Words Jeremy Miles PhotographsHattie Miles
The sun is rising over the oasis and I have just woken up in Kate Winslett’s bed. It doesn’t get much better than this. We’re in Morocco on the edge of the great Sahara desert enjoying the eccentric delights of the inimitable Hotel Kasbah Tizimi and even though the delectable Miss Winslett has not been here for 15 long years, it is gorgeous.
She stayed here in 1995 while filming Hideous Kinky and fell in love with the place – there’s a framed, handwritten note in the foyer to prove it. Now we’re here too and as a special upgrade we’ve been given her room.
With a palm-fringed pool just steps away, it is tempting not to go anywhere but there is so much to see and do that soon we are heading for the nearby desert village of Rissani. We visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sharif, founder of the Alawite dynasty who ruled here 400 years ago and stroll past a bustling livestock market to the souk where traders haggle over pungent and colourful spices.
In the afternoon we climb into a hired 4X4 and, with driver Yusef at the wheel, are soon off-road and heading 50 kilometers into the desert. An hour or so later we are in a goatskin tent sipping mint tea with Berber tribespeople and preparing to ride camels across the majestic sand dunes at sunset. The perfect end to the perfect day and just one of the many memorable moments enjoyed by my wife, photographer Hattie Miles, and I on a recent Highlights of Morocco tour, a comprehensive ten day journey that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Starting from Marrakech we boarded a coach and headed first to Casablanca and then along the coast to Rabat, Meknes and Fez. Picking up local guides along the way there were visits to Royal Palaces, ancient mosques and colourful markets.There were also comfortable hotels, and breakfast and dinner was included most days. Our fellow travellers included a dentist, an oil worker, an Israeli artist, an urban planning boss and a globe-trotting, ballroom dancing psychiatric nurse. Plenty of fascinating conversation there. They weren’t the kind of people you’d expect to find on a coach holiday but the general concensus was that it was a most agreeable way of seeing a lot in a short space of time.
At Casablanca there was a chance to visit the huge ultra-modern Hassan II Mosque which towers over the seafront with its 200 meter high minaret. It can hold 25,000 worshippers, has an electric roof, a glass floor and a laser beam that points to Mecca. Meanwhile a tour of the magnificent Chella Gardens with its Roman ruins and nesting storks near Rabat offered a reminder of Morocco’s long and intriguing history.
At Fez ancient and modern combine. There are swish continental style tree-lined boulevards but in parts of the city life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. The 6,000 alleyways that wind through the old Medina must be the ultimate maze. We headed south, travelling through the Middle Atlas Mountains and the spectacular Ziz Valley to our Sahara hotel at Erfoud. From there we made our way through the stunning terrain of the Dades Valley to the oasis resort of Ouarzazat.
Finally it was time to return to Marrakesh but before driving across the High Atlas through the 7,414 foot high Tizi-n-Tichkas Pass we visited Ait-Benhaddou, the setting for many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. It was here that a cheery little man called Ali offered to take us to his primitive hillside home. His battered stone house is part of a settlement that dates back nearly a thousand years. His family sleep on bed-rolls on the bare floor, the ‘kitchen’ is basically a hole-in-the-wall oven and until recently water had to be collected by donkey and pannier from a well four kilometers away. The village now has the ultimate in mod-cons – several standpipes.
Ali’s local claim to fame is that he worked as an extra on Gladiator. The contrast between his life in rugged, rural Morocco and the luxury lavished on the multi-million dollar world of the Hollywood film industry could not be greater. It comes as little surprise though when we hear that at least one factor in director Ridley Scott’s decision to repeatedly use Morocco as a location for his films is that he can shoot for nine solid weeks in places like Ait-Benhaddou for the price of a few days in the USA.
It’s a sobering thought and as we arrived back in Morocco’s fabled ‘pink city’ Marrakech where we had opted for a two day extension we couldn’t help but notice the huge amount of development as the metropolis grows and modernises. Morocco’s ancient beautiful heart still beats loudly but the chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. Now is the time to visit, while this astonishing country is still real.