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Sunset
High Atlas Mountains (Photo by Ivaho)

Surprising Morocco: holiday winners tell us about their trip

By Claire and Sarah Boorman, Responsible Travel holiday winners.

Sisters Claire and Sarah Boorman won this seven-day, small group holiday to Morocco. Claire wrote this insightful review of their trip, discussing their fears, the food – and the feeling of hiking in the raw beauty of the Atlas Mountains.

As we came into land in Marrakech, we looked at each other and Sarah said what we were both thinking – “what have we got ourselves into?” There appeared to be nothing apart from sand and dust. I tried my best to steady both our nerves by claiming, “it’ll be a great adventure.” Once off the plane and in the loveliest little airport I’ve ever been in, all concerns began to fade, and were all quickly eliminated when we found our tour guide.

Day 1: Marrakech

“I felt like a child that had found a secret place… I found it hard to believe I was just a four-hour flight from the UK.”

Having made introductions with the rest of the tour group at the airport we all decided to spend the first evening, which was “free time”, together. I don't know about anyone else but Sarah and I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. We all walked and talked during the 30-minute walk to Djemaa el-Fna (the open-air central square), easily identified by the sky-piercing mosque, La Koutoubia. This was the point at which the amazing atmosphere grabbed me, and it never left until I was back home. It was also the first of many tagines! None of the subsequent tagines were quite like this first one, sitting on a balcony over a heaving marketplace full of music, lights, colour and amazing smells that were just so exotic, enthralling and intoxicating. I felt like a child that had found a secret place. Sitting there overseeing all the activity, I found it hard to believe I was just a four-hour flight from the UK.

Day 2: Tour of Marrakech

“I was in awe of the beauty of the buildings and found it hard to imagine how much time and patience it all took to create.”

Today we all headed to the Djemaa el-Fna, via La Koutoubia mosque that is visible from most of Marrakech and makes a good reference point if you get lost! We then headed through the market and souks soaking up more of the atmosphere. We had a short visit to a pharmacy where all the products were made from herbs and oils. Each of us had a go at a few testers and smelled almost everything in the shop. From here we proceeded to the small but very beautiful Musée de Marrakech and Madrasa Ben Youssef. Both buildings introduced us to the amazing architecture and traditional Moroccan decoration; I was in awe of the beauty and found it hard to imagine how much time and patience it all took to create. We then headed back to Djemaa el-Fna where the music was loud and bewitching and the snake charmers were out.

Sunset
Madrasa Ben Youssef (Photo by just_a_cheeseburger )

After a long lunch and a never ending bowl of couscous, we decided to try and find Jardin Majorelle. This serene garden contains a wonderful collection of plants with small sections established by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. It was worth the long walk in the intense August heat. In the evening our guide took us all to Riad Omar where we had a Moroccan feast, sampling traditional dishes such as mint tea, tagine, Bastille and couscous. As we basked in the tent-like structure on the top of the building, the whole group agreed that although Marrakech was amazing and the atmosphere was intoxicating it was time to escape the city and see the Atlas Mountains. Again, old concerns raised their heads as people started talking about energy gels and jelly babies for fuel on the hikes. Sarah and I looked at each other and wondered if perhaps we should have come more prepared! We just had our bags, water and cameras.

Day 3: Escape to the Mountains

“It is so different that your imagination runs wild; it’s no wonder so many films have used the Atlas Mountains as their backdrop.”

We bundled into a minivan and headed out of the city to the more tranquil mountains. At Anmiter, we had lunch outside in another large, tent-like structure with comfortable floor cushions and Moroccan rugs. During the lovely meal and mint tea we prepared ourselves for the one-hour walk in the heat to the gîte. It was uphill during the hottest time of day, but there were amazing views of mud houses and I was very much reminded of Star Wars and Luke Skywalker’s home. It wouldn’t have surprised me if “Sand People” had popped out from round a corner to ambush us. It is so different that your imagination runs wild; no wonder so many films have used the Atlas Mountains as their backdrop. On the walk we learned about the Berber culture we were going to be surrounded by. Eventually we reached our gîte and picked our rooms and beds; each room had either three or four mattresses and all our rooms encased a communal area, which we began to class as ours. It is where card games were taught and learned, songs were sung and food devoured.

Day 4: Walk one

“The views were amazing as we were surrounded by mountain range overlapping mountain range in every direction… it had a raw charm.”

Today we took our first walk in the High Atlas Mountains: a six-hour loop through Tizi’n’Ourghsan to a waterfall and then back along the Quarikt River. The start of the walk was all uphill and to Sarah’s and my relief no one was sprinting ahead. Everyone grumbled about the constant gradient, so we were all pretty comfortable walking along together. The views were amazing as we were surrounded by mountain range overlapping mountain range in every direction. The land was much more barren than I had imaged, but at the same time it had a raw charm. We were all amazed at our guide who seemed to be an unstoppable machine unaffected by gradient or heat. The waterfall, although small, was so refreshing and most people took the chance to remove their boots and bathe their feet in the ice cold water. It was like a little miracle in the middle of the hot, barren, imposing land. After lunch we continued the walk but over predominately flat terrain back to the gîte, our guide scrumping fresh figs on the way. They were delicious!

Day 5: Walk two

“We were able to see how, by being in the village, we provide jobs that enable some Berber men to remain in the village with their families for longer.”

We prepared for a shorter hike today: a four-hour loop around Mount n’Oughlagal. I found it amazing how in the middle of these mountains there appeared to be dense areas of green where crops grew. After tackling our peak we returned to the gîte for a rest and lunch, before having a walk around the village. We saw the school that the company running the tour had helped build and maintain, and were able to see how, by being in the village, we provide jobs that enable some Berber men to remain in the village with their families for longer, as usually they go off to the city to earn money and only come back home for visits. The Berbers were wonderful people; all of them were so friendly and inviting.

Sunset
Hiking in the high Atlas Mountains (Photo by Anders Fongen)

Day 6: The dreaded last long walk!

“With sleeping bags and torches at the ready, we headed up to the terrace and fell asleep under an astonishingly bright moon and with Berber song and music in the distance.”

Since arriving at the gîte everyone had been be building up to this day – a 10-hour walk to Lake Tamda and back, over 20 miles (32km). We started early morning so as to avoid the heat and began our ascent. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was the hardest walk with a lot of uphill, each peak and corner bringing the promise that the lake was just over/around it. When we all eventually glimpsed the lake it was with pure joy and a bit of relief. The walk back was a lot faster and we realised the walk to the lake had been on a constant uphill gradient.

Once we reached the gîte we were all very tired. Having showered we enjoyed a lovely dinner and music from some of the staff at the gîte. We had a bit of a dance and tried to sing some English songs, which didn’t seem to impress, but we tried nonetheless. To top it off our last night at the gîte, the majority of the group decided to sleep upstairs under the stars on the terrace. With sleeping bags and torches at the ready we headed up there and fell asleep under an astonishingly bright moon and with Berber song and music in the distance (we were later told it was a bride celebrating her marriage in the village), with occasional donkey noises. It was just a perfect way to finish off our Atlas adventure.

Day 7: Back to Marrakech

“It was time to return to Marrakech for a last walk round the souks and Djemaa el-Fna, and our last dinner.”

After a lovely night out under the Moroccan sky we went to visit a kasbah at Telouet, which was historically occupied by a clan that did terrible things. Consequently the local community is allowing the kasbah to fall into disrepair as it is a reminder of a terrible time. Although understandable, the areas within the kasbah where it was safe to go were amazing, coated in elegant traditional Moroccan décor. It was then time to return to Marrakech for a last walk round the souks and Djemaa el-Fna, our last dinner and packing for our early flight home in the morning.

I owe a big thank you to Responsible Travel for this holiday. I would never have thought of going to Morocco and neither Sarah nor I are big walkers, but this holiday was fantastic. We were with an amazing group of people and have achieved things we never thought we were capable of. I am glad I got to see what Morocco was like for myself; the astounding atmosphere, wonderful people and breathtaking mountains. It was really good to see both city and country. The walking may have been hard but both Sarah and I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday and would do one like it again in a flash!

Find out more about our Atlas Panorama holiday that Claire and Sarah won.

Inspired to travel to Morocco? Take a look at all our Morocco holidays, or get more ideas in our travel guide.

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