and splendor.
This, then, is the key to your days in Marrakech—“a simple life amidst great splendor.” You will be left alone for the rest of your day, to swim in one of the pools, ride, play tennis, read under the swaying trees, stroll through the organic gardens, or have a hammam or massage. If you can tear yourself away from this bit of paradise, you could play a round of golf ten minutes away or drive into town. Dinner where you wish—in town or at the palace in the palm grove.
Day 4: Botany and beyond
A morning of exploration of the city’s geographic and historic importance through visits to Marrakech’s monuments and gardens. You will wind up at the Terrace des Epices, where Gary Martin will meet you for an escorted afternoon walk through the souks. An American ethnobotanist, Gary has developed the Global Diversity Foundation, an organization that seeks to promote global agricultural, biological and cultural diversity. The foundation has worked tirelessly in Marrakech and, to aid the Foundation, Gary has developed Diversity Excursions, a menu of carefully tailored and intelligently guided excursions into areas of the foundation’s interest. Today, Gary will help you discover the incredible array of herbs, spices, oils and fruits found in Marrakech’s souks that form the basis of Moroccan recipes. Dinner tonight as you wish.
Day 5: Architecture and design
A day steeped in Moroccan architecture, design and craftsmanship will start with visits to the Palais Bahia and the Dar Si Said Museum in the company of Meryanne Loum-Martin, expert of Moroccan style and design. Once grounded in the classic and traditional, Meryanne will open the doors to private houses so that you can see how the traditional has been adapted to modern tastes. Lunch in the Medina and, afterward, spend the afternoon in the souks—particularly in the Souk Semmarine, an area known for its antiques. Here you can shop for jewelry, caftans, wrought iron–whatever you desire.
Day 6: A foray to Essaouira
Essaouira–the Mogador of old–is the former Portuguese port located on the Atlantic Ocean. Swept by ocean winds, this charming walled city is quite different from all others in Morocco. Walk through the sun-drenched streets of the Medina before going out to the Argan Biosphere Reserve, where you will visit a women’s cooperative that produces argan oil, a product of great versatility and importance. This visit will provide you with a chance to touch upon many issues of current interest, including the role of conservation in the less developed nations and the roles for women in an Islamic country. In the late afternoon, return to Marrakech for a hammam and dinner in Jnane Tamsna’s garden.
Day 7: Southward to the Sahara
Travel south today—over the High Atlas—south to the desert, to dreams of caravans, Bedu tents, shifting sands and bruised skies. Wind along precipitous roads behind the odd truck, protected with the ubiquitous “hand of Farima” on its tailgate. Red laterite mountain crests merge with mauve slopes in the distance; snow-capped peaks vanish and reappear through swirling cloud. Mountain landscapes metamorphose into moonscapes as you reach the southern shoulder of the range and, in the earth’s crevices, run emerald valleys of dates and wheat. Stop, get out, and walk through an oasis, savoring the cool and the wet, understanding, finally, what a haven of peace, tranquility, and shade it provides the desert peoples.
Move on again, the road stretching toward Ouarzazate, a crenelated adobe Kasbah standing watch here and there over a landscape that begins to smell, even, of the desert. Marvel at Ait Benhaddou, so picture-perfect that the movie industry, deeply rooted in Ouarzazate, uses it for their perfect set design. Keep pushing onwards, munching on dates, through the Draa Valley, palm groves, ksours and Kasbahs leading the way to Zagora and its Wednesday market. Finally free of the car’s confines, wander the market and hunker down with some of the Blue People for a serious game of bargaining over Tuareg silver and leather charms, amber and cloth. But first, buy a cheich, that remarkably versatile muslin cloth, and get a graceful young man with nimble fingers to teach you how to wind it, turban-style, around your head.
Finally free of the car’s confines, wander the market and hunker down with some of the Blue People for a serious game of bargaining over Tuareg silver and leather charms, amber and cloth. But first, buy a cheich, that remarkably versatile muslin cloth, and get a graceful young man with nimble fingers to teach you how to wind it, turban-style, around your head.
In the late afternoon, lose yourself in the erg, the Sahara’s sand dunes. Here, the late afternoon sun will cast long shadows across these lightly rippled flanks of sand. This is a time for yourself—perhaps one of the most alone moments, one of the most deeply peaceful moments, you will ever experience in your lifetime. Sleep tonight under canvas or, better still, under the stars of the universe.
Day 8: Desert endurance
Desert nights are bitter cold, and it is hard to shed the warm blankets at dawn. Still, the best time to be on the road is early when the sunrise brings shades of pink and gold to the sky. Mindful of this beckoning beauty, rise early. With a steaming cup of mint tea and the cheich firmly in place, begin another long day in your 4-wheel drive. You will retrace your steps to Zagora and a bit beyond before turning east towards Alnif, driving “cross desert.” The drive is beautiful, but even beautiful drives become long. You will have to be patient, drink lots of water, listen to music, and learn to like dates. You’ve spoken of your desire to experience Morocco authentically, and this drive will help you know both the beauty and the challenges of this place.
You will retrace your steps to Zagora and a bit beyond before turning east towards Alnif, driving “cross desert.” The drive is beautiful, but even beautiful drives become long. You will have to be patient, drink lots of water, listen to music, and learn to like dates. You’ve spoken of your desire to experience Morocco authentically, and this drive will help you know both the beauty and the challenges of this place.
By the time you move from M’Hamid to Alnif, Alnif to Rissani, and Rissani to Erfoud, the tarmac has ceded to sand. The light becomes beautiful; the desert is pristine, empty and strong. But, you are cramped and even the camel herd in the distance and the lovely young child who tries, trackside, to sell you a camel toy she has made, does little to amuse. At Erfound, there is a sign, I think, (but even I, at this point, was tired of looking) for Auberge Derkaoua. Green sticks line a track that you will follow and, one half hour later, a charming, rambling, ‘Kasbah meets Provence’ establishment appears, surrounded by flowers, trees and green!
At Erfound, there is a sign, I think, (but even I, at this point, was tired of looking) for Auberge Derkaoua. Green sticks line a track that you will follow and, one half hour later, a charming, rambling, ‘Kasbah meets Provence’ establishment appears, surrounded by flowers, trees and green!
On arrival, you will be greeted warmly and taken to your room—all quirky, fun and, at this point, heavenly. A shower in the desert is perhaps one of life’s great luxuries. Take one—a hot one—and then, with a drink, sit in the garden and breathe in the flowering oleander and eucalyptus. And, with the dust and the tiredness washed away, go in for a dinner that, just like the auberge, mixes the Gallic and the Moroccan to perfection. A delicious couscous, a fine cheese, warm baguette, lemon tart, good, hearty wine.
Day 9: Rejuvenation
You will probably wish to spend the day in the swimming pool, resting in the garden, walking, painting, reading, writing, or talking to your hosts. Make sure, though, that, come late afternoon, you head down to the dunes of Merzouga. You will probably not be alone; Merzouga is a “spot” that is well known for its sunsets (I can think of others: Kuta beach in Bali, for one), and though it requires some travel to reach, it is worth it. Who knows when you will get back to the Sahara and, looking off towards the southern horizon, you can block out the rest of the world and dream of space, Bedu tents, caravans, the salt trade, and the Blue People. More importantly, you will be humbled—a self so small in the vastness of space and time.
Who knows when you will get back to the Sahara and, looking off towards the southern horizon, you can block out the rest of the world and dream of space, Bedu tents, caravans, the salt trade, and the Blue People. More importantly, you will be humbled—a self so small in the vastness of space and time.
You will probably not be alone; Merzouga is a “spot” that is well known for its sunsets (I can think of others: Kuta beach in Bali, for one), and though it requires some travel to reach, it is worth it. Who knows when you will get back to the Sahara and, looking off towards the southern horizon, you can block out the rest of the world and dream of space, Bedu tents, caravans, the salt trade, and the Blue People. More importantly, you will be humbled—a self so small in the vastness of space and time.
Day 10: Scenic trekking
Back on the road this morning but this is a different kind of drive: tarmac, first of all, and many beautiful places to stop along the way. At Tinejdad, stop for an early morning coffee at the Galerie d’Art. Zaid, its proprietor, is a gallant, gracious gentleman who has been collecting for more than half a century. The eight or ten rooms in his house are loosely devoted to a particular kind of item—artifacts of the Blue People, semi-precious jewelry, textiles and clothing, ceramics, brass pots and bowls, baskets. He loves to assist, not just in the selling of an object but, more importantly, in the “telling” of an object.
Enjoy the cool of the morning, the cappuccino, the surrounding cultural richness and then move on to the Todra Gorges. By the time you arrive at Todra it will be close to lunchtime. You must park the car at the mouth of the gorge and walk deep into the cavern. The temperatures change dramatically as you penetrate the canyon so continue your walk up into the gorges to warm up before returning to the small hotel and restaurant which offers food and drink.
In the early afternoon, you will arrive in Ouarzazate. Your charter plane will be on hand to meet you and fly you to Taroudant’s private airstrip. Upon arrival, a car and driver from The Gazelle d’Or will transfer you to the hotel. Dine at the hotel this evening.
Days 11-13: Taroudant
The Gazelle d’Or is a famous property. Once the private home of a French nobleman who used to come down to the oasis to bird shoot, it has long-since been turned into a hotel of the utmost comfort and discretion. Situated in an oasis of flowering orange groves, roses and very old, venerable trees, you will find yourself in a small corner of paradise for the next three days.
You need never leave your bungalow but, if you choose to, there is a fair amount to do: enjoy the lovely pool and marvelous poolside buffet set out each lunchtime; tennis and horseback riding; brief excursions to Tiout and Freija; walks through the crenellated walled city of Taroudant and its really quite manageable souks. But most of all, enjoy the quiet, the perfume of flowering orange and roses and the wonderful piano playing of Adam Stevenson, the gifted general manager of the property.
After spending your days on the property enjoying the sun, the bird song, the simple but charming hammam, leave the hotel on foot in the cool of the late afternoon and head into the souks of Taroudant.
Walk once through the souks without buying a thing. Attune your eye to the specialties of this region—good carpets, nice babouches (leather mule slippers), good wood sculpture and some very good Berber jewelry. On the second run through, keep your eye out for the antique shop of Lichire el Houcine at 36, Souk Semata, L’Art du Bois at #43 Jnane Jamaa, and Aladin Treasure at #31, Block B. The Gazelle d’Or also has a very good gallery/shop where you can be sure of the authenticity of your purchases…though buying in a hotel lacks some of the thrills of the markets!
Day 14: Over the Atlas peaks
Today you have one of the world’s great drives ahead of you. This six-hour journey over the High Atlas Mountains back to Marrakech will take you through the Tizi N’Test Pass, a vertiginous road with plenty of switchbacks and offering extraordinary views. Throughout these high reaches, you will see Berber villages perched on the slopes, surrounded by their step irrigation systems that have been so extensively studied. It should be green and fresh, the trees blossoming, the gardens ripening
Stop for lunch at La Roseraie, a hotel of certain charm that has been a fixture in the Ouirgane Valley for many years. The lush vegetation, beautiful gardens, bracing air and warming sun make this a lovely lunch spot. Continue on after lunch into Marrakech, returning to Jnane Tamsna where you will spend your last two nights.
Day 15: Conversations
Hatim Ahm will meet you this morning at the hotel. Hatim—my personal guide and friend—is as tall as a basketball player, and, dressed in beautifully tailored suits, is very self-possessed. He is available to accompany wherever you would like to go—into the souks again, through the new city, Gueliz, with its very upscale shops, like Yahya or Moor (stop for a pastry at Patisserie Traiteur Ajawda at 11 Rue de la Liberte in Gueliz), or out into the countryside.
Most importantly, however, is the opportunity you both will have today to talk, share ideas, and weave a web of connectedness.
Day 16: A musical farewell
Today, spend most of the day at leisure, exploring those corners and hidden gems that perhaps you have noted over the course of your time in the city but have not yet explored.
In the evening, I have arranged a farewell Oriental dinner in the gardens of Jnane Tamsna with Gnawa and Andaluz musicians. For some, music lingers the longest in the imagination. Tomorrow, you will be departing Morocco with a sense memory filled to overflowing.
Florian, it has been my pleasure to plan this Moroccan itinerary for you. Please feel free to contact me at any time, should the need arise.