On our first day in Marrakech, Dad and I booked ourselves on to a day trip to the Atlas Mountains for the following day. The name alone is so evocative and the thought of following Michael Palin in visiting the indigenous Berber people, who have lived in the mountains for centuries, was very alluring.
We were joined on the trip by a couple of French families, two English women and a Spanish mother-son combo. As we headed into the mountains we had a number of stops for photo opportunities and at each stop there were a number of vendors lying in wait to sell us Berber trinkets. Though very forceful in their sales approach a cold shoulder was enough to get rid of them. It was also made infinitely easier by the Spanish lady who was unable to say no to them and quickly acquired herself half a dozen limpet-like vendors at every stop. By the end of the day she was sporting 5 or 6 necklaces and numerous bracelets! We also experienced a number of young children begging for money which can cause a moral dilemma. This was best evidenced when one of our number gave a young boy a coin which led to him being chased away by the other boys.
Along the way we stopped off at a weekly Berber market. Once away from the vendors and into the market we got our first taste of true Berber life. As we walked through the narrow lines of stalls we were enticed by the smell of spices, kebabs and other traditional Moroccan cuisine. It seemed everyone had something to sell and it would have been quite easy to have grabbed a meal, a completely new outfit and a haircut and shave in no time at all. Everything about the market felt so alive and it was a refreshing change from Marrakech and the vendors we had encountered en-route as everyone paid us little or no attention. Dad and I enjoyed immersing ourselves in it so much that we dived back in for a second lap.
We then got back into the mini-bus and headed further along the Ourika Valley into the mountains and we finally stopped off at a restaurant by the river. Our table was right by the river’s edge and proved a beautiful setting for some couscous and chicken.
After lunch we went for a guided walk into the mountains to visit a waterfall. The scenery along the way, although barren, was very stunning and afforded us great views over Berber villages and the valley. Once we had taken in the waterfall the group chose to take the more hazardous round trip back to the bus. The first obstacle was an almost vertical rock face and, despite my severe dislike of heights, managed to get myself up with the help of just three Moroccan guides! It was well worth it though as the views afforded us were even more stunning than on the ascent.
Once back in the village there was just time to be taken to a Berber rug shop before returning to the bus for the trip back to Marrakech. When it became clear no-one was interested in buying the rugs the Moroccans soon cooled on the group. This was in keeping with most of our experiences we'd had with the Berber people that day and, possibly due to the touristy nature of the trip, I felt we never truly saw the genuine hospitality for which they are so famed. Though frustrating, it is hard to blame the people as Western tourists must be seen as an easy way of making some much needed money.
Overall, as we made our way back I could reflect on a very pleasant day and it still had one charming surprise in store. As the sun started to dip in the early evening sky it beautifully played across the red clay Berber houses and as we rounded each corner another beautiful scene was revealed for our pleasure.