Not far from the chaos of Marrakech is a world of calm and peace. Emily Payne has some time out in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
It’s easy to forget where I am when it’s this silent. Particularly after Marrakech, where I danced through days of screeching hawkers, belly dancers and sizzling, hot tagines. But I left the swirling souks and chaos this morning, in search of coolness and calm in the Atlas Mountains.
Africa’s second-largest peaks separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert. The rocks are warm terracotta and the higher we go, the closer we are to the snow caps that seem such an anomaly in this hot, sultry place. Dense forest and mist surround us on our drive to La Bergerie, a rural retreat with panoramic views and a tree-lined pool.
We stop for lunch in the mountain town of Arghbalou: traditional cumin-peppered salads, followed by tagines, followed by a honeyed tarte l’orange. The ‘grey’ wine, a local sharp, pale rose which tickles the palette and complements the spices is followed by sweet mint tea. We eat outside in the red, but cold glow of the impressive Atlas heights.
Indulgence is walked off with a mini-trek through Ourika valley in the high Atlas, past waterfalls, canyons, ravines and gorges weathered over millions of years. It is here I get a truer sense of Morocco’s quiet side, so different from those heady Marrakech nights. Life seems reduced to the five basic sense, and it’s so quiet that I can hear each individual bird’s song.
The land is dotted with pungent thyme, rosemary and argan – a rare fruit. The oil is extracted from the pit of the fruit, and is rich in vitamin E and antioxidants with moisturising and anti-aging properties. The oil is also used in traditional Moroccan cuisine. We are taken to a factory where I sample its earthy, olive oil like flavour, surrounded by pots of lotions and potions claiming to turn back the hands of time.
After the argan tasting, we hike further to the tiny Berber village of Imlil – sitting in the sunshine. It’s market day and creased old men shift the produce they haven’t sold, while the women carry firewood under arching backs, with a smile in their eye. We continue on from Imlil along a track lined with apple, cherry, peach and walnut trees. Passing tumbledown houses, a school and the local hammam, we reach Asni. The gypsy-like market has herbs, spices and even hay bales for sale. After the chaos we sit back with more mint tea, a sweet treat for tired walkers.
Back on the trail, higher up the mountainside, sits Sir Richard Branson’s breath-taking property Kasbah Tamodot. The walled complex has 18 uniquely designed rooms and six Berber tented suites. There are 360 degree views of the mourntains, gardens of palms, terraces, gazebos , grand rooms dressed in antique Moroccan fabrics and a large spa.
Unlike the luxurious riads in Marrakech, this place is enveloped in silence, inside the complex and out. And like Branson’s other Virgin Limited Edition properties, such as Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, The Lodge in Verbier and Ulusaba private game reserve in South Africa, it feels privately remote and inaccessible to the outside world.
Treks in the Atlas can last from a couple of hours to an 18-day mammoth trip incorporating Berber home stays, but ours is over as the sky begins to darken. We head back to La Bergerie under the safe watch of our guide, just as the Muslim call to prayer resounds over the mountains.
The country quiet here is bliss, where the red peaks towering above engulf the senses. Each guest has their own secluded cottage and charming staff top up your wine, water or whatever you desire. The stars are bright and I retire to my cabin where a thick-quilted bed and log fire await.
It may not be forever, but a hideout holiday in the Atlas mountains is a heavenly break.
£490 per person based on two people sharing for three nights on a half board basis
Price includes flights, accommodation, car hire and a trek through Berber villages with a local bilingual guide.
For more information, visit www.simpsontravel.com or call 020 8392 5861.
from 360.00 Euros in low season and from 430.00 Euros in high season.