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Souks, luxury and donkey droppings

Neil Sowerby writes chapter two of his Morocco visit

Written by . Published on June 23rd 2010.


Souks, luxury and donkey droppings

The daily grind? I thought I knew what it meant. What it meant to escape it. I was, after all, swanning around springtime Morocco when other folk back home were putting shoulders to the wheel. Or certainly hard at it, at some meeting-led interface or other.

Traditionally goats clamber up on to the trees’ knotted branches, eat the nuts and their digestive systems strip out the tough, elasticated fruit, which is gathered from their droppings. Not a myth, I’m told, but more dung-free methods predominate nowadays.

At Lalla Abouch, in the Neknafa Valley, I was encountering the real thing. Khadija sits on the ground methodically working away with a grindstone, turning barley into couscous and flour.

Couscous for our evening meal, flour to make bread for lunch. Slow food par excellence. What remains will feed the donkeys braying in the next field.

Her daughter, Hafida, helps as we look on with the farm’s owner, Lucrezia Mutti, and her two large country pooches, Obestan and Pucci. We have just arrived from Essaouira 25km away on the coast (click here for my report on that wonderfully welcoming town). Tomorrow Marrakech and a mansion lodging. Tonight we’ll be the first foreign visitors to sample the delights of Lucrezia’s newly-converted farmhouse.

She’s a stylish Italian, with a Philosophy Masters and a background in financial journalism, who opened her own riad in Marrakech eight years ago. That was before these traditional courtyard lodgings in the old Medina became achingly trendy.

Her Dar Attajmil is still going strong, a delightful, cool haven a precious stone’s throw from the souks of hectic old Marrakech but increasingly her mind has turned towards preserving some of the disappearing heritage of the Moroccan countryside, working with local families. Hence Lalla Abouch.

With artistic friends, including a sculptor and a potter, she had already set up a study centre/country retreat, a work in progress up on the hill.

Lucrezia’s own farm accommodation, around a whitewashed yard with three guest rooms (and a vivid mimosa tree), has followed on from that. Our two-level en-suite room was certainly the most spectacular, obviously converted from a barn. The stone steps up to the bedroom were precipitous and only for the truly able-bodied but it was airy and light – that is until the country dusk dropped suddenly.

Then we dined by candlelight across the courtyard and retired to the large bed to watch Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit on a portable DVD player. The tiny screen wouldn’t have done justice to Avatar, our other possible choice.

So, as you may gather, the laid-back eco tourism of Lalla Abouch is not for everyone. But it’s for you if you might have enjoyed my donkey ride against the backdrop of dark storm clouds, or meditating in the beautifully-scented herb garden (yoga classes and massage can be arranged) or our simple lunch of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, peas and Berber fenugreek, cooked over hot coals.

As well as its own olive oil, the farm produces a small amount of organic argan oil, from a botanical oddity unique to this region, which comes in culinary and cosmetic versions. Lalla Abouch is the name of a 100-year-old argan tree on the property.

Just down the road in Tidzi there’s a co-operative, where you can see the whole process from lying out the nuts to the pressing.

Traditionally goats clamber up on to the trees’ knotted branches, eat the nuts and their digestive systems strip out the tough, elasticated fruit, which is gathered from their droppings. Not a myth, I’m told, but more dung-free methods predominate nowadays.

It takes 30kg to make just one litre of the oil, hence the large prices it can fetch (especially in Marrakech, far from source). Still, the ‘Argan alimentaire’ is rich in vitamin E and lowers cholesterol levels and from a reputable source can be gorgeous. If you don’t fancy it, bring home instead a rug or a box carved from the local thuya wood.

It is a substantial three-hour drive back to Marrakech. For the moment, Essaouira’s small airport is not served by planes from England, whereas easyJet flies into Marrakech from Manchester three times a week.

Our transfers were arranged by Boutique Souk, a bespoke traveller’s service to Marrakech and surrounding area, run by a smart Ulster lass called Rosena and her French husband, Frederic.

They are based in the city and on a previous visit we had valued the hands-on service they provided to make the most of what can be a bewildering experience for the newcomer. Especially the vast complex of markets (souks), and the unforgettable main square, Jemaa El Fna. A visit there is essential, especially after dark (but not too late, when it can become seedy). The name means Assembly of the Dead. Once a place of public execution, now it’s teeming with life.

Expect snake charmers, fire-eaters, medical quacks hawking potions, dubious dancers, storytellers, magicians, soaring cones of Day-glo spices, ranks of makeshift kitchens selling (very cheaply) the street food that gives you the real taste of Morocco. We never got as far as the more recherché souk parts, such as the dyers' quarter, a boon for photographic compositions, or the vaults devoted purely to metalcraft.

A long alley specialising in babouches was mind-numbing enough. My wife bought three pointy-toed pairs of these backless slippers in leather and suede, none in the obligatory canary yellow. I bought spices.

The city has always attracted writers, mavericks, romantics, fashionistas. We loved the gorgeous Majorelle Gardens, a bougainvillea and hibiscus-festooned piece of paradise with blue walls, pools and pergolas, restored by Yves St Laurent in the grounds of the villa once owned by self-exiled French painter Jacques Majorelle.

The Majorelle is probably my favourite oasis in Marrakech, but to seek some private space from the bustle and the hustle elsewhere we couldn’t wait to get back to our lodging, the truly grand Palais Rhoul.

A 15 minute taxi ride out of town in the snooty Palmeraie district, it’s set in a bird-haunted garden that seems like a rehearsal for heaven. Perfect stopping off point before our flight home.

Alongside the 12 suites and rooms in the main building, a private family mansion converted to an upmarket lodging, the Palais boasts eight tents, each bigger than many bungalows.

Attendants lit a fire for us on our arrival. It cast shadows over the dark wood panelled crannies. In truth, on that first night, with the sound of dogs barking across the 10 acre site, it was touch spooky, more Addams Family than Arabian Nights.

By day, though, breakfasting by the large, shallow, ornamental pool, exploring the faded period charm of the main salons, then wandering through ten sun-dappled, manicured acres down to the Palais’ louche-looking French restaurant, it all looked wonderful. Time to chill on a lounger. Rub on some argan oil.

FACTBOX

Boutique Souk provide a highly-recommended, concierge-based service for visitors, organising accommodation – from traditional riads to family villas outside the old town. Visit www.boutiquesouk.com. Email info@boutiquesouk.com or phone 002126 61 32 44 75.

Le Palais Rhoul, boutique hotel and spa in the Palmeraie. Rooms from £265 per night. www.palais-rhoul.com. Reservations and special packages available through Boutique Souk.

Visits to Lalla Abouch cost from 50 euros per person half board. Full house rental (max eight persons) starts from 150 euros a day h/b (from 1-3 people, extra guests 30 euros pp).

http://www.darattajmil.com/guest-house-marrakech/ferme-lalla-abouch.html. For pictures of this lovely place, don’t miss their Facebook site. Email Lucrezia at darattajmil@menara.ma

easyJet currently operates a 3 x weekly (Tues, Thurs & Sat) service from Manchester to Marrakech from as little as £35.99 (one-way including taxes). Visit www.easyJet.com to book or for more information.

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