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Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I co own and manage Sun Trails.

Website URL: http://www.sun-trails.com

Cooking Moroccan with the locals

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How to rinse chicken with lemon, concoct the tastiest zaalouk and make your own bread. And the benefit of tasting your own tagine. A cooking class in the medina of our home town, Marrakech, with the great folks at Ateliers D'Ailleurs. Completely private, inside a traditional local's home, with the benefit of a tour around the souks for shopping the ingredients. The lady of the house will complement and advise you on your cooking while the hostess will be your guide around the medina and help with the translation from Moroccan Arabic.

So here we are on a beautiful day in May, just a few days before the starting of Ramadan and nothing seems to foretell it. It’s 10 AM and we are crossing Jemaa El Fna square in the company of Oumaina, our hostess for the day. The vendors are as busy as ever, enticing us with exotic juices, their stalls piled with heaps of oranges and grapefruits. Oumaima, whose English is sublime, is a student at Cadi Ayad university in Marrakech where she studies tourism. Part- time she hosts cooking classes for Ateliers dAilleurs, a locally owned agency that offers handicraft workshops in zellij, babouche, tadelakt or pottery. She sounds very enthusiastic about the day ahead and her job in general.

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As we are stepping off the square she muses about her dreams to become a licensed guide in Marrakech, one of the first if not the first female guide. After a few twists and turns around the derbs of the bustling medina with its tourists, shop owners luring their clients in and donkeys pulling carts loaded with carpets, tagines or rubble, we make it to the small riad where the cooking will actually take place.

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When I say riad, I don’t mean the fancy guesthouses of Marrakech so popular with tourists nowadays. This is literally a local’s home where the lady of the house is preparing the tea, while her niece which is visiting from Spain, is on her way out, leaving her 1 year old baby in the capable hands of the house ladies. There are two common areas on the ground floor where the women spend most of the day, together with the kitchen. On the first floor, one can guess there are two or three more rooms which most likely are attributed to young married couples. The men would have all gone out to their work earlier and probably would come back home late afternoon.

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After passing on the invitation to tea, we head out back into the streets. Our next stop on our Moroccan cookery class? The butcher. Aicha, our cook for the day, joined us for the shopping. While Oumaima is busy describing the life inside the house , Aicha stands in line waiting to purchase fresh chicken thighs. Once the chicken purchased, we slalom past the crowd into the open air souika, the colourful local market.

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We’ll need onions, lemons, parsley, tomatoes and aubergines. Aicha knows her providers and so she sorts the ingredients out. TIP: some of you may prefer skipping taking photos of the exotic stands and instead bargain for vegetables yourselves. Back on our tracks and across Place des Epices, where slave auctions used to take place in the not- so- distant past, we are heading towards the square, more precisely just behind it, where the preserved vegetables market takes shelter. Once our olive stock is secured, we are pressing on to the riad, just when the heat is about to start stifling.

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Now it’s time for action. Aprons on, we are handed the necessary kitchen ware and off we go. It seems that I will be in charge of preparing the chicken tagine while Leila will supervise the making of zaalouk, a popular tapenade made out of smoked aubergines, tomatoes and garlic. I’m a fiend for zaalouk so I will certainly peep over. Before anything else, Aicha sets about by rinsing the chicken parts… with lemon juice. By her account, the juice not only kills all the germs but also renders the chicken tender throughout the cooking.

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I start with placing the chicken thighs inside the tagine. Then, it’s the turn of the garlic which I chop really thin and sprinkle it over the chicken. Leila gives me a hand with chopping the parsley which is sprinkled next. Tears run down my cheeks thinking of the chicken that had to be sacrificed for our lunch… I’m kidding, of course. It's the onion and I’ve sliced so much of it that it englosses entirely the chicken. Next, it’s time for decorating with olives, spice it with a little saffron powder and lastly, pour a good ladleful of olive oil over. Our cook tells us there’s no point in using water as the chicken will let out liquid while cooking.

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We place the tagine over the fire, not before placing a metal plate in between to help diffuse the heat of the direct flame and avoid cracking the adobe tagine. TIP: never expose the tagine stewer to direct flame and settle the flame as low as possible. While the tagine is cooking, we place the aubergines next to the fire and turn them around so that they don’t burn. Once ready and pulled from the flame, Leila will sit down and peal them, before chopping them as fine as we can.

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We grind the tomatoes and the garlic and we mix it all with a good pinch of paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. We then place it all on the fire in a pan and slow cook it while mixing with a spoon occasionally. When I thought I played my part, Aicha shows up with a tray and informs me it is time for making Moroccan bread.

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After sifting two kinds of flour and working the dough ( don’t ask me how to get the dough off your fingers) it’s getting somewhat tricky to turn those lumps into perfect circles which are then to be shoved inside the oven, not before puncturing them with a fork.

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While the tagine and zaalouk are cooking and the bread is baking, we are being served a Moroccan tea. And it feels well deserved. Some half hour later everything is ready and lavishly spread on a table in the patio. Out of the two, I find the zaalouk to be the better. Bread chunk in hand we dig into the tagine, traditional way. The onion has completely sunk and caramelized and the chicken is as tender as it gets. I can finally brag about making zaalouk, one of the staples of Moroccan cuisine…

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Please note that such a class would take about between 4 to 5 hours, meal included. Other Moroccan menus are also available. If you prepare lunch, class starts at 10 AM. If dinner, class starts at 3 PM. Cooking Moroccan with locals is offered as a choice of activities while on one of our private Morocco tours.

© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Babouche Making in Marrakech

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Whenever we get the chance we like to immerse ourselves in the local culture here. And Marrakech, the place we call home since 2006 offers quite a few choices for that, despite the explosion of tourism of the last decade. After having cooked a tagine and bargained for spices and vegetables in the medina, crafted pottery in tadelakt and chipped the patterns of Moroccan zellij, we heard that someone could actually teach you how to make a babouche. You know, the sharp- pointed leather slippers, the ubiquitous Arab world accessory. Almost everybody ends up buying a pair of them after touring Morocco. But making a pair ? We wanted to see if we've got what it takes...

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We arrived at the shop one busy afternoon in November. The medina of Marrakech swarmed with motorbikes, pedestrians, donkeys, carts and cats. Rachid, the master maalem ( craftsman) was sitting comfortably beyond his desk in the back of a tiny shop whose walls were entirely furnished with hand- made shoes of all shapes, forms and styles. Sheets of raw leather of different colours and textures were piling up in a corner. After exchanging greetings, we had a quick introduction to the different techniques and a description of how the crafts class was about to unfold. First, the basics: 1) choose a size inferior to the one you have. For instance, if a 9, choose 8.5 ( if 43 choose 42). 2) you’ll craft the babouche from scratch, except for the stitching (if you want to factor that part in, add another hour and a half to the actual class).

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From beyond the counter, Youssef hauled a few sheets of raw leather in very exotic colors. We were supposed to choose each a color of our future leather slippers. Hard choice... Saffron yellow, turquoise, lilac move, red brown, purple, shiny black were just a few of the options on dispaly. I finally decided for coffee brown while Leila, my enthusiast colleague, went for a sort of reddish brown.

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Before making our choice, the master craftsman pointed out that traditionally men in Morocco wear yellow or black whereas Moroccan women have a choice of any colour and quite a few are embroidered. Tourism drove up considerably the demand as well as the fabric type and so nowadays one can spot in the souks of the red city anything from blue- jean or zebra print babouches. Don't trick yourself in believing that a Moroccan would ever wear such deviations from the norm… It was time to get our hands to work ! We took possession of the pattern and proceeded to draw the shape of it on the leather sheet we had each selected. 

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Then it was time for the second stage: the gluing. After applying generous layers of special glue, we pasted the parts together under the undivided attention of our master maalem. Soles slashed out, foam layer was rubbed in so that excessive walking wouldn’t be harsh on our feet.

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Then, it was time to activate our muscles. The mallet in our hands, the different leather garments were bashed together. The shapes were handed to Youssef, who started stitching the garment to the soles, while we indulged in the ubiquitous pleasure of having a Moroccan tea and cookies. After all, it was getting near to 5 PM.

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When finished with our tea, we were surprised to find that our soon-to-become-babouches resembled shoes reminiscing of what peasants used to wear in Europe centuries ago. Or perhaps, the Eskimos. Never mind, they sure didn’t look like a leather slipper that you’d wear around the house. Where’s the trick, I thought. Well, there was one.

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That was indeed the babouche, except it had to be turned inside out. And so we did. Turn it inside out. In the process, I was largely helped by a wooden stick. The trick is: you turn the shoe inside out using your hands as much as you can. Which is about 3 inches. Then you shove the stick inside the pocket thus created and you pull. And pull. At first, you are afraid that the stitches will give up from so much pulling. But they won’t. Eventually, you end up with an almost perfect babouche. And I think we did. I mean, have a look at the pictures and judge.

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Please note that such a class would take about 3- 4 hours for a whole class, tea time included. Stitching will be taken care of by the master craftsman. Babouche - making class is offered as a choice of activities while on one of our bespoke Morocco tours

© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Riad Laaroussa, Fes

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I first passed the doorstep of Riad Laaroussa in 2013 on the occasion of Fes World Sacred Music Festival. I immediately felt compelled by the proportions and objects. The ground floor rooms had 7 meter high ceilings. And the courtyard could have accommodated a generous pool but the owner decided to maintain its fountain and its citrus gardens. Soon after that visit, we sent our first guests there as Fes was part of their 7 day travel around Morocco. And over the years, the feedback of our guests only got more and more positive. When I meet them at their riad at the end of their private tour of Morocco to talk about their trip, more often than not, they rate their stay at Riad Laaroussa as the best throughout their tour. So then, what is that makes Riad Laaroussa unique ? For me, it goes beyond things you can touch. It's ultimately the staff. Although Moroccan hospitality and charm is almost a given when staying in a riad in Morocco, the personnel here feel like they're all a big family. And most of them have been around since the opening. The owners, Fred ( French) and Cathy ( American), have decided from the beginning to do things differently. How so ? Well, that's what we came to Fes to find out. It was a chilly day in March and spring seemed to have second thoughts. So Leila and I sat down with Fred and had a chat about it. 

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Sun Trails: When did you open the Riad and how did that come about ?
Fred: In 2003 I visited Fes with my father and I fell in love with the old town. I had hired a local guide and when he showed me inside some of the old palaces of Fes, I was smitten. At that point, I had no idea that I would some day buy an old house, open a hotel and so on. But it was then that the seed started to grow and some months later I got back and thought of purchasing an old house and renovate it, but without any commercial use in mind. 

ST: But had you visited another city in Morocco by then ?
F: I was born in Casablanca and know pretty well Morocco. I had visited also Marrakech many times, but although I love Marrakech for a thousand reasons, I never had this coup de coeur that I felt in Fes. In Fes, I had fallen for this medieval ambiance that somehow connected with me and I felt something that I can’t retrieve in the modern world.

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ST: Perhaps also because Fes is really the only medina in Morocco where one travels in time.
F: Indeed, and even after 15 years, when I walk down the streets with my children, that magic still operates.

ST: So you bought an old house. How did you think of making a riad out of it?
F: Well, in the beginning, we just had a few parties and a good time. But after a while, I found myself with a big house on my hands, most of the time empty. There were already a few riads open in Fes. So I thought, why not open a guest house ? And so I started renovating the house so as to be able to welcome guests. I thought I was going to hire a manager, but every time I returned to see how works were progressing, I was sad to leave. I was 40 and thought it’s perhaps the right moment to change my life around.

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ST: So the guest house opened in 2006 ?
F: Yes.

ST: What was the house before ?
F: A family house left abandoned. Only 2 old sisters lived in one of the rooms downstairs.
The last proprietor were merchants in hlyia ( a Moroccan delicacy made of salty preserved meat ). The present kitchen is where they used to slaughter the animals and turn the meat into hlyia. The house itself dates back to at least 17th century. We’ve done a few researches and found some documents. We know also for example that by the beginning of 19th century it was left in ruin and bought by a rich merchant that restored it. It was also a koranic school at some point in time. Every other year, there’s an old man knocking at the door and taking a visit. He reminisces of how he grew up in this or that particular room.

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ST: How did Fes change since you are here ?
F: I don’t think that the medina has changed much. Although the number of riads has grown from a dozen back in the day to around 300 nowadays, I don’t think that the medina has changed much. Of course many years ago, we weren’t confronted to groups of tourists following their tour leader through the souks, but overall things are the same.

ST: What is that makes Fes unique ?
F: Its authenticity. There are still people living in this medina like they used to for generations. And the community spirit. People greet each other. Take their time. Of course, I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I live in my own cocoon. I’m wealthier than the average man and it’s easy for me to approach people, but nevertheless I love being part of it all. The modern world hasn’t quite crept in yet.

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ST: Well yes, if you compare it to Marrakech where it’s harder and harder to find a community spirit inside the medina, in Fes this balance hasn’t yet been tipped over, even if many foreigners own a house here.
F: I agree.

ST: Especially more nowadays when the flag of sustainability is often waved, Fes is an example of how foreign investment doesn’t necessarily have to involve a bastardization of local culture.
F: Everybody in the medina is happy that their business is thriving -there's no denying it, but what’s more important is that its authentic way of life endures. I am originally from those beautiful villages south of France. They are magnificent, yet uninhabited. So, where is the soul of things ? I'm not making any judgement. But what’s important for me is that my children can play in the street. That I can greet my barber. Chit-chat to the newspaper man. I feel part of a community. Surrounded.

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ST: I agree, it’s the same when I travel to Granada, my favorite city in Europe. The old town there, with its carmens, which are very similar to riads in Morocco, is a big open air museum. Yet, there are no children in the streets taking the bread to the local oven early in the morning.
F: Or the lady of the house picking up the bread in the afternoon. And if it’s not her son fetching the bread, the neighbor will. And the oven master will know whose bread it is by the motifs on the towel. This is something that touches me. And it reassures me.

ST: What’s there to do in the surroundings of Fes ?
F: The two day trips that are ubiquitous are: 1) Meknes and Volubilis. The Roman ruins of Volubilis are from second century and standing them on the hill overlooking, one can only wonder of how all had been invented already back then. Meknes is worth for its monuments, especially the Royal granaries where 2000 horses used to be kept. 2) Middle Atlas and the cedar forests. It’s a pity that there are no trekking routes signposted, because this is a trekker paradise. And I know so because I am one. Something that’s not so developed in Fes, is to trek or bike just beneath Mont Zalagh. A trek there with a picnic would be a great way to spend half a day.

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ST: It’s funny you should say that because we are seriously considering hooking up mountain bikes on our 4x4’s so guests can use them whenever they feel like it throughout their bespoke trip around Morocco.
F: That’s a great idea.

ST: With 4 children, how do you manage to find that balance between the guest house and a family life ? 
F: What it was clear for me from the beginning was that we wanted our staff to be autonomous. It’s not in my character to wish to control everyone and do regular checks. There have been deceptions, and there should be, but we’ve started over. We've tried harder. And I think that nowadays we can afford to not be present most of the time. There’s Thierry, my brother in law, and Raja, our manager that deal with front office and back office operations. Which allows us to not be sucked in by the day- to- day operations. Except when Cristian from Sun Trails asks us to do a silly interview, for the CNN...


ST: I'm not sure about the CNN... But congratulations on achieving that. I don’t know many hotel owners that can say the same.
F: I changed lifestyle 15 years ago. I was in investment banking, spending my life running between world capitals thinking I was more important than anyone else around me. I wasn’t going to change life and become a slave again to some cash - and - carry. Because you can look at it like that: you cash in from your clients and cash out to your suppliers. But I accept that because of the freedom that comes with our choice of lifestyle, we may be loosing some pennies here and there. I can live with that.

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ST: Which brings me to my next question: how come the team here is so solid ?
F: By yielding them autonomy and responsibility. And then I believe we all have a mind of our own, and so anyone can come up with a great idea. They are well paid ( compared to the average pay in Morocco), there are extra bonuses. It costs much less to have employees here than in Europe, there’s no denying. I am ashamed that some French people can come here, open a business, pay a minimal Moroccan wage to his employees and then complain that his expectations are not met. I am profoundly revolted. When your employee is sick, you have an obligation to look after him or her. So, naturally, the staff feels looked after and so they stay loyal. We took our staff on holidays to Paris. To Instanbul.

ST: What makes Riad Laaroussa unique ? Besides its 7 meter ceiling rooms, great decorations, stunning views and delicious cuisine. I meet most of the guests on our private tour of Morocco and ask them for feedback. This is our guests’ favorite.
F: So what do they say ? Why is it so ?

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ST: Service.
F: That’s right. Just like I said. When you take care of your staff, you get so much in return. Look at Badia. Here she found a place. No one casts judgments at Riad Laaroussa. Because she’s a woman. Or because she’s poor. And it is because she feels loved that she is able to express herself. And that built her self- confidence. And, in the process, she taught herself English, among other things.

ST: What are the latest trends in terms of tourism in Fes ?
F: The Chinese, of course. We don’t get many of them, as they come in groups. We always get a lot of English speaking clientele and I think that reflects Fes as a whole. I have the impression that more English speaking people visit Fes than Marrakech.

ST: As a percentage, I would agree. What are your plans for the future ?
F: Be happy. Who cares about the rest ?.. No, joke apart, we are looking into perhaps expanding the Riad and accommodate a few more rooms. We may be romantics, but I hate saying no to room enquiries. Maybe the spa also, expand it. The cuisine, we’d like to be able to propose something different if guests had too many tagines.

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Accommodation at Riad Laaroussa is currently being offered on our bespoke tours of Morocco with our Privilege range.

© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Lma Lodge Skoura

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Lma Lodge. In only a few years, this guest house in the palm grove of Skoura, has become a reference. Recently, previous guests have booked two years in advance, booking the whole place for them and their group of friends. The recipe for this success ? Instead of one single ingredient, there are a few: a dedicated, English speaking- team, always discreet but always on hand. A passionate owner, Vanessa, for whom nothing is too much when it comes to making her guests happy. An architecture that strays away from the kasbah/ Berber/ pise/ wood beans architecture and favours modern and the profusion of light, above all. A different Moroccan cuisine ( think chicken tagine with figues and almonds, goat cheese salads), using the local ingredients grown in the gardens. Very comfortable beds and bed linen, wall mounted radiators and wide windows inside. Vast gardens with private lounges for everyone, complemented by a heated pool, outside. And children are welcome - there's walks in the palm grove they can take with the resident horse and mule. We sat down with Vanessa one evening in June and talked about it. 

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Sun Trails: Why Morocco?
Vanessa: At the time I was a guide for Club Med. I started working in Morocco in 1998 in Tangier. Then I got transferred to Ouarzazate in 1999, and after that to Marrakesh. But it was in Ouarzazate that I had the crush. It seemed like the ideal place to organize day trips around. In just one hour, one could be in the Atlas mountains or next to an oasis, or even in Dades Gorges. At first it wasn't easy, since I did not speak Arabic and I was a young non-Muslim woman. It was the kindness of the locals and the drivers that coached me, that allowed me to go beyond all that and trully integrate. I then went back to Martinique, then to Miami but I always dreamt of returning to Ouarzazate some day. One day, I met Xavier, that was to later become my husband, and I told him I'd like to go back to Morocco, but to Ouarzazate and nowhere else. 

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ST: At the time, what was the most popular day trip from Ouarzazate?
Vanessa: Hmm. It was the loop of Telouet and Ait Benhaddou, at that time still an off road track. You must have known it. During those years, big travel agencies lost several of their 4x4's on this track. The valley of Ounila remains incredible by its beauty even today, after all the progress. But at the time I used my spare time to trek around these lost off- the- beaten track regions, spend time with the locals. If you had two days to spear for a tour, the trip to be done was to the dunes of Erg Chigaga. My first memory of Ouarzazate after arriving late at night: I woke up and saw the morning mist rise on the Kasbah of Taourirt. It had such an impact on me.

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ST: So, Ouarzazate at all costs?
Vanessa: Yes. At first, for Xavier it was really a challenge. The climate here is very different from Toulouse in France. You know, Ouarzazate, there is nothing happening - it's a very quiet provincial town. But at the same time, it's a clean, secure, unpolluted city. Of course, if you're into exhibitions, theatre, cinema, that kind of social life, there is nothing, but me and my family, our priority is walking, cycling and hiking every day.

ST: How did you manage to become part of the community?
Vanessa: In the beginning, the locals feared that we were going to alter their lifestyle. The terrain here was a stopping place for caravans. Then it became the playground where the young people of the village came to play football, and climb in the trees. People in the village were scared at the thought that we might settle here and open a nightclub, there will be alcohol, loud music, etc. The fact that we arrived with just enough to purchase the land and that the construction took 5 years (and we put our hands into it) allowed the community to understand that we really wanted to belong here. We hadn't planned in the beginning to have a 7 bedroom bed and breakfast. The project sort of grew up on its own. The one thing I had clear  in my head: I wanted a place with a lot of light.

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ST: Jardins de Skoura is a reference.
Vanessa: Indeed, and I think there isn't a more typical and comfortable guest house in the palm grove of Skoura. But we had in mind something different, something modern. We did not want to build another kasbah or Berber- influenced structure.

ST: LMa Lodge reminds me a bit of Azalai Lodge in Zagora.
Vanessa: Indeed, Bouchaib ( the owner of AL) has come several times to stay with us and we adore Azalai Lodge.

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ST: How did you go about recruiting and training the staff here?
Vanessa: The construction of the house took 4 and a half years so we had the time to recruit well. For example, at the beginning I wanted to have a man responsible for the household and cleaning. Given the structure of the house, I deemed that the household is a difficult task and not suitable for a woman. So one of the workers came to see us and offered to take on this task. It was someone who cared for both his parents who were old so I knew he was going to be someone conscientious. Abdelrani, who provides customer service during the day, I knew him from Club Med in Ouarzazate. Soufiane is really maktoub (destiny). All the way in the beginning, we hadn't anticipated the guest house would take off so fast. So, in no time, it had become my golden prison. One day I almost broke down, exhausted by the work that had taken up all my time and I could not see my children anymore. The same evening, Soufiane knocked on our gate and introduced himself and told me that he wanted to work for us. As he spoke very good English and had a very good experience, he fitted in right away. It allowed me to become a mother again and to have time for my family.

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ST: There is a lot of talk today about sustainable tourism. Personally, I think Skoura is an example of how a region and its people can benefit from tourism, without losing its culture and identity. Do you agree with me that maybe due to tourism, people in the area do not need to migrate to the big cities to earn a living, which is sadly happening in other parts of Morocco?
Vanessa: Completely. At first, this was almost a ghost village. People have come back and they are now able to take care of their families while working in the area. They took up credits. Look how many new motobikes you see riding around ... Well, tourism is a big part of it. Besides, the negative aspects of tourism are not here. If you attend the souk ( market) of Skoura, you do not get harassed every 3 minutes , as you would in Marrakech. I would even say things are better than at the time when I first arrived in Ouarzazate, when tourists were followed on motorcycle by false guides.

ST: Milo and Charlie, your children, have spent their whole lives in Skoura. How do you find time for your children and also for LMa Lodge?
Vanessa: This is my challenge for the following year. To become a full-time mother again, to spend more time with them. Holding a guest house is an incredible job and I can't be more grateful: we meet people from all over the world. Every day is different and very rewarding. The downside is that we can not get off work.

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ST: You could always consider adding more rooms. There is room enough and you got plenty of demand...
Vanessa: Maybe. But what I want to privilege is space and intimacy. As it is, the garden accommodates so many small corners that even with full occupancy and families with children in all suites, everyone will find space to have their own private corner in the garden. Our success is also due to the garden and implicitly to the space that comes with it. We would rather add a hammam - we also have an excellent masseuse, so that people who come back can say: oh look, they added a few new things.

ST: By the way, I think a challenge would also be to find the time. Since the clientele is used here to be cocooned and looked after, to have you come and talk to them at breakfast or dinner, etc.
Vanessa: I agree.

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ST: What are some unique dishes that you offer in the kitchen?
Vanessa: First, the salads. 'LMa salad' with goat cheese that is sourced locally in the palm grove. Other salads include figs and pomegranates from our own garden - depending on the season. 'Carrot and chicken tagine in orange juice', 'Chicken tagine with almond and figs', Hamid's 'Kefta with rosemary'.

ST: That's a welcomed change, as visitors on a tour around Morocco often complain that they always eat the same tagines. It's a pitty knowing that Morocco boasts dozens and dozens of tagine recipes and carries one of the finest cuisines in the world.
Vanessa: Of course. Besides, if we have guests that stay 4-5 days, we will also offer them a couscous, which is one of the staples of Moroccan cuisine, you have no excuse visiting Morocco and not try it. Lait- citron for desert, also our ice creams are homemade. We have a whole bunch of homemade jams also at breakfast.


ST: What makes you stand out from other guest houses in Skoura?
Vanessa: Especially the brightness of the rooms and spaces. There are radiators in the rooms for the cold months. The gardens. The pool which is heated during the summer. Since we are at 1200 meters above sea level, it is necessary to heat it even in spring. The difference is also that we live on the spot too and we are always available. Our animals (horse, mule, goats) and gardens. Guests are invited to work the land or pick olives or dates with us and the team, when the season is right.

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ST: I remember the first time I spent the night in the palm grove of Skoura and what surprised me the most was the variety of fruits and vegetables that grew: tomatoes, figs, oranges, dates, onions , pomegranates, watermelons. I couldn't believe it.
Vanessa: That's why some say the palm grove is a piece of paradise. But the root of it all is the water that comes from the mountain and is then distributed throughout the palm grove by an ingenious system that has lasted for centuries.

ST: What is your favorite place in Morocco, outside Skoura?
Vanessa: Chefchaouen - I love it. Amtoudi too. The White Beach. The dunes of Erg Chigaga.

ST: The dunes of Chigaga is a desert that one trully lives. Unlike the one next to Merzouga where the dunes are just a stone throw away from the village.
Vanessa: Yes, indeed. It's not like Merzouga. You have to deserve it. In Chigaga, the track leading to the dunes gives you time to get used to the desert. To its different shapes, its inhabitants, its creatures. And then when the sun is about to set and you start getting a little anxious, the dunes appear. And it was all worth it.

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Accommodation at LMa Lodge is currently being offered on our tours with our Privilege range.

© Sun Trails 2018. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Palais Khum

Palais Khum - 4.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

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When I find myself sometimes wandering about the medina of Marrakech in the morning, I yearn for a good coffee in a beautiful setting, somewhere away from the hustle and bustle. Away from the selfie sticks. And Palais Khum is just the place. After all, Stefano, the owner, is Italian and from Milano, which means great coffee and good taste. Jazz pouring through the speakers ensures just the right mood for coffee. When Palais Khum opened its doors to guests, it was not just another 5 bedroom riad. With the opening a couple of years later of a cafe giving onto the pedestrian street, Stefano emphasized his desire of making  the restaurant a vibrant place where passers- by would mingle with the in- house residents. Some of the rooms here have their own private terrace. There's an elevator, two restaurants, a decent size covered heated pool and a spa. But it's also the man behind it all, Stefano. He's often on site, always available, greeting guests and sharing insider tips, without being invasive. He graciously agreed to an informal interview with us. 

Sun Trails: How long has Khum Palace been open and how did that idea come to you ?

Stefano: Palais Khum opened in 2014. At first we purchased it to make it a private house. Afterwards, we realized that it was too big for us to live alone in it, so we deemed it would be better to turn it into a guest house. We were inspired by the concept of riad but we endeavored to create an open space, not so much separated from the outside - or the cafe that overlooks the street and communicates with the inner garden. It also has to do with the pleasure of being in a Moroccan setting and decor, in the medina, but with a garden, an indoor pool, a spa, etc. This is what makes the charm of Marrakech.

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ST: Where does the name Palais Khum come from?

Stefano: In Italy, there is a lido (beach) called Kum, where my daughter was always asking me to take her so she could hang out with her friends. This place was dear to her and so I wanted to pay homage to it. At the same time kum in Arabic means your so Palais Khum = your palace. It is a name that is easy to recall. Moreover, all the guest houses are called Riad or Dar. At the time, the building was a foundouk (caranvaserail) among the other hundreds of foundouks in Marrakech (the foundouk was a building for caravans to stop, where camels and slaves occupied the groundfloor, while the merchants held the first floor).

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ST: Why Marrakech and not another city in Morocco?

Stefano: It's chance. To tell you the truth, I adore Cairo in Egypt, but considering the situation there, I prefer to be in Morocco, where there's security and political stability to which the King ( of Morocco) went at great lengths to ensure. He is a sovereign who travels a great deal, even when he is sick. I find him very dedicated to his country. The location of Marrakech is also ideal. Very well connected with the countries abroad and this close to Europe, the cultural difference is very intense. The desert, the mountains and the coast are quite within easy reach. Everyone falls in love with Marrakech. Since Winston Churchill, discerning travelers have always frequented Marrakech, just like they did Istanbul or Cairo.

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ST: When you bought the house, it was in the current state?

Stefano: No, we had to refurbish everything. We had to redo the plumbing, the lighting, and so on. Since we had added an indoor pool, an elevator, a spa, two restaurants, this was essential. Not to mention a certain range of comfort that we wanted to offer. However, we tried to preserve as much the Moroccan spirit as possible in the decor and architecture. The pool is a western touch - as you probably know, in a traditional Moroccan riad, you would find at best a central fountain, but never a pool for swimming. The local authorities have been kind enough to allow us to build this. 

Sun Trails: How many rooms are there ?

Stefano: 11 rooms and suites. We also have two restaurants (Moroccan and Italian / International) and a spa. We will expand spa in the near future. We welcome people from the outside looking to enjoy our garden and our restaurant, but from 10:00 pm, common areas are exclusively reserved for resident guests.

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ST: Have you had any experience in the hotel business before the opening of Palais Khum or is it something new for you?

Stefano: No, I have not had experience before and besides, I don't know if I would do it again one day, if given the opportunity. It was quite strenous, even if today, 4 years later, we have earned a reputation and enjoy a good occupancy rate in the year. Personally, I believe in the principle of staying local, whether it is the staff, the cuisine or even the wine. I think there is some very good Moroccan wine being produced now. We do not serve French wine, even though I know that other houses do it. Also, the team manager must be Moroccan. I'm here to correct things sometimes, but I'm proud of my small, yet effective team. They speak several languages. Moreover, the spirit of welcome, to receive, is profoundly Arabic, so also Moroccan. Among my travels to Central Asia, I was able to experience this at every opportunity. There, when you visit someone, you are treated like a king. We give you everything we have best.
But visitors must try to respect the customs and local traditions.

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ST: What type of clientele stays at Palais Khum ? Is there a nationality that is dominant ? 

Stefano: There is no predominant nationality. We receive guests from all over. On the other hand, the Chinese are on the rise compared to past years. On the other hand, Chinese do not often speak other languages. It's not easy to understand them - they do not wish to mix with others and even in Marrakech seek Chinese restaurants.

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ST: What are your favorite places in Marrakech?

Stefano: Personally I prefer to visit Raids. There are not so many monuments in Marrakech. Marrakech, its medina, is one large museum. I love going back to beautiful houses instead. For example, I take pleasure to go sometimes to dine at Riad Kniza. I also like Gueliz, not so much the other districts of Ville Nouvelle. As a place to go out and party, the Jad Mahal.

ST: What else could Marrakech do to attract tourists?

Stefano: In my opinion, it could do with a music festival. In Italy, in Peruggia, we have a jazz festival and this brings a lot more tourists to the area. But for a music festival, you have to have the right line- up. And music is easier than cinema. The Film Festival ( that was being held every December) is now dead. They are holding one of the of Formula E races, but to make things big, it will be necessary to build a circuit and hold a Formula 1 race. With music, things are easier, but you need consistency and a well curated line up.

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ST: You offer Moroccan and Italian cuisine. Are there special dishes?

Stefano: We offer pesto tagliatelle, tramezzi and a few more dishes. The pasta comes from Italy, but I try to use local ingredients. As for the Moroccan cuisine, I am not keen on revisiting. For me, foie gras has no place next to couscous. The cuisine is part of the local culture, it is often an introduction into a culture and Morocco is rich in cultures. Why revisit traditions, local cuisine ? It's not my angle.

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ST: What makes Palais Khum unique ?

Stefano: I think every house is different. Every house has a soul to itself. I think even we could suggest tourists to visit various Riads in the medina. They trully are works of art. At the same time, I can not recommend my guests to go to visit my competition :). Much of our furniture comes from La Mamounia hotel, which had sold their furniture before the renovation.

ST: What is the best time to visit Marrakech?

Stefano: There is no season. Maybe in July and August people should avoid Marrakech if they do not support the heat. But even during these months, you can go out in the afternoon and in the evening and spending most of the day by a swimming pool.

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ST: Do you have plans for the future of Palais Khum ?

Stefano: We are always trying to improve. Like I mentioned before, we are expanding our spa. Many of our neighbors did cooking classes. Many have opened cafes as well. Perhaps a boutique. A boutique inside the cafe. I think it is something that could work. 

Accommodation at Palais Khum is currently being offered on our tours with our Privilege range. 

© Sun Trails 2018. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Travel to Morocco during Ramadan

Travel to Morocco during Ramadan - 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

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Ramadan is a holy month in Islam, during which the Muslims refer from drinking and eating, among other things, from dusk till dawn ( 4 AM to 7H30 PM in Morocco). Morocco being a Muslim country, most Moroccans observe the fasting. In 2019, Ramadan will begin around 5 May and end around June 4, give or take one day.

Is it still worth visiting Morocco during Ramadan ? Of course it is. May is traditionally a very popular time of year to visit Morocco, before the summer heat settles in. Here is what changes during Ramadan in Morocco compared to the rest of the year:

- shops and businesses don’t usually open before 11 or 12 in the morning. Some monuments and sites may change their schedule and close sooner than usual. They all come to a standstill around 3- 4 PM and many will open again after the ftour ( breakfast) around 9 PM;
- dinner in restaurants is served later than usual ( starting with 8H30 PM), since most Moroccans have their ftour ( breakfast) around 8 PM;
- alcohol may not be as easy to purchase locally as during the rest of the year;
- each individual is affected differently by fasting for weeks on end, but most of them will not be at their 100 percent. Some will be less focused. Some will be grumpy. Most of them will invite you to share a meal with them;
- our drivers and guides are aware that you will probably not be fasting. They are completely used to tourists eating in front of them and will not be offended at all;
- many mosques have tables spread out to feed the hungry after prayers. In the markets and streets, special dishes are prepared during this time, some of which can’t be found during the rest of the year.

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In order to have the best out of your holidays in Morocco during the Ramadan:

- although Moroccans are by now used to it, try not to eat, drink or smoke in public, unless you really have to. If you do, do it discreetly. No one will throw stones, but it would be impolite and may upset some;
- don’t expect much between 3 and 7 PM. Shops and businesses will reopen again later in the evening. If you have planned for a trek/ visit/ activity, try to schedule that to end before 3 PM;
- try to enjoy the nights. There is hardly a better time of year to have a glimpse into the locals’ every day lives. Try to share a meal with the locals ( you will get plenty of invitations) and observe the locals and their lives. Most prayers in the evening are conducted outside the mosques and there is a special ambiance all around as people greet and visit each other;
- try and space out the itinerary. For example, if you needed 7 days for an itinerary around Morocco during the rest of the year, you should plan for 8-9 days to cover the same distance and areas during Ramadan.

Naturally, the fact that most Morocco is observing Ramadan puts some stress on the logistics of a private tour. Nevertheless, May is a great time to be in Morocco and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity just because of it. You can browse through the reviews left by our previous guests over the years on the internet and see that they have thoroughly enjoyed Morocco even when Ramadan used to happen in July and August.

If you have any further questions or you want to send us an enquiry, please use the form here.

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Fine dining in Fez

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When you ask a Moroccan which city best represents Moroccan cuisine, the answer will most likely be: Fez. And there’s a feeling that the time has stood still here for the past few centuries when walking aimlessly through thousands of derbs or just turning the corner to find oneself in the middle of an auction- sale of goat skins. Where Marrakech is opulent and sensual, Fes is traditional and discreet. There is no wonder then that some of the long- forgotten Moroccan dishes can still be found on the menus of some of its restaurants. However, the last decade has also seen the arrival of foreign chefs that are pushing for Morocco- inspired imaginative dishes, lured by the organic ingredients they can easily source in the surroundings of Fes. John Dorry with Chermoula, Sephardic Bitter Orange or Scored Calamari with Zaalouk are but such examples. We are often in Fez and have tried most of its best well- known restaurants so we are going to talk about 3 restaurants that really stand out. Two of the them twist Moroccan cuisine while the third one keeps long- forgotten Moroccan dishes alive or enhances classical tagines.

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DAR ROUMANA

Moroccan food with a twist in Fes all started with Vincent Bonin, a chef who had worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, worked for legendary chefs in Australia and catered to celebs on their yachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. He and partner Vanessa took over Dar Roumana in 2005. She was managing the guest house and he was in charge of the cuisine. In the beginning, it was a question of serving something different to the resident guests. Eventually word got around and they had to open the restaurant to more and more non- resident guests. Ultimately, the charm of French countryside got the best of Vanessa and they decided to end their Moroccan adventure in 2015, leaving the cuisine in charge of Chef Younes Idriss who worked alongside Vincent for 7 years. 

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Having had the privilege of dining there 3 times in the last 7 years, last time after Vincent had left, I can only assert that the imagination and great taste are still present. I wish I could choose a favourite dish but you’re not likely to find it again as the menu is constantly changing. Before dinner, offer yourself a glass of wine on the roof terrace and take in the beguiling panorama of the medina of Fez at night. 3 dish menu at 350 Dirhams per person.

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L’AMBRE @ RIAD FES

A more posh affair, the Ambre restaurant is set inside Relais & Chateaux’s only property in Fes, Riad Fes. Here, it is not about twisting the Moroccan recipes but making sure that some of them don’t disappear in the wake of mass tourism cuisine. Some of the visitors in Morocco complain about the uniformity of their meals as they seem to be served the same dishes all throughout. In reality, mainstream restaurants are cautios of stepping outside the norm and copycat the same menus. And some travelers soon end up ‘tagined out’… When family culinary traditions have been passed down for generations, why not celebrate them with the people who know. Lamb tossed in Smoked Onion Jam or Spiced Sea Bass roasted with vegetables are not your typical Moroccan restaurant dishes. With this idea, the restaurant opened itself up to cooks who have never set foot in a cooking school but have learnt everything from their mothers; a true marker of authentic cuisine. On arrival, they receive training to supplement their existing know-how and are taught to use products in their entirety, to eliminate waste. Each year, Michelin-starred chefs also choose to complete their training at the Riad Fès. Here, fruit and vegetables are all seasonal, sourced from a local sustainable farmer. Light menu from 350 Dirhams per person.

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NUR RESTAURANT

When first opened a few years back, Numero 7 caused a stir in the rather conservative Fez medina. A small riad patio, very minimal in design, that could accommodate at best 30 persons, a 6 dish menu of what resembled molecular cuisine concocted by a resident chef that would change every three months. It was never heard of. Although the formula proved to have some success, it was a concept difficult to manage, especially given the logistics of being tucked in the middle of the medina. In 2016, the concept changed and so did the name: Nur. It was the idea of chef Najat Kaanache and her husband Charles. Spanish- born but of Moroccan origins, Najat wanted to pay tribute to the proud cultural and agricultural diversity of Morocco. She affectionately refers to her country as "the mouth of Europe", forged through its unique confluence of colonial cultures. She must know what she’s talking about since she is the only Moroccan chef that has worked in the kitchen at restaurants like El Bulli and Noma, among others.

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Last November when I had dinner there, in between my 10 courses , Najat had time for a chat where she explained among other things that she wanted to create something unique, a very refined cuisine yet retaining the Moroccan flavors. She also felt a little disheartened that some of the best Moroccan produce ends up in restaurants in Spain and that although Moroccan cuisine is so rich in recipes, most restaurants reproduce the same bland menus. Each morning, she and her team source the best available produce from within the Medina and construct the largely improvisational menu around the seasonal seafood and local protein offerings from their specialty purveyors. And if 10 dishes seem like a lot to take in, don’t expect to come out bloated – this is much more about a culinary travel than getting your belly full. 10 dish menu at 700 Dirhams per person.

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© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

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Riad La Parenthese Marrakech

The riads of Marrakech, probably Morocco's most coveted attraction. If until the late 90's, they were a well kept secret, the secondary homes of well- off French urbanites that used to come and spend the weekend or winter holidays and started to let rooms to their friends and aquaintances, they then became hugely popular with non- French guests starting around 2006- 2007. Nowadays, there are more than 1600 only for the medina of Marrakech. If they share something in common, it is the fact that rooms spread around an inside patio, with little or no windows on the outside and service is personal yet discreet. The owner will sit down with you and share insider's tips on where it is best to shop or dine. Breakfast at 1 PM ? No problem. In general, nothing is too much trouble, when requests are within reason. And ultimately, the feeling of being transported into another world, when walking past the threshold, from a world of narrow and scrubby alleyways into a setting of 1001 nights, where a fountain is girgling, surrounded by orange trees and the scent of fresh cinnamon filling the air.

But how do you choose the best ones ? After all, you've booked one of our private tours of Morocco and are not likely to return to Marrakech soon. Well, based on our experience, it makes a difference when the owner ( usually a foreigner) is always on site, rather than having a manager hired. Then, the location: close to Jemaa El Fna square, a taxi drop off point and the souks. Third: security. You are not likely to get robbed or attacked anywhere in Marrakech, but in some parts of the medina you will get hustled more by over-night guides. Riad La Parenthese ticks all these boxes and then some: the cuisine is delicious, the decor is sober yet modern ( after all, you get plenty of traditional in Fes, Meknes and Rabat) and nothing is too much trouble for Patricia, her son Pierre and their loyal and hard working team. Patricia generously offered to share with us some of the secrets behind her love- affair with Marrakech.

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Sun Trails: How did you get the idea of the guest house? How long have you been living in Morocco and why? Where does the name of the riad come from? Do you previous have experience running a hotel ? 

Patricia: My first trip to Morocco was about 20 years ago.
To be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight- I was a little apprehensive. When I visited the Medina there, I remember there were a lot of fake guides and for me, the culture shock was complete. 
On my second trip to Marrakech however, I do not know what happened but I only had one thought in my head: to return as soon as possible.

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That’s how we ended up buying a small house a few years later and were moving between Marrakech and Belgium, but as soon as I was landing in Belgium my heart remained in Marrakech. So one day I decided to sell my shop in Belgium so we can purchase the riad. We did and then needed one year of refurbishment works to turn it into what it is today.

We had no previous experience in hospitality, but had many ideas and I knew one thing was I wished to really spoil our guests. The name (Parenthese) because in general, one visits for a few days, has a break, a parenthesis ( faire une parenthese, FR)

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ST: The staff has not changed much in recent years. Was it easy to find a team so welcoming and motivated? When you are not on site to greet customers, who takes your place?

P: Our staff has not changed for 5 years. We are a bit like a family and customers can witness that. I know I can count on them at any moment. It is however very rare that none of us are here. Pierre, my son and partner, takes care of everything when I am not there and I am always very happy when I get an email from a customer who thanks me because he has been very accommodating.

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ST: How do you get along with your neighbors in the medina ? Are there many other guest houses on the street or is it more a residential area ?

P: The neighborhood has several guest houses and we are generally solidary enough to help us in case of overbooking or to lend us things when we need it. I do not consider the other riads as competitors, we are all different in design in terms of what we offer. The good relationship with the Moroccan neighbors comes naturally; it's always nice to say a word to people while crossing the neighborhood.

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ST: You are ideally located, next to Dar El Bacha palace and the souks and 10 minutes from Jemaa El Fna square, with a taxi drop off point not far. What will you advise someone to do if they stay with you and only have 48 hours in Marrakech?

P: I always advise guests who only have 2 days in Marrakech to visit the Mellah and its palaces, the Madrasa for its architecture and especially the Majorelle gardens that I adored on my first trip. The souks are unmissable, for therein lie treasures of Moroccan handicrafts. If the guests want to leave Marrakech, I advise them to take a day trip up in the Atlas and its small villages.

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ST: What will you advise someone especially not to do, the first time in Marrakech?

P: I would advise against evenings too touristy. Some restaurants used to offer dinner and good entertainment years ago, but that is not the case anymore.

ST: What are the best restaurants not far from your hotel ? And spas?

P: The restaurants where we enjoy spending an evening are: Le Comptoir du Pacha (at only 100 m from the riad), Le Café Arabe and La Maison Arabe. We also love Latitude 31 for its reinvented Moroccan cuisine and stunning setting. As regards spas, we work exclusively with the Bains d'Orient and Heritage Spa. They are very professional and quite welcoming. Their decor is unique, with Heritage Spa being quite authentic and Les Bains d'Orient rather chic. It’s the best way to spend a few hours.

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ST: Which countries do your customers come from? Families or couples? How many nights do they spend at the riad on average? Tell us a funny thing that happened to your guests.

P: Our clients are mostly English and Spanish but the rest of our guests come from all over the world. They usually spend between 2 and 4 nights with us.

A funny thing that happened to us:
A guest that had just arrived with his luggage in his hand and who, upon walking past our plunge pool, thought it was covered by a see- through glass and stepped on it... He ended up in a bathrobe while waiting for his things to dry. Fortunately, he only got away with a scare...

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ST: What is one of the typical dishes of the house or one that your guests appreciate the most?

P: Our couscous is I think one of the best (I’m not the one preparing it, fortunately!) The girls are very good cooks. Our breakfasts which change daily are generally very appreciated.

ST: What is your favorite place in Marrakech, inside or outside the medina ?

P: My favorite place inside the city is Majorelle Gardens and a little outside the city, Lalla Takerkoust Lake. Inside the medina, the souks where I love to stroll and treasure hunt.

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Riad La Parenthese is currently offered on the Dreamers level of our bespoke tours of Morocco.

© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Dar Infiane

Dar Infiane - 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 votes

1Tucked away in the south of Morocco, lies the unassuming town of Tata. Those more intrepid travellers on a tour of the southern Morocco, spending the night in Erg Chigaga dunes, pass close by. At a first view,Tata seems a middle- of- nowhere ghost- town built by the French at the beginning of 20th century, part of the colonisation of Morocco. But, there is more than meets the eye. And perhaps the best way to find out is booking a stay at Dar Infiane. Perched on top of a hamlet across the palm grove, the century- old dwelling appears from the outside more like an undefeatable citadel rather than the warm and hospitable guest house it trully is. I had my reservations on my first visit, as the reviews on the internet were mixed. But I still recall the feeling I had when I first stepped in, on a late afternoon in January, years ago. It was as if I had stumbled upon a house that defied all logic, like the ones in Disney animated pictures (which secretly you hope it exists). Its hidden corners, nannies and crooks, rooms with ceilings shoulder- level, the labyrinth of passages, the roof terrace, the secret plunge pool, the miniature windows, the views, the dining salon - I immediately fell in love with it.

As I'm writing these lines, some 500 kilometers away, I imagine it at night, when the neigbours come out on their roof terraces below to chat late at night or at breakfast, the roof terrace overhanging the green vast serpent that is the palm grove beneath. And yes, there are a lot of stairs, the bed linen and towels could certainly get an update and the staff speak no English. But the staff are most warm and obliging, dinners served by Latifa are abundant and delicious, you get hot showers, reversible A/C, and Patrick, the owner, is most willing to share his passion and tips about the region, having lived in Morocco for the last 40 years or so. But the main reason you book here is the magic that the house transpires, a place you'll remember long after you concluded your bespoke tour of Morocco. Patrick agreed to share the story behind it. 

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Sun Trails: I do not know of any other guest house like yours in Morocco. Its age, its charm, its location, its rooms, render it quite special - how did you come across it the first time and how did you think of acquiring it ? Tell us a bit about its history and its location on the top of the village.

Patrick Simon: It’s a long story that starts with my experience at the time as a GCMA expert (Great crossing of the Moroccan Atlas) which used to label rural lodgings in the High and Middle Atlas. One day I travelled to Tata, to gather information about two airport strips and I fell "en amour", as the Canadians say, with this douar ( hamlet) perched above Tata’s palm grove. In fact it was a half-ruined building. My experience of rehabilitation enabled me to see what it could become if given the proper care. 

The hamlet has a few centuries of existence and is a perfect example of the typical oasis and rural buildings of foregone times. Then, men took their time to build homes in a community, in the right season, with local materials: clay, stones and palm beams to support the roofing. They also had great knowledge of best exposures and ‘passive ventilation’, that kept them safe from hot summers and cold winters. I learned that, in fact, originally this douar consisted of 7 hamlets inhabited by fractions of the same tribe, spread over the crests of surrounding valleys. A positioning that favored them to regulate the various commercial passages and camel caravans.

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ST: Given its location and structure, isn't it difficult to keep the guest house in actual state ? How do you manage ? Hot water, toilets, supplies, plumbing ?

PS: It is true that this structure requires annual maintenance, but it is also true that using local materials offers sound and temperature insulation. My previous experience enabled me and Francine, my wife, to decide from the beginning the best solutions fitted for the management of water, electricity, sanitation, thus avoiding us all subsequent head-aches in terms of repairs or modifications. Our efforts were then rewarded with the Green Key label.

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ST: Which countries do most of your guests come from? Since the majority of visitors to Morocco come to see Fez, Marrakech and the desert, not many travel further than Taroudant or Zagora. It isn't a hotel so we can't find you on booking engines either. How do you reach out to them ? Word of mouth, internet, travel agencies ?

PS: To be honest, they come from all over the world. We started the rehabilitation work of the house in 2001. To be successful, we had to devise our own marketing strategy. Very early we decided for the choice of communicating via the internet and later, social networks. The word of mouth did the rest.

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ST: With its hidden corners, rooms with low ceilings, miniature windows, nooks and crannies, the house resembles a small scale Chefchaouen and must be a heaven for children. I for one, spent an afternoon playing hide-and-seek with my 5 year old daughter last time I stayed... Do you have many families with children staying there?

PS: You are absolutely right ! This, together with our small plunge pool on the terrace makes it the ideal spot for them ! We do have families with children staying and children appreciate most these corners, nooks and crannies that in themselves constitute the most charming aspect of their stay.

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ST: Do you think the guest house is meant for everyone ? If not, what is the profile of the visitor you are looking for ? What is that you are offering above the hotels in the area?

PS: It is true that our house being perched on the top of the hill, which greatly amplifies the beauty of the overhangs and sunsets over the palm grove admired from our terrace, one must climb quite a few stairs, and in this aspect, Dar Infiane well, you have to earn it ! ;) We always tell our guests before booking about the many stairs to be climbed.

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ST: What is there to do in the vicinity of Tata that is specific to this region? How many days do you advise to spend in the region, depending on the season? What is the best season of the year to get there?

PS: The region of Tata is rich with the dramatic landscapes of the Anti Atlas, its diverse heritage of igoudars (granaries), sand waterfalls and natural grottoes, its mellahs, house of Charles de Foucald and of course its verdant oases and their traditional khetarras, water clocks and all the micro- communities this creates. I particularly recommend having a walk in the palm grove with a local guide to get a glimpse into this traditional way of living. The region is equally rich with history from the Almohad- era tower to Agadir Ouzrou and the numerous sites of prehistoric rock engravings. One could easily spend 3- 4 days around it. 

For me, the routes are part of the journey hence January and February when the almond trees are in flower are perhaps the best time of year to book. That being said, all year round we have guests coming and enjoying the region and the guest house.

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ST: Tell us about your projects for the region, knowing that you are also vice president of the Regional Council of Tourism.

PS: We are currently working on Jbel Bani Geopark, a regional project of local development linking tourism and development of material and immaterial resources of the region. The aim is to create jobs and income for the local population (of which 40% are young people). We believe that eco-tourism projects such as ours can be an example in creating integrated and sustainable forms of development without ignoring the impact of climate change on this region, where water shortage is already a reality.

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ST: Recently you contributed to our article on security in Morocco. Local authorities are doing their utmost to guarantee tourists this security. However, the number of visitors in Morocco has declined lately. What can be done more to attract more tourists, especially those interested in cultural and adventure travel ?

PS: It is undisputable that Morocco has been able to take the necessary initiatives to avoid any security breaches. I think we should all communicate more to promote the diverse cultural aspects of Morocco. The world has changed much these last few years, indeed. But Morocco ranks among the safest countries! It is no longer a question of reassuring the travel agencies or tour operators but rather the end- user, the traveler, via the social media and all other modern- day platforms.

Merged 

Dar Infiane is currently offered on our private tours of Morocco as part of our Dreamers range of accommodation.

© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Is Morocco Safe ?

Is Morocco Safe ? - 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 votes

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Less people travel to Morocco in 2016. These are the official figures from the Moroccan Tourism Observatory. But why? Why are travelers avoiding a land rich in cultural diversity, stunning landscapes and natural- born hospitality? We cannot help but wonder if the kingdom’s location in Middle East North Africa ( MENA) region may have something to do with it. After all, the region is no stranger to terrorist attacks, civil unrest and political instability in recent years. Whenever a new attack is carried out, many potential travellers stay away from Morocco too, simply because it’s in the ‘same’ part of the world. But is it really the ‘same’ ?

Vanessa Bonnin is the manager of Dar Roumana, a stunning riad in the medina of Fes and has lived in Morocco for the last 7 years. Fes, although one of the most fascinating medinas in the Arab world, has seen its numbers drop by 25 % compared to last year. ‘Morocco is unfairly tarred with the same brush as being part of a troubled region, however for me, this type of thinking is like choosing not to visit Germany because of troubles in France.’

 medina of fes

The chief editor of a Moroccan newspaper agrees : ‘Morocco is a victim of its location. Many tourists mistakenly think that the terrorist threat is more important in a Muslim country in the MENA region (Middle East and Maghreb). But despite all this, foreign tourists have no reason to worry, given that since the emergence of ISIS and its supporters around the world, there was no attack in Morocco.’ And it is the terrorist attacks and political instability that have made other countries in the region see a drop in tourism by up to 40 % compared to previous year.

PRAISE FROM FOREIGN MEDIA AND INSTITUTIONS:

There is little talk in foreign media about Morocco and its security measures. Yet the information is there, if one scratches the surface. ‘"People's perception of how Morocco fits into the region needs to change. I would ask potential visitors to see Morocco as its own country and people, and to make choices based on facts not fear’, adds Vanessa. Speaking of facts:

# The UK based Independent magazine has compiled in July 2016 a map of the most dangerous countries in the world by collating the foreign office travel advice for all countries in the world. On that map, Morocco is as dangerous as say Denmark or Canada.

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# The Global Terrorism Index measures the impact of terrorism in 162 countries. To account for the lasting effects of terrorism, each country is given a score that represents a five year weighted average. On this index, Syria ranks #5, United States ranks # 35 and Morocco ranks 92 out of 163 countries. 

# According to the Global Terrorism Database, published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, terrorist attacks in the Maghreb region multiplied by 47 times between 2011 and 2014, increasing from 15 to 1,105. Of these attacks, only one targeted Morocco.

# According to the French Ministry’s “Travel Advice,” which was recently updated following the suicide bombing that shook Istanbul, Morocco is the only recommended country for French nationals to visit in the MENA region.

# In 2015, the popular Trip Advisor travel website’s users have chosen Marrakech as the top destination in the world. Furthermore, in the 2016 Travelers Choice, Marrakech was Africa’s top destination.

# The US State Department lauded Morocco’s “comprehensive” counter-terrorism strategy, underlining the country’s adherence to human rights standards and the increased transparency of law enforcement procedures. Among other things, the report states that: “in the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam"

 le roi du maroc mohammed vi le 20 aout 2011 a rabat 884623

KING MOHAMED 6

It is without a doubt that Morocco owes largely its political stability and social security to its king. Having taken on the throne from its father King Hassan 2 in 1999, Mohamed 6 enacted social reforms, including important steps towards gender equality and migrant integration.

In August 2016, the King Mohamed 6 took publicly a stark stand on terrorism and was one of the few, if not the only, chief of state from outside the Western world, to publicly condemn the murdering of innocent people and outcast those who perpetrate these in the name of Islam. "Is it conceivable that God could order someone to blow himself up or kill innocent people? Islam, as a matter of fact, does not permit any kind of suicide - whatever the reasons or circumstances."

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Mandy Sinclair, owner of Tasting Marrakech (food and cultural tours of Jemaa el Fna) has been living in Marrakech for 6 years. While she agrees that the world in 2016 is a less safe place to travel, she feels safer in Morocco than in Europe or the US, although she prefers the less- than- obvious locations: ‘The initiatives the government is taking to ensure the safety of its people and travelers is second to none. As a single woman living in Marrakech, I feel safer here than in most major European and North American cities. I travel frequently around Morocco and always feel at ease, especially in smaller villages in the Atlas Mountains, Moulay Idriss and Essaouira’.

At the same time, countries such as Spain and Portugal have seen almost record number of tourists these past 2 years. Does that mean that you should feel safer in Spain or Portugal than you would feel in Morocco ? Travel writer Alice Morrison agrees: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think it is 100% safe anywhere in 2016. What I can say is that I feel as safe living here in Marrakech as I would in the UK. I was actually more worried going to London a couple of weeks ago and getting on the underground, than I am going down to the Medina here.’ Alice Morrison is an adventurer who has lived in Marrakech since January 2014. She, of all people, has some insight into Africa, since she crossed the continent on a bike, a race of 8000 km and has written a book about it.

Cliffs and granary

Personally, I could say that the seeds for this article were planted during conversations with our guests at the end of their private tour of Morocco. In the shade of their riad in Marrakech, most of them would relate the same experience. ‘Cristian, I know we asked a lot of questions before travelling to Morocco as we were a little worried about the safety here. But we want you to know that we hardly felt any safer and more welcomed anywhere else we travelled before’. That raised a question: how many other travelers like them felt that initial apprehension and never venture? When the grim statistics were published in July 2016, I decided it was about time to publish the long- due article and get people involved. And I thought the best is to start by researching how thorough the Moroccan authorities have made Morocco safer, on the ground.

MOROCCO’S FBI AND OTHER TECHNICAL DATA

If you journeyed to Morocco in the last two years, you may have noticed police and military patrol the streets in groups of 3. Scanning devices have been installed at hotels, restaurants and malls entrances. Thorough checks are in place at airports across Morocco. In the local media, many terrorist cells have been dismantled in the past 18 months. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

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The Moroccan government has treated counterterrorism as a top policy priority since 2003. In June 2015, the Government of Morocco enacted significant amendments to the criminal code to address the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. To further show that Morocco is serious about combatting terrorism, it has created a law enforcement agency that deals specifically with terrorism threat: The Morocco Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ), nicknamed ‘the Moroccan FBI’. As about its efficiency, the BCIJ has dismantled quite a few terrorist cells since its creation.

Law enforcement officials and private carriers work regularly with the United States to detect and deter individuals attempting to transit illegally. At the end of 2014, the parliament voted to support the Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism.

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On the other hand, one of the most important measures taken by Morocco in recent years was the creation of the new security mechanism “Hadar”, which incorporates elements of the Royal Armed Forces, Royal Gendarmerie, the Police, and Auxiliary Force. 

In the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam, and strengthening the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The MEIA is educating Morocco’s nearly 50,000 imams in a version of relatively moderate Sunni Islam. 

FIGHTING POVERTY

Besides the security measures and the counter radicalization of the mosques, the Moroccan authorities understood that the radicalization of some youth stems from lack of opportunities and unemployment. The Moroccan government engaged in a policy of heavy public investments in infrastructure and the social sector with the ultimate goal of fighting poverty. According to a study published on the Carnegie Middle East Center in 2010, Morocco succeeded to lift 1.7 million people out of poverty during the period 2000-2010. The same study shows that poverty rates in the country decreased by more than 40 per cent during the same period.

Azalai Desert Camp Zagora dinner with a view

SO WHERE DOES THE CONFUSION COME FROM ?

Morocco's association with the turmoil of the neighbouring countries is the external and main cause of its drop in tourists. The internal and lesser cause may be the transparency and overzeal of the local media to relate about the dismantling of the terrorist cells. As the editor in chief sums it: ‘The kingdom is also a victim of the effectiveness of its anti-terrorism strategy. Indeed, every other month the authorities announced that a terrorist cell was dismantled.’

Patrick Simon is vice president of Regional Tourism Council of Guelmin – Semara region in the south of Morocco and owner of Dar Infiane guesthouse. Of French origin, he has lived in Morocco for 41 years. He agrees: ‘I’d like to point out that the regular press releases claiming good results in the dismantling of terrorist cells was a choice of the government and especially the Ministry of the Interior, thus insisting to show nationals and tourists that all means were used to ensure maximum security’. So it seems that the security forces are very good at doing their job and like to convey it to the press. In the long term, it's still to be seen whether the transparency is the best policy in this case. 

Did you visit Morocco in the last 5 years ? Did you feel safe ? Did you fear for your safety ? We've created a special platform for you to vote and/ or leave your feeback here. 

The river at a turn

© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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