Morocco has been a headline destination for at least a decade now, but if you believe the travel press, life there stops in the riads of Marrakesh or, at a pinch, in those of Fez and Essaouira. But in the last year or so, after the tragic massacres of tourists in Tunisia, even those headline places are slowing. So what about the rest of it?
Rattling around Morocco’s mountains has been an on/off habit of mine for some 40 years (read other posts here and here) so my latest trip hardly tossed up any revelations. It was more a case of confirming and revisiting what I knew: the grandeur and beauty of the landscapes, the kindness and hospitality of its people (when uncorrupted by tourism), and the ongoing deliciousness of its slowcooked tagines.
As usual the new year has brought a slew of opinions across the travel press about where to head in 2016. In extreme-remote terms the Financial Times suggests Greenland and Kyrgyzstan (implying that its supremely well-heeled readers are hell bent on wilderness and cool temps) here while the New York Times seems only just to have discovered Morocco’s Atlantic Coast, albeit NOT Agadir.
Ahem, a confession – I first explored this coast soon after Jimi Hendrix’ sojourn in Essaouira (above) back in the 1970s— but I’ll give the feature its due, it does cover lesser known seaside towns like El Jadida and Oualidia (surfing and oysters) – both up and coming.
It’s the kick off of 2015 and they’re all doing it (the mainstream press that is). So, as a professional traveller I thought I’d add my pinch of salt – or spice. Culled from decades of travel, here’s my short-list of affordable destinations that give you the best of all worlds … in 2015.
Morocco gets endless coverage in the travel press, but this often focuses on glitzy riads in Marrakesh, Essaouira or Fez. Push the boat out and you might reach Tangier (see an earlier post www.fionadunlop.com/blog/2009/03/14/tripping-tangiers/). These magical guesthouses which so cleverly blend Moroccan craftwork with Western style, are generally foreign-owned. Nothing wrong with that, and I love staying in them, but on my recent foray to the deep south, I was delighted to discover a couple of locally-owned guesthouses in stunning rural kasbahs or ksars (castles).
One of the biggest surprises on my marathon drive through southern Morocco was a priceless Quranic library, tucked away at the back of Tamegroute, a tiny town on the edge of the Sahara. Sounds contradictory, and it felt it. As a sandstorm swirled, led by a guide, I picked my way through the labyrinth of rammed earth streets to its newly built heart. This, recently funded by the King, has sprung up around the revered 16th century tomb of a Sufi saint (pic below) – and includes a merdersa (Islamic school) and the precious library.
Taroudant – a small town wedged between the Atlas mountains and the desert, dramatically surrounded by 7 km of lofty ramparts, is often dubbed a mini-Marrakesh. Well I can safely say that’s not the case, but it does have a lot of charm and far fewer touts than Marrakesh, a huge bonus. Even better, while passing through last week en route for the Sahara I found a manmade paradise just outside its walls – Dar Al Hossoun.
I was recently back in Tangier after about 20 years absence. In the interim, I’ve been faithful to other parts of Morocco, but somehow Tangier eluded me – though a couple of years ago I did watch its twinkling lights from a rooftop in Vejer de la Frontera, just across the Strait of Gibraltar. Big mistake not to return, because despite being warned about how sleazy it had become, I found it totally beguiling, partly precisely because of its grittiness.
Serious woe. I’ve been slacking on this blog and never even covered my trip to Fez last November. It’s a city that I love. Despite knowing it for over 25 years, I still manage to find new streets, new trades, new streetfood. While researching my book Medina Kitchen (or The North African Kitchen as the US edition is called) Fez became more than just a seductive shopping labyrinth and actually took shape as a slowly changing society. Getting to know the Fassis was a privilege and getting to know their cuisine even more so. This, by the way, is not the breakfast of the title – that comes later.