Morocco is a fabulous destination for luxury travellers but, as with all other destinations, is best enjoyed with a theme in mind. Many opt for the towns of the north with their dense souks (open-air markets) where a heady mix of trades vie for local custom, but our recommendation is to head further south, up into the mountains, and to discover the Berber traditional way of life. Access can be by road these days and stylish accommodation is available in the form of riads – homes based around a courtyard, converted for use as boutique hotels.
The Atlas Mountains
The plains of northern Morocco are separated from the Sahara Desert in the south and south-east by the Atlas Mountains. Geographers generally recognise three distinct ranges: the Middle Atlas, the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas, taken from north to south. The High Atlas are the most impressive and contain all of the tallest peaks as well as gorges and lakes.
The main highlight of any trip to the High Atlas is not the scenery but the views of the local way of life, in this case of the people known to us as Berbers. Berber populations are found throughout all of North Africa, all the way east to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, but the largest culturally-intact Berber populations today are found in Morocco and Algeria.
Berber villages are generally fortified, a necessary precaution developed during times of strife in the past. Houses are constructed from mud-brick but with high, windowless external walls for maximum defensive strength. Often these are clustered on a hilltop with a thicker contiguous village wall for communal benefit.
Communities exist throughout the High Atlas wherever there is sufficient fertile soil to graze sheep and goats and to raise a few crops. Traditionally men care for the former and undertake any trading whilst their womenfolk farm, look after the family and practice handicrafts. Weaving is widespread producing a flat, tapestry-woven carpet known as a kilim. These are patterened with geometric designs and are now highly sought after as home furnishings with character.
Berbers are organised into a tribal structure and this affects personal relationships such as marriage. Muslim festivals are observed as well as some local ones that do not contradict Islamic beliefs.
The diet up in the hills depends upon each family’s wealth and upon their proximity to markets. A typical meal would include couscous or bread as the staple with a tajine (stew) when meat is available.
Planning your own trip
Marrakech sits at the western end of the High Atlas and therefore provides an ideal base for a loop up into or around the edge of the mountains depending upon your time available and inclinations, stamina and other factors. International flights generally arrive into Casablanca so you may well find yourselves spending a day or two there at the ends of your trip.
Morocco has a network of decent roads, sufficient to get you to the main tourist sites. However, to really enjoy the High Atlas it would be better to look at private, 4WD transport with a knowledgeable driver and guide. These can be organized before arrival through a reputable agency in Marrakech.
Any trip to Morocco can be enhanced by incorporating nights in riad accommodation. The High Atlas region offers a good selection of boutique hotels in this class, some being converted kasbahs with a unique style and amazing views. If you are a more passive traveller, then settling into one of these may be just the thing.
Ian Ford is Operations Manager at Photo Tours Abroad.