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Jumping off the lap of luxury

It all began in Marrakech. Helmut, my partner’s dad, picked us up from the airport in a white, immaculately clean four-wheel drive. We drove into the city where we had planned to find a cheap place to stay before exploring the medina. Clearly, Helmut had other plans. Saying that he had come across ‘a little place’ he wanted us to see and politely refusing to tell us anything else, he led us into the cobweb of alleys and squares that is Marrakech’s legendary bazaar.

Comforts in Marrakech

This place has been described as touristy and corny, but awe-inspiring is a more appropriate expression. Its strong colours, fragrances and voices form a wonderful, at times terrifying, whirr that reminds you that you are not walking through a film set. You can practically smell your way through it – from the carpets (wool, dust and moth balls), via the leather goods (chemicals, dies and wet leather) to the spices (this is when your sense of smell begins to fail due to overexertion).

The route we were taking, however, led away from the bazaar and smelled mainly of cat pee and damp walls. The alleys got narrower and darker until we reached a tiny wooden door with brass trimmings. Through it we entered a parallel universe. As we walked into the Riad El Cadi, one of a number of posh private homes recently turned into luxury hotels, we were gob-smacked. Every inch of this place was stylish, tasteful and yet had a certain patina that made it unpretentious. Various beautifully restored court yards connected to each other via narrow corridors. A small turtle roamed the main courtyard where we sat down under blossoming orange and lemon trees to have some mint tea.

Not once did it cross my mind that we might actually stay there. Clearly, the room would cost a fortune and my bargain-hunting instincts were too deeply ingrained to splash out money for such trivial matters as a place to sleep. I looked forward to hunting for a good deal while further exploring the medina. I could picture myself bargaining with a hostel manager and meeting other rip-off-allergic travellers.

The carpet bazaar

A bunk bed in a dorm was what I had in mind, when Helmut cheerfully announced that ‘everything was taken care of’. Meaning, he had already paid for everything, sent for our luggage and ordered dinner. I did cringe at this point. It was one of these moments where you can’t help thinking: ‘Hold on, this is not right! This is not how we do things!’ Maybe it was the delicious, unfamiliar smell coming from the kitchen or the rose petals floating in the fountain, but something made me keep these thoughts to myself. I merely looked at my partner, who wore an apologetic yet clearly contented smile and gave in. Why not?, I thought. After all, one of my few rules when travelling is never to decline an invitation.

We stayed for two days. Between various excursions into the medina, to carpet dealers and to a fruit and olive farm just outside the city, we lounged on the ochre-washed roof terrace, hung out by the mosaic pool and listened to Mozart in Egypt in one of the many lavish lounges.

On the second blissfully indulgent day, however, I became increasingly aware that I wanted to get out. I had not yet seen the Atlas Mountains or the desert!  Burning to get on the road, we packed up, checked out and got into the car. It is advisable to avoid trying to cover too much ground in a day, as that would mean to miss out on the many opportunities to make a break, have some tea, a Poulet au Citron tagine (slowly roasted chicken in beautifully shaped clay pot) and chat with locals.

The road to the Atlas

Sitting in a road-side café in Azilal, eating with my fingers and asking for advice on how to best cross the mountains in my clumsy French, I felt that I had finally arrived. The surreally gorgeous environment of the Riad had almost made me think that Morocco, with all its grime, noise and smell, could be turned on and off on demand. It was a good feeling to be part of the hectic street life that unfolded around us. Donkey carts, shoe cleaners, school children and beggars were bustling about on the dusty roadside. I found some greenflies in my tea cup and in a strange way I was happy they were there.

While I was immensely grateful for Helmut’s generous invitation, I was thrilled when we received an invitation of another kind. Iza and Suhait, who we met when asking for directions, invited us to their home for tea. Their village was at the end of the road into the Ait Bouoli Valley, a mud and stone route not charted on our map which turns into a donkey path hardly wide enough to drive on. After two-hours’ driving, crossing rivers and getting out to push several times, we found ourselves in a village of stone houses stuck to the side of the mountains.

Rugelt is the last village on the road – no running water, no electricity, no mobile phone or radio reception. Apart from the megaphones installed on the roof of the dinky mosque, nothing seemed to have changed here in the last two hundred years. Our car looked misplaced in an environment that seemed to have remained untouched by modern times. I was pleased to discover that its interior and exterior had acquired a thick layer of red dust.
It turned out that our hosts were from Boujad, city girls who were deployed in this remote area as state school teachers. Being Arabs, they found it difficult to live in a Berber village. They apply for relocation every year, but without success. When they arrived, the two rooms of a shabby, damp concrete building at the edge of the village which are now their home, were bare. They had to ask the villagers to give them blankets, pillows and cooking utensils which wasn’t easy considering the widespread animosity between Berbers and Arabs. Apart from a school desk used as a kitchen surface and a low wooden table in their bedroom their flat remains without furniture.

Initially, we were reluctant to accept their invitation to spend the night even though the drive back was going to be tough and the sun was already setting. We felt uncomfortable to be fed and accommodated by people who had so little. But Iza and Suhait wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Luxury is easy – but friendship is best

It was a brilliant evening. We climbed up a steep rock face to fetch water, cooked couscous on a gas bottle and listened to Arab pop on their battery-driven cassette player. Children kept coming around to take a good look at us and our car. Some of the neighbours came over to sell carpets. We watched the stars and listened to the sounds of the village as its inhabitants cooked dinner and fed their animals. Iza invited me to flip through her glossy magazines and offered to translate the articles. I had no idea how entertaining a fashion magazine could be until we got to the partnership pages which plunged us into a prolonged giggle-fit. We slept on – actually in – a pile of carpets and blankets.

The next morning, we woke up early. Our hosts treated us to some homemade flat bread, fresh olive oil and even opened a precious glass of jam – a luxury that can’t be bought at the local souk but has to be brought back from the city. As the school day was about to begin we got into our car. I was determined to send some editions of French Vogues as soon as I got home. We left Rugelt feeling happy, smelly and unkempt but curious to see what lay ahead. Helmut said there was ‘a little place’ in Ouarzazate he would like to visit.

While driving across the Atlas, I couldn’t help comparing the wildly different phases of our trip. I kept pitting the luxurious versus the authentic, the expensive versus the cheap, comfort versus adventure. Confusingly, I now found it hard to decide which side I was on. While I used to be a die-hard defender of low budget independent travelling, I had to admit that I cherished amenities such as European-style bathrooms, alcohol and crisp white bed linen. Undeniably, we all have our individual ways of travelling, of handling the crises and thrills we get ourselves into when we go on holiday. In its various forms, travelling has always been a self-fashioning ritual, a search for identity and authenticity. I had seen the other side and succumbed to some of its charms. However, as this strangely schizophrenic trip had shown me, the two approaches are far from incompatible. In fact, they can make a beautiful blend.

Key information for holiday identity crises in Morocco:

To book a room at Riad el Cadi check out, or contact Julia Bartels by calling 0021244378655 or by sending an email to For other riad hotels in Morocco see

Donkey track to Rugelt

Atlas Blue is the low cost branch of Air Maroc and offers great value flights from various European cities (including London, Zurich, Amsterdam, Brussels and Milan) to Marrakesh and Agadir. Check out their offers at
For some low-price pampering visit a hammam in the medina of Marrakesh. For example: Le Dar el Bacha, 20 rue Fatima Zorha ( men-only from 19h to midnight and women-only from noon to 19h30), or Hammam el Basha
close to Djemaa el-Fna (just ask the locals, it´s very well-known).
Try the spas at the following hotels, if you want a more luxurious spa experience (and don´t mind too much about costs): Hotel Palace la Mamounia, Hotel Cinq Mondes and Hotel La Palmeraie have amazing spas that non-guests can visit, too.
To get the lowest price for a four-wheel drive car rental, don´t book ahead. See what bargain you can strike at the airport.

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