Justine Tyerman surprises herself with her daring exploits in Morocco…
I travelled undercover in Morocco. Being a bit of a coward, I was a little concerned about developments in North Africa and the Middle East. And just to make me feel even more anxious about my forthcoming most adventurous trip to date, my well-travelled boss’s parting words to me were “never identify yourself as a journalist in the part of that world”.
A bus tour of Turkey, cruising down the Danube, sailing the Croatian coast, travelling by train around Switzerland, driving across Italy, skiing in the French Alps and lounging around in villas in Crete and Santorini had been the extent of my overseas adventures to date. So in my view, Morocco was a highly exotic but somewhat risky destination.
Fortunately my good friend Robyn Galloway, managing director at Innovative Travel Company with whom I was travelling, set my mind at rest by organising business cards for me with the nice vague title of ‘consultant’ rather than travel writer. She also reassured me that guides on all her Ancient Kingdoms tours were highly experienced and left nothing to chance.
I needn’t have worried. The Moroccans I met were friendly, polite, hospitable and extremely welcoming, and our local guides accompanied us everywhere. I felt entirely safe and free to enjoy this most colourful, vibrant and astonishingly-beautiful country. I ended up doing things I never dreamt I was brave enough to do.
Having explored the ancient souks in Marrakech and Fes with our guides during the day, I felt confident to return with a few travel-mates in the evenings to do some serious haggling with the good-natured salesmen in their tiny shops crammed full of shoes, handbags, fabrics, ceramics, bronze goods and jewellery. It was huge fun.
Despite being snake phobic, I was so fascinated by the snake charmers and their shiny black cobras in Marrakech’s crowded Djemaa el Fna Square, I managed to overcome my horror of them. I astonished myself by being able to study the snakes out in the open — from a distance — and appreciate their beauty and grace.
I rode a camel up sharp red ridges in the Merzouga Desert on the fringe of the Sahara to watch the dazzling sunset from a sand dune mountain just 55km from the Algerian border. Later, we sat around a campfire, drank Moroccan rosé, ate a three-course feast of salads, tagine, couscous and platters of fresh fruit, and were entertained by musicians and dancers from Senegal and Mali.
The only time dark thoughts ever crossed my mind was when we were exploring the ancient fortress of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. My fear in this case was not for myself but for safety of this magnificent treasure in the province of Ouarzazate. The site has become famous as a film set for such movies as Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander and the television series Game of Thrones. In an unstable country, its fame could make it a target but as Robyn wisely pointed out, “This is Morocco not Afghanistan. You can’t compare the two countries.”
Our accommodation, a mixture of modern five-star hotels, riads (traditional Moroccan extended family homes built around a central courtyard) and kasbahs (fortresses), was outstanding. Someone must have whispered in the manager’s ear because my elegant suite at the luxurious Riad Fes in the heart of the oldest medina in Morocco was secure in the extreme.
Once frequented by Fassi nobility, my rooms had decorative grillwork on the outside of the windows, massive wooden doors that covered the windows and doors from the outside at night, wooden shutters on the inside of the windows and elaborate flounced curtains reaching all the way to the top of the 4 metre-high walls. I felt like a princess… and was treated like one too!
I did have one panic attack however. I had been looking forward immensely to the cooking school we were to attend at the prestigious La Maison Arabe in Marrakech but when it came time to actually follow our teacher Amina’s instructions, I was flummoxed. My husband does most of the cooking at home so I suddenly found myself way out of my comfort zone.
However our gracious dada (traditional Moroccan chef) was at my side throughout the class, helping me prepare three dishes for lunch — a chicken tagine with preserved lemons, olives, saffron and many spices, a Zalouk salad with aubergines, tomatoes, garlic and spices, and a Taktuka salad with roasted green peppers, tomatoes and spices.
I needed no help however to consume the delicious lunch… or the excellent Moroccan wines.
It seems I’m getting bolder as I grow older — Robyn who travels regularly to places like Egypt, Oman, Jordan and Turkey wants me to become even more adventurous and go to Egypt next… as a ‘consultant’ of course. Elhamy ElZayat, the chairman of the Tourism Board of Egypt and one of 50 people nominated to write the new constitution for the fledgling democracy is a good friend of hers. He says many positive things are taking place in his country and tourists are welcomed with open arms.
Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of The Innovative Travel Company, a travel company with 25 years’ experience. They are specialists in designing group and private tours of Morocco to cater to individual tastes and budgets.
She flew Emirates Airlines and stayed at the following hotels:
Sofitel Marrakech Lounge and Spa in Marakkech; Kasbah Dar Daif in Ouarzazate; Xaluca Maadid Hotel in Erfoud; Riad Fes in Fes, and Gray Boutique Hotel and Spa in Casablanca.