Cristian

Cristian

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

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

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

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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 2018, Ramadan will begin around 15 May and end around June 14, 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 participating in the fast. 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 and beginning of June 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 month 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.

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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.’

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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"

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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.

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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.

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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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Northern Morocco

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This private Morocco tour will take you through Casablanca, Asilah, Tangier, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Volubilis and Rabat. Listen to a local university teacher relate tales of pirates capturing European nobility in Sale. Discover the colorful  medina  of Tangier with a view on the Atlantic, praised by Delacroix, Matisse and the ‘beat generation’. Become a child again in the fairy- tale azure streets of Chefchaouen. Stroll among Phoenician and Roman ruins at Chellah and Volubilis. Unwind in the dreamy fishing village of Asilah with its prize- winning architecture and unspoiled beaches. We recommend this itinerary all year round but ideally so during summer, to keep you away from the high temperatures further south. Additionally, you may also be interested in our Marrakech, Atlas and the coast tour. Below you will find the detailed itinerary. As with all our tours, this itinerary is a mere example and will be customized to suit your taste and schedule. To enquire about availability and rates, please send us an enquiry

DAY 1: CASABLANCA / RABAT – ASSILAH ( 4 – 5 hour drive). We will collect you at the airport or your hotel in Casablanca or Rabat. On our way to Rabat, along the Atlantic coast, we can stop and visit the exotic gardens of Sidi Bouknadel or the bird reserve in Mehdya. There is hardly a better place for lunch than the village of Moulay Bousselham, right on the Atlantic coast where your driver will arrange for freshly caught sea food or fish to be grilled right in front of you and have an impromptu meal along the locals. Follow that with a boat ride into the lagoon. Time allowing, stop in Lixus and visit the Roman ruins or in Msoura to admire the Megalithic stone circle, a sort of Moroccan Stonehenge. Arrive in Asilah in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 2: ASILAH. After breakfast on the roof terrace, have a stroll around one of the most beautiful and well- kept medinas of Morocco, dating back to 10th century that owes its present shape to the Portuguese who occupied it for a few decades back in the 15th century. More recently, in 1989 it was awarded the Aga Khan prize for architecture. Much of Asilah’s transformation can be traced to 1978, when two local friends invited artists to paint murals on the medina’s peeling walls. That creative impulse soon gave birth to the International Cultural Moussem of Asilah, a summer festival with concerts, design lectures, poetry readings, and artists who arrived from all over the world to cover the whitewashed city with colorful, elaborate graffiti. The festival takes place every summer ( dates change due to Ramadan) and now draws a crowd of 100,000 people, turning the town into a vibrant open-air museum and creating a street scene that’s picturesque enough to rival Morocco’s famously blue city of Chefchaouen. In the mornings, the sound of waves drifts over the restored  ramparts, mixing with the rhythmic tones of streets being swept and the scent of freshly baked bread. We recommend you to enter the numerous art galleries and then spend some time by the unspoiled beach south of Asilah or try your hand at Arabic calligraphy with a local maalem. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 3: ASILAH – TANGIER ( 1 hour drive). Our tour of northern Morocco leaves Asilah and follows the Atlantic coast as you soon enter the urban area of Tangier. Penetrate the intricate medina of Tangier and before long, pass the gate of the Kasbah. Drop the luggage in your Riad's room and go out to explore the medina with a local guide. Start perhaps with the Marshan district and its Roman tombs. Before entering the old town, stop for a refreshing break and admire the Moresque interiors of St Andrews church. Follow up with a visit to a local artisan cooperative where the maalems are busy working the looms. Cross the fish market where fresh fish is sold at auction to arrive to the Jewish cemetery, dominating the sea front. Next stop, the American legation, the first American property to ever open outside the United States. Descend onto Petit Socco and have a mint tea at Cafe Tingis, a favorite with the Beat Generation. A few streets further away push the door of the local synagogue ( closed on Saturdays). Make your way up the intricate streets and step back into the Kasbah district. There is no better end to the day then having a drink on a roof terrace dominating the whole medina, at the time when the sun drowns into the Atlantic. Dinner and accommodation in Tangier.

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DAY 4: TANGIER – TETOUAN – CHEFCHAOUEN ( 2 hour drive). On our way to Chefchaouen, we can linger for a while in Tetouan and awe at the Mauresque heritage present in its patios and palaces. Erected on an ancient Roman site, Tetouan was completely destroyed during the 15th century by the Portuguese. The fall of the kingdom of Granada in southern Spain in 1492 marked the renaissance of Tetouan. More than its architecture, the cuisine, the music, the jewelry or the embroidery speak of their Andalusian origin. And where the Moresque heritage can be admired in all its glory is the Ethnographical museum. But perhaps you want to head straight to Chefchaouen so you can spend more time there. Still, you’d be a fool to miss the dramatic gorges of Oued Laou, connecting the Mediterranean beaches to the azure town.

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Quite likely the most charming village in Morocco can’t leave anyone indifferent. We could tell you that the kasbah built in the 15th century is worth a detour or that you should try to track down the still- working watermill or the district farnatchi oven, but Chefchaouen is about loosing yourselves in its streets without any precise goal. Inside the ancient gated medina nearly every building is painted an arresting shade of cerulean or azure, the sky blues juxtaposed with white trim and terra-cotta rooftops. Twisting cobblestone paths lead up and up, around the ocher-colored casbah to a landscape of green hills and mountaintops, uninterrupted sky extending beyond. Great trekking opportunities are also present in the nearby Rif Mountains, for a few hours or a whole day, along the river and up to the waterfalls, or further on, to the Bridge of God. Dinner and accommodation in Chefchaouen.

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DAY 5: CHEFCHAOUEN – MEKNES – RABAT ( 6 hour drive). Our northern Morocco itinerary leaves Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains behind to then descend onto Moulay Idriss, the holiest village in Morocco, where Moulay Idriss, a 5th generation descendant of Ali, son in law to Prophet Muhamed, arrived in the 8th century escaping the fight for power between the Omeyades and the Abbasydes at the court of Damascus. He was warmly welcomed by the Berber tribes and set out to establish the first Moroccan dynasty. The tomb of Idriss the 1st is still nowadays the object of a massive pilgrimage from all over Morocco. Only 3 miles from there, lays the Roman town of Volubilis, the best preserved Roman site in Morocco, capital of King Juba the Second, who came to marry the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Then, we continue onwards to Meknes, one of Morocco’s 4 Imperial Cities. Meknes became the capital of Morocco with the Sultan Moulay Ismail, who in the 17th century decided to change the capital from Marrakech to Meknes. To this task, he employed 55000 men, workers but also Christian slaves and dismantled the splendid Badi’ Palace in Marrakech to then carry most of it to Meknes on the back of camels. From this age, we were left with the imposing Bab Al Mansour, one of the most original gates in Morocco, the grain silos that, according to a chronicler of the age, could hold enough grains to feed the whole of Morocco, the House of the 10 Norias or the large open air basin where water was stocked so it could supply the whole town and was sometimes used for the army to train. Arrive in Rabat in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 6: RABAT. Despite its appearance as a quiet administrative town, Rabat hides quite a few gems, having been included on the UNESCO world site list just a few years back. You should perhaps start your day with the visit of the 12th century Kasbah des Oudayas and its Andalusian Gardens, an important outpost of the Almohad dynasty, back in the 12th century. We can dwell further into the past and visit the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, where Phoenician, Roman and Merinid heritages blend. Sale, the town over the bridge, has a more intriguing story and was known for centuries as a pirates' nest. Canals used to run inside its gates and its pirates were famous for rapidly attacking European ships and taking illustrious nobility as prisoners. Once inside the city, the massive doors would close and the European powers had no other choice than to offer most generous prices for ransom. Some say that it is outside its shores that it inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Our local guide will tell you all about the fearsome pirates and the relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians inside a traditional medina.Downtown in Rabat, opened in 2015, Mohamed 6 museum offers a great insight into the Moroccan modern arts and holds international exhibitions to rival those of European museums. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 7: RABAT or RABAT – CASABLANCA ( 1h30 drive).
Depending on your flight location and schedule, we will arrange for the drop off accordingly. If flying out from Casablanca, you should seize the opportunity and visit Hassan 2 mosque, the third largest in the world.

We can always take away or add 1 or 2 days to this Moroccan itinerary to suit your schedule. Book or enquire about your private customized tour of Morocco here

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© 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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The rise of a pasha

The rise of a pasha - 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

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Many of our private tours of Morocco include a detour by the Pasha Glaoui’s ruined palace in Telouet, up in the High Atlas mountains and the nearby salt mines. But not many know that from this desolate group of ruins in the High Atlas, so far from the seat of government at Fez or Rabat, arose by a strange chain of coincidence a generation of kingmakers...

The castle stands at an altitude of more than 8000 feet and its scattered rookery of crumbling predecessors occupy the corner of a desert plateau, circled by giant peaks, all of them rising to more than 10000 feet. The kasbah is a tower of tragedy that leaves no room for laughter. Not too far away are the days when a giant Black slave used to open the lock with a foot- long key, one among the 67 he was carrying, and set his shoulder to the iron- bossed twenty- feet high doors. The reception rooms had taken 3 years and three hundred men to work on, plaster workers, carvers and one painter. The owner of the castle had intended that is should become the most fabulous palace in Morocco. But deep invading cracks cut crudely through the intricate elaboration of years of work, for the kasbah is empty now and slowly returning to the soil it was molded from. If these crumbling walls could talk...

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The year is 1893 and the Sultan Moulay Hassan has decided to visit the desert regions of Morocco including far – off Tafilalet, the great oasis form which his dynasty has originally sprung.
Leaving Fez in the summer, the Sultan proceeded south, crossing the Atlas and descended to the upper waters of Ouez Ziz. Food was lacking , the desert regions could provide little. The water was bad, the heat unbearable. Every kind of delay, including rebellion and the consequent punishment of the tribes, hampered the Sultan’s movements and it was only towards winter that he arrived in Tafilalet with a fever- stricken army and greatly diminished transport.

He did not try to return to Fez, but instead made for the southern capital of Marrakech, separated from Tafilalet by the mighty High Atlas mountains. By the time his army had reached the foothills of the Atlas, the winter snow had begun; as they climbed higher into the main massif more and more of the camels, mules and horses, weak with starvation , stumbled into deep snowdrifts and died.

refurbished kasbah south morocco

Men too weak to carry their weapons any further dropped them and struggled on unarmed. The main arsenal, however, which included a Krupp assault cannon and a quantity of its weighty ammunition, was never abandoned. The Sultan was still many days march from Marrakech, and he was far from certain of his reception by the mountain tribes through whose territory he was passing.

Reading from left to right as the Sultan’s army now looked up at the mountains, these tribes were the M’tougga, the Goundafa and the Glaoua, the latter dominating the pass then called Tizi n’ Telouet. The chief of each of these tribes was officially a Caid, or representative of the Sultan, responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing recognition of the central government. These were the principal three caids of the High Atlas and they were constantly at war with one another and constantly changing alliance. They exacted heavy tribute from the caravans of dates, olives , argan oil and walnuts, whose trade routes led from south through the passes they commanded.

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Caid Madani El Glaoui, controlling Tizi N Telouet was of different caliber from either of the other rival war lords. He was a young man of great intelligence and limitless ambition, an outstandingly brave warrior who possessed at the same time something more than a flair for intrigue. The Glaoua were almost unique among the Atlas Caids in that they did not owe their comparative affluence entirely to piracy and violence for they owned an extremely profitable salt mine. The old pass snaked upwards through the desolate, lunar valley of the Oued Mellah – the river of salt. To these salt mines of Telouet came camel caravans from the Sahara, from the Sudan, from Mauritania, from inner Morocco and from the great oases of the desert. The family was by now on its way to comparative wealth but not to power, for it could command, at the most, between two and three thousand mounted warriors.

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In that autumn of 1893 when what little remained of the Sultan’s army was struggling upward through the snows under a canopy of ravens and vultures and with a rearguard of jackals and hyenas, the Caid Madani El Glaoui was twenty seven years old , and his brother Thami , was fifteen. The Glaoua pass at Telouet lay on the Sultan’s direct route to Marrakech. Madani and Thami heard of the approach of the defeated Sultan’s army while it was still many miles away. The sum of their knowledge added up to the desire of giving the Sultan the greatest welcome he had ever received from a mountain Caid. Having taken this decision, Madani put the greatest pressure upon all the tribespeople owing allegiance to him , and in 48 hours they had collected a vast number of mules and horses, an uncountable number of sheep and goats for slaughter, and special dues poured in from every corner of their kingdom in cash and kind until, when the Sultan’s harka was still twenty miles away, Madani El Glaoui was prepared to entertain the Sultan and his army for as long as they cared to stay.

With his younger brother, he rode out to meet the harka, accompanied by a bodyguard of five hundred mounted warriors and behind him trailed the infinite army of mules and horses that he had requisitioned. Madani observed every detail of protocol, prostrating himself before the sultan in the snow and touching his forehead to the ground. The Sultan had no choice but to accept his offer. After all, he knew that without prolonged rest and food he and his army would never reach Marrakech. He therefore graciously accepted and within five hours he and his army were installed at Telouet. The diffa , an endless banquet at which course succeeds course, spiced chickens and pigeons, couscous, and whole roast sheep and kebab and almond pastries and sweet mint tea – long after the guest can eat no more, lasted all through the night.

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By some unguessable means, Madani found the resources to prolong this situation for several days, while the sultan recovered his strength and his army munched its way through a few more thousand sheep. The day before their departure, the Sultan made Madani his personal khalifa , or representative in the region, giving him nominal command of all the tribes between the High Atlas and the Sahara. Of infinitely greater significance, he made him a present of a considerable amount of modern arms and ammunition. This included the 77 mm bronze Krupp cannon, the only single heavy weapon in all Morocco outside the Imperial Cherifian Army. From then on the surrounding tribes regarded Telouet as a veritable arsenal of modern warfare.

To be continued...

© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. This article is based on excerpts from the book 'Lords of the Atlas' by Gavin Maxwell. 

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Lost Kingdoms (8- 10 days)

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This 9 day off- the- beaten- track Morocco tour leaves Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains, reaches the Sahara to then take you deep south into a mystical land where not many have ventured before. 

We follow the old caravan route from Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains, past UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou, along the Draa river with its Biblical villages and lush palm grove and into the Sahara desert.  After riding a camel and having dinner under the stars, spend the night in Erg Chigaga dunes, in the safety of your private tent. Then, ride through the desert, have tea with the nomads and pick up milennia- old fossils. Later on, continue south, and uncover some of Morocco's besh hidden secrets, with the distinct feeling that you are the first person to ever walk there. Trekking up a river bed to find yourself in the middle of primordial gorges, their wax- like lava walls appearing to have caught time suspended. Century- old granaries, fierce mountain- top fortresses, where the village folks still stock their grains. The ruins of a 17th century mosque, hidden in the middle of a palm grove. The millennia old rock engravings, portraying wild animals, hunters and some of the first letters of the Berber alphabet. Then, we head north into the Anti Atlas and spend a night in the highly picturesque village of Tafraoute, a heaven for trekking, hiking and mountain biking. End the tour with some pristine Atlantic beaches, before reaching the 'small Marrakech' - Taroudant. 

Click here to see detailed map

Day 1: Marrakech- Tizi n Tichka – Telouet – Ait Benhaddou ( 3 hour drive).

Leaving Marrakech behind, we soon take on the High Atlas. Breath taking panoramas and hairpin curbs succeed while the route follows one moment out in the open, the next under dense pine trees. Shortly after reaching 2200 meters altitude, you leave the main route to reach the village of Telouet and the Kasbah of the Glaoui. From the ensemble of three ruined kasbahs only one has maintained its reception rooms where intricate zellij patterns and precious wood greet the eye. Pacha Glaoui had employed the most skilled artisans to build and decorate his main residence and, in its golden age, armies, stables and Christian slaves were confined within its walls while a flourishing Jewish community managed the nearby salt mines.

Then, our road follows Ounila valley with its mosaic of gardens and tiny douars. Occasionally the valley turns into a canyon, where the nomads have dug centuries ago galleries of grottos to stock grains. Late afternoon is the right time to visit UNESCO site of Ait Benhaddou, the postcard- like adobe citadel. With a bit of luck, the crowds have already deserted the place. A fat, red sun, only underlines the beige tones of the mud and straws mixture and through the covered passages and stone walls, the past filters itself into the present. In spite of the local ‘guides’, the best is to just lose yourself in its derbs and explore the honey – comb structures. Spend the night in a refurbished Kasbah, in the vicinity of Ait Benhaddou. 

Day 2: Ait Benhaddou – Ouarzazate- Agdz – Zagora ( 3 hour drive)

Today our itinerary travels along the mythical Draa Valley, a route so often used for centuries by the caravans bringing gold, slaves, ivory or feathers from Mali or Ghana. But first, locally sourced breakfast – better had on the roof terrace from you can admire the palm grove below. Or why not, bake bread with the ladies in the village oven. In Ouarzazate, the only noteworthy site is the film studios, if you are travelling with children. Leaving the plain behind, the road climbs, twists and turns its way up through bare calcified gorges. Right after the pass you catch a first glimpse of the valley and the oases, a green river of palms snaking up into the haze bordered by the Kasbahs, adobe guardians rising as if from the earth where the green gives way to the desert. There is no road sign but somehow you become aware you have entered a different land, le grand sud.

Right after Agdz, we turn left and will stop to wander around the eerie kasbah of Tamnougalt. Biblical adobe villages border the palm grove. It is worth visiting at least one of them – perhaps the one where most of the population is still black, descendants of former slaves- the Harratin. A picnic lunch by the river, under the palms, is quite a treat. Or perhaps discover the rock engravings at the end of a dusty off road track. We reach the tranquil town of Zagora late afternoon.  

Day 3: Zagora – Tamegroute – Mhamid – Erg Chigaga ( 3 hour drive)

After breakfast, our 4x4 Morocco tour will take you through adobe villages bordering the route and the first patches of sand start to show. The nearby village of Amezrou, carries on the Jewish tradition of silver crafting and the adobe synagogue still stands. We will stop for a break in Tamegroute where century old Qorans and Arab treaties on astronomy and sciences are neatly arranged behind glass windows in the zaouia’s library.  The same village carries a pottery tradition known throughout Morocco Watch how the clay is being turned into emerald pots and dishes inside traditional earth ovens and glazed into its particular emerald green cover. Before long, our tour reaches M’hammid, where civillization ( or at least the tarmac ) ends. 

The next two hours of our tour make full use of the four wheel drive as rocky desert gives way to gravel and then sand dunes, past the occasional water well and oasis. The anticipation built doesn’t quite prepare you for the spectacle ahead of you- these are the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Just as you enter the dunes, you are meeting the camels. Ride a camel into the dunes as the sun is slowly dipping into the horizon. While the staff of the camp is unloading your luggage, you climb onto the highest dune you can find. There is nowhere else you would rather be. Have dinner in front of your tent, by the camp fire, under starriest sky. At night, dazed by the millions of stars glittering above, the silence is so thick you feel you could cut a strip and wear it as a scarf as you fall asleep. 

Day 4: Erg Chigaga – Lake Iriki – Foum Zguid – Tata ( 4 hour drive)

Should you have missed the sunrise… well, try not to. After toddling across sand dunes, our trip reaches the perfectly flat Lake Iriki, nowadays completely dry, where the Draa river used to form its estuary. Later on, we will have tea with a family of nomads and search for fossils. Then, we take on the hamada, the much dreaded stony desert, to finally reach Foum Zguid. Farewell Sahara, hello tarmac... Though the dunes are behind, the immensity is still present. The tarmac swirls past barren plateau and sun- burnt ridges while you barely cross another soul. Continue south and stop by the nearby waterfalls. A couple of hours later, reach your accommodation for the night, a five- century old noble house erected on a top of a village overlooking the palm grove. The many hidden corners, passages and patios will delight adults and children alike. Food is rustic, locally- sourced and really tasty.

Day 5: Tata – Akka – Icht ( 2 hour drive)

In the morning have breakfast on the roof terrace – one can hardly imagine a breakfast with a better view. Spend the morning learning how a water clock works in the nearby palm grove, preparing traditional bread in the village stove, visit the grottoes or trek by the cliffs. Picnic in the nearby palm grove to then reach a very old Berber village where you will be able to push the gate of a 18th century old granary, recently restored. Inside the palm grove an unfinished mosque from centuries ago stands as a silent guard.  Your accommodation for tonight resembles an African lodge more than a Moroccan kasbah. 

Day 6: Icht - Amtoudi ( 1 hour drive).

Today, we will discover the local area and its not- so- obvious attractions. The remoteness of the spaces is why most people would come and stay here. But don’t let yourself be fooled by the appearances. In the surroundings, at the right place and time of day you can glimpse foxes, eagles, wild boar, hares, mountain gazelles, bustards or partridges. After breakfast, leave the guest house and take the route to the old village at the foot of the local djebel. Visit the old streets of the village, the museum created by Abdesalam, and the women’s cooperative who make colorful rugs and other home objects ( who also adorn the rooms of the guest house).

Back in the 4x4, travel to Amtoudi to drop the luggage at the guest house and have lunch to trek up the river bed and find yourself in the middle of primordial gorges, their wax- like lava walls appearing to have caught time suspended. Natural pools of deep- green transparent water appear here and there, where fish swim. The climb is sometimes steep, but it's worth all the effort. At the end of it, the 300 meter high gorge opens up and you can make your way back through the deserted plateaux above. Dinner and accommodation in the gorges. 

Day 7: Amtoudi – Tafraoute ( 3 hour drive)

After breakfast, walk up the mule track and wander through the 70 odd rooms of the local granary overlooking the village from 600 meters high and see where locals used to stock grains, raise bees and collect rain water. The documents attest the granary is around 800 years old. It was also used as a back drop in times of attack from a different tribe or the nomads from the Sahara.  Back inside the vehicle, a most stunning off road crosses the Anti- Atlas , via one of the former piste des legionnaires. Arrive in Tafraoute late afternoon. 

Day 8: Tafraoute – Taroudant ( 3 hour drive)

In the morning, if any energy left from the previous day, hop on a bike and explore the local gorges and awe at the games of light and shade the palm grove and the bare mountains offer. For those interested, a few tracks are available for trekking or rock climbing. As you thread your way through the gorges and deep red villages, there will be a flash of quicksilver to your left: an oasis of deep- green water, ringed by a white granite bed of rocks, glinting in the sun. The local painted rocks and Napoleon’s hat are also worth a detour. Or the Lion’s head… After lunch, take the route over the Anti Atlas and stop on the way to admire the 360 rooms of a local agadir, set on 5 stories where rock slabs are used as staircases. The route then goes up to cross the tranquil town of Ighrem and then descend on Taroudant and its fertile plains, the snowy peaks of the High Atlas in the background. Arrive in Taroudant in the evening. 

Day 9: Taroudant – Taghazout/ Chichaoua – Marrakech ( 5 hour drive).

Taroudant lies in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain that crashes into the foothills of the Anti Atlas while nudging the Sahara in the south. Also called sometimes ‘Petit Marrakech’ due to its similar looking walled old town, it is in fact older than its northern sister. Its walls were built by the Saadi sultans back in 16th century when the city was their capital and the main base to attack Portuguese invaders on the nearby Atlantic coast. In this quiet town where most folks go around on their bycicle, hop on a caleche and have a tour around the city walls or wander the souks best known for silver, honey and argan oil and imagine how Marrakech used to be 30 years ago.

There are two ways to return to Marrakech. One is via the highway from Agadir, after having enjoyed some time on the beach just north of Agadir. The beaches around bohemian Taghazout are embraced by a warm sea current and you can swim in the Atlantic most of the year. Agadir is only a 1 hour drive from Taroudant and 3 hours on the highway to Marrakech. Or, you can choose the other route and stop on the way to visit a 500 year- old apiary where the owner will introduce you to traditional bee- growing, have you taste the different sorts of honey (our favorite must be argan honey) and invite you for an organic lunch in his home. Arrive in Marrakech late afternoon.

You may choose to follow the original tour itinerary as described on the website or have us create a tailor made itinerary around you. Please note that all our tours of Morocco are private  and, all along, stops are accommodated as often as you desire, for you to visit a site, take a stunning photo or stretch your legs. 

We believe our guests deserve to be spoiled and stay only at the best properties while on a customized tour of Morocco. We spend a great deal of time and effort to anonymously test and hand- pick the best boutique and luxury hotels, Riads , eco lodges and Kasbahs across Morocco. These select properties are constantly monitored and updated. Each one of them is inspired by and reflecting the culture, architecture and cuisine of its location. Upon enquiry, we provide a day- to- day customized Moroccan itinerary with the names of the accommodations suggested at each overnight.

Please find below the resumed itinerary (driving times don't include stops):

Day 1: Marrakech- Telouet – Ait Benhaddou ( 3 hour drive).
Day 2: Ait Benhaddou – Ouarzazate – Agdz - Zagora ( 3 hour drive).
Day 3: Zagora – Mhamid – Erg Chigaga dunes ( 3 hour drive).
Day 4: Erg Chigaga – Lake Iriki - Foum Zguid – Tata ( 4 hour drive).
Day 5: Tata- Akka – Icht ( 2 hour drive).
Day 6: Icht - Amtoudi (1 hour drive).
Day 7: Amtoudi – Tafraoute ( 3 hour drive).
Day 8: Tafraoute – Taroudant ( 3 hour drive).
Day 9: Taroudant - Taghazout/ Chichaoua - Marrakech (4- 5 hour drive).

Feel free to let us know if you would like to include a site/ activity of your own in the itinerary. If you don't know where to start, some ideas are:

- visit the nomad grottoes and Berber granary;
- learn about life in the palm grove, the khetarra irrigations, the pottery craft, the olive oil press;
- hot air balloon flight over Marrakech and its surroundings;
- traditional Moroccan hammam ( steam bath) with eucalyptus soap body scrub;
- lunch at Richard Branson’s Atlas Mountains retreat;
- bake bread with the local ladies in the village's oven;
- trekking/ hiking around Tafraoute;
- surfing or wind- surfing on the Atlantic coast.

Below you will find our rates based on two persons travelling together, with the relevant accommodation option:

Dreamers: 1395 €/ 1500 US $ / 1200 £ per person ( double room & basic desert tent);
Privilege & Dreamers: 1855 €/ 1990 US $/ 1600 £ per person ( double room/ junior suite & luxury tent with en suite shower and toilet);
Divine: not available for this tour.

Pricing is tentative and can vary slightly at different times of the year. If you book your tour to take place in December, January ( outside end of the year holidays), February, July and August, you will be charged our low season rates. We can only quote an exact rate once we have agreed on the precise itinerary, accommodation option preferred, the extras you would like to include and the duration of the journey. Discounts apply when 3 or more persons share the vehicle(s). You can also choose to mix different accommodation ranges within the same circuit.

Our rates include:

- private use of the English fluent driver- guide and the modern air- conditioned Toyota 4x4;
- boutique/ luxury hotel accommodation for 7 nights;
- Sahara camel trek and private basic or luxury tent for 1 night;
- 8 three- course- meal dinners and 8 breakfasts for 2 persons;
- refreshing drinks inside the vehicle all along the itinerary;
- local English speaking guides;
- admission fees to all local sites and attractions;
- 24 hours travel assistance with Privilege level;
- gasoline and highway tolls;
- transport insurance, VAT and visitors tax.

Most of our guests prefer adding an extra day to either allow for some relaxing time by the beach in Essaouira or trekking in the Atlas Mountains. 

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Boutique tours of Morocco

What better place than Morocco for a private tailor made tour ? It can be a day trip from Marrakech into the Atlas Mountains. Or a 14 day private luxury Morocco tour. And everything in between. With such a different culture and language, a boutique 4x4 Morocco tour with an English speaking local driver- guide guarantees the best holidays in Morocco. Choose one of the many 4x4 tours from Marrakech or another imperial city and you will discover the off the beaten track Morocco. Much more than excursions from Marrakech or Morocco desert tours, our 4x4 custom tours travel all across Morocco, covering Berber villages, majestic Kasbahs, enchanting palm groves or Touareg desert camps. From Ait Benhaddou to Chefchaouen, from Erg Chebbi to Taroudant and from camel rides in the Sahara to hardcore trekking Morocco can only offer. Browse among our 4x4 boutique tours of Morocco and book your favorite today !