When I turned 30 last year, Jimmy surprised me with a weekend trip to Marrakech. Exactly one year on, our friends' wedding brought us back to this vibrant city. And this time, we had the opportunity to explore not only the city, but a bit of Morocco as well!
What struck me most were the incredible contrasts Morocco had on offer. Cool and calming riads literally on the doorstep of the buzzing Jemaa el-Fna square and its surrounding souks. The most stunning villas and golf courses in the middle of derelict land. Super modern residential developments a short drive from ancient kasbahs. And you can go from snow capped mountains to barren desert in one day!
After spending a couple of days in Marrakech, we went on a 3 day private tour with some friends. Our (highly amusing!) guide Lahsen, from Amazing Journeys Morocco, picked us up from our riad, loaded up the 4x4 and off we went. We drove through the High Atlas mountains via the Tizi-n-Tichka pass (the highest road pass in Morocco), stopped off at Aït Benhaddou, Morocco's most famous kasbah, and spent the night in Ouarzazate, the hollywood of Morocco (I think it should be called Mollywood!). We then carried on our journey through the volcanic Anti-Atlas mountains and the Draa Valley to Zagora. After a pit stop at M'hamid to load up on food (including a green rotten egg served at breakfast the next day!), we headed for the rolling sand dunes at Erg Chegaga in the Sahara Desert, where we spent the night in a Berber camp.
Now I'm no travel journalist and this isn't the Lonely Planet, but I'll share with you my highlights of the trip!
When I travel, my absolute favourite thing to do is to wander, immerse in their culture and soak up the atmosphere. Marrakech is no exception. I loved getting lost in the endless maze of souks in the medina which sold everything from spices, clothes, homeware, to chameleons!
Every single shop you go into, they tell you they "give you very best price" and how their products are superior to everyone else's. I am not calling anyone liars but don't believe them! My Moroccan colleague always tells me a) most of the products come from the same factories, and b) there's Morocco price, Marrakech price, and then there's foreigners' price. I know some people think haggling is a bit of an art, but I think the key is to have a fair price in your mind and, uh-hum, to have no shame! Aim for at least 50% below asking price. I normally start off with a third of what they're asking for, and (hopefully) settle somewhere between that and 50%. Stay firm, and if they won't agree to what you're willing to pay, then politely say "no thanks" or "I'll have a think" with a smile and walk away. A friend of ours had a really bad experience (racist remarks were shouted at her), but most of the time, they are lovely people and there is a high chance they'll come running after you!
Aït Benhaddou has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. It is a fortified city, or ksar, and an incredible ensemble of earthen buildings. If it looks familiar, it's because a lot of films have been shot here - The Mummy, Gladiator (they seem to talk about Russell Crowe a lot there!), Prince of Persia, to name a few. And for you Game Of Thrones fans out there, this is the yellow city of Yunkai where Daenerys freed 200,000 slaves!
The climb was relatively gentle so you don't need particularly sturdy shoes (thank god!). As we were ascending though, the rain started settling in, and the wind started picking up. But when we got to the top, we were blown away (excuse the pun) by the spectacular panoramic view!
Erg Chegaga and the ATTA desert camp
The stupendous sand dunes of Erg Chegaga are a good 2-3 hours' drive from the nearest pre-Sahara town. Being stuck in the back of a 4x4 going through rocky patches isn't much fun, but what awaits you at the other end is totally worth it!
Before the trip, I had mixed feelings about staying in a Berber camp. I mean, I've never camped in my life, and those who know me will know I like my clean bathrooms! But I had absolutely nothing to worry about! ATTA Desert Camp is more of a glamp than a camp - its guest bedroom tents are equipped with western style beds, an electric light and socket for charging. It also has two more permanent building structures - one is the restaurant, and the other has western style toilets and showers. Ok, there wasn't more than a dribble of water, but it's pretty incredible you get any water at all in the middle of the desert!
We arrived about an hour before sunset, dumped our bags in the tents, and set off for a camel ride into the desert wilderness. An hour later, we returned with sore bums and thighs (it's harder work than it looks!) and dragged ourselves to the top of a nearby sand dune to watch the sunset. Our evening was then spent eating yummy chicken tagine and err, a Moroccan take on spag bol(?), and listening to our Berber hosts sing and play music around the campfire with a million stars and the Milky Way as our backdrop.
We got up bright and early the next morning and climbed up the same sand dune to watch the sun rise. All I can say is, it was MAGICAL and I'm going to let the photos do the talking!
And finally, this post can't be Maroc 'n' roll without the "roll"!