‘If you are not lost within a minute, you’re not trying hard enough’ – my search for magical Morocco

‘If you are not lost within a minute, you’re not trying hard enough’ – my search for magical Morocco

In Tangier, fresh off the ferry from Spain, I walk along the esplanade in cool morning air, then take the steps up into the casbah. My journey to Morocco started at St Pancras station in London three days earlier, and I spent a night each in Barcelona and Algeciras. I feel none of the dislocation or awkwardness that a flight would entail. I’ve seen the landscapes change: the lavender fields of Provence, the peach groves of Catalonia, then the wild upland magic of La Mancha. I spotted my first Arabic sign in Spain yesterday. Now the crafted casbah of Tangier seems like the natural next step. I take a turn up a narrow alleyway and pass an elderly couple, the woman in a straw hat decorated with fresh flowers, her husband hooded in a thick woollen burnous.

Map Morocco

The casbah is quiet. I stumble into the only place where things are happening: the meat market. By western supermarket standards, this bazaar is a challenge: entire blood-dripping carcasses on hooks, a man sorting through yards of slithery steaming intestines with his bare hands.

Morocco was once a place where Westerners headed for a decent dose of culture shock. In 1867 Mark Twain arrived on the grand tour that would result in his classic, The Innocents Abroad: “We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from center to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing anywhere about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it …”

He was not the only one. William Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch in a Tangier hotel room. Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles all came for inspiration. Later came the musicians: Graham Nash jumped on the Marrakech Express in 1966; Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand was inspired by Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, while the Rolling Stones almost came to grief here in 1967.

But that’s history: what about now?

Tangier station is clean and cool, the high-speed train leaves on time and we are soon whipping down the coast. At Casablanca I change to an older, slower train, but to be honest I am glad of the switch in pace. I want to see the environment: the spectacular bougainvillaea, the vast pastures dotted with flocks and shepherds, the houses built for both heat and extreme cold. The station at Marrakech, when I arrive, is as swish and swept as anything Europe can offer. They are putting in new sewers in the casbah. No one sidles up to offer me hashish or grab my arm.

Marrakech railway station.
Marrakech railway station. Photograph: Rosmarie Wirz/Getty Images

In fact, I’ll confess to a pang of anxiety. Has Morocco been sanitised? Does everyone go home happy with their Instagram full of horizon pools and golf courses? As soon as I walk into the casbah, however, that fear begins to fall away.

I have one night in Marrakech to meet my sister, Jo, who has arrived separately (we are here before the 8 September earthquake, but I have heard that signs of its impact in the city have been cleared up). We head out immediately to explore. The old city is not so much a labyrinth as a convoluted series of embedded mazes. If you are not lost within a minute, you’re not trying hard enough. Eventually we pop out in Djemaa el-Fna square, where there’s a snake charmer whose serpent looks like it swallowed all the dope. The food stallholders shout, “My friend, you must eat here. We are the best. Guaranteed no diarrhoea.”

When the lamps are lit, the square is magnificent. Down one alleyway, a boy jogs alongside us and tries to set fire to a leather belt – to prove it’s real. And there, in front of me, is a youth with wild hair, dusty rucksack, boots falling apart, eyes shining unnaturally. He’s a survivor of the grand old days. He’s from 1969. He’s on the Marrakach Express. I resist asking the belt boy to test the apparition for realness.

Djemaa el-Fna square, Marrakech.
Djemaa el-Fna square, Marrakech. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Next day we join a group heading for some rock climbing and yoga on a journey across the snowy Atlas Mountains (the areas we visit felt September’s earthquake but escaped largely undamaged). We stop at designated “tourist-friendly” spots where lots of people were selling jewellery, but the natural bonhomie of Morocco soon wins out over commercialism. I’m taken on an impromptu tour of a traditional house and introduced to the family matriarch. A detour to a “desert experience”, a clunkingly kitsch campsite complete with men dressed as Tuareg warriors is not my kind of thing, but the vast golden dunes are impressive. “They move north every year,” a local tells me. I watch tourists on quad bikes ripping up and down them, surfing the wave of the climate crisis.

Tinghir.
Tinghir. Photograph: Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy

We loop back into the southern flank of the Atlas Mountains and a miraculously vivid green ribbon of fecundity curling out from a slot canyon in a rock wall. This is Wadi Todra, in places half a mile wide, but generally much narrower. Ever since the Berbers arrived here from the east, they have built shelters on these steep rocky banks. No one knows the precise origins of these people: they call themselves Amazigh, but Egypt, Ethiopia and Yemen have all been mooted as possible starting points. The mud architecture reminds me of the Hadhramaut region in east-central Yemen: great towers and citadels of mud and straw, now surrounded by concrete and block buildings that do at least try to emulate that original style. One tradition is rigorously upheld: the houses are never built in that precious ribbon of fertility, only on the rock above.

On a sudden whim, Jo and I decide to leave the vehicle about nine miles from our final destination. We will walk there inside the narrow section of canyon and along this green valley bottom. Down here there are tidy tiny fields of mint, carrots and wheat, each served by a gurgling channel of water. A donkey is being laden with alfalfa wrapped in sackcloth. A hoopoe struts at its feet. White heads of egrets pop up from a fresh green field of barley. Two women, their chins and cheeks tattooed with crosses, smile and go back to tending their crops. The peach and quince trees are in blossom. The path meanders. We reach a wonderful ancient mosque, Ikelane, near Tinghir, and find its caretaker, Addi, who shows us around. “The casbah of Afalour was abandoned from the 1970s,” he tells me, “People wanted to live in new houses near the road. They had more children and needed more rooms.”

Rock climbing in the gorge
Rock climbing in the gorge. Photograph: Sabrina Gaudio Photography

The mosque itself is an architectural gem, but behind is the abandoned casbah, the mud towers collapsing, like an artistic miracle of chocolate ice-cream. In a decade it may all be gone. The families that left now want the land. Addi shrugs. “The old way needed maintenance. Rains here have got heavier and that means when the water gets in, the buildings deteriorate faster. We can only manage to keep this mosque intact.”

We explore the cool, spacious interiors and a panoramic roof terrace overlooking the date palms and peach trees, then return to the green ribbon, picking our way along field edges and streams.

At last, we rejoin the road and arrive at our hotel near the rock climbing walls of the canyon. Next day, with guides Dan and Max, our little group spend the day climbing on some superb rock. We drink from a spring in the canyon wall and a picnic is brought up from the village. In the evening we do strenuous yoga with Dan’s partner, Natalie, on the roof of their house. They came here shortly before the pandemic and decided, in an instant, to drop their careers in the UK and start a new life. “The pandemic actually helped us,” says Dan, “It gave us time to get to know people, and they realised we were truly committed to living here.”

Yoga in Wadi Todra
Yoga in Wadi Todra. Photograph: Sabrina Gaudio Photography

There are challenges. “Trying to get people to understand about plastic rubbish is hard,” says Natalie. The gorge, however, makes it all possible: there are hundreds of climbing routes, most of them particularly well-suited to beginners or moderately capable climbers like myself. The course attracts beginners, but also more experienced climbers scouting out the possibilities of Morocco.

One day Dan leads us up on to the high plateau to meet a friend of his: Ahmed, an 82-year-old Bedouin grandfather who lives in a cave, tending his goats. His daughter is carding goat hair to make a new summer tent. Two barefoot toddlers are playing a game. It appears to be called “Chuck dust and dirt in the air then scream joyfully when it lands on you”. They keep this up for the entire time we are drinking tea with Ahmed and stop only when three goat kids come bounding over to start a new game called “Chase baby goats and cuddle them”.

The fertile valley of the Todra
The fertile valley of the Todra

Before we leave, Ahmed wants to show me something: his flour mill. At the back of a cave excavated into the bedrock, he searches through his possessions: empty flour sacks, battered goat skins and a few clothes. Eventually he finds a granite stone that is rotated by hand, a thing of utter simplicity, but so perfectly balanced it requires little effort. There is no electricity here, or running water, but Ahmed does not want to go anywhere else. All around are vast panoramas of skeletal unpolluted mountains. Two sons left for the town to get an education – one 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 links, Morocco has given me my Mark Twain moment.

This article was amended on 10 January 2024 because an earlier version inferred that Marrakech is the capital of Morocco.

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

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