Blog Archives: Morocco


A Sketchbook Journey to Morocco

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Maxine is a full-time, independent artist based in Gloucestershire, teaches and lectures at home and abroad and exhibits widely. She is an elected Academician at the Royal West of England Academy. Maxine will help you capture the immediacy of the sights around you with simple, telling sketches. She will offer tips on rapid line drawing, colour mixing, simple ways of mastering perspective, dramatic use of tone, figure drawing and more. Maxine is a multi-lingual international tutor and experienced traveller and has led numerous trips for Steppes to India and Morocco. 

Maxine has written an article about her sketchbook trip to Morocco in April 2015 with Steppes for the Kasbah du Toubkal Magazine which we have featured below:

We felt it immediately, as we piled out of our vehicle in the trailhead village of Imlil. This was the artistic inspiration our small sketching group had come to find, with pencils sharpened, paintbrushes at the ready. You could have left me right there, filling my sketchbook with the sheer visual feast of that first encounter with Berber life.

It was April and I’d brought a mixed-ability group of nine adults to the Kasbah for the start of our adventure which was, for most of us, our first visit to Morocco and the Atlas Mountains. What did we hope to find?

It didn’t take long to discover, for the Kasbah offers it all. It’s about a particular quality – of light, colour, texture, shape, sound, taste, movement – which sharpens your senses and enlivens your creativity.

Just hours after leaving England, we were up on the Kasbah’s panoramic roof terrace, painting Jbel Toubkal’s snow-capped peak towering above us. Below, a palette apparently limited to raw and burnt sienna:  the Berbers’ adobe houses merging with the mountain. But morning told a different tale. Our wonderful guide Abdou led us up ochre tracks between villages, past orchards in blossom underplanted with purple irises, rocks of subtle hues, through ancient walnut groves and chestnut woods.

We sketched shaggy brown goats, juniper-timbered village doorways, tagines aligned for sale, each topped with a fresh tomato, the Kasbah’s chip-carved lean-to by a wondrously weather-twisted table, our two mules with their well-worn stripey blankets and Fatha’s carpet shop where we learned about the motifs woven into the wool. We leapt across a cascading river, watched village women baking bread from ground barley, relished a perfect picnic in the valley and finally returned to the Kasbah for mint tea, delicious food and a relaxing hammam. As the evening cooled, we had handwoven djellabas, woodburning stoves, books from the little library and a warm spacious room ideal for more art teaching.

Days later, we drew the slanting shadows in the Marrakech souk, the alleyways of the Medina, life in the city. But it was the Kasbah that was calling us back. Come and Join us next year.

Beginners and non-sketchers equally welcome.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Morocco. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Ana bahebbek, Marrakech

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Djema-El-Fna, Marrakech, Steppes Travel

Mornings in Marrakech were a world away from the monotony of a morning commute at home. Awoken with the azan and dining al fresco in the courtyard or the mezzanine of our Riad Ilayka; the warmth of the morning sun gracing our shoulders was a pleasure I’d happily and repeatedly relive.

Each course of our breakfast was something to be savoured, an art applied to each dish presented to us. Not a continental fright in sight. Or queue for that matter. Amber scented yogurt, pomegranate jewels, warmed m’semmen and Moroccan crepes drizzled in honey and flaky pastries with homemade lemon marmalade were just some of the offerings that we indulged in – guilt free.

‘’I’m so sorry we’re late, breakfast was just too good to rush.’’

Our guide Habib bowed his head. Soft creases formed to a gentle point and with a warming smile he simply said to me; ‘’Not a problem Nadia, Marrakech always has time for you.’’

Indeed it does.

Habib guided us from the unruffled peace of the riad; a winding walk through unbroken terracotta walls. We wandered through the souks, admiring fellow travellers trying their hand at haggling for bargains. While the traders remained playfully firm – both parties seemed keen to experience this souk dalliance; coy glances turning to somewhat exasperated sighs. One type of market blended with another. From dazzling lanterns and glassware, we found ourselves thrusted into the pungent scent of the leather market of colourful and decorative babouche slippers and handbags. As we turned another corner our ears were assaulted with the clanging chorus of iron hammers. We continued through and discovered the colourful stalls of spices, herbal remedies and cosmetics, and of course the varying forms of the Moroccan wonder – argan.

Reaching the edge of the medina we spotted a small walkway leading to an open courtyard.

‘’And this is a foundouk’’.

What was now the creative hub for artisans studios I imagined once were the resting places of the travelling caravans, of years long ago, laying down for the evening. Once again, fashioned around a central courtyard, the stables on the ground level, which would have formerly sheltered the horses had been transformed into shabby chic painting spaces and trading areas. Above, overlooking the central courtyard below, we were told is where the artists would now reside. A man knelt over tapestries rearranging and dusting them. Next to him another man dressed in a long hooded cloak – djellaba – stacked ceramic bowls and bevelled silver tea pots. They both looked up from their work, and nodded towards us in acknowledgment; no heavy handed selling here.

After our first day with Habib we ventured out on our own. With or without purpose, to explore or to seek calm, the many streets and alleyways of the medina combined to create a welcome myriad of character and charm for us. Getting lost, whilst some may find frightful, gave us an opportunity to discover beyond that which we were looking for. And Marrakech, well, she offered a guiding hand throughout.

We armed ourselves with a keen eye for our surroundings, as well as the phrase ‘’la shukran’’ within the serpentine forms of the medina. As the old Moroccan proverb goes: ‘’a narrow space looks wide to only the narrow minded’’.

We dodged donkey carts and motorbikes, kitty cats and trays of freshly baked bread from the local street ovens. All the while we minded the careful pyramid stacks of souvenirs on display and smiled politely; nodding to the various references to Bollywood actresses and films. It seems Bollywood is surprisingly popular in Morocco – Shah Rukh Khan playing a starring role in the Film Festival that coincided with our holiday.

Beyond our dirhams, we were sure to spend our time in Marrakech. We watched locals from afar and gazed at their shifting shadows in the Djema El Fna; the balcony of Cafe de Paris becoming our habitual spot to do so; all the while sipping sweetened mint tea. The Red City with its pops of majorelle blue – courtesy of Jardin Majorelle –  has a mystical charm of the Middle East but a familiarity of something closer to home. Whether it was the similarity to Bollywood actresses or my inquisitive supposed ‘Berber eyes’’, conversations with the locals came easy. Their experiences were offered as freely as the next pot of mint tea, and equally they were keen to know what I loved most about Marrakech.

Contrasts of bohemian high culture, ancient traditions and the azan reverberating through the skyline coalesce to create something beautifully calm; all cocooned in the warm seductive scents of my favourite amber and oudh. In a sentence these are the things that make me think ‘’ana bahebbek, Marrakech’’.

Discover your own Moroccan adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

Steppes Big 5: Essaouira Boutique Hotels & Things to do

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Essaouira-Big-5 things to do

With easyjet launching a direct flight from Luton to Essaouira from 01 May, this charming seaside port with its whitewashed ramparts and bohemian feel will be even more accessible. Here are some of our favourite accommodation choices and a few ways to spend your time.

1. Villa de L’O

An 18th Century building that was once a storage depot for almonds. This elegant 12 room riad is French owned and has a lovely colonial feel plus a roof terrace with some of the best views in town.

2. Villa Maroc

With 21 light and airy rooms spread over 2 houses this pretty riad has many hidden corners and internal courtyards plus an atmospheric bar area, traditional hammam and large roof terrace.

3. L’Heure Bleue

A member of Relais & Chateaux this 36 room hotel is located just within the town walls and has a wonderful heated rooftop pool.

4. Cheese & Wine Tasting

Head a short distance inland to the countryside surrounding Essaouira and sample some of the local produce. Taste wonderful cheeses before visiting the Val D’Argan winery for wine tastings – a lovely day out!

5. Seafood & Arts

Spend a day exploring the colourful medina with its whitewashed walls, cobbled streets and bright blue shuttered doorways. Head to the port for a seafood lunch, freshly caught and simply cooked before heading back into the medina to explore some of the colourful local art galleries.

Start your Moroccan adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Balek! Balek!

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“Balek! Balek!” (Watch out) Shouts my guide Mohammed as he grabs me out of the pathway of an oncoming donkey on a mission!

Laden down with animal hides from the tanneries, the donkey was on a route march to the local factory, the area of the Jewish quarter of the medina in Fez where cars are not allowed to enter. Many of the alleyways are so narrow here (some only a shoulder width apart), so even to this day everything is transported by donkey or mule. The sounds, colours and smell all awaken my senses as we meander through the labyrinth streets of the souks and I quickly lose track of my bearings as the towering city walls close in around me. I am just pleased that I have Mohammed with me as I would never find my way back to my riad. There are over 9,000 alleyways here and even the locals have to ask for directions.

Everywhere I look there is something interesting to see or photograph with each craft having its own area. In the meat and vegetable quarter, goat’s heads are on display which can be bought as unassumingly as a bag of rice (A local delicacy so I am told). Men dressed in their galabeyas with pointed hoods are sat around drinking mint tea and gossiping over the latest news of the day, surrounded by huge bags of fragrant spices and the vibrant colours of fresh herbs and vegetables. In the silver and brass section I can hear the echoing sounds of the craftsmen beating the brass into large cooking pots. I know I am at the tanneries way before I can see them, as the smell of urine and pigeon guano lingers in the alleys. As I climb the stairs to the viewing platform I am offered a fresh sprig of mint to disguise the pungent smell. Perhaps not such a good idea to visit straight after a heavy lunch of couscous and tagine! But the reward is worth it, to see the vibrant colours of the dyes, and to witness the traditional methods for making leather.

For a first time visit to this authentic and lively city, I highly recommend a guide for at least half a day to get the most out of your time here, but for the fearless there is much fun to be had getting lost and interacting with the locals as you ask for directions or just finding somewhere for dinner.

Journeying through the Atlas Mountains

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Last time I was in this part of Morocco 8 years ago, a tagine from a local mountain cafe left me ill for days, so I departed Ouarzazate this morning with some trepidation that the same fate would befall me, as I am about to head over the Tiz-n-Tichka mountain pass towards Marrakech.

Six hours later and writing this from the comfort of my suite at Villa des Orangers, I am very pleased to report that my journey to Marrakech was uneventful in that department, but was without question, one of the most scenically beautiful drives I have had the pleasure of taking.

A long and windy drive in a 4×4 took me through ever changing landscapes from rocky escarpments, with boulders the size of buses, clinging precariously to the sides of the mountains; barren landscapes with colours changing from red to orange to brown and grey. Hillsides dotted with date palms and small Berber villages blend seamlessly with the colours of the land surrounding them.

Around each tight bend we take, I am welcomed by different dramatic views. Young children walking or riding their bikes to school; a herd of goats grazing the hill tops closely watched by their keeper and women working tirelessly in the fields or picking ripe olives from the trees which are now in season.

As we climb to the highest peak of this pass, we are at 2,000 metres above sea level. This is the highest driveable pass in Morocco. It was 5 degrees at 11am and much cooler than the 21 degrees I had become accustomed too since my arrival. Unfortunately there are no flowers in bloom, and much of the ground is earthen bare and stark. But I am rewarded with the most beautiful panoramic views of the mountains lightly dusted with the first falls of snow and emptier roads as I am travelling out of season.

During the drive, we stop for tea and comfort breaks which were also a fantastic opportunity to meet with the Berber people who are extremely friendly and hospitable. Plenty of the local towns also have a weekly market to explore where all the locals meet to chat with friends as well as sell their produce grown on the farms and to buy everything they need for the next week. Unfortunately I didn’t have time this trip to stay in the Mountains and I am sad to be leaving this tranquil environment for the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, but I hope to return soon (InshAllah).

Mediterranean Feast in Morocco

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What a treat last night to watch the charming Yotam Ottolenghi cooking in and exploring Morocco. What is fascinating about Yotam is not only his obvious love of other cultures and of food but his great rapport with people. Young and old, male and female all seemed to gravitate towards him with laughter, smiles and a mutual appreciation of delicious local dishes. I always enjoy travel and cookery programmes but Yotam Ottolenghi managed to evoke the true atmosphere of Morocco. If there was such a thing as ’smell’ telly this would have been the perfect programme.

Yotam travelled through the busy souq of Marrakech visiting the haman where a stew, mainly catering to single men, was slowly cooked in the embers of the fire that heated the water for the steam baths. From here up to the stunning Atlas mountains where he sat and learnt the true art of cous cous making with the local Bedouin woman – telling him off for ‘over working’ the dish. Finishing at the coastal town of Essouria where time was spent chatting with the local fisherman making fish balls out of fresh mackerel and cooking whole fish on the bbq, all the time spending time talking and listening to the people he came across.

If ever anyone has considered visiting Morocco and was unsure about what they’d find this wonderful hour of TV showcased this vibrant, friendly and colourful country at its best. Next week he’s off to Istanbul – I, for one can’t wait!

The perfect girls weekend!

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At the end of September I was lucky enough to be invited for a long weekend in Marrakech staying at the beautiful Ksar Char Bagh and my sister was lucky enough to be the chosen person to accompany me!

An incredibly easy 3 hour flight, with a choice of scheduled or ‘no frills’ airlines, will introduce you to a whole other world and culture. Marrakech oozes atmosphere and excitement and is just perfect for those seeking culture, adventure, mountains, shopping, great food and a diverse range of accommodation from traditional riads and converted palaces to mountain top retreats.

Ksar Char Bagh is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group and is owned and run by a delightful French family who bought a plot of land in the Palmeraie area on the outskirts of the city and proceeded to build a beautiful hotel combining North African & Moorish styles. Just 10 minutes drive from the city centre, with drivers on hand to take you at a moments notice you can profit from the best of both worlds.

With utter peace and relaxation round the heated outdoor pool, in the traditional hammam or on the rooftop terrace jacuzzi looking towards the peaks of the Atlas Mountains. Or on a more energetic day you can head into the souq for a day of bartering and people watching or just an hour away head into the Atlas Mountains to explore Berber villages and maybe embark on a mountain trek.

We spent 2 days being thoroughly spoilt including breakfast in our private garden next to our private pool, a massage for my sister, a picnic amidst remote olive groves, numerous lengths in the pool and a Moroccan cookery lesson with the hotels charming chef. We then proceeded to eat our efforts under the shade of the palm trees (delicious Moroccan chicken followed by a wonderful pastry & almond delight!).

As we waved goodbye to our hosts we headed into the medina for a night in the midst of things. Sunday night in Marrakech is when many of the locals gather with friends and families so we left the calm of our sumptuous riadand headed into the heat of the Moroccan evening to walk to Djemaa-el-Fna square and the bustling souqs. 3 hours later, laden with a leather poof, numerous scarves and a backgammon set we retreated back to the cool of our hotel roof terrace for a mezze of dips, bread and wine – how they make their aubergine dips taste so wonderful we shall never know!

For more information about my long weekend to Morocco, or for further advice on planning your holiday to Morrocco, please contact me, Kate, on 01285 651 010.

Magical Morocco

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Colourful, sweet smelling, majestic and a feast for the senses, all of these wondrous experiences came together during my long weekend in Morocco last February

Last February I booked a surprise birthday celebration to Morocco for my partner. We flew out from Gatwick and stayed at the Riad Dar Rhizlane, just on the outskirts of Marrakech. I can say without a doubt, it was magical. The hotel is positively palatial. The outside walls are resplendent in white bougainvillea and the fountains in the court garden are covered with thick beds of rose petals and water lilies.

At night the gardens and swimming pool are beautifully illuminated and there are private dining rooms dotted all over the place, with staff standing subtly in the background, awaiting your every need.

Dinner on our first night was three courses. Nothing much to shout about, you might think, but the starter alone was 15 different dishes! We then had two tagines of meat and chicken, followed by caramelised toffee fruits, fresh mango and lemon sorbet. All of that, together with pre-dinner drinks, wine and desert wine came to just £55 per head. Given the quality of the cuisine and the stunning surroundings, I think that is something to shout about.

As part of the long weekend, I also wanted somewhere quiet and relaxing to stay, away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. So I booked accommodation at Les Terres M’Barka, which opened in November last year.

If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that I am a ‘foodie’ and the food here was a wonder. As well as being a Riad boutique, M’Barka is also a working farm and the produce is extremely fresh. From whole sea bass with honey, cumin and caramelised lemons cooked in a tagine, to beef fillet braised with apricots, fresh beetroot and ginger, followed by an orange, coriander and red onion salad – I salivate just thinking about it. In fact, I have been so impressed with Moroccan cuisine that I have not stopped cooking it since coming back to the UK!

M’Barka also has a luxurious spa and amazing views of the Atlas Mountains. During our stay there and accompanied by a private guide, we took a day trip to the mountains, making our way into remote Berber villages to experience cultures that are so completely different from cosmopolitan life. Not surprisingly, we were given a taste of what I might call ‘Moroccan mountain cuisine’, a four-course lunch of chicken and lamb tagine. I can taste and smell the herbs and spices just thinking about it! Our expedition into the Moroccan mountains was very similar to a school itinerary that our Steppes Schools programme offers. It’s definitely worth a look.

There is a Moroccan saying: ’Each granule of couscous represents a good deed’. It is hardly surprising that so many thousands of granules are consumed each day as they are clearly reflected in the good nature of the people. I will most definitely be returning to Morocco for another visit and, next time, I will be staying at least seven nights, not four, as there is so much to see and (yes, you guessed…) so much to eat!