Our guide Abdelkarim brushed aside with his stick a section of the ring of dried, spiky thornbrush which protects the immaculate gardens of Kasbah Angour from marauding goats. We stepped gingerly through the gap and began making our way down towards the arid valley below, at the beginning of our eight mile trek through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.
After I’d felt a decent time had elapsed – about a minute – I asked the prurient question I’d been itching to ask. “Those girls…” I began. I was referring, of course, to Louisa Vesterager Jespersen and Maren Ueland – the two Scandinavian, twentysomething backpackers, who’d been decapitated a few months earlier by a group of Moroccans who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Abdelkarim had all the details: how the mistake the girls had made was to camp too far from the security of the nearby Berber village; how, there was a drainage ditch down which the girl who survived the initial attack could have run to safety, except that tragically she fled in the wrong direction and got overtaken. Like most Moroccans, Abdelkarim was utterly aghast that such a frightful, totally uncharacteristic atrocity could occur in his beautiful, friendly country.
It was good to hear him talk this way. I suppose, given that one in ten Moroccan jobs, including his own, are dependent on tourism he was hardly going to tell me that the infidels had it coming. But it was clear that he was very upset and that this view is shared almost universally by his compatriots, few of whom have any truck with the more aggressive, Salafist form of Islam.
Phew! I’d been a bit worried, to be honest, about travelling in the Islamic world since global jihadism became such a problem. In fact at one point, I’d vowed never, ever to risk going to a Muslim country again. But after the blissful week the Fawn and I spent in and around Marrakech, I feel very foolish and cowardly ever to have thought such things. Throughout our time in Morocco we felt hugely welcome and very safe.
It was 15 years since our previous visit to Morocco, after which we’d vowed “never again.” Sure it was pretty and colourful with some occasionally excellent cuisine; but it was also relentlessly hassly, with seemingly endless numbers of guides and carpet sellers and purveyors of dried poppy heads (A sore point. Don’t ask) trying to relieve us of our dirhams.
Clearly, though, much has changed since. For example the Marrakech souk – which used to be a byword for pestering and rip-offs – is now a near haven of tranquillity (at least relative to all the other souks I’ve ever been to, from Istanbul to Cairo). Apparently the word went out, either from the King or the government, that if Moroccans wanted more tourists to visit then the pressure selling would have to stop. Today, even when you’re browsing their stalls, the vendors maintain a certain discretion: not that they actually leave you alone, but they do at least give you the option of saying ‘no’. If I’m honest the atmosphere does now feel a bit less exotic and authentic. But it’s definitely a sight more relaxing.
Marrakech, as you probably know, is now a hugely popular tourist destination. Uber travel snobs, I expect, would probably argue that it has peaked. Back in the day, when the only place to stay was (Churchill’s favourite winter resort) La Mamounia or your gay aristocratic friend’s exquisitely restored riad, I’m sure you could still wander round feeling intrepid, and adventurous, and louche, like a character from a Paul Bowles novel. Not now it’s serviced direct by Ryanair and EasyJet you can’t.
But that’s OK – in my view the pros of new tourist friendly Morocco vastly outnumber the cons. By way of example, consider the two very different lunches we had in the Medina (the walled city). Old Morocco: a watery, tasteless couscous dish served on a roof terrace in a Moroccan dive I’d chosen because it looked authentic. New Morocco: a trendy fusion cuisine place called Nomad, where you can hardly get a table without booking, where they charge nearly-London prices for absolutely scrumptious dishes like Calamari from Agadir and Rose, Raspberry and Black Pepper sorbet that make you want to come back for more because they’re delicious and you know you’re not going to get a gippy tummy. I think I know which one I prefer…
Here’s why I think Morocco is just about the best destination in the world right now. Apart from the guaranteed sunshine (especially useful in Winter/Spring), the rich, exotic, hugely beguiling architectural and cultural heritage, the often very decent, distinctive cuisine, the good infrastructure, the friendly people with whom you can easily converse in your schoolboy French, the beaches, deserts, cities and mountains, and the fact that it’s only three and half hours’ flight from London, what I love above all is this: finally you can become one of those people.
I mean those beautiful people I mentioned earlier, like the ones I saw photographed in a coffee table book of Morocco in the 1970s in the gift shop at the Jardin Majorelle: the ones who were besties with Yves St Laurent or Christopher Gibbs or Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix and got to hang out with them in their pads in Tangier or Essaouira or Fez or Marrakech and lives like a cross between Brideshead Revisited and the Arabian Nights, in the days when only the really privileged could do that kind of thing. Louche and decadent, yet cultured and chic; cushioned from the horrors of the real world in their fantastically lovely riads with nothing to do all day but sip freshly squeezed orange juice and Moroccan tea, and sprawl by the pool in gardens bright with sinuous rills where blossom many an incense bearing tree…
Well in Marrakech today you can do all that too. There’s now a superabundance of riads and boutique hotels where you can have exactly that experience. We visited two of them, they were the perfect combination – one 20 miles out of town in the countryside, one in the suburb of Marrakech known as La Palmeraie because of all the palms – and I recommend them both hugely.
First Kasbah Angour, the place I mentioned at the beginning. This is a fortress-like structure, perched on a hill with gorgeous views of the snow-capped High Atlas mountains in the distance, and sits near Toubkal National Park which you can easily reach by foot from the hotel. It’s a great base from which to begin guided walking or jeep expeditions into the mountains, with gorgeous landscaped gardens and a pool in which to chill and recover from the day’s exertions. And the surrounding countryside is idyllic.
One day, the Fawn and I ambled without a guide through a nearby village into olive groves where Berber women tended their flocks of sheep – the leading sheep hobbled with rope – and we followed the course of a shallow river to a magical grove of silver birches, while bulbuls chirrupped about us in the trees. We were the only tourists for miles, or so it felt. I’d definitely go back.
Our second stop, was Jnane Tamsna, the property of Oxford ethno-botanist Gary Martin and his French Senegalese designer wife Meryanne Loum-Martin, so, as you may imagine, both the lush gardens abundant with sweet scents and unusual specimens and the interiors are stunning. There are five pools and a tennis court dotted around the estate and you don’t really feel like you’re at a hotel, more like a house guest at rich friend’s pad. The main problem with Jnane Tamsna is that it’s so chilled you may feel disinclined to do any tourism. It’s not helped by the fact that the food, especially dinner – Med-Moroccan fusion dishes made with produce from the organic gardens, is easily the match for anything you’ll find in town. Mind you, the great thing about Marrakech is that apart from the Jardin Majorelle, the Secret Garden, and a couple of old palaces (if you can be bothered), there’s really not a lot you have to see. Next time I go there – and I will go back, it’s that good – I’m just going to spend the whole time by the pool with a book. Why not? It’s a holiday not a cultural A level.