Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - Day 11. We could have easily spent our second full day in Marrakesh discovering new sites in the “Red City” or spending more time at our favorite places seen the previous day. But the possibilities of going farther afield to see new sights and gather more experiences won out as usual when I have a choice. In this case a travel video I had seen enticed me to opt for a day excursion into the Ourika Valley.
Beginning the day with an early wake up call and light breakfast, we were on the road by 8 am headed to our day’s destination. Traveling south and once more crossing the Plain of Haouz, our route backtracked some of the roads we had taken only days before when we were leaving the High Atlas. The Ourika Valley hugs the green foothills of the High Atlas mountains and is less than 25 miles and an hour’s drive from Marrakesh. Here the valley, with its river and green forest, sits at the foot of 8,700 ft. high Jebel Oukaimeden which draws skiers to its slopes in winter, and those seeking a respite from the heat in summer.
day’s visit in the Ourika Valley began with a visit to a typical Berber family home. Our guide, Larbi, himself a Berber, was acquainted with this particular family and very eager for us to learn more about the culture and life style. I suspect the family welcomes visitors like us to supplement their income so this is beneficial to all of us. Like many other Berber homes in this region, this family’s home was built into the hillside with the family quarters on the upper level and stables for animals on the ground level.
As we approached this home, it was apparent a ‘welcoming committee’ of a sort was forming; as we stepped off the bus, we were immediately surrounded by a group of men hoping to sell us jewelry and other souvenirs. It was a bit disconcerting, but we continued to follow Larbi into this Berber home where the women of the family were awaiting us.
We were greeted and pleasantries were made after which we were introduced to the matriarch of the family, a woman who looked to be about 50 years old.We were seated on one of the several long banquets topped with cushions and
pillows which were arranged around the edges of the room, then listened to Larbi explain about traditional Berber life.
I admit I was curious about what a Berber family’s home would reveal. Hung on the rough walls were a very few photos of family members I supposed. These were displayed along with several photos of Mohammed VI, the current King of Morocco, and his family who we were told is held in high regard by Moroccans.
On a shelf, a place of pride, there were small musical instruments, old lanterns, small pots, and a miniature replica of Marrakesh’s Koutoubia mosque minaret. For decoration, a woven basket and small decorative rug were hung on the wall. A few pieces of wood furniture were placed around the room and included a very small table holding a clay jug and ceramic cup. Old tires fashioned into tall jugs used to fetch water from a well or stream were kept in a corner. To one side a little blanket hung from the wall and formed a nursery of sorts where twin baby boys slept.
Although it felt a bit like we were intruding, we were allowed to view wander through several
small rooms on the ground level, but it was the small kitchen which I found most interesting and I wondered, considering that it was rudimentary by our western standards, how difficult it might be to prepare food there. But, it did appear to have a water tap, gas stove top or hob, open shelving with pots & pans and kettles being in no short supply. A clay oven was located in a smaller adjoining room where gourd vessels and a pair of bellows hung from the wall.
Dressed in a red caftan and headscarf, our Berber hostess, who spoke little or no English, went about preparing for the formal tea ceremony as we watched. Composed of many steps, the traditional tea ceremony follows a specific order of steps each with their specific purpose. After these steps were completed, our hostess took a teapot in each hand, extended her arms and at height simultaneously poured mint tea from each pot, filling the tea glasses which had been arranged on a huge tray in front of her. One pot contained sweetened tea with the sweetness derived not from honey, but from a conical-shaped, compressed pillar of sugar. Along with tea, low
tables we were treated with a few baskets of khobz bread and small bowls containing traditional condiments of honey, olive oil and butter for dipping.
Leaving our hosts, we all expressed our thanks for the lovely Berber hospitality. Then we made our way down to the stables below the house where a donkey, milk cow and calf were quartered. Here too supplies of kindling and wood were kept for the wood-burning oven and to heat the outdoor, tent-shaped sauna. This all made for a fascinating and a very pleasant visit.
Exiting the home, we were besieged by the sellers once again.These sellers were relentless and crowded our access to the bus. All of them sold basically the same thing – a variety of necklaces -- and, I admit there was one made of metal encased Berber beads that I really liked so I began bargaining. One man asked for 200 dirhams but he would not accept my offer of about a fourth of that which I thought quite fair for the quality. Another seller then offered to accept my price for the same style necklace. It was at this point that I learned just how jealously each seller
hangs on to his prey – as I was just about to conclude the sale with the second seller, the first seller became very upset and angrily argued with the second seller. I was given my money back and the first seller thrust the necklace toward me and I handed him the money. It was a strange scene and this would not be the last we would see of them.
Before too long we made a roadside stop where a number of camels were tethered for rides into the valley usually for day trippers from Marrakesh and tourists like us. I wanted to see camels up close once again, BUT, the group of sellers had followed our tour bus here at breakneck speed on motor scooters. I had hoped to avoid them and did not get off the bus although the ‘second seller’ appeared at the open bus door and continued his well-practiced sales pitch.
Our tour continued higher into the Atlas where green forests covered the landscape and a scattering of small villages could be seen clinging to the mountain sides. Often thick spirals of smoke could be seen rising skyward. Villages primarily consisted of clustered block
buildings, plain with few if any distinguishing architectural features. Occasionally a roadside shop would appear displaying stacks of coppery orange terracotta pots and tajines, patterned glazed ceramic dishes, vases and household items all adding color to the dusty roadside. Some skilled craftsmen are willing to let you watch as they fashion pots on a foot-turned pottery wheel.
Daily life here seems to follow a well-worn rhythm -- herders graze their sheep and goats on the hillsides, aromas fill the air as a line of tajines are set to cook at roadside eateries beckoning hungry locals as well as passing travelers. Noticeable, but less surprising, Berber women are nowhere to be seen.
As I was trying to take photos of roadside shops, a group of motor scooters ridden by the sellers sped past our bus. They already knew exactly where our next stop would be and they were intent on their mission to sell. It was impossible to avoid them when we stopped to see the Ourika River, and even a glance in their direction was a mistake and taken as encouragement. Even many firm ‘no thank you’s did nothing to deter them but actually made the situation worse
in my case.
One man in particular (the second seller) continued to hound me, following me down to the river saying “I came here for you,” "you have it (the money)" as well as saying something I took as threatening. I went to Larbi and informed him the seller would not leave me alone and a word and glance from Larbi finally sent the man on his way.
That situation aside, the Ourika River Valley is a popular place for people seeking to escape the summer heat if only for a few hours. Entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the Ourika river’s natural beauty and created open-air eateries and rest spots on the river banks. Wispy Willow trees' branches provide greenery while plastic chairs and tables shaded with umbrellas look appealing in their vivid shades of orange, green, pink, blue and yellow. These are drawn up close to the river’s edge – so close in fact that visitors can place their feet in the cold, clear water which descends from the High Atlas Mountains. Intermittently foot bridges cross the river leading to additional small eateries, seating areas or to yet more scenery of the river and mountains as the
In 1995, thunderstorms were the cause of a flash floods in the Ourika oued/wadi or river valley and are said to have killed thousands of people. This is a reminder that a similar tragedy occurred in the Todra Gorge in the Tinghir/Tinerhir Province not that long ago.
The village of Setti Fatma in the southern end of the Ourika River canyon has gained a lot of attention in the past decade and is now very popular with tourists who come for the uphill hike to see the 7 beautiful waterfalls there.
We spent relatively little time at the riverside as the water level was low at this time of year; though when water is abundant, whiling away an hour or two by the river and enjoying a traditional Berber lunch or snack seemed very appealing to me. (See photo courtesy of simplyenjoyravel.com)
Our next and final stop would be the highlight of the day. The Ourika Valley is known for its green landscape, cooler mountain air, olive groves, and almond and cherry orchards. It's now also known for aromatic gardens which have more recently been established. A little more time on the road took us
to the small town of Tnine Ourika Douar Elhaddad, the home of Jardin Aromatique d’ Ourika – Nectarome
. In 1998, two brothers established these tranquil bio-aromatic gardens not only for the inherent botanical beauty of the plants, but for educational purposes relating to their aromatic and medicinal uses.
Dropped off at the side of the main road, we made our way down a lengthy side road lined with shops before reaching our destination. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, a group of motor scooters passed us as we walked. Once again, the ‘second seller’ was part of the group but they did not stop near us.
Finally we arrived at two heavy iron gates at the entrance of the gardens. Calling for our admission to the gardens, we were greeted by a young Berber woman who let us pass through and would become our guide in the gardens. The immediate atmosphere felt here was one of peace and tranquility as we surveyed the lovely fountain, cacti garden and lime trees laden with fruit just adjacent to the main building. At one corner of the building a tall, slender tower was topped with a simply constructed wide metal
basket built as a nesting aid for the resident storks.
Our young guide led us first to see a Berber woman baking bread in an outdoor clay oven which was being heated by a long tree trunk which looked as if it would last the rest of the day. The delicious smell of baking bread may be one of the world’s most under appreciated pleasures! Our tour continued along narrow sidewalks and pathways weaving through garden plots filled with a variety of plants and bordered by roses, hibiscus, small palms and large date palms. Garden plots were filled with such varieties as lemon grass, wormwood, absinthe, verbena, marjoram, oregano, sage, rosemary, tansy, myrtle and more which seemed to thrive in the deep red earth. Our young guide explained the medicinal purposes of each listing what ailments each type of plant could be used to help cure. The Jardin Aromatique d'Ourika offers enrollment in interesting workshops and classes for reasonable fees – cooking with herbs, bread baking, henna painting, Berber beauty, and extraction and uses of argan oil.
But to my everlasting delight, the activity which the gardens offered and which I loved were the Berber foot baths included
as part of our tour. Located in a shaded open-air pavilion, individual beautiful blue ceramic-tiled foot bath tubs supplied with hot & cold running water were an absolute treat. Attendants ladled a mixture of sea salt, seaweed and bitter orange into each foot bath releasing a wonderful aromatic scent around us. Our relaxing soak lasted a full 20 minutes, and towels were provided for drying off.
This day kept getting better as our Berber foot bath was followed by a lovely and quite unexpectedly formal lunch served outdoors under yet another shaded pavilion. Round tables topped with white cloths and scattered with rose petals (yes!) held large platters of delicious vegetables, rice, and cooked salads along with platters of skewered chicken and meats. Baskets of the freshly baked bread and carafes of lemonade and fruit juice plus bottled water finished the table. Fresh fruit was brought to the table to end the meal, and my now craved for hot mint tea was the finale. The hospitality in Morocco is second to none!
I didn’t venture into the Nectarome shop where products made from natural & herbal ingredients could be bought but they have an online shop, and I
knew a bit later in the trip we would stop at a women’s Argan oil co-operative store.
Once back in Marrakesh, along with others in our group, we asked to be dropped at Djemaâ el Fna Square where we scoured the souks for a few final purchases for gifts and a souvenir or two for ourselves. Taking one last look around the souks and square, I remembered an old Hitchcock movie which was filmed here, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
That film is likely responsible for igniting the first flame of my desire to visit Morocco.
Walking out of the square headed toward the Koutoubia Mosque, a long line of calèches stretched out before us and here I was able to feed a pair of carriage horses the apples which I had saved from lunch for this purpose. Throughout the trip it was my pleasure to be able to feed more than a few of the animals we encountered trying to help them just to survive or to enjoy a rare treat which they deserved.
We easily engaged a petit taxi to take us back to the hotel. Although it was late afternoon, the fare remained
only 40 dirhams and we added a tip for the driver. Dinner was not included this evening which was perfect as we needed time away from the group. Tempting fate we crossed the ever busy Hassan II Avenue to a McDonald’s we saw next to Marrakesh’s beautiful main train station. The fast food was a change from the lovely but somewhat repetitive traditional foods here and it really hit the spot. The food at this McDonald’s was fresh, hot and very much like at home which isn’t always the case.
Back at the hotel we visited the La Havanita Bar and recounted our day. We purchased a gift for our daughter at the gift hotel gift shop, and some postcards with stamps to mail from the hotel to family and friends – that was last October and as of July, sadly they still have not been received. We ended the evening with a longed-for cool shower and had a great night’s sleep in our quiet room with comfy beds. We’d have one last eventful morning in Marrakesh tomorrow before driving on to the seaside town of Essaouira!
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