Neil Hennessy-Vass discovers the delights of Morocco and walking in the Atlas Mountains
Some people dream of castles in the sky but Brit Paul Foulsham, a long time resident of Morocco dreamed of his own castle in the mountains. After five years of securing land, finding water, learning how to be a project manager, employing the skills of local craftsmen, using traditional methods and red sand stone his dream was completed eight years ago. Now, resplendent, sitting at the foot of the Atlas Mountains only 45 minutes from Marrakech airport it all seems very much worth the incredible effort to achieve it.
The 25 rooms and suites all luxuriously appointed reside in splendid gardens of some 10 acres. And yes, before you ask there’s a pool, open air, as this is an eco hotel that wears its credentials proudly on its sleeve it has no additional heating other than the sun in the summer (it’s a tad chilly in the winter months).
The water is supplied from a well that taps into the melted snow from the mountains. All the food is locally sourced and staff, are Berber people from nearby villages, French and English are spoken, as is Moroccan Arabic.
Guests come here for all sorts of reasons, escape, sun, solitude, yoga retreats, painting (it is quite beautiful) we managed a humble water colour or two during our stay and trekking which is becoming a big pull. It’s off most walkers’ radar, which makes it totally unspoilt and quiet.
At 1000m above sea level it isn’t too debilitating for most walkers and the terrain has a variety of interests including outlying Berber villages built from dry clay and straw bricks. The locals are friendly, a guide can take you on a half or full day excursion. If you’d rather more oomph then a 4 X 4 is also on hand. There’s a local souk on Tuesdays and you can even ski in the two-month season.
Built in the Berber vernacular the ‘castle’ has a large and spacious feel about it, a restaurant with terrace and inner dining room face the large lawn. An impressive bar (which can double up as a dining area) with a groin-vaulted ceiling has great atmosphere at night with Moroccan lanterns and candles lit. Above all the Kasbah Angour is quiet it took a bit of getting used to for a city dweller. In the hours of sun there are chirping birds but after dark nothing. And on clear nights the sky twinkles, beckoning you to just float up and explore the vibrant solar system on offer.
At sunrise it was crisp and bright the silhouette of the Atlas Mountains looked like a backdrop from a puppet theatre, almost cut from cardboard with clean sharp lines. I had decided to go for a half-day trek. Abdul my guide looked at my shoes (and approved of my fairly sturdy boots although the land isn’t that rough there were streams to cross) and then asked if I had some water with me. I did, so we were ready to go. He has been walking this region most of his life and working as a guide for over 15 years. He cheerfully informed me we were only 52 days walk from Timbuktu, adding with a smile that we wouldn’t be attempting that on this trip.
The location of Kasbah Angour is on the old trans Sahara gold, salt and slave trade routes from Timbuktu, Mali, which was still in use until the last caravans in 60s, the gold would stay in Marrakech as it was and still is the gold capital of Africa. Nowadays it’s a quiet enjoyable walk with plenty of ornithology and wildlife to see. I saw Berber houses with rooms at the ground level for their animal stock first floor owners and if there were another upper level it would be the ‘best room’ for guests. These small, inhabited areas would also have tesserafet or underground cave to store their grain or hide in times of attack.
The terrain was green and hilly (thank goodness for the boots) with streams and wadis along the way, some of which flood in the rains. A couple of years ago Tom Cruise was here to film Mission Impossible 5. You can see him being flown hanging from a helicopter across the dessert if you look carefully. Exhausted but pleased I’d done it I returned back to our suite for a warm shower and change of clothes (it was very dusty) having walked 11km.
Being so close to Marrakech we decided to spend a day doing the sights. Paul the owner organised a taxi for us dropping us off near the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, with an agreed pick up time later in the evening. The souks are fantastic for shopping; lanterns, leather good and wooden carvings and fabrics are all on offer, be prepared to haggle hard!
But there’s more to Marrakech that just the souks, the new Yves Saint Museum is a treat for those interested in fashion. The building is a striking brown-bricked affair resembling local vernacular and full of excellently displayed dresses and photographs of the man and his work. There’s a small cinema as well as cafe and restaurant. Just along the road is the Jardain Majorelle, once owned by the famous painter then restored by Saint Laurent and his partner it is an oasis of calm, bamboo, ponds and vivid blue, a must for the discerning visitor. Both have superb bookshops that are well worth looking at if fashion or art is your interest.
After all that traipsing around we fancied lunch. As they had a pool and the promise of an expert hammam after we thought the Mövenpick Hotel was a good choice. We enjoyed the welcome contrast of poolside dining at the Jamra Organic restaurant from the dusty souks. The food was great, the toast of homemade guacamole and the organic beef burger were just the restoration we needed. The mixed berry soup with cream cheese ice cream for afters was strictly speaking not essential but it was delicious.
After a spot of sunbathing we headed to the hedonistic spa and enjoyed the tradition that is hammam. The gentle washing and lathering of the body is the precursor to being scrubbed within an inch of your life. Ikbal despite being of diminutive size was incredibly strong and thorough, she chatted happily throughout the process as much to calm me down as to keep busy. We felt like we walking on air afterwards.
Jemaa el-Fnaa Square really comes into its own at night and it’s worth seeing. Yes there are hawkers of every kind but there is also food, good pop up restaurants that try very hard for your custom. But it’s most famous for the snake charmers and musicians and dancers in traditional dress. It’s noisy, chaotic and lots of fun.
Back at the calm and tranquility of Kasbah Angour the hubbub of Marrakech seemed a million miles away. That’s the beauty of this place it’s right on the doorstep of everything you’d want to see while tucked away with the snow capped mountains as a backdrop. The food at the Kasbah is excellent and plentiful. Evening meals come in three courses and the breakfasts are continental and eggs of any shape or form including Berber style, which I highly recommend. They are fried and placed on a bed of spiced tomatoes, not too hot, similar to shakshouka they set me up for day perfectly.
Tel: +212 (0) 524 484 121