Amanda Linnell gets taken for a ride in Marrakesh - and loves every minute of it
How did I end up here? I'm in the front passenger seat of a four-wheel drive, it's hot, sweat pours down my back, loud Arabic pop music is pumping out of the car stereo and, I confess, I am holding on to the arm rest a little more tightly than normal.
Our car is grinding its way up a rough metal road in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, weaving around hairpin bends on a road carved precariously from the rock. In the distance snow-peaked mountains pierce the cloudless blue skies while we cut our way through dry terrain littered with cactus plants. It feels more akin to being in the desert. Small hamlets of ochre-hued houses meld with the landscape; a man on a donkey pulls over to let us pass.
We're heading to a gite or tramping hut 790m above sea level in the tiny mountain village Tizi N'oucheg. Just 350 people live here — Amazigh people who have called it home for more than 6700 years and who know how to survive in these remote conditions. Crop fields are carved into the lush valley, that cuts its way through the mountains and later that afternoon we will follow the stream on a four-hour hike led by local Rashid. This isn't for the faint-hearted but it's worth every rugged step.
First, however, we find ourselves on the rooftop of the gite, in a kitchen, learning how to cook Morocco's most famous of dishes, the tagine. There is much laughter as our guide Chaima's mother and her friends share the secret combinations of how just the right amount of fresh mint and parsley along with paprika, cumin, chilli, ginger, cinnamon and garlic will transform our meatballs into the sublime. The tagines are left to cook over coals, before we demolish them for lunch along with piles of warm homemade bread and plenty of green tea.
Now it's time to burn off all this eating and we head off on our climb, first passing the stone houses of the village, where children come out to stare and laugh. Handmade rugs hang out to air over walls, and men sit in the shade of the trees chewing the fat. The scene is peaceful and relaxed. This village has undergone a transformation, much of it thanks to Rashid, who helped bring electricity and then running water in 2011, build a pre-school and, amazingly, raised enough funds to build a football field that is of such a good standard that it has attracted some of Morocco's top footballers to come and play. As we climb higher and higher the views (and the terrain) take my breath away. It is incredible to be standing high in the Atlas Mountains in such a remote corner of the world. I laugh. Laugh at the audacity of it. And ask again, just how did I end up here?
Well, it's all down to Airbnb Adventures — a new programme designed is to take the savvy traveller truly off the beaten path. Its motivation, to provide authentic interactions with local people and, at its heart, to create greater understanding and respect for the places we visit and the social impact we have. Guides Chaima and Sharif provide a unique and wonderful opportunity to dig deeper into the country's current affairs, its history and its influences, we discuss what life is like as young modern Moroccans. Having this quality of time with passionate, intelligent, informed locals is the greatest gift of all on this trip — and we connect over our similarities and differences. When Chaima is not hosting tours like ours, she works for the Rustic Pathways Foundation — a non-profit organisation that focuses on critical development issues — from education to conservation — around the globe. Our group holds long conversations about these topics before we tumble into bed.
The next we morning we leave the mountains behind — our tummies first filled with handmade flatbreads, omelette, jams and thyme tea. Our jeep picks up speed as we head back towards the city, weaving through roadside towns where Marrakshis head to escape heat during summer. Roadside stalls sell colourful rugs and ceramics, camels stand saddled up and ready for any passing tourists wanting a ride. Along the riverside, cafes with coloured seats and armchairs stand empty, it's too early in the season, but soon they will be brimming with people who come to make the most of the shady trees and cooling water — indeed, you can actually sit at tables in the shallows and have the water wash around your feet. Brilliant.
Our next stop is not something you'd find on many travel itineraries, but thanks to Chaima we're going to have tea with her dear friend Khadija, a 69-year-old-widow of a farmer. Our car bumps down a dusty road, past olive trees and into a small hamlet of houses and farm buildings. We pull up in front of large gates and are greeted by a shy woman and even shier children, who peer out at us from dark rooms. As with all traditional homes, there is an internal courtyard, and this is overgrown with grass as there's no time for ornamental gardens here. The family compound is made up of two houses below and on the rooftop, the home matriarch Khadija.
She gives us with a warm welcome and we take off our shoes and gather on the cushioned bench seats that line her living room. The room is cool, and provides welcome respite from the outside heat — even though it's only 10.30 in the morning. Mint tea and fresh flatbreads appear instantly and we settle back and swap stories. It's like visiting an old aunt. We drink tea and talk about love, marriage, children, work, the changing role of women. She dressed in a colourful turquoise scarf, a purple djellaba covered with a brown satin apron. Her feet are hennaed, her hands big, strong and capable, her laugh infectious. She is curious about everything and tells stories of finding a husband, raising her children, running the farm after her husband died, growing wheat, corn and palm trees … Again, we are reminded of universal similarities no matter how different our lives, and we leave with warm hearts.
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Back in the city and our Adventure continues at pace. We've already been to Chaima's family home to learn the fine art of calligraphy and the Arabic alphabet. Sitting on the floor in the living room, where the walls are covered in family photos and knick-knacks perch on shelves, there is much laughter and fun as we try to master this age-old art. It is unusual to be in a quiet neighbourhood, far from the madding crowds of the medina, but it's a rare chance to get a snapshot of daily life out the window as women walk in black djellabas with bags of shopping, a child plays on a bike, and a workman pushes a barrow along the street.
From here we visit — along with, it feels, every other tourist in town — the Bahia Palace. Gorgeously decorated with colourful mosaic tiles, soaring arches and courtyards with fountains and orange trees, it is a visual feast. Once owned by slave-turned-vizier Abu "Bou" Ahmed, the last riad of the palace is dedicated to his four wives and 24 concubines. Impressive. This part of the palace is available to hire — should you fancy throwing a party — and has been used for film sets. When we visit they are setting up for a royal dinner with dignitaries from neighbouring countries.
Nearby is the Jewish Quarter, as traditionally these were always built close to the palace for protection. Unlike Islamic homes, which look inwards for privacy, the houses here have balconies. Traditionally the local Jewish community traded salt for gold jewellery. After World War II, however, many of Marrakesh's Jews moved to France and Israel.
We follow a series of lanes to Koutoubia Mosque, the biggest and tallest (its minaret is 77m high) in Marrakesh. The 19km wall that surrounds this impressive building is marked by numerous gates — designed originally to confuse approaching enemy. One evening we find a rooftop restaurant nearby and listen to the call to prayer echo across the city at sunset.
A tour of the medina in the old part of the city leads us through the myriad stores where richly coloured rugs hang next to leather babouche slippers, bags and poufs. There are beautiful hand-beaten lanterns, colourful Berber jewellery, baskets, cushions and throws, pottery. If only my suitcase wasn't so small . . . I want to take it all home. We take respite from the haggling and step inside Paradis des Epices — one of the city's most respected spice and herb stores and learn how they play such a key part in local culture. Like most places the frontage gives little clue of what lies within — a two-level emporium that smells of sandalwood and where hundreds of jars of spices line the walls. From cooking to wellbeing to scaring away spirits, each of these jars, according to our guide Younes, holds many powers and secrets.
We spend our last night sharing a traditional dinner and dancing with a traditional Gnawa band, before heading into the frenzy that is Jemaa el-Fnaa — the heart of Marrakesh this square overflows with life by day, but is more exciting at night as throngs of locals come out to enjoy the frenetic and heady energy of Gnawa musicians, fortune tellers, acrobats, dancers and magicians who entertain the crowds. The air is filled with the tantalising smoke of barbecues and incense. Store-owners sell everything from live animals to ceramics . . . I drive a good deal, I think, for a set of plates but fall completely for the wily ways of the snake-charmers and pay a fortune to get a photo but was laughing too much at the time to realise I'd literally been charmed out of my senses. And this is the joy of Marrakesh. You might just be taken for a ride, if you don't have your wits about you, but you'll have fun doing it.
Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Marrakesh, via their hub in Dubai.
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