Cycling the Atlas Mountains with Maroc Nature

On our third day in Morocco, we decided to explore a little further than Marrakech, to some of the highest peaks in Northern Africa - the Atlas Mountains. The day trip began with our guide, Hassan, picking us up in a spacious 4x4 with our mountain bikes securely strapped onto the roof at around 8:00am right outside our riad, and then one more pick up at a nearby hotel. It was a good hour and a half drive to our destination, yet didn't feel it at all due to the amazing views and spectacular landscape transformation from flat city to epic snow-capped mountains. Hassan was very knowledgable, explained to us how the day would go, and told us wonderful stories about Berbers - the indigenous people of North Africa who reside in rural areas, far-off corners of the country, like the Atlas Mountains. Berbers refer to themselves as 'Amazigh', which means 'free men'. Upon nearing the village where we would begin our cycle, the roads twisted and turned with numerous stomach-churning hairpin bends until reaching the high pasture of Tizi n'Tichka pass. We stopped in a tiny little Berber village 1300m above sea level, whereby Hassan lowered the dual-suspension bikes from the roof and gave them one last check before handing them over to us. Our previous cycling experience was in Ubud, Bali and involved a lot of downhill cruising - we were NOT prepared for what was about to happen. Nevertheless (with no knowledge of how difficult it was going to be or how unfit we were), we embarked on the 30km cycle with the vigour of enthusiastic children. 

The ride took us through isolated Berber villages, via dirt paths, past extensive pastures where local farmers cultivate their land and shepherds watch their herds. There was also the occasional passerby riding casually astride a donkey, women washing clothes in bubbling streams and children playing amongst themselves. The Atlas Mountains and their inhabitants have a somewhat timeless feel to them - it was nice to step back from everything and take it all in. The journey also had us pedalling through canyons, whizzing through river crossings and charging down steep slopes. It is not for the faint-hearted, and we'd recommend being at least semi-fit (unlike us) before attempting this particular trip. However, if you're not a very strong cyclist, fall tired or do hurt yourself in this remote area of Morocco, it's not a problem as the Maroc Nature 4x4 follows closely behind just incase anything happens. 

About a third of the way into the cycle (roughly 10kms), we stopped in a remote Berber village for some lunch in a traditional family home. The whole family were extremely welcoming and invited us into their home with Moroccan mint tea and almond shortbread. The sun had been warming our backs whilst cycling so we decided to sit out up on the rooftop where we could admire the fantastic panoramic view of the Atlas Mountains in all its glory. It was breathtaking being able to see Marrakech's beautiful backdrop so close up. Shortly after a photo session, the mother of the house brought out a huge home-cooked chicken tagine along with traditional Moroccan flatbread. Considering we had gained a sizeable appetite from our efforts, leaving us feeling like our stomachs were eating themselves, the wafting aromas of the citrusy, lemony chicken drenched in a fragrant, spice-rich sauce speared with cloves and dried fruits were irresistible. It didn't take us long to devour the lot, and soon we were just mopping up the remnants with the flatbread. After a delicious lunch and an unlimited supply of mint tea, we hopped back on our bikes for the remaining 20 kilometres. Hassan didn't mind us stopping and taking photos at every opportunity possible, giving us water along the way. The last leg of the trip had us cycling through the town of Amizmiz until we finally made it to the Anougal Valley where the 4x4 was waiting for us.

Our bike trip with Maroc Nature was awesome and for only 80 Euros we'd definitely recommend this trip to anyone - great company, extremely accommodating, and they are more than happy to create a completely new route that suits your needs or wishes. For more information, check them out here.

El Badi Palace

While planning our itinerary, Palais El Badiî was top of the list. Little were we to know when we arrived in the sultry, shadowy night that we were so close to the palace we'd bask in its terracotta glory each and every morning in Marrakech: rising to breakfast on the roof terrace we could hardly believe our luck when the nesting storks were literally mere wingspans away from us. Visiting became indisputably our number one priority. After stuffing ourselves with crepes and warm rolls with home-made jams, and gallons of freshly-squeezed OJ, we set off on the gruelling expedition (5 minute walk) to reach the palace. The 10am sun beat down as if it was midday, but a fresh breeze kept us comfortable as we rounded the corner to the ticket office, manned by a smiling security guard. Tickets were next to nothing at 10 dirham (£1.80) each, which did not remotely correlate to the awe that was in store for us. Just through the entrance a magnificent display of ancient doors stand, shadowed and sombre, that could easily be an art installation but for the intrinsic sense of connectedness to a greater purpose they arouse. Passing through, as the palace's interior unfolds before us, we are hit with the both immensely humbling and genuinely magical feeling of standing where thousands of others have before us, for centuries past. The only comparison I have (and it's not an entirely expected one) was of standing on the pavestones of Tiananmen Square: of being involved and somehow enveloped in history, a history that is altogether still living and present and can be palpably felt today.

The remnants of the majority of rooms are still in some way standing, and entirely re-imaginable: informative boards help to provide scenarios, from banquet halls to visiting ambassadors' quarters, and the visible remains make up the ceremonial sector. And despite its state of disrepair, the original grandeur and resplendence that once shone from its majestic structure linger still, as an aura that permeates the very clay of the remaining walls, the cool flagstones where kings once walked. It is rumoured that, upon viewing his newly-created palace, the Saadian sultan turned to his court jester who replied, 'this will make a magnificent ruin'. Although the palace itself is in ruin, the sunken gardens are very much alive: the lush grass in the centre of the courtyard, offset by the vividly vibrant orange trees scattered throughout, breathes life into its ancient surroundings. 

Once you've marvelled at the rooms, taken in all the wondrous works of architecture and carving, and explored all the dilapidated passages and staircases, twisting and winding to higgledy-piggledy levels, take yourselves up the narrow flight of stone steps to the terrace above. Here you are offered a complete 360° view of the city - and more importantly the copious nests woven together diligently by handsome storks, perching proudly over their offspring. Take a minute longer and gaze over the rooftops of Marrakech, not to mention the frosty peaks of the Atlas mountains looming faintly on the horizon. 

Palais El Badiî literally translates to 'the incomparable palace', and it certainly lives up to its name.

 

Riad Carina

Marrakech, the heart of Morocco, is a chaotic yet uniquely charming city. Its magic lies in its enchanting exoticness, the feeling that stepping down from the plane lands you in a place and time far removed from our own. The overriding first impression is an intricate balance between the Arabian Nights of Scheherazade's youth and a bustling, hectic interpretation of urbanity, fuelled by smoke-coughing mopeds, battered old donkeys, and fruit carts pushed by wizened old women. Passing through the city gates, noise and anticipation builds until your senses are assaulted as you reach the city's inner passageways: a wave of noise striking simultaneously with aromas both alien and seductive, charcoal smoke tendrils curling up into the night sky. Snakecharmers and kohl-eyed women try to lure you in to their stalls, whilst mopeds whiz by carrying an entire family, past 500-year-old palaces adorned with the breathtaking ornateness of ancient Moroccan architecture. 

The tumultuous nature that characterises the city is truly beautiful, but amongst the hustle and bustle is an oasis providing a respite from the bedlam, where one can regain a sense of peace. A 5-minute walk from the buzzing medina of Jemaa el-Fnaa, down a back-alley guarded by a host of stray cats, nestles the gem that is the Riad Carina. Close enough to the excitement of the square, yet just far enough away that you can escape everything and relax, Carina beckons through its heavy wooden doors to the haven inside.

Riad Carina is a rustic, traditional Berber style bed-and-breakfast with open-brick walls off-set by terracotta and clay deco, providing a cool shelter from the relentless midday sun. The ground floor is home to an interior courtyard of true serenity, framed by climbing plants and punctuated by light gusts of breeze and intermittent birdsong. At its top, this opens onto the flowered roof terrace where cloth drapes shade the cushioned nooks: the perfect spot for breakfast or late-afternoon lounging. Spanning the three floors are seven bedrooms, each with beautifully handcrafted wooden shutters as doors. Our bedroom was on the ground floor, opening onto the courtyard, and was both palatial and private - the lounge separating the bedroom from the entrance, with a tadelakt-walled bathroom whose hand-painted ceramic sink we coveted and vowed to replicate in our future home. The bedroom houses a large double bed and an extremely spacious wardrobe that provides ample room for even the heaviest packer's clothes.

The staff here are what makes the place truly special: they are so accommodating and are always more than happy to help. They helped us with recommendations on where to eat for authentic local (and cheap!) cuisine, as well as helping us book several trips. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Aziza, a kind, motherly figure whose cooking was exquisite, and welcomed with a tray of delicious traditional Moroccan treats including mint tea and almond shortbread. We were wise enough to book dinner at the Riad on our second-last night, where we enjoyed 24-hour roasted lamb tagine that fell off the bone and melted in the mouth along with a fragrant sauce of apricots and dates. We had the place to ourselves and dined bathed in moonlight, serenaded by quiet Moroccan music. Said, a gentle-spoken young guy waited on us at mealtimes, and brought breakfast up to us each morning on the rooftop terrace so we could eat in the company of the Badi palace storks.

For more information and booking enquiries about Riad Carina, click here.