‘If you don’t get lost in a minute, you’re not trying hard enough’: my search for magical Morocco

<span>Photograph: Nancy Brown/Getty Images</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/hWxeDAJSBjb_VUDr25dBVA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/6e6401bd5cab2c642e845ec850a 37645″ data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/hWxeDAJSBjb_VUDr25dBVA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/6e6401bd5cab2c642e845ec850a3764 5″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Nancy Brown/Getty Images

In Tangier, fresh off the ferry from Spain, I walk along the esplanade in the fresh morning air and then climb the stairs to the casbah. My trip to Morocco began at London St Pancras station three days earlier and I spent one night in Barcelona and another in Algeciras. I don’t feel any of the dislocation or discomfort that a flight would entail. I have seen the landscapes change: the lavender fields of Provence, the peach trees of Catalonia and then the wild magic of the highlands of La Mancha. Yesterday I saw my first Arabic poster in Spain. Now Tangier’s artisanal casbah seems the natural next step. I turn down a narrow alley and pass an elderly couple: the woman in a straw hat decorated with fresh flowers and her husband hooded in a thick wool bathrobe.


The casbah is silent. I stumble upon the only place where things happen: the meat market. By Western supermarket standards, this bazaar is a challenge: whole corpses dripping with blood hanging from hooks, a man sorting through meters of steaming, slippery intestines with his bare hands.

Morocco was once a place where Westerners headed for a decent dose of culture shock. In 1867, Mark Twain took part in the grand tour that would lead to his classic, The Fools Abroad: “We wanted something completely and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from the center to the circumference – foreign inside and out. outside and everywhere – nothing anywhere around it to dilute its strangeness, nothing to remind us of any other town or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we found it…”

He wasn’t the only one. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in a Tangier hotel room. Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles came for inspiration. Later came the musicians: Graham Nash boarded the Marrakesh Express in 1966; Hendrix’s sandcastles were inspired by Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, while the Rolling Stones almost failed here in 1967.

But that’s history: what now?

We return to the Atlas Mountains and a miraculously green ribbon of fertility curves from a slot canyon.

Tangier station is clean and fresh, the high-speed train leaves on time and we are soon crossing the coast. In Casablanca I change to an older, slower train, but to be honest, I’m glad for the change of pace. I want to see the surroundings: the spectacular bougainvillea, the vast pastures dotted with flocks and shepherds, the houses built for both extreme heat and cold. Marrakech station, when I arrive, is as elegant and spacious as anything Europe has to offer. They are putting new sewers in the casbah. No one sidles up to offer me hashish or grab my arm.

In fact, I confess I feel a pang of anxiety. Has Morocco been disinfected? Does everyone go home happy with their Instagram full of horizon pools and golf courses? However, as soon as I enter the casbah, that fear begins to disappear.

I have one night in Marrakech to meet my sister Jo, who has arrived separately (we were here before the earthquake of September 8, but I hear that the signs of its impact on the capital have become clearer). We immediately went out to explore. The old city is not so much a labyrinth as a convoluted series of embedded labyrinths. If you’re not lost in a minute, you’re not trying hard enough. Finally we arrive at Djemaa el-Fna square, where there is a snake charmer whose snake seems to have swallowed all the drugs. The food vendors shout, “Dude, you should eat here. We are the best. Guaranteed no diarrhea.”

When the lamps are lit, the square is magnificent. In an alley, a boy runs past us and tries to set a leather belt on fire to prove it’s real. And there, in front of me, is a young man with messy hair, a dusty backpack, torn boots, and eyes shining unnaturally. He is a survivor of the old days. He is from the year 1969. He is on the Marrakech Express. I am reluctant to ask the guy with the belt to prove the reality of the apparition.

The next day we joined a group heading out for rock climbing and yoga on a trip through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains (the areas we visited felt the September earthquake, but escaped largely unscathed). We stop at designated “tourist” spots where many people were selling jewelry, but Morocco’s natural bonhomie soon overcomes commercialism. They take me on an impromptu tour of a traditional house and introduce me to the matriarch of the family. A detour into a “desert experience”, a seemingly kitsch camp with men dressed as Tuareg warriors is not my thing, but the immense golden dunes are impressive. “Every year they move north,” a local tells me. I watch tourists on quad bikes taking them up and down, riding the wave of the climate crisis.

We return to the southern flank of the Atlas Mountains and a miraculously vivid green ribbon of fecundity curves from a slot canyon in a rock wall. This is Wadi Todra, which in places is half a mile wide, but overall much narrower. Since the Berbers arrived here from the east, they built shelters on these steep rocky shores. No one knows the precise origins of this people: they call themselves Amazigh, but Egypt, Ethiopia and Yemen have been proposed as possible starting points. The mud architecture reminds me of the Hadramaut region in east-central Yemen: large mud and straw towers and citadels, now surrounded by concrete and block buildings that at least attempt to emulate that original style. A tradition is rigorously maintained: houses are never built on that precious ribbon of fertility, but only on the rock above.

The peach and quince trees are in bloom. The road winds. We arrived at a wonderful old mosque.

On a sudden whim, Jo and I decided to leave the vehicle about nine miles from our final destination. We will walk there within the narrow section of the canyon and along the bottom of this green valley. Down here are neat little fields of mint, carrots and wheat, each served by a channel of bubbling water. A donkey is being loaded with alfalfa wrapped in sackcloth. A hoopoe struts at his feet. The white heads of egrets emerge from a field of fresh green barley. Two women, with crosses tattooed on their chins and cheeks, smile and return to tending their crops. The peach and quince trees are in bloom. The road winds. We arrive at a wonderful ancient mosque, Ikelane, near Tinghir, and meet its caretaker, Addi, who shows us around. “The Afalour casbah had been abandoned since the 1970s,” he tells me, “people wanted to live in new houses near the road. “They had more children and needed more rooms.”

The mosque itself is an architectural gem, but behind it is the abandoned casbah, with the mud towers collapsing, like an artistic miracle of chocolate ice cream. In a decade it is possible that everything will be gone. The families that left now want the land. Addi shrugs. “The old way needed maintenance. The rains here are getting heavier and that means that when the water enters, buildings deteriorate faster. We can only manage to keep this mosque intact.”

We explored the fresh, spacious interiors and a panoramic rooftop terrace overlooking date palms and peach trees, then returned to the ribbon of green, making our way along the edges of the field and streams.

Two little children are playing. It seems to be called “Throw dust into the air and scream for joy when it lands on you.”

We finally got back on the road and arrived at our hotel near the canyon climbing walls. The next day, with guides Dan and Max, our small group will spend the day climbing a magnificent rock. We drink from a spring in the canyon wall and a picnic is brought to us from town. At night we do strenuous yoga with Dan’s partner, Natalie, on the roof of her house. They arrived here shortly before the pandemic and decided, in an instant, to abandon their careers in the UK and start a new life. “The pandemic really helped us,” Dan says, “it gave us time to get to know people and they realized we were really committed to living here.”

Related: My epic three-day trip from London to Morocco by train and ferry

There are challenges. “Trying to get people to understand what plastic waste is is difficult,” says Natalie. The gorge, however, makes it all possible: there are hundreds of climbing routes, most of them especially suitable for beginners or moderately skilled climbers like me. The course attracts beginners, but also more experienced climbers exploring the possibilities of Morocco.

One day, Dan takes us to the highlands to meet a friend of his: Ahmed, an 82-year-old Bedouin grandfather who lives in a cave taking care of his goats. His daughter is carding goat hair to make a new summer tent. Two small barefoot children are playing. It seems to be called “Throw dust and dirt into the air and then scream for joy when he lands on top of you.” They keep this up the entire time we are having tea with Ahmed, stopping only when three little goats come hopping up to start a new game called “Chase Little Goats and Hug Them.”

Before we leave, Ahmed wants to show me something: his flour mill. At the bottom of a cave dug into the bedrock, he searches through his belongings: empty flour sacks, battered goat skins, and some clothes. He finally finds a granite stone that is turned by hand, something of absolute simplicity, but so perfectly balanced that it requires little effort. There is no electricity or running water here, but Ahmed doesn’t want to go anywhere else. All around him are vast panoramas of skeletal, unpolluted mountains. Two sons went to the city to study (one of them is now a lawyer), but Ahmed will stay on the high rocky plateau where he was born. For all the development and high-speed rail connections, Morocco has given me my Mark Twain moment.

Overland travel was provided by EUrail and FRS ferries. The trip to the Atlas Mountains was provided by Much Better Adventures, whose six-night Introduction to Rock Climbing and Yoga trip costs from £713 per person. The earthquake of September 8, 2023 had devastating consequences for towns and cities in the western Atlas Mountains, with more than 2,900 deaths. The climbing area on this trip, however, was not affected.. There was also damage in Marrakech, but business is now back to normal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *