Spring in bloom
A visit to the Ourika Valley awaits delegates to the 24th ESCRS Winter Meeting
The glittering mountain peak beckoning from Marrakech is called Jebel Toubkal. It’s the highest point in the western High Atlas mountain, part of the range that includes the steep Ourika Valley, home of romantic-looking kasbah and pink Berber villages. Good news for delegates to the 24th ESCRS Winter Meeting: the area is at its best between February and March when the cherry and almond trees are in bloom.
A marked contrast to crowded Marrakech, the area, only 60km from the city, is a deservedly popular day trip both with tourists and with local families, who tend to come on weekends. If you pencil it in for ‘time off’ on your agenda, be sure to invest in a private tour. Either ask your concierge for recommendations or browse the tours offered by Morocco Insight Tours, the private guided day tours from Getyourguide.co.uk or the dependable offerings at www.toursbylocals.com.
What makes a private tour the best option? Because only activities you choose will feature on the excursion. And double-check with the booking agent that the ‘private’ tour is indeed for you or your party only. There can be surprising latitude in the definition of ‘private’.
Above all, do not sign up for a tour offered to you in the market, on the street or by a taxi driver. If you do, you’ll find yourself being taken to meet the driver’s first cousin and made to visit his shop. It’s a mistake I made and found myself more or less stranded in the taxi driver’s cousin’s pharmacy while the driver and his relation caught up on old times.
Among the sights in the Ourika Valley, are seven spectacularly beautiful waterfalls. Though many tourists settle for a view only of the most accessible one, it is possible to proceed to the more remote and less visited of them if you have the stamina and the footwear. Tea with a Berber family is also a possibility, as is a visit to an oil-producing factory. If you have never experienced the peculiar sensation of a camel ride, why not now? Other attractions include potteries, watermills, a salt mine and quarries.
What to wear? Sport shoes or trainers with a good grip are advisable as some of the walk will be on rubble. Though you can wear shorts and a tee shirt, women especially will feel more comfortable walking through the little mountain villages with their legs and shoulders covered. A sun hat and really good sunglasses make viewing easier at this altitude. Bring along a few layers of clothing and a light jacket; the weather can change suddenly in the mountains.
3 to know
Keep your wits about you and keep some 50s to hand
Don’t look lost in Marrakech, even if you are. An open map or a puzzled air and you will immediately be offered ‘help’ to find your way. There will be no hint that you are expected to pay for this service, but money will be demanded at the end – and loudly. If you really need help, accept it but prepare for a scene if you don’t hand over about 50 Dirham as a ‘thank you’. Don’t be surprised if a monkey handler or snake charmer in Jemaa el-Fnaa settles his animal on your shoulders so you can take a picture. But settle a price (and there will be a price) before you do. As for the free cup of tea the rug seller offers as you browse his wares, this will cost you about 50 Dirham if you plan to walk away without a purchase.
No drinking in public, and always wash your hands before you eat
Alcohol is served in hotels and restaurants in Marrakech, but drinking an alcoholic beverage in public is against the law. Obviously, that would mean in a park or public garden; it also means not on a balcony facing the street. Many roads serve alcohol in their private courtyards, as do European style restaurants and hotels. Bars, restaurants and riads usually have smoking and non-smoking areas but if in doubt, look around and see what others are doing. If you’re offered food from a communal tagine, the host will give you a bowl in which to wash your hands first. Just hold your hands over it and he will pour water on them. When shaking hands, eating, offering and receiving – use your right hand.
Know the rules of the game when it comes to getting a taxi
Taxis in Marrakech come in two sizes. petite and grands. The petite takes three customers, the grand up to six. Be sure to ask for the meter (the compteur) to be turned on in a petite taxi. Do not believe it is broken! For a grand taxi, speak first to the ‘Mul-taxi’ or the man in charge of all the grands taxis in the area. Ask him to set a price for your destination and the number of passengers. Carry some small bills and change or you may have to accept less than the change due you. At the airport, both petite and grands taxis operate. Check in advance with your hotel for the fare to expect. Or better yet, if your hotel offers a pick-up service, take it.