Of Moroccan Kings and Desert Hotels - Hotels in Southern Morocco, Daily Telegraph
King Hassan II died three year ago yet he still stares down upon his people from every wall in the land. No one has dared to remove his photographic portrait which adorns every café, hotel, shop and public building. You cannot forget a man who presided over every aspect of Moroccan life for the thirty-eight years. And his father and his father's father before him. Hassan II was the 17th of the Alaouite dynasty who can trace their blood-line back to the family of the Prophet Muhammad in the 6th century. It is as if Britain was still ruled by the Stuarts who had discovered that they descended from the family of Christ. The old king now rests in a white marble mausoleum that overlooks the vast ruins of a 12th century mosque that still dominates the capital. He is buried beside his father, Mohammed V, the revered liberator of Morocco. In the street cafés they now whisper a cruel joke, that Mohammed V has started to complain about the presence of his son. For the twin angels that interview every Muslim in their first night in the grave have still not finnished cross-examining Hassan II.
The new king, the handsome, unmarried, 38 year-old Mohammed VI has become the idol of the nation. The street stories about him have a mythic Harun al-Rachid quality. There are whispered tales of his incognito visits to check on the working of his authoritarian administration, or on the treatment of the poor in hospitals and the subsequent sacking of lazy officials. His public tours have seen extraordinary demonstrations of confidence between ruler and ruled. This extends even to such notorious regions as the Rif mountains and the eastern plains, which have been sunk in an eight year depression since the closing of the Algerian border. In the northern cities of Tangier and Tetouan, which were placed under cold Coventry by the old king, cheering crowds packed the roads for 15km.
Mohammed VI clearly has the common touch, driving his own car and ringing up old friends whom he had spotted amongst the cheering crowds on a mobile telephone. He has turned his back on such long standing traditions as the kissing of hands and chronic unpunctuality. Four months after his accession his popularity reached new heights with the dismissal of Si Basri, the Minister of Interior. Basri was the most feared man in Morocco, who for twenty years had manipulated the political strings of the nation like some stage version of a wicked Grand Vizier. The sense of quiet hope, of revived expectations, is tangible. Side by side with the growth in freedom there is a greater sense of responsibility. In the streets they say that we used to fear the king, now we fear for the king.
If it was always a good time to visit Morocco, it just got even better. As well as optimistic domestic politics there are an ever expanding number of boutique hotels and direct flights. This is especially true of Marrakech which now probably has more dreamlike palace-hotels than any other city in the world. They have received the lions-share of press coverage but so they should for at between £100 and $1,000 a night many of them can afford their own publicity budgets. They attract the serious money, indeed one city friend of mine complained that her hotel, undeniably magnificent though it was, was like walking into a meeting at Goldman Sachs.
You can however still get Moroccan style at a more reasonable price. I have selected six such hotels, old favourites mixed with new arrivals, the well-trodden grand hotels with the determinedly obscure demi-pension where you should bring your own booze. They also mark out a route, taking the indepedent traveller on a route from the Atlantic coast right into the sand dunes of the Sahara.
The Hotel des Cascades is perched on the western edge of the High Atlas. It can only be reached on a 50km single-track mountain road that moves up from sub-tropical bannana groves at the coast, through palm trees and up to an altitude that supports olives, argan and thuja trees. To witness a sunset from the hotel terrace is to enter into a form of addiction. Range after range of foothills are backlit as the sun slowly sinks through a cleft in the mountains and into the sea. I once listened with increasing irritation to a blow-by-blow account on a neighbouring table until I realised that it was for the benefit of an artist's blind companion. At dusk the scent from the garden terraces, especially when the lily bed is a-bloom, can be quite intoxicating. Everything, the roses, figs and cascades of hanging pink geranium, are fed by chuckling rills of fresh mountain water. The small village nearby, really nothing more than an administrative hamlet enlivened by a Thursday market, is celebrated throughout Morocco, for its honey. This, supplemented by half a dozen homemade jams, fresh baked breads and traditional pancakes makes breakfast a special treat. Lunch is grilled on the terrace but can sometimes be swamped by jeep-borne excursionists out from Agadir. It pays to spend the day exploring the well-farmed Berber valleys of this rustic hinterland. Arcadia is made all the more accessible by the energy of the proprietor, Jamal Atbir Eddine, who has converted his grandfather's kasbah and a mountain bothy into hospitable bases for a picnic or an overnight treking stop. The pool is perfect for those who like swimming in Scotland. More fastidious types might find the mountain water too refreshingly cool. Rooms are only offered with full or half board, so allow for £45 for a double room.
Taroudant has never needed any publicity. The younger, smaller sister of Marrakech it has none of the great architectural monuments or museums of its great sibling but is rewarded with 95% of her tourism figures. What it shares with Marrakech is a splendid circuit of medieval walls set against the backdrop of the High Atlas mountains, and a lively covered market. This can all be effortlessly explored in a horse drawn carriage from the Palais Salam Hotel, which occupies a 19th-century palace abutting the walls. The hotel, an intriguing labryinth of courtyards, pools and gardens, has three categories of rooms. The oldest rooms, dark, cool spaces filled with painted furniture, are about a third the price of the spacious modern suites with their international look and Hilton-like plumbing. Room prices subsequently vary between around £30-£70 for a double. In the evening arrange to have your meal in the garden, but beware of casting your comments about your neighbours in too loud a voice. A French guidebook warns its readers that the hotel guests are "trés anglais".
Ouarzazate, pronounced "Warz azat" looks hopelessly romantic on the printed page but has been disappointing visitors for years. Passing through lunch is best taken out of town on the rooftop of the Tiffiltoute kasbah amidst the crumbling merlons and storks nests. Supper is best consumed right in the centre of town at the tables of Chez Dimitri, not so much for the quality of the cooking as for communing with the ghosts of all the travellers and Foreign Legionnaires who have drunk there since it first opened for business in 1928. On the otherside of the road stands the last off-licence this side of the Algerian frontier.
East of Ouarzazate stretches the Dades oasis valley, a strip bed of river-fed cultivation set between arid mountain slopes. The clarity of light and the startling contrast between the sun baked mountain rocks and the irridescent green valley has an obsessional quality. It is inhabited by a skillful and hard working patchwork of Berber tribes, celebrated for their textiles, earth-built architecture, music, agriculture and cooking. These virtues can be tested and tasted at dozens of small, proprietor-run hotels. Kasbah Ben Moro, just outside the oasis town of Skoura, is one of the newest additions. Spanish-borne Juan Jesus Romero has converted half of an ancient roadside kasbah into a 14 bedroom hotel, leaving the other half in ruin, while funds acrue for the next round of restoration. A double room for around £30 with breakfast. A short walk along the valley floor leads you past dozens of equally enchanting ruins, including the celebrated Kasbah Amadhil.
The Hotel Rosa Damaskina is a modest auberge-restaurant just a few kilometres west of El Kelaa M'Gouna, run by Jean Pierre, an expatriate French chef. It is tucked into the hillside with a seductively lazy view over the oasis gardens from the rose-strewn terrace. Rosa Damaskina has only a few spotlessly clean bedrooms boasting some gorgeously tiled bathrooms, and a notable cascade of bright embroideries and cushions scattered over the sofas in the sitting room. In autumn this is lit by a roaring fire. Dinner is served outside on the terrace to the background noise of the trilling irrigation streams. On my last visit we were offered a four course dinner, with a choice of ten different entrees, for around £8. The rooms set you back about twice this, whilst the breakfast (freshly baked bread, fresh squeezed orange juice, aromatic coffee and a fluffy omelette made from golden eggs) seems grossly undercharged. It makes a near perfect stop-over and those with the wit will use it to explore the kasbahs of Skoura and the High Atlas trails north of El Kelaa.
Heading just an hour or two east is the small market town of Tinerhir beloved by Moroccans for the cool (cool by Saharan standards that is) winds that blow down through the gorges from the mountains. There is no shortage of small characterful hotels in this region but Le Timbuctoo, sometimes spelt Tomboctoo, has the edge. The brainchild of Roger Mimo, an exile from Catalonia it is a converted kasbah overlooking the green banks of the oasis. There are just fourteen bedrooms in this ancient manor house and the patron presides over a dinner whose influences range from southern Morocco to Barcelona. Bring your own wine and expect to pay about £25 a night for a double room.
Sunrise over the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi, which occupy the south-eastern most corner of the country, are the accepted goal, the grail, for most travellers to southern Morocco. The Japanese sit in neat rows on the crests of a distant dune and bow almost imperceptibly to the rising sun before delving into the sand with cotton gloves and filling plastic bags with golden grains. The Italians look the most elegant, in windblown desert veils, but often chatter and photograph so happily together that they miss the actual sunrise. Americans do the sunrise in style, with camels, black tents and well-paid Moroccan guides who sing out a haunting call to dawn prayer. The French feel most at home and so like to ski or sand board down the slopes or assault them with a rally. The English are badly dressed and tend to look glum and irritable though two days later they will wax lyrical about the experience, write verse or paint pictures from the memory of it.
The Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua, also known as Chez Michel or the Desert Inn, is for none of these desert virgins. In a region that lives off the sands, it resolutely turns its back on the dunes and gently cultivates a small wadhi with gushing artesian water. It is beloved by diplomats and resident expatriates who stay here for the almost monastic level of calm. It is one of Morocco's most distinguished hotels, not opulent, but delicately restrained. A small low level hotel (named after the crumbling ruins of an old Sufi guesthouse), it is built of traditional mudbricks with window frames and doors picked out in green. There is a small pool in which to cool off, and various tents, shady benches and pavilions in which to shelter from the sun in the heat of the day. Lunch is a minimal affair with most of the guests asleep, exploring or have popped down the road to the post office - just 27km of dirt track to Erfound. Dinner however is a great event, served under the stars with great panache. Michel the proprietor works his way round the tables with a grey parrot on his shoulder, chatting to the guests in any language that is required. He is a true French Saharan, the son and grandson of colonels of the camel corps who has spent the bulk of his life teaching Tuareg children in central Algeria. With characteristic grace he has adopted the son of his Moroccan business partner as his grandson and heir. The room rate is around £30 a night topped up by your bar and restaurant bills. When we last stayed there he was nursing an ancient bedraggled sheep called Noel and building a tower with a bathroom and a sitting room as an annexe to one of the rooms. I asked why he was breaking with the otherwise rigorous simplicity of his rooms. "It is for the King", he said. "He has got so bored with ambassadors praising my hotel that he is determined to come here and find out for himself".
You can book through the two well-established Morocco specialist travel agents, Best of Morocco, tel 01380-828533 and CLM, tel 020-7235-0123 or book directly.
Hotel Des Cascades in Imouzzer des Ida Outanane, tel 00-212-8-842671, fax 821671.
Palais Salaam Hotel in Taroudant, tel 00-212-8-852130, fax 852654.
Kasbah Ben Moro, outside Skoura, tel 00-212-4-852116
Hotel Rosa Damaskina outside El Kelaa des Mgouna, tel 00-212-4-839613, fax 836969.
Hotel le Timbuctoo in Tinerhir, tel 00-212-4-834604, fax 833505.
Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua outside Erfoud on the way to Erg Chebbi, tel 00-212-5-577140, closed January, June and July.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson