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?
In fact there’s a whole swath of spectacular countryside about 300km south of Marrakesh in the mountains of the Anti-Atlas, as well as a few choice spots on the Atlantic coast south of Agadir. This, blissfully, is all Berber country, the indigenous people of Morocco, and a far cry from the commercial aggression of northern cities. If you look at history, it was in the late 7th century that Arabs from the Middle East brought Islam to Morocco (and subsequently to Spain), and although there was plenty of intermarriage, there is still a clear divide between the Arabs of the cities and the Berbers of the countryside.
We rented a car at Agadir airport, easy to book and pay for in advance (Location Autos if you want to know), before heading a short distance down the coast to the Souss Massa National Park, a band of protected land sandwiched between an estuary and the crashing waves of the Atlantic. It’s well known by the bird-club, as the lush green agricultural land, palm-groves and wetlands harbour dozens of species from the rare bald Ibis (only present here) to flamingoes, white spatulas, spoonbills and black-headed tchagras.
Sounds good – but we were there more for a charming little guest-house in an oasis-style location at the southern end, near the small town of Tassila: La Palmeraie de Massa. Outside in the palm-groves locals harvested armfuls of cattle-feed (the beef population is multiplying, see my post here) to be transported on donkey-back, boys played football and groups of young women sauntered by on evening strolls. Life is low-key and totally untouristy here. In the local town, after examining piles of glossy veg, in the absence of anything else we settled into a café to chat with the fishmonger who was happy to discuss the world (in French) and how life was changing – for the better, luckily.
Most extraordinary of all though was a short trip to the coast, just 15 minutes by car along a rutted but manageable road. Then suddenly – camels! Or rather dromedaries! A huge herd was happily munching the grass, watched over by a young man swathed in a headscarf who turned out to be a Touareg from the far south. In fact Touaregs are nomadic, shifting back and forth across the Sahara; I’ve come across them in several places from the far south of Libya to Timbuktu. Although we couldn’t communicate with him, we later learned that herds of dromedaries are trucked up from the south to feed on the lush grass of the area.
And then we reached the coast itself where a blissful expanse of virgin beach lay below Sidi Boulfdayel, a rambling village of half-built houses with just one corner-shop. Sadly not a whiff of grilled sardines! Later I gathered that people take their time to build their houses in tune with their savings; slowly does it, is the mantra. But what views! Inhabitants were scarce but sheep and goats pranced around the stoney hillside beside a pristine whitewashed marabout (saint’s tomb). Meanwhile the surf ebbed and flowed onto an infinite, empty beach.
Our Palmeraie guesthouse turned out to be a gem, run by Patrice (half French) and his wife Warda, a delightful, warm Berber who cooked like a dream when not tidying the rooms or marshalling her young kids. Every evening she organised an informal table d’hôte, bringing a dozen or so guests (Dutch, German and British) together around one large table to feast on her delectable cooking (3 courses for an unbeatable 100DH, about 10€). A bonus was the excellent Moroccan wine (charged extra).
She clearly had a creative soul and enjoyed conjuring up new ideas. One evening we indulged in her unusual fruit tagine of prickly pear fruit, bananas, kaki, kiwi, orange and mint with dollops of date ice-cream (above), another it was a divine orange couscous cake.
Nor was the main course always tagine; Warda also made a tanjiya, an earthenware pot which in this case contained beef stew slow-cooked in an underground fire-pit.
The biggest surprise was her substitute for couscous grain: vermicelli (above). Heaped onto a plate, a light fluffy pile was striped with lines of powdered cinnamon, ground almonds and icing-sugar. Unusual and delicious.
It was tough to leave this peaceful guest-house with its garden, multiple terraces and views, but we had to head on. Further south, after a long stretch of no-man’s land*, we came to the walled market town of Tiznit.
Here we were propelled into the hub-bub of a large open-air souk where, predictably, the odd hustler and tourist shop-owner popped up – just like the old days. But it was all pretty low-key leaving focus for the colours, smells and food-offerings.
From there our road twisted up into the increasingly stark Anti-Atlas mountains, past the odd Berber village and never-ending switchbacks to Tafraoute – but that’s another blog post.
*Beware of Morocco’s traffic police! They are legion, and will wave down any car going only marginally above the speed-limit – a bad habit of mine when I’m on an empty, open road. First time round it was a fine of 15€ with a huge, toothy smile and “Bienvenue au Maroc!”, the second and third times, by then more practiced in the diplomatic arts, we talked ourselves out of it. And no baksheesh.