Morocco: in the pink
June 8, 2011 | By:
Since taking the fast track to tourism, Morocco has changed - but for better or worse? Judging by the Rose Valley, says Oliver Bennett, it’s gone a little, well, soppy


What a carry-on up the Kasbah. Photo by Oliver Bennett

M6. Not the motorway but the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI. Since 1999, when the West-friendly, democracy-loving monarch took office and started ramping up tourism, his realm has changed from being a place infamous for hosting louche aristocrats and kif-crazed rock’n’roll escapees – the Hideous Kinky era, if you like – into one of the world’s prime soft-exotic destinations. Marrakesh the pink-encrusted jewel in its crown. OK, the Arab Spring has had a ripple effect in the capital Rabat, and there has been a recent Al-Qaeda-style attack. But M6’s scatter-cushioned dream is unlikely to fade.

I flew into the kingdom and started in Marrakesh, the rose city. I wandered round the hassle-free medina – the old art of shaking down naive tourists having been dampened by M6 – and eyed up lime-green babouche slippers and puce pouffes. The place was seething with tourists of the yoga-and-pashmina variety, mostly staying in the city’s 500-odd riads, townhouses now tarted up into various stages of ‘boutique’.

At Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh’s preposterously photogenic outdoor market, I raised my camera and heads bobbed expectantly: photography has inflated to 20dh (£1.20) a snap. Never pay more than 10dh, I was told by a local, who said: “Some think it is forbidden by the Koran.” Well, the Koran was written 13 centuries before photography, but I did feel inhibited at La Medersa ben Youssef, a 16th-century Koranic school and a masterpiece of Merenid-era architecture with elaborate cedar-work, mosaic tiling and polished tadalakt plasterwork: all the riches of the Moorish decorator’s table. (The Kingdom has long been a bit la-di-dah.)

Like many super-sensory experiences, Marrakesh can rapidly tire you, so I set off to the airport, to ride a Cessna over the High Atlas Mountains. The rosy pink of Marrakesh gave way to gnarled highlands, and we touched down in tongue-twisting Ouarzazate, now home to a small desert film industry – ‘Mollywood’, of course. I skirted the prosperous new town and went east, desert-wards, past camels, donkeys and pea-green Peugeots: the three main modes of transport.

As rocky bluffs loomed over the valley, ruins began to appear like enormous sandcastles, surrounded by date palms and djellaba-clad locals. Ah, the Dades Valley, aka the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs: the caravanserai route north from Timbuktu. Several of these adobe hulks are obsolete, rotted by rain, but entrepreneurs are now bringing others on to the holiday market.

My companion turned the car off into a small town called Skoura, on to a mud road, through a palmeraie, across a wadi, and into the Dar Ahlam, precisely one of those refurbished kasbahs. Truly frou’d, the Dar had cushions coordinated by season – red for winter, green for summer – a salon with a fireplace plastered with chocolate-coloured tadalakt, and candles a-plenty, in niches, on floors and in candelabras. I set off once more along the valley, inshallah to return for tea.

The countryside became ever-prettier, culminating in the town of El-Kelaa m’Gouna, the centre of Morocco’s rose industry, where pink and green shops sold rosewater and fossils. The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs had seamlessly become the Valley of the Roses, climbing up to the Atlas Mountains, where some locals eked out a living as troglodytic nomads. Suddenly it was more Tora Bora than Ab Fab.

I walked on, past a gushing culvert to a remote picnic place, where the Dar Ahlam’s team waited with lunch: green beans with cumin, tomato salad, Coronation chicken. On return, I went to the Dar’s hammam and took a gommage, the hardcore scrub that precedes a massage, and was delighted that it was not the usual beefy sadist but a female, chic gommagiste offering a choice between verbena, ylang ylang and argan oil: the latter from the curious, spiky tree that grows only on Morocco’s Atlantic coastline.

At sunrise I walked with a guide, Abdou, over the wadi where, in the wet season, water splashed up to two metres in height. When exactly? “When you come from here,” intoned Abdou in the gnomic Moroccan mode that writer Paul Bowles made a career from, “you just know.” He led me to the Kasbah Amerdihl, Skoura’s visitor attraction, now a guesthouse. Inside this 17th-century edifice, a small garden of figs and lemons clustered around a fountain. Rooms off to the sides performed their ghostly functions: men in one, women in another. Plenty of the kinky and some of the hideous had surely happened here, but nothing a few soft furnishings wouldn’t cure.