It’s another early start. The hotel generator is not yet running and we must pack by torch-light. Only as we finish does it occur to either me or Clare to try lighting the candles in our room...
We drive through arid and barren desert. At a roadside shop we stop for refreshments and for souvenir hunting. I find two plates and a bowl decorated with lovely geometric patterns in deep blues and aqua-greens and begin to barter with a sales assistant. I think I am doing quite well, but then the numbers seem to undergo some sort of reality-metamorphosis, he accepts my offer too quickly and as I leave the realisation grows that I have some serious work to do on my haggling technique.
We stop for lunch in Ouarzazet and order pizzas. There is plenty of time to wander around before they will be ready, so I strike out at random along a likely-looking street. There is a very respectable market, where plates in the same style as those seen earlier are on display. Now I know I was handsomely ripped-off in the shop this morning. I get into a conversation with one of the Berber traders, who wants to know if I have with me anything I would like to trade with him. Back at the restaurant, the pizzas are finally beginning to appear, a few at a time. The town is on the site of an old casbah and used to be a colonial garrison town. Nowadays its income comes mostly from the film industry, attracted by the unremitting sunlight and the dramatic desert scenery.
We soon reach one of the most famous casbahs, used in several films including Lawrence of Arabia and more recently The Mummy — Ait Ben Haddou. Its origins are uncertain, but it is generally agreed that it dates from the 16th century. Sitting on the side of a hill it is a film-director’s dream — a jumble of pink-orange buildings against a cloudless blue sky. Just around the corner reality begins to blur slightly — what appears to be part of a city wall ends abruptly as a fibreglass shell and timber scaffold.
Further down the valley we come to the most important casbah in recent history — the Casbah near Telouet, or El Glaouï. As we enter through crumbling gateways, it is hard to believe that the whole thing is only about 100 years old. Seeing the external decay, we are totally unprepared for the ornate mosaics, finely-carved plasterwork, and beautiful ceilings inside. It was built by the Glaouï brothers Madani and T’Hami, who found favour with the Sultan Moulay Hassan when they gave him and his army refuge during the hard winter of 1893. In return, the Sultan made them rulers over southern Morocco. Over the following years they became more and more powerful and later formed an alliance with the French colonialists, further strengthening their position. The casbah became a place of rich decadance, where lavish parties were held and the guests were offered anything they wanted. We are shown by our guide the room that would have contained the harem, from which girls would be brought out for the guests’ pleasure. On the opposite side of the main hall, a window presents a commanding view down the valley.
Leaving El Glaouï, we drive a little further along ever-narrowing tracks until we reach the start of our walk up to the gîte at Warwikt where we are to spend the next two nights in the High Atlas mountains. It is an easy hour-long walk along dusty tracks and through small villages where the children wave to us and call out ‘bonjour’. A few ask for ‘stylo-bonbon’. The gîte is a stone two-storey building on the hillside. We are sharing it with another Exodus group — they are upstairs while we have the ground floor. Arranged around a large atrium are several smaller rooms sleeping four each on simple mattresses. In front is a stone terrace with a magnificent view down the valley.
We stay sitting on the cushions at the low tables in the dining room for some time after dinner, talking. Something seems to have clicked by this stage in the holiday. Or perhaps it is the relaxed atmosphere here in the quiet of the mountains. Either way, there is much humour and laughing together before we finally turn in for the night.