The magic of Morocco

Go reader TADHG PEAVOY enjoyed traditional hospitality during a visit to Talassemtane National Park

Go reader TADHG PEAVOYenjoyed traditional hospitality during a visit to Talassemtane National Park

THE FORMER Spanish protectorate of Chefchaouen, in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, is a total chill-out zone. But after two days of drinking mint tea and overpriced beer I wanted to have a more off-the-beaten-track adventure.

I realised this when I visited Auberge Dardara, a local restaurant and guest house, where I met Jaber El Hababi, known in the area as a friend of the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI.

Having devoured the restaurant’s delicious goat tagine, I bumped into the owner as I was paying for my meal. He invited us to join him for mint tea. After eloquently describing the region, Jaber told us he could organise a trip to see the surrounding area.

The following day, five other travellers and I were picked up by 4x4 and whisked off to neighbouring Talassemtane National Park. We had not been prepared for the conditions of the roads – in fact, to call them roads would be overstating their condition. The tracks were impassable by anything other than jeeps. They wound their way into the higher reaches of the park, 1,400m above sea level.

Having negotiated the journey, we arrived at Gîte Azilane. As with the roads, hotel is a slightly misleading description. Calling it a lodge adjacent to the owner’s family home is more apt. A local man named Ahmad gave us a tour of the surrounding cliffs and gorges – and introduced us to the entire hamlet. He also brought us into his home to meet his family, including a cow sleeping in the living room.

Then we met our host, Abdelkader Hamoudan, as he strode acros his farm, baskets packed to the brim with fruit and vegetables, all the while laughing his head off. Abdel didn’t have English but, praise be to Allah, spoke French. We finally had a method of communication, as our driver and Ahmad spoke only Arabic.

That night signalled the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the festival of Eid. To be invited to break the Ramadan fast with a Muslim is a great privilege; that evening we were invited to do so with Abdel.

The feast began with home-made honey, followed by the food traditionally eaten to break the fast: figs, dates, cookies, wheat soup, walnuts and egg with vegetable fritters. Added to this was a mountain of olives and bread.

We were stuffed to the brim when our next course arrived in front of us: a huge goat and vegetable tagine. During dinner Abdel wanted to share his pipe with us; he handed it around, carefully filling it up and watching with glee as we puffed away.

As I was the only French speaker in the group, I acted as interpreter. Abdel told me of his family and of his travels in Spain, selling cloth and slippers. Each time he added a bit to his story he broke out in a a belly laugh, then passed around his pipe once more. As the night wore on each of us hit the hay, our heads abounding with tales of Abdel’s life.

Woken by our driver at 6am, we made our way to the balcony for breakfast and more of Abdel’s pipe.

As we piled into the 4x4 to return to Chefchaouen, Abdel grabbed me in a big hug and said how delighted he was to have met us and that we needed to come back for a four-day hike, on which we would go looking for monkeys.

Five hugs later I finally made it into the 4x4, and we headed back down the treacherous road to civilisation.

Go there Where to stay and eat

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Marrakesh from Dublin, Derry, Kerry and Knock via London Luton. You can travel on to Chefchaouen by bus in a day.

If you want to spend a few days in Chefchouen, Hotel Koutoubia (00-212-539- 988433, hd-maroc.com/hotel) is a reasonable and well-kept option. The €1.50 breakfasts it serves must be among the best Morocco has to offer.

Auberge Dardara (00-212- 61-150503, http://dardara.new. ma) is the place to stay for a pampering. The owner will tell you all you need to know about getting to Abdelkader Hamoudan’s Gîte Azilane (giteazilan.com, 00-212-39707334).


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