It all felt decidedly familiar. The roadside tagine pots bubbling away on burners, fragrant mint-tea streaming from a silver tea-pot, the beaming smiles, men in full-length hoodies like monks loping along the street, Berber women enveloped in haiks and hijabs, the putter of ancient mobylettes scooting round corners

Once upon a time in Marrakech – me and python pal in 2006
A classic mobylette (vintage French moped) – & a mural reminder to eat – tagine!

Then the heaps of leafy clementines, sacks of spices, walls of dazzling zelij (mosaic), huddles of men glued to TV footie in a café, giggling school kids, tortuous mountain roads, pink and ochre-coloured houses, crashing Atlantic surf, herds of camels or flocks of sheep and goats. I could go on and on. But yes, I’ve seen it all before. Yet somehow it still entrances me. Like a slide-show the images flicker back and forth across my mind, totally jumbled, the years uncertain.

Who was I travelling with? Why? For how long? Was it work or play – or both?

The best ever clementines, here in Tiznit – sweeter and juicier than any in Europe
Shadowy medieval souks showcase sacks of cornucopian grains and spices

Back in time

The only precise date I remember is April 1973 – the moment I first set foot in this exotic, dramatic land – indeed on the African continent itself. From Montpellier in southern France where I was studying, that first marathon journey took me and another student by classic 2CV all the way across Spain. From the dark, twisting roads of Andalucia – a region ignored by Franco’s regime of the time – a ferry from Algeciras landed us in Ceuta, a Spanish protectorate on Morocco’s coast. Amazingly, like Gibraltar, Ceuta survives, despite political wrangling between Spain and Morocco, though it is now rimmed by a sturdy fence to keep unwanted African immigrants out.

Carpets, rugs and blankets – one aspect of Morocco’s superlative craftsmanship
Skilful metalwork – from intricate silver jewellery to huge basins, soon to be copper

Onwards our Citroen rattled through the rolliing Rif mountains blanketed in vivid spring flowers – bliss. But when its headlights failed at dusk in a remote village we were forced to spend the night on the sofas of a butcher’s widow. That hospitality also included my first tagine – certainly not to be my last. Somehow we found ourselves invited to a wedding en route before finally we reached the mayhem of Marrakech – throbbing drums, cymbals and oboes, snake charmers, shadowy alleyways, polyglot hustlers – and the electrifying D’jema El F’naa, that square where all Marrakshi life meets.

D’jema El F’naa in Marrakech – cooks, story-tellers, musicians, hustlers – and tourists

After a couple of nights in a peeling hippie hovel, we escaped the pressure and headed for Essaouira over on the coast. During those hippy dippy days even Jimi Hendrix had hung out there, and copious kif from the Rif spurred ever more mint tea and fresh fish. Our return journey was less idyllic as, after giving a lift to a young Moroccan in Tetouan, we later found our communal purse had disappeared from the glove-box. That meant a diet of tinned sardines all the way home. But we survived to tell the tale.

Since then I’ve returned THIRTEEN times – calculated just now by examining old slides, prints and more recent digital archives. It took a while to work out, and there was a decade’s gap between a marathon trek by car from Marrakech to the Sahara in 1990 and an escape to Essaouira to avoid the millennium celebrations of 2000. After that the rhythm of visits picked up again – ironically just as Mohammed VI replaced his late father, Hassan II, on the throne. Morocco has blossomed since – for better and for worse.

A cheery market man offers yet another mint tea in Zagora

Before that, while living in Paris, I’d spent the early 1980s working with Moroccan craftsmen on a mega interior design project for a ministry in Saudi Arabia. This gave me precious insight into their incredible ancestral talents as well as short trips to Rabat and Fez. An unrelated highlight was meeting the great Palestinian writer, Edward Said, at our Fez hotel, the exquisite Palais Jamai.

Then in 1987, with a creative woman friend, I embarked on a book project (Faded Splendours was the working title) about Morocco’s celebrated historic hotels – from Tangier to Fez and Marrakech (the Mamounia of course). Despite hard work and some fabulous photos it never saw the light of day. Too soon?

A pink street in Tangier

In 1990 a convoluted road odyssey with my late photographer friend, Christoph Kircherer, inspired dozens of slides of dramatic landscapes as we bumped south from Marrakech to the sands of the Sahara. Our rented Renault 4 (those gears!) even survived. Random encounters, the staggering Tizi n’Test pass in the High Atlas, waterfalls in Imousser, Taroudant, Ouarzazate, Zagora, Mhamid… date markets, mint tea with mountain shepherds, camels, ancient mosques, more tagines and onwards we rolled… It was a revealing, enthralling trip.

Market scene that could be a painting
My favourite beast – just look at that disdainful curling lip…

Craftsman in Fez carve stucco into intricate patterns and muqarnas
Beautiful Fez, its medieval medina, myriad mosques and ancient walls

In 2005 a commission on the Marrakech Arts Festival lured me back to an all too familiar city, this time enjoying rooftop parties amongst the literati. Escaping the city, a couple of us tacked on a few days to explore the fertile Ouiregane Valley to the south. Sadly I can’t locate those photos, but in September 2023 the area received unwanted press coverage when a massive earthquake left nearly 3,000 dead among devastated villages. I remember our young guide taking us into his very basic mudbrick home to meet his mother – did they survive? A sad thought. There’s a little more about this in my post here.

2006 brought weeks of intense research for my cookbook, Medina Kitchen, later renamed The North African Kitchen by Interlink Books and Simon & Schuster. Two separate research trips, both to Fez and Marrakech, whisked me around food souks and into the welcoming heart of Moroccan homes to watch culinary magic – totally enlightening. The result was a successful book with vivid, quirky photos by Simon Wheeler that is still alive and well.

Mountains of fresh vegetables and fruit are conjured into tagines and delicious fresh salads

Two years later I was back in Fez on a magazine assignment focused on the history of aristocratic Fassi cuisine. By then I knew quite a lot about it, but that didn’t put a brake on my fascination. The following year, 2009, brought features on the beguilingly hybrid identity of Tangier – including this blog post. What views, what cafés, what shops, what markets, what hotels (including the illustrious old El Minzah Hotel where I stayed). Oodles of cultural history are part of this cosmopolitan city, from Paul Bowles to Brion Gysin and Mick Jagger, plus a hotel view painted by Matisse.

The sparkling Mediterranean and the Bay of Tangier
Gorgeous colour of the Berber women at Tangier’s market
Tangier’s El Minzah Hotel: a rollcall of celeb guests since it opened in 1930 includes Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Rock Hudson et al – and me!

After another hiatus, 2013 saw me with an assignment for an intrepid solo drive from Agadir via a spectacularly designed riad, Dar Al Hossoun, outside Taroudant. Read my enthusiasm about it here. From there I headed south through the magificent Draa Valley of oases and kasbahs (here’s my post about kasbah hotels) to, again, reach Zagora, M’hamid and a seriously remote hotel lost in the Sahara sands (the article from The Independent is here). Timbuktu was just over the hazy horizon – by then a place I had visited on a fairly crazy trip from Mali’s capital, Bamako. The return drive via the Anti-Atlas threw up yet more fabulous scenery, kasbahs and encounters as well as an intriguing visit to an ancient Islamic library in Tizourgane.

A crumbling kasbah in the Vallée du Draa + locals in transit
My 2013 destination: the Sahara Sky hotel in the Sahara, a mecca for astronomers due to its crystalline night skies
Amazigh (Berber) girl in the Anti-Atlas mountains

Four years later, in 2017, I was back with a woman friend doing another Anti-Atlas circuit from Agadir. This time it took us from the lush coastal nature reserve of Souss Massa (my post here describes our charming guest-house and its phenomenal Berber cooking) to the magical Ameln Valley near Tafraoute. There a comfortable, stunningly sited hotel welcomed us.

Rammed earth houses and spectacular jagged cliffs of pink and ochre granite contrasted with the barren hills and dizzying roads we had just navigated. From there the road north led to a stay in an extraordinary fortified granary, like a medieval hilltop village, which offered endless hikes nearby. Then, yet again, came the crenellated walls, hectic souks, artisans and otherwise gentle rhythms of Taroudant. This time I discovered the worrying plight of Morocco’s national meat – lamb, seemingly off the menu. It inspired this post – worth reading.

A Berber village of the paradisiac Ameln Valley near Tafraoute – palms, argan, olive and almond trees
One of the strangest ‘hotels’ I’ve ever stayed in, converted from a fortified Berber granary
The invincible walls of Taroudant, built in stages since the early 16th c with adobe bricks, rammed earth and moulded blocks. Some 7km in circumference, the walls rise to 14m.

Skip through the pandemic years and we come to my latest trip in February 2024, this time with my partner Richard. It was partly a repeat of the previous visit but also revealed more of the Atlantic coast down south, from hip surfing hub Mirleft to the unexpected Art Deco architecture of fishing port Sidi Ifni. The buildings of this former Spanish protectorate, relinquished in 1969, preserve a dreamy blue and white beauty. Read my post about it here. Totally addictive and I’d love to return to watch the Atlantic waves and sunset from its terraces.

Sidi Ifni’s lighthouse in the former Spanish quarter high above the beach

From Ifni we ventured further south to the rowdy, dusty camel market of Guelmim where tall, turbanned Tuareg from the Sahara dragged their obstinate purchases to be trucked away. Just another Saturday in southern Morocco. Onwards and upwards into the Anti-Atlas, Tafraoute, Taroudant then back to Agadir. Mission accomplished.

What was clear was how much Morocco is developing – visible in endless half-built (for tax or budget reasons) buildings, modernisation, better road signage – though not necessarily better roads, annoying roundabouts everywhere, and what seem like disturbing plans for resorts down the coast. Sometimes development goes the wrong way – here fuelled by mineral wealth.

Equally maddening was the plague of European camper vans which, like locusts, invade the coast of southern Morocco from January to March to see the winter out in the sunshine. Another sign of the times was countless dry river-beds – desertification is creeping north fast and drought becoming widespread.

Not happy! A camel ignominiously squeezed with goats into a truck – off to the Sahara

Another year and that’s my fourteenth trip to Morocco. Long may they continue as I now realise this country is threaded through my soul, my past, and hopefully my future.

Sunset over the Atlantic at Sidi Ifni