Morocco: The sheer otherness of North Africa

By Adrian Mourby

The walled city of Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic coast. Photo / Thinkstock
The walled city of Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic coast. Photo / Thinkstock

So what did you like best about the desert?" I ask my son John on the way to the airport. "The sea," he replies. Well, that's kids for you.

Actually, our arrival at Essaouira, on the wild Atlantic coast of Morocco, had been quite something. After five days in the Draa Valley, the dunes of M'hamid and the bustling inferno of Marrakech's Djemaa al Fna, the sight of this Portuguese fortress and its storm-tossed islands was impressive.

Our driver stopped at a vantage point above the town so we could watch the deep blue Atlantic crash - in brilliant sunshine - against the old whitewashed port.

John, who had not been taken with the camels, the street traders or even a road trip over the Atlas Mountains, had really gone for Essaouira.

The fact that Orlando Bloom had filmed Kingdom of Heaven on its ramparts helped. Here was something that looked familiar. Children can be very conservative.

That's why a family trip across Morocco was always going to be a challenge.

By contrast, John's sister Livvie loved all of it, except our first night in the desert, when we were warned to check our sleeping bags and boots whenever we got into either in case snakes or spiders were inside.

"They are more frightened of you than you are of them," said Brahim, our guide. I don't think anything could be more frightened than poor Livvie as she clung to her mother.

As far as I'm concerned, trips like this are what childhood should be about. In my youth we never went anywhere. I would have loved the chance to bake bread with Berber tribespeople, join a camel caravan into the Hamada du Draa for lunch in the dunes, or watch snake-charmers in the market places of Marrakech.

Morocco is a great country for introducing your children to the romance of the desert and the sheer otherness of North African culture.

We spent our free time in Marrakech discovering the serenity of the Saadian Tombs, the sturdiness of the 19km of wall that enclose the old Almoravid city and the austerity of the Koutoubia Mosque, with its printed sign reminding visitors that non-Muslims may not enter.

Livvie, who rushes in where even fools usually fear to tread, almost caused an incident there. For her, Marrakech was a riot of colours, an Aladdin's Cave of delights to be explored with enthusiasm. Born to shop, why shouldn't she enjoy a city that was built to sell?

Charging through the souk of slippers, the jewellery souk or the carpet market with a 10-year-old who wants to buy everything in sight is tiring, especially when you continually have to extract her from the clutches of shopkeepers who have decided Christmas has come early this year.

But her enthusiasm was infectious, even on a baking-hot afternoon. We bought more than we ever needed - jointed wooden snakes that weave from side to side in a most convincing manner, baboushes (slippers of Berber and Arab design), a large pink leather pouffe for stuffing back home, four tassels for the bolsters and five cheap palm-fibre baskets for no reason at all.

Livvie also picked up two "genuine" Gucci handbags (made by Mohamed Gucci himself), a small terracotta kasbah for her window-sill that broke before it even got to the airport, and half a dozen hands of Fatima, some of them with fingers so abstract that they looked more like the jellyfish of Fatima.

John didn't like the markets at all, though. As I feared, he was drawn to the viciously hooked swords and daggers, which may have been intended for ceremonial use but had irresponsibly sharp points. In the end, I relented. You can only say "no" so many times.

I then had to get involved with the whole business of haggling, which added delay and tension to a day already hot and expensive. I'd like my children to learn many things from North Africa but not this ridiculous charade that accompanies every purchase. Life is too short to pretend that a carved wooden camel costs 10 times the price you will accept.

Brahim's team were good at helping us to understand the cultural side of the trip. In M'Hamid, they put us in the hands of a Berber named Miloud who gave us partitioned tents for sleeping in and answered many of our questions.

Used to dealing with British families, Miloud was happy to explain how desert people find water, gather firewood and cook, though even he couldn't persuade John to eat anything that was prepared in the small earth kitchen.

I left Britain with a distinct sense of culinary foreboding, and had stocked up on peanuts and chocolate for just such an emergency. I knew there was a McDonald's in Marrakech if things got really bad.

For my wife, Kate, and me, the one culture shock we had not anticipated was that our hotels were mostly dry. I'm used to travelling in Muslim countries and I'm used to their huge hotel mark-ups. You can end up paying West End prices in the most basic of bars. But I do like a bottle of wine with my supper.

We hit the same problem eating at Marrakech's famous outdoor dinner stalls in Djemaa al Fna. They are like a vision from Dante's Inferno - huge plumes of sizzling white smoke obscuring diners as meal after meal is banged out and the chefs' sons compete loudly to attract trade.

The food was great. Even John took to the kebabs. But I wanted something other than Fanta to drink. "Sprite?" suggested the chef.

Overall, the trip did what it claimed. We introduced our children to another culture. They didn't like everything they saw, but they didn't like everything at Disney either. At least here they were broadening their horizons rather than just shaking hands with Goofy.

"I know what you liked best, Dad," said John.

"The alcohol shop in Essaouira."

It was true. My wanderings round the 18th-century fortifications had taken me past a hole-in-the-wall store on Boulevard Moulay Youssef that sold cheap bottles of Moroccan rose.

That night, Kate and I had sat on the balcony of our hotel and toasted the sun enthusiastically as it went down over the Atlantic.

"Let's say we both liked Essaouira best."

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