"Only seven?” queried my daughter, astonished. “Yes, Fatima,” confirmed our guide Halifa, using the nickname my daughter had acquired. “Seven a day is all you need, that’s how the Berbers survive in the desert.”
I looked away sheepishly. Not only had we already exceeded our daily date quota, but we’d also guzzled pretty much every other foodstuff we’d encountered: tagines, couscous, msemen breakfast pancakes dripping with almond honey. Our Morocco road trip had not, thus far, been one of self-denial.
Halifa had swapped his splendid Berber robes for more cycling-friendly jeans and T-shirt, and was leading us on bikes through the palm grove at Zagora, a south-eastern town on the edge of the Sahara.
We meandered beneath the baked mud walls of the ksar, past donkeys laden with alfalfa, women swathed in black and barefoot boys sporting FC Barcelona tops.
Ribbons Of Civilisation In The Desert
Everybody greeted Halifa, and we joined a group of village gents for an impromptu mint tea. Late-afternoon sun glittered in the thin sugary cascade as each glass was filled from an ornate teapot held on high.
Zagora marked the halfway point of our 10-day self-drive family tour.
I was travelling with my wife and 12-year-old daughter, following an eastern, roughly semicircular route from Marrakesh to Fes.
Five days in, and we had already learnt not to doubt the importance of the humble date. It is date-palm groves like this one, after all, that extend ribbons of civilisation into the desert. Inside them, life feels benign – all trickling irrigation canals and gentle pastoral activity; outside, on the arid plains, it hardly even seems possible.
Our first dates came in Marrakesh, artfully arranged on the welcome platter in our suite at Les Deux Tours. Here, while our daughter splashed around in the pool, we pored over map and guidebook to plot our sorties into the Medina. After dark, nightingales serenaded us and the gardens were heady with the sweet perfume of orange blossom.
The Medina was rather more frenetic. As we crossed the bustling central square of Djemaa el-Fna, our daughter was already rolling her eyes at yet another safety briefing (“stick together”; “put your phone away”). But the anticipated hassle didn’t materialise.
Yes, musicians and snake charmers vied for our attention, while stallholders ushered us towards their glittering dens, but nowhere was the sell so hard that we couldn’t browse.
My daughter admonished me in embarrassed whispers when I attempted, ineptly, to haggle over a sandalwood “magic box”.
Yellows And Blues Defy A Terracotta City
And then there was all that history. We ogled the mosaics of the Saadian Tombs and wandered the crumbling Badi Palace, where stork nests crowned the ramparts.
And beyond the Medina walls we found the Majorelle Garden – once home to Yves Saint Laurent – where aloes and cacti flourished among walls of startling yellows and blues, as though painted in defiance of this ochre and terracotta city.
For all its delights, however, Marrakesh felt a little on the beaten track. It was two days later, as we piled into our hire car, that the real adventure began.
Soon we were heading south, climbing the Tichka Pass into the High Atlas – where we stopped to “touch snow in Africa” – then descended the barren terraces on the southern side, the snowy peaks receding in our rear-view mirror.
Those peaks, juxtaposed against a sun-baked desert foreground, were still visible from Skoura, our next port of call. Here we found the secluded L’Ma Lodge hidden away in another palm grove.
Behind its carved door were hammocks swinging in the shade and a terrain de petanque. “Wander wherever you like,” said owners Vanessa and Xavier. And so we did, both around the palm grove and back into Skoura, where we explored the steep stairwells and mud-brick passageways of the grand Kasbah Amridil.
That Lawrence Of Arabia Moment
Two nights later and we were perched with Halifa atop an apricot-coloured dune, watching the sun set over a sculpted panorama of sand. Below us were the elegant tents of Azalai Desert Camp.
It was a Lawrence of Arabia moment.
“This is proper desert, Dad,” came an awed whisper. In truth, however, we’d been travelling through desert ever since we’d left Skoura and headed south down the Draa Valley to Zagora.
There, the morning after our bicycle interlude, Halifa loaded us on to a 4WD. We headed off-road, ever deeper into the Sahara. Now, finally, we had hit the dunes.
No desert retreat could be more perfect than Azalai. Our huge Bedouin-style tent came with a grand four-poster bed. Scatter cushions on the sand outside provided an al fresco sitting room – and with no other tent visible from ours, we could imagine that we were the only people on the planet.
After dark, we sat down to a starlit feast, our waiters bearing each dish in turn over the dunes, while a fire of wind-dried tamarisk logs blazed in its cradle and the moon rose over the silhouetted desertscape.
You can’t really say you’ve done desert, of course, until you’ve ridden a camel. And it was in Merzouga, two days later, that we found ourselves slipping out of our hotel at 5.30am to do just that.
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Our Camels Clamber Upright As We Greet The Sunrise
Our beasts were awaiting us in the predawn chill, and we held tight as they lurched to their feet in that awkward three-part unfolding of limbs. It was slow progress – camels won’t be hurried – but 30 minutes later we were climbing yet another dune to greet the sunrise.
As the light strengthened I spied the tracks of the desert’s nocturnal denizens embroidered across the sand at our feet: the winding tramlines of beetles; the tiny pads of a fennec fox.
Merzouga is a morning’s desolate drive north from Zagora, and the “Attention ensablement!” road signs as we approached suggested that our destination might already have vanished into the desert.
But our hotel – the Kasbah Mohayut – turned out to be one of many serving up Morocco’s highest sand dunes. Its irrepressible owner, Moha, appointed himself our guide, leading us to a salt lake where flamingoes sometimes gathered and through an oasis where, he explained, each plot was allocated eight hours of water per month from the irrigation canal.
There were apricots, almonds and a carpet of green veg. “These are very happy carrots,” said Moha.
The drive to Fes was our last and longest. By then, though, we had found our road-trip rhythm, and the seven-hour haul was not the ordeal I’d feared.
Self Drive Is The Way To See Morocco
As ever, the scenery was consistently jaw-dropping. The route took us west through the rugged Ziz Valley and up onto the alpine plateau of the Middle Atlas, with its pastures and evergreens.
At a roadside picnic stop we wandered beneath giant cedars on a springy carpet of lichens and watched a squabbling troop of Barbary macaques – the same “apes” (in reality, tailless monkeys) that frequent the Rock of Gibraltar.
A road trip may not be to all tastes. But for a true sense of Morocco – to grasp how it is that this dramatic, unforgiving landscape has shaped the country’s history and culture – you must put in the kilometres.
And self-drive, we found, was the way to go, allowing you to stop anywhere or divert from the itinerary at a whim. Thus our trip had already taken in such unscheduled delights as the ancient fortified settlement of Ait ben Haddou, its picturesque sandcastle walls beloved of Hollywood; the library at Tamegroute, where a 1063 gazelle-skin Koran takes pride of place among antiquarian Islamic textbooks; and the donkey park at Rissani, where hundreds of the braying beasts of burden await their owners’ return from market.
And so, finally, to Fes, where the Medina – so purists claim – trumps the one in Marrakesh hands down.
Staying on its doorstep, at La Maison Bleue, made it easy to test this assertion. Our guide Abdoul led us through the bewildering warren, waxing lyrical about the city’s significance. Home to the world’s first university, Fes has felt sidelined in modern times by Marrakesh but remains the proud historic heart of Moroccan culture.
First Hotel And Perfect Bolt Hole
Indeed, with its narrower alleys, and donkeys instead of motorised transport, the Medina certainly feels earthier and more medieval. At the famous Chouara tanneries we peered down on workers treading the circular vats in a scene that felt truly biblical – and sent up a reek just as ancient.
La Maison Bleue made the perfect bolt-hole. An old family riad, and the first hotel in Fes, it embodies the traditional Islamic virtue of modesty for the wealthy, the opulent interior concealed behind an exterior so unassuming that we walked past it on the street.
Inside, amid the cool tiling, the Medina seemed a distant memory. The shuttered windows of our suite gave on to a high-ceilinged central atrium adorned with mosaics.
Dinner, reputedly the finest in Fes – and we wouldn’t dispute that – was served to the haunting strains of traditional Berber musicians. So affecting was the ambience that we found ourselves whispering, even in our own bathroom.
On our last day we braved the Medina alone. The place was teeming and the stallholders were as animated as ever, but we somehow felt less conspicuous than before.
Anyway, there was shopping to be done. We knew what not to buy – Tommy Cooper-style “fez” skullcaps are, apparently, Egyptian in origin. And, of course, we also knew what to buy. More dates. Seven, at least.
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This article was written by Mike Unwin from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.