MOROCCO: A world of both frenzy and calm

Charmed by the snakes and the twin­kling souks in Fez, Mar­rakech and laid­back Es­saouira, Abi­gail Blasi gives her chil­dren an in­tro­duc­tion to the magic of Morocco

Friday - - TRAVEL -

On our first ex­plo­ration of Fez’s me­dieval me­d­ina, my chil­dren were quiet and un­cer­tain as they walked through this walled city with its tun­nel-like, tan­gled lanes. The sky was pow­der blue, the African sun pounded like a drum. As we walked in the shad­ows, through the food souk, kit­tens darted around our feet, look­ing for scraps. Live chick­ens awaited their fate in cages. Eleven-year-old Jack’s hand found mine, hold­ing it tight.

I’d long wanted to bring my chil­dren to Morocco, to see the chameleons, the don­keys, the snake charm­ers and twin­kling souks. I had gone back­pack­ing here as a stu­dent, and I had upped the ante by start­ing in Fez, which I re­mem­bered as con­fus­ing and fre­netic, full of over­laden don­keys pow­er­ing through nar­row lanes.

It’s not the nat­u­ral choice for fam­i­lies with chil­dren trav­el­ling to Morocco: Mar­rakech or the beach towns would make a lot more sense. We wanted to see those too, but de­cided nev­er­the­less to make Fez our start­ing point.

This is the mo­ment to visit Fez: its me­d­ina is be­ing re­stored to its for­mer splen­dour, and Air Ara­bia – which has flights in­ter­nally to and from Mar­rakech – has made the city more ac­ces­si­ble than ever be­fore (Fez-Mar­rakech by train takes more than seven hours).

I wanted to show Jack and his sib­lings Gabriel (13) and Valentina (five) a dif­fer­ent world, one more old-fash­ioned than they would find in Mar­rakech. As we sat on the flight, I won­dered: would they love it as much as I did?

I’d opted to travel in­de­pen­dently so that we had the free­dom to ex­plore, but staff at our ho­tels were so help­ful with book­ing guides, cour­ses and tick­ets, ev­ery­thing was very easy. At Palais Amani, our Fez ho­tel, the huge front door opened on to a small cham­ber, hid­ing the tree-shaded court­yard be­yond, so that it felt like a se­cret gar­den. All day, spar­rows flut­tered and dipped into the cen­tral foun­tain.

Chil­dren are de­tail-ori­ented: it was the mini white robes, the home­made le­mon­ade (this Jack rated one of the high­lights of Morocco) and the sump­tu­ous break­fasts served in en­graved cop­per­ware, that sig­nalled to them that we were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life in a new realm of home­made lux­ury.

The ho­tel or­gan­ised a guide, Rachid Mri­takh, who took us to Fez’s most fa­mous sight, the tan­ner­ies, where an­i­mal skins are spread out like a gi­ant box of wa­ter­colours. The skins are cleaned in quick­lime and cow urine, then dipped in nat­u­ral dyes: poppy, in­digo, or henna. The tan­ners work leg-deep in the pits. Noses wrin­kled at the stench of cur­ing skins, the chil­dren rel­ished their ‘Moroc­can air fresh­ener’, a lav­ish sprig of mint. ‘How much do they earn a day?’ asked Jack, nod­ding to­wards a

We bought in­gre­di­ents from the souks, and then made our way to a Harry Pot­teresque shop filled with snake skins and spices

shop­keeper who stood against a kalei­do­scopic wall of leather slip­pers. Rachid an­swered, eyes side­long, ‘They earn by the piece.’

Af­ter buy­ing in­gre­di­ents from the souks, with a visit to a Harry Pot­teresque shop filled with snake skins and spices, we learned to make chicken tagine and Moroc­can sal­ads on Palais Amani’s roof ter­race. A cook­ery course seemed an ideal way to en­ter­tain our mot­ley mix of ages, as we’re all par­tial to con­coc­tions in the kitchen. Al­though you can take cook­ery cour­ses in Mar­rakech and Es­saouira, be­cause Fez is less in­ter­na­tional it’s far eas­ier to im­merse your fam­ily in Moroc­can cul­ture.

The Fez Cook­ery School was ap­peal­ingly re­laxed and in­ti­mate. Af­ter shop­ping in the food mar­ket, we headed to the rooftop, where we found a fully equipped teach­ing kitchen with views out be­yond Fez’s city walls. While Gabriel had started the morn­ing ask­ing ‘Do I have to cook?’, even he couldn’t help but be charmed

by chef Zakia and her as­sis­tant, Me­hdi, and was soon chop­ping an onion, wear­ing a fez. When he cut his fin­ger, Me­hdi was ready with first-aid and re­as­sur­ance, say­ing en­cour­ag­ingly: ‘All the best chefs have ac­ci­dents’.

Just as our teach­ers took the chil­dren se­ri­ously, so too did the chil­dren raise their own culi­nary game: veg­etable-phobe Jack tasted our tomato and aubergine dish, and pro­nounced it ‘smash­ing’. His favourite recipe was the sim­plest (and, ad­mit­tedly, veg­etable-free): slices of or­ange, soaked in or­ange-blos­som wa­ter and dusted with cin­na­mon and sugar. ‘Heav­enly,’ he said. As we sprin­kled spices, the call to prayer drifted over the city. Later, we feasted proudly on the fruits of our labour in the sun-dap­pled court­yard restau­rant.

In the evening, we ate at Cafe Clock, a hig­gledy-pig­gledy court­yard-cen­tred restau­rant, os­ten­si­bly a short walk through the head­spin­ning me­d­ina (we opted for a taxi there, and some boys helped us find the way back for some loose change). Gabriel tucked into a camel burger, and mu­sic drifted up from a live band drum­ming and singing on the ground level. We were up on the high­est ter­race, with swal­lows swoop­ing and stately storks glid­ing, as the sky deep­ened into apri­cot. To our sur­prise, Valentina be­gan to dance, twirling and jump­ing, and Jack got up too, an­swer­ing the call of a very dif­fer­ent beat to their usual YouTube and Dis­ney sound­tracks.

As we left, a woman from the house next door called to us in French, ‘Wait!’ I glanced through her open win­dow, in the fridge-pale light, where I saw more women re­clin­ing, in floor­length pat­terned robes, against pat­terned-tiled walls. It looked like a paint­ing. I lifted Valentina up to wave. The woman called again, ‘Wait!’ and fum­bled at the door. Open­ing it, she of­fered

Je­maa el-Fnaa has mu­si­cians, henna tat­tooists, medicine men prof­fer­ing os­trich eggs, snake charm­ers, and clouds of steam from food stalls

the chil­dren, my hus­band and my­self trays of home­made bis­cuits. Travel with chil­dren can be a magic key to the full warmth of lo­cal hos­pi­tal­ity: I felt an easy con­nec­tion with lo­cal peo­ple that was miss­ing when I trav­elled here be­fore.

Only an hour’s flight away, Mar­rakech was a dif­fer­ent beast to Fez, if from the same sta­ble; more buzzy and less tra­di­tional, but with the same air of mys­tery and magic. Here, our base was the wel­com­ing Riad Far­natchi, a stylish me­d­ina man­sion, where our suite had stained glass, low ta­bles, a sunken bath and a sun ter­race. The riad’s court­yard swim­ming pool was per­fect for re­fresh­ing over­heated chil­dren, while the glo­ri­ous spa, with steam ham­mam, was ideal for un­knot­ting weary par­ents. We all adored the food: chicken pastilla (with al­monds and wrapped in filo pas­try), and fall-apart ten­der beef and lamb tagines.

We headed into Je­maa el-Fnaa in the evening, the pal­pi­tat­ing heart of the city: a huge square crammed to the brim with may­hem, in­clud­ing mu­si­cians, henna tat­tooists, medicine men prof­fer­ing os­trich eggs, snake charm­ers, for­lorn mon­keys in hats, and clouds of steam from the busy food stalls. Jack learned to tie a tur­ban, Touareg-style, and we bought a mid­night-blue scarf to turn him into a pint-size Lawrence of Ara­bia. We all wel­comed the tran­quil­lity of a visit to Yves Saint Lau­rent’s for­mer gar­den, the Jardin Ma­jorelle, with its hid­den cor­ners, ul­tra­ma­rine pots, and flame-or­ange gold­fish flick­er­ing in the pond’s inky dark.

Next stop on our week-long trip was Es­saouira, 210km south, and this At­lantic­fac­ing city is a dif­fer­ent world again. Its name means ‘lit­tle pic­ture’ in Ara­bic, and its me­d­ina is painted a nau­ti­cal blue and white, ringed by a great sand­cas­tle-golden wall. Where Fez of­fers time travel, and Mar­rakech is a thrilling, head-spin­ning tu­mult, laid-back Es­saouira is where the pace slows to an am­ble and start­ing prices when hag­gling are lower: we se­cured a cheer­ful bar­gain over a leather bag, and an item Valentina rev­er­ently re­ferred to as ‘the Golden’, a cush­ion cover that looked sus­pi­ciously as if it had been made in In­dia.

The chil­dren, too shy to join in the hag­gling, fol­lowed the to-and-fro like a game of ten­nis. Jack whis­pered, ‘Do you have to hag­gle even in McDon­ald’s here?’

We were stay­ing out­side the cen­tre of town, around 15 min­utes’ drive away in Jardin des Douars, an idyll in the parched coun­try­side.

In its gar­dens, bougainvil­lea poured over terracotta rooftops in femme-fa­tale pinks and reds, and suc­cu­lents and cacti spiked pat­terns against fluffy ferns. Wa­ter lilies floated on ponds where tur­tles glided and frogs rib­bited; nearby, tor­toises scut­tled around the paths. Then there

were the iri­des­cent bot­tle-green waters of the fam­ily pool (there’s a sep­a­rate in­fin­ity pool for the child-free). It was a tough busi­ness to get the chil­dren to go any­where else.

We fi­nally man­aged to take the el­dest two for a surf les­son at Ocean Vagabond on Es­saouira’s long, windswept beach, which is prime surf­ing and kitesurf­ing ter­rain (not so much swim­ming, as it’s too windy). The silky sand, edged by rol­lick­ing white-topped sea, had pa­rades of camels lum­ber­ing up and down, and ponies cool­ing down in the surf, ready for rides along the sands.

The en­thu­si­as­tic teacher even­tu­ally man­aged to coach both boys to stand up on the board and glide in over the waves, to their ob­vi­ous pride, and we cel­e­brated at Ocean Vagabond’s sun-dap­pled beach cafe, a laid-back par­adise, with skew­ers and sal­ads served in the shade of ar­gan trees.

Gabriel, the teenager, an­nounced with what seemed to be a gen­uine whiff of en­thu­si­asm: ‘I’d like to come back to Morocco.’ We’d cov­ered so much ground in a week, but it had felt re­mark­ably ef­fort­less, with the rich in­ten­sity tem­pered by the tran­quil­lity of gar­dens and court­yards.

I would take the chil­dren back to Morocco: to Es­saouira for the breeze, surf and tor­toises, to Mar­rakech for the child-friendly crazi­ness, and to Fez to be cat­a­pulted back in time.

In laid-back Es­saouira the pace slows to an am­ble, a con­trast to Fez and Mar­rakech

Fez Cook­ery School boasts charm­ing chefs and a fully equipped teach­ing kitchen on its rooftop

Palais Amani ho­tel in Fez is a treat for the senses, with its se­cret gar­dens and spar­rows dip­ping into the cen­tral foun­tain

Je­maa el-Fnaa, the pal­pi­tat­ing heart of Mar­rakesh, is a huge square crammed with may­hem

Tuck into camel burg­ers at Cafe Clock, a hig­gledy-pig­gledy court­yard-cen­tred restau­rant

Learn to make chicken tagine and Moroc­can sal­ads on Palais Amani’s roof ter­race

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