Mapping Morocco – Discovering Caravan Paths

Seven weeks in Africa, four weeks in Morocco! Yes, I am somewhat obsessed with Morocco and similar age-old raw countries! Roaming the countryside, I’m intrigued and fascinated seeing people living off the land as their ancestors did. Morocco never bores, always intrigues, and leaves you wanting more, once is not enough! Morocco is a land of legends and fascination, despite its closeness to the European continent.

My Journey goals were planned: visit the newest hotels or riads in the booming Moroccan hospitality industry, discover additional ancient community ovens, many are still in use today; visit world heritage ksar sites and fortified graniers, also known as Igoudar. For lovers of historical heritage, multiple sites exist all over Morocco.

Plus meander the souks in search of specific antiquities, explore old gardens, and of course, dine at the newest and my best-loved restaurants! Every Journey to Marrakech includes a culinary escape to Amanjena’s spectacular grounds and the lovely Royal Mansour Le Jardin, a peaceful haven in the heart of the buzzy Ochre City with high end gastronomy! And finally, discover a true Luxury Sahara Camp!

The Journey with full posts to come! I explored a modified Camel Caravan Path in the fall. Many travelers assume they should arrive and visit Marrakech, while it is an exhilarating picturesque city, there are other paths, especially if you have visited Marrakech and think this is the only Moroccan destination! It is not, I’ve traversed Morocco several times, it’s my second home.

Morocco is on the top Travel lists; all the new hotels reflect this renaissance. The country has rebounded after the 2023 earthquake.

My path and a few of my discoveries: arrive Casablanca and mosey to the Four Seasons Casablanca – which has the best beds in the country, except for the Four Seasons Marrakech! Casablanca FS is a dry hotel, if you crave a cocktail, make reservations at Rick’s Café for dinner! I recently discovered the Four Seasons has a site for purchasing their dreamy beds!

A short three hour drive up the coast to see and stay at La Fiermontina, Ocean, isolated on the wild coast of Larache, it reminds me of an Aman type location. Discover the romantic suites and private villas with pools and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the rolling dunes. Al fresco lunch and continue north or spend a night and relish miles of beaches, relax at the sophisticated spa layered in elegant black and white marble and wander the small village. It’s a popular summer location for locals. I will stay next time, recover from the long flight with dune walks.

Drive to Tangier, stop in Asilah on the way to Tangier. It’s only 2 hours to Tangier, browse the seaside art colony in a leisurely afternoon.

New property, Villa Mabrouka, has recently opened. Transformed by the esteemed British designer Jasper Conran, once the secluded sanctuary of fashion legends Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Petite and private 12 room haven with sweeping views of the Strait of Gibraltar. Lush gardens with hush-hush niches for reading or snoozing; birdsong, and breezes at no extra charge.  Gardens of rare Mediterranean plants were designed by Madison Cox. Imagine a candlelight dinner in a charming vine covered stone gazebo on a cliff with views to die for. Walk to the nearby bustling Tangier Kasbah and medina, amble around the corner to yummy dining at famed El Morocco Club. Cozy, intimate seating upstairs or try the buzzy piano bar downstairs. Always say yes to the oysters! Tangier has an extensive list of private gardens, last winter I spent a delightful few hours meandering Umberto Pasti Rohuna Gardens.

Two points of interest and direction choices here. One: two nights in Tangier is a good first-time visit. If you haven’t wandered the famed Blue City, Chefchaouen, is 2 hours away – you must visit at least once in Morocco! Small riad with indoor pool in the middle of the medina is fine for one night.

Then onward to Fez which is four hours from Chefchaouen. I’ve visited the charming Blue City however, in our winter, it’s hard for me to say no to exploring a sunny beach, so it was onward from Tangier, where I spent three delicious days at the Banyan Tree Tamouda Bay. I’m a beach girl, any beach hotel with miles of sandy beach walking purrs a particular tune to me. An elegant all-villa hotel, this is the Hamptons of Morocco! Positioned between the rugged Rif mountains and the glistening Mediterranean Sea, the resort oozes authentic Moroccan style Villas with private pools. Full post coming soon on my delightful visit. An authentic Thai restaurant, Saffron, whose fun staff make every wish come true! Terrace dining on the edge of a bird filled estuary, the sapphire Mediterranean Sea is just beyond the bird pond. A huge infinity pool is plopped on the sand, soundtrack: lapping surf. Miles of beach for strolling or hire a pony for a gallop! Bikes at your door for an impromptu spin around the grounds or escape an off-road mountain bike excursion. The hotel is an extraordinary blend of romance and exotic Moroccan charm. I will be returning to Banyan Tree Tamouda Bay!

Banyan Tree Tamouda Bay

If you haven’t visited Fez, you must! It’s a slighter less hectic version of Marrakech. From Banyan Tree, a six-hour drive. Riad Fès is the only Palace Hotel. Must book the gorgeous suites far in advance and must enjoy sunset cocktails from the rooftop restaurant. I love three nights in Fez, its relaxed and gives you time to explore at leisure. Riad Fès combines a subtle mix of Andalusian sumptuousness and Moroccan art de vivre, the Riad reflects its prestigious past and the refined civilization to which it belongs. This majestic palace is an authentic example of Hispanic-Moorish architecture. It offers panoramic views of the magical spectacle of the sun rising over the Fèz Medina, and the Atlas Mountains. Hammams and massages, fountains, salons, sophisticated cuisine, and a trendy lounge bar.

Fez to the Sahara – an 8-hour drive – but quite scenic. Two nights in the luxury Sahara Tent camp – the quiet winter peacefulness is extraordinary, I’ve pretty much broken up with Camels after multiple experiences, but I’ve decided on my next Sahara visit, a sunset camel caravan might be worth exploring the sand dunes from the back of a camel.

And the night sky, you can practically scoop up the stars from the inky black sky. I would be happy here with a book for 2 days – active peeps can chose from multiple activities dune buggy excursions, camel crossing picnics at an oasis, or merely sit and stare at the endless horizon of untouched sand dunes. Colors change with each passing hour; drier air translates to more vivid color. Warm sunrise hues change dramatically to intense blue afternoon skies, and brilliant yellow, gold, and red hues illuminate the horizon as the sun slowly melts into the dunes.

The Sahara to Dar Ahlam, House of Dreams in Skoura – a not to be missed fantasy property… two nights at least for full immersion experience!

I carried onward to Marrakech, however, to shorten your sojourn, you can travel an hour to Ouarzazate and fly back to Casablanca for return home.

Adding on – Dar Ahlam to the Atlas Mountains Skoura to Mountains 4 – 4.5 hours to our favorite hotel properties Olinto or Kasbah Tamadot. There are only two Atlas Mountain options – very different in style, Kasbah Tamadot is a client favorite. Olinto is a completely unique experience, a respite from Marrakech, a peaceful sanctuary. New post to come on Olinto after enjoying my first restful stay..

Atlas Mountains – 90 mins to Marrakech and departure flights. I stayed in Marrakech for eight nights in multiple hotels, some new to me. I was particularly. Impressed with the Oberoi, I wasn’t prepared to love it as much as I did! I’ve stayed at Oberoi in India; they are gorgeous and quite over the top! Oberoi Marrakech is outside the city fray, a peaceful haven of private villas with plunge pools. It’s elegant, but not overdone. A peaceful oasis within minutes from the chaos that is Marrakech!

Then onward to one of my small favorites Dar al Hossoun – this is an area for deep ancient discoveries. For those who wish to move, the choice is vast: hikes, small taxis or carriages, visits to the souks, the tannery, discovery of “lost” valleys of the Upper or Anti-Altas, Berber villages… and visits of private houses and gardens .

Moving to the Atlantic Coast again, for me, a return to the beach near Agadir, to the Fairmont. I crave beach experiences and the Fairmont is the best hotel here. Amazing spa, miles of sandy beach, on a foggy twilight ramble, I spotted several camels, men in sapphire turbans beckoned me to join them for a camel adventure. There is an exotic tale everywhere in Morocco! Would you say yes?

Nearby, the ancient town of Agadir has a small laidback medina.  I discovered a new Italian built Agadir medina; the original city was mostly leveled by an earthquake in 1960. Architect Coco Polizzi, a Moroccan-Italian professional, developed a charming medina called Polizzi’s Medina, the buildings have a medieval look with many elements of traditional Moroccan architecture. Mud, wood, and stone, sourced nearby, make up the bulk of the structure. Strolling through the narrow courtyards of the medina, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back in time, but the perfection that exudes from every corner suggests that it doesn’t date back several centuries.

Back to Marrakech for newer hotel and museum experiences…

My exceptional guide took me by the hand to the oldest Hammam in Marrakech, built in 1562.  Walking underground, he introduced me to the men who feed a hot fire all day and night to heat the huge water cauldrons which produce the steam in the hammam! I love that technology has not replaced these men; ancient culture is still in place in many locations if you know where to look! In the medina, a pile of wood and smoke usually lead to a community oven or here, to the underground caldron in the oldest hammam. Astonishing – a modern city which treasures its culture and history. Traditionally, the heat for the Moroccan hammam is provided by the farnatchi, the man in charge of tending the fire beneath the bathhouse that heats its floors and walls. Many women would bring a ceramic urn known as a tanjia of a beef stew to cook outside the fire all day – one of these pots was resting at the edge of the wood stove. Tanjia is the name of both the stew and the ceramic urn it’s cooked in. Traditionally, the earthen pots are taken by families to the communal furnace ovens inside the medina, which heat water for the local hammams.

Moving around the African continent with several 60 pound suitcases is not a vacation, people assume I am on vacation for seven weeks, au contraire! In Marrakech, I stayed at six different hotels. If I don’t stay, how can I advise a client, you will love it! I had read much about Beldi Country Club – the hotel souks are authentic and are brimming with lovely handmade Moroccan treasures. Plopped amidst stunning gardens, the large suites are well furnished, however, the concept of Country Club is not what we imply as a country club – it was the perfect location after 21 days of meandering; lounging and slumbering in 90-degree weather, absorbed in my book. There is no butler button for pool service or coffee delivered to bed – the pool time was delicious, but I need a teeny bit more service!

Never miss a stay or pool lunch at my brilliant friend Meryanne Loum-Martin’s, Jnane Tamsna property. If I don’t stay, I dine several times with her, we giggle and gossip and share travel gems – she knows everyone and everything! Her property is an enchanted garden of small villas, salons, pool, tennis courts and mesmerizing dining experiences. Plus a new Souk!

I’ve always thought I wanted to stay in the medina – two brief nights in a messy medina confirmed being in the middle will not cure my lack of direction! Mustapha gives me strict locations on where to stand when he is fetching me for day excursions…don’t stray from here or you will be lost! I do stray when he gets distracted…not allowed! In the tiny Taroudant medina, I strayed and unearthed enormous amber beads and a small metal box with bone inlay! I text: I’m in souk next door, come help me negotiate!

Clients love Villa des Orangers and with the newly added white marble and white linen shiny bright suites, I love it even more. This palace hotel makes me think I am in the medina, to find my sparkling suite, I memorized this passageway: from the pool, walk until you see the bowl of ostrich eggs in the distinctive green enamel Tamegroute urn, turn left, pass the sexy bar, left through an interior courtyard with pond, right at white stairway to my upper floor suite! Two heated pools, numerous salons for intimate cozy meals or story telling performances.

The Four Seasons in Marrakech is usually my go to last hotel – my glorious suite provides enough room to repack, sort my treasures, laundry done in hours, and I love the spa, pools, and dining – it’s where I regroup to return home or on this Journey, continue onward to Kenya and South Africa.

The best of Morocco can be discovered with our marvelous guides and fearless driver; these trusted companions with the tales of the complex medieval history, the final, if needed, bargaining point in the souks, a guide to tasting the best spices, finding vendors selling indigenous music, facilitating introductions in a small school in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, sourcing traditional Moroccan handicrafts, obtaining reservations in the best local restaurants and ultimately our VIP Client Liaison who is a resource for all needs while traveling to Morocco, we travel with these experts to make certain our clients will enjoy The VV Best Journey.

Unpacking List: It’s not the things you take with you that define your Journey; it’s the experiences you have and the memories you bring home.

Ancient Rural Tourism Morocco with Dar al Hossoun

More exploring in Morocco, focused on the countryside, the ocean, and secret gardens. I’ve made multiple visits to the sweet riad Dar Al Hossoun, in Taroudant, three hours from Marrakech. The French owner has become a friend, and we love the engaging staff! It’s a perfect base for exploring ancient Citadels, walled villages like Kasbah Of Tizourgane and collective graneries known as Igoudars. These stacked mud buildings reflect an ancestral history and a rich culture in the area.

Dar al Hossoun

Taroudant is called the “Grandmother of Marrakech” because it is a scaled down, slower paced town that physically resembles Marrakech with its orange-colored surrounding ramparts. It has the feel of a small fortified market town on a caravan route and is known for its local crafts. Unlike Marrakech, Taroudant contains almost the whole city within its ancient walls. The thick city walls built in 1528, are almost completely intact. It’s directly south of Marrakech, about a 3-hour drive.  A little unhurried Berber town, it can be over-looked by many tourists, perfect for me! Imagine the caravan route dotted with charming communities, don’t dismiss these little hidden gems.

At Dar al Hossoun, enjoy the tranquility of the gardens, painting, taking pictures, swimming, or dining on traditional Moroccan cuisine at their cookery classes, or simply relaxing at the Spa or by the pool. For those who wish to be active while at Dar al Hossoun, there is much to choose from: hikes, or carriage rides, visits to the souks and tannery nearby, discovery of the “lost” valley of the High or Anti-Atlas region, old Berber villages and tours of private homes and gardens.

The routes between the main Anti-Atlas cities of Taroudant, Tafraoute, Tata and Tiznit make great road trips and biking areas. This area is also rich in ancient Igoudars. A few have been restored, some are easy to find!  This countryside area abounds with architectural treasures: Medinas, Walls, fortified granaries called Igoudars, Ksours and Kasbahs. A guide from Dar al Hossoun can take you to any number of these nomadic remote locations.

Last fall, I visited for the second time – specifically to discover ancient walled citadels a few hours from the property. The Souss area is abundant with exceptional hiking and there are two accessible ancient sites, we spent a day exploring both.

Off a country road, in the midday heat, we walked down a steep stone path to the granary. My initial thoughts included, how will I get back up that hill in the blazing heat. The alleyways are packed with the individual ‘safes’. Mint tea and cookies in a small mud den with the local woman who is the ‘keeper,’ provided a welcoming respite from the heat.

These are real safes for the villages of the region. Collective granaries, seen from the outside, can look like a kasbah. Some granaries are still in operation but most tend to be abandoned. Some of the most remarkable marvels of southern Moroccan architecture have been left out of the main tourist trails and guidebook highlights.

Kasbah Of Tizourgane is a few hours drive from Dar al Hossoun, it’s a small, fortified village dating from the 13th century. In the Land of Ida Ougnidif, you can spend a few hours exploring the century-old wooden doors, walk the steep stone ramparts, and narrow winding lanes, and enveloping stone walls. Welcome to the fairy-tale village of Tizourgane! Lunch at the top of the citadel with breathtaking views!

The Kasbah has been rebuilt in coordination with the original construction techniques. It has a small guest house with a roof top restaurant. In February, the argan and almond trees in bloom enhance the beauty of the austere location.

The village is being restored by descendants of the original three families who lived here. Using heritage funding and income from the on-site guest house, the communal areas of the mosque and agadir are slowly being restored providing visitors an authentic view into kasbah life.

Each hand carved wooden door is distinctive, the complex detailed rock placement in unique patterns is mostly assembled without mortar, its truly worth the hike up the steep stairs. I felt like I was in an ancient cathedral, in a quiet sense of awe.

A high wall surrounds the Kasbah, protecting approximately fifty houses and an Agadir. It can only be accessed by a single gate with a watchtower, which is approached by ascending a long stone stairway.

In the 1930’s, the French army would have seized the citadel, but they failed.  Soldiers camped around the ramparts for weeks, cutting off all water sources. Legend has it that an old woman soaked her clothes in oil before laying them out in the sight of the soldiers. Believing that it was laundry, and that water was abundant at the citadel, the attackers became discouraged and left the village.   

The Igoudars. These stacked mud buildings reflect an ancestral history and a rich culture in the area. Consisting of shops, a local gathering place, and a strong sanctuary were important to the original tribes. This Agadir, built entirely of dry mud and stone, is one of the region’s oldest community granaries, dating back to the 17th century. It is notable by a wide corridor that divides it into two blocks of three stories. There are over 100 storage compartments, with the highest accessible via flat stones embedded in the walls.  Walking across the uneven ground, one can imagine the old life here – the call to prayer, mules laden with vegetables, chickens running free…

An agadir is usually placed on top of a mountain or carved into the rocks of dramatic escarpments, strategically located on higher ground beyond settlements, with good vantage points. Although each granary is remarkable in design, their bee hive like labyrinth interiors of interconnecting tunnels and passageways holding padlocked chambers collectively resemble a style of architecture of mystical Middle Earth. Most of the igoudar that remain are thought to date to the 16th and 17th century, although the tradition of building and using collective granaries is estimated to be as old as a millennia; evolving from a time when many southern Amazigh tribes were still nomadic. 

Kasbah Tizourgane

Communal granaries – often fortified – were constructed in pisé – rammed mud, in the hilltop villages to store and keep safe a long list of items. Made from the local earth, an Agadir, as they are known in the local Berber, – the plural is igoudar.  Each tribe or family would have their own compartment, an elaborate wooden key and lock protects the goods from plunderers. Sections were stacked on top of each other, many are built up over three stories with wooden doors, a wooden ladder is necessary to gain access.  

A handful of families may have formed each village, so there was a shared incentive to protect the Agadir. Each village appointed a guardian, the Agadir I visited was guarded by the son and widow wife of the last guardian. She excitedly shared the enormous wooden key that easily fit into an ancient hand carved wooden lock.

The crops which are agriculturally viable amid the dramatic climate conditions of the Anti Atlas, such as saffron, almonds, and argan are high in value, with saffron only offering a short annual harvesting window and the stigmas needing optimum storage conditions to preserve life span. 

Everything from important documents, money and jewelry to the seasons harvest could be stored inside the locked chambers. These well ventilated, shaded rooms built from thick stone walls remain at cool temperatures during high heat. It is possible for grains to be stored in some agadir chambers for up to 25 years, and natural butter for 10 (which is also believed to have medicinal qualities after being preserved for such a long period of time). The structures weren’t only built for storing harvests, medicines and possessions; the Amazigh (Berber), ancestors also constructed them to function as an ancient form of a high security bank vault. The strategic planning of each granaries location meant only one security guard, amin, was needed to ‘man the fort’ at any one time. The amin was also responsible for holding the keys to the main door and all the chambered storage rooms inside, a tradition which is still kept alive today. This responsibility has always been a well respected role within the local communities. 

The agadir was also a method of defense, tribesmen stored their arms inside. The central courtyard could be used to shelter women and children and their livestock.

In peaceful times, strategically placed igoudar could increase their revenue from the transitory camel caravans, offering nightly shelter and bartering. Some agadir included shared facilities such as a small mosque, a council chamber or a blacksmith and are thus recognized as early urbanization of the Berbers.

This 64 year old woman’s husband was the ‘amin’ and she and her son are now appointed by the village to guard the granary.

Dar al Hossoun guides can organize this day tour, hiking and other off property adventures!

Highly Recommend!