Forgive me, this week I just have to gush about the recent holiday my family took to Morocco. Banker and I have a long history of adventurous travelling pre-children. Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti chasing migrating wildebeest, hiking to temples in the Himalayas, following in the footsteps of the Incas to Machu Picchu and exploring the temples of Angkor Watt to name a few. This ended on the arrival of children. Since having children, although we have ventured to Russia, South Africa and Taiwan, these have been places where we have had friends or family for guidance, and our other holidays have been strictly “safe”, “clean” Europe. It didn’t help that Lil Bro had a catalogue of food allergies, some of which are life threatening, such that I was reluctant to go to any country where I was unable to comprehensibly say “Does it contain nuts?” . Over the last year Lil Bro has grown out of the majority of his allergies and got the all clear from his excellent allergy team to eat almonds, an ingredient pervasive in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. My immediate response was “Let’s go to Morocco”.
Morocco and in particular Marrakesh and Essaouira are places close to the heart for Banker and I as we had visited there twice before having kids, so it was the perfect place to test the waters as to whether our family could cope with more adventurous travel with 6 and 4 year old in tow.
The flight to Marrakesh by budget airline arrived at night, and we had arranged for the hotel to pick us up. Even driving to the hotel, the children could immediately sense a difference. This was not Europe. The streets were teeming with cars and people weaving between each other in an intricate dance that only those who have been to a developing country can imagine. “There are so many people on the street at night” and “The roads are really narrow” the children noticed. I told them to take a deep breath, the air was warm and sweet, laced with cinnamon. “This is a new place I said. We are going to have an adventure”.
We were dropped off on a busy, dirty, pavement-less road. The high red-brown, windowless walls of the building that the man indicated to us was our hotel was not at all impressive. On the left, a man was selling vegetables at 9pm, on the right was a row of motorbikes. There was no signage, indicating a hotel, just a door and an old flag. For a moment I regretted not supervising Banker in the hotel booking. Yet when the door was opened, we stepped into a palatial Riad. A spacious indoor courtyard with splendid fountain, filled to the brim with roses and an open view to the stars above. The high walls kept out the noise and bustle of the outside world as we were invited to mint tea and sweet pastries on cushion bedecked sofas in an intimate nook. The exotic magic had the children instantly hooked. Over the next day in Marrakesh, we took a cooking class at the hotel. It was not specifically designed for children, but we asked and the hotel was obliging. We started with a tour of the local market with our guide who had also guided our hero Yotam Ottolenghi around Marrakesh. We started with the town baker who mixed dough in a bathtub, while his colleague shovelled flat round breads by the dozen into an oven on a wooden paddle. Two others knelt on the dirt floor shaping the dough. All the while local children brought in breads from their mothers to be baked in the baker’s oven. The whole operation was housed in a room the size of an average bathroom.We cut through the old wash house to where the boy who stoked the fires for the baths cooked tangiers for the local men and ended with a tour of the meat and veg market where the children saw live rabbits and chickens waiting for slaughter. Our guide, was worried about the sentimentality of our western children over the death row animals, but I was proud to say, they had no problem, having always been explicitly told to appreciate the origins of their food. We visited the spice man who let us smell his eucalyptus and turmeric, and ground us an ounce of his special blend ras-el-hanout; and the teenage boys spinning fine sheets of ouarka on their finger tips with swagger as we stood in awe at their skill. I had been told that Moroccans love children, and this was not wrong. The market stall owners bestowed our children with roses, tea and gifts as we strolled through. Cooking with children is great fun. They got involved with learning how to make cous cous from scratch. Rolling flour and semolina with olive oil into breadcrumbs was just like playing with sand. The children were also found to have a great skill in grating, and grated courgettes, carrots and even tomatoes. They were also pretty good at folding briouats, Big Sis’s being much better than mine. At times, concentration wandered and Banker took them out for a walk, but they returned with enthusiasm to learn more, and what prouder moment than tasting the product of our morning’s hard work served up in the splendour of a roof top garden over-looking the bustling city. An evening was spent wandering the souks and purchasing a carpet or two, whilst encountering snake charmers and monkeys on bicycles, followed by dinner to the beats of Moroccan music in the hustle and bustle of Jemaa el-Fna, a central market square where tourists and locals sit cheek-by-jowl to enjoy street food at its best . The following day, a 3 hour car-ride took us to Essaouira, tolerated very well due to the his-and-her video consoles purchased for the kids for just such occasions, and was broken up by a pit-stop to view goats chewing on argan nuts atop argan trees at the roadside. Evening brought us to our resting place Auberge Tangaro, a former brothel turned hip hotel that purportedly hosted Hendrix in ’69, and now hosted our family to candlelit dinner. Essaouira is a romantic seaside town, with a medina surrounded by fortified walls. So picturesque, it is a popular location for films such as Othello, Alexander and Game of Thrones. A walk along the battlements affords a clamber on the many cannons and a good view of the sea. There is plenty else to explore with a working fishing harbour where fishermen in painted blue boats bring in the catch to fishmongers that gut and sell fish at the harbour-side, to the men that grill the fish there and then for customers at the harbourside grillades. Food metres, not food miles. Souks there are also a plenty. A man intrigued our children with a mysterious treasure box made of Thuya wood, where the key and keyhole are hidden. Clever man, once the kids saw this, we were never going to make it out without two. Spices, brightly coloured fabrics, fossils, precious stones, embroidered slippers, tagines and ceramic galore. If it all got to much, a retreat for sweet mint tea in a square, relaxing to the sound of the mosque’s call to prayer. For mischievous children that need to be kept out of trouble or persuaded to walk, projects were set: Day 1, a treasure hunt where random items on a list have to be found. Items the parents knew were likely to be found with varying degrees of difficulty: a man selling mint, a Moroccan tea set, lemons, a blue boat, a cannon, a policeman. Day 2, a project to take photos of all the cats in Essaouira, with their own cheap digital cameras. A trip down memory lane took us back to a restaurant we had dined in 8 years ago which had served the best food in Morocco. To our delight, the restaurant and its owner were unchanged. The food was as divine, the laugh of the proprietor as loud and warm as we had remembered.
Did I mention that Essaouira is a beach town? Forget donkey rides on the beach in Blackpool, here we took camel to the disintegrated ruins of a castle slipping into the sand, the alleged basis for a Hendrix song. Pushing against the cliche of the posh girls’ pony club set, I’m proud to say that Big Sis’s first riding experience was aback a 2m tall camel with a predilection for pooping. The unspoilt beaches of Essaouira are largely EMPTY as Moroccans, like the Chinese, don’t see the point in basking in UV rays to attain a colour you already have. The pale skinned of my family stripped off to play in the water, while I discovered that the sand in Essaouira is just the right texture to sculpt and busy myself making a sand Birkenstock. The kids return and it’s drip castles that need building, irrigation channels that need digging and the odd shark surfaces from the sand. Oysters, fish and calamari for lunch at the hippy beach cafe, lounging on beds facing the azure, surrounded by blond surfer dudes and you might almost forget you were in Africa. A morning Yoga class with Mehutina, a Washington DC gal who had fallen in love with Essaouira on a holiday (not hard to do) and had moved there with her two girls to start a new life teaching English and yoga. We requested a family yoga class and she brought her girls too. Though not quite as relaxing with kids in tow, the participation of the whole family brought fun and laughter at the sight of Lil Bro’s contorting endeavours and amazement at Big Sis’s supreme flexibility. Taking it in turns to have massages meant that the adults could also have their “Me time”. On our final day, we did the unthinkable. We crossed the road from our hippy-chic retreat to the giant 5 star Sofitel hotel. If big pools for the kids and poolside loungers with drinks on ice over-looking an 18-hole golf course is your bag, then why not. A taxi-ride back to the airport in Marrakesh, and home.
To my mind, this was our first “proper” family holiday ever. One that was not marred by broken sleep, vomiting, food fussiness or child related saga, or compromised due to sanitation, long haul flight or language barriers (French is spoken in Morocco). The children are at an age now where they are easy travellers, and I am keen that they see the world. Not just the world of kids’ club in an upmarket resort hotel in a sanitized country, but the world where beggars exist, the homeless roam, the roads are untarred and the food is flavourful. It is not just that I want my children to understand different cultures and learn about wealth disparity. In my mind early childhood experiences pave the way for openness of mind and spirit for a lifetime. Seeing, experiencing and enjoying different sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures within the safety of your family sets up a mindset ready to be open to new things, exploration and adventure as an adult.
I’m sure we’ll still go to Centre Parcs from time to time, but from now on the world is ours. India, Argentina, Borneo, here we come!
FYI: We flew Ryanair to Marrakesh. We stayed at the Dar les Cigognes in Marrakesh, but (Riad Kiass is also nice) and Auberge Tangaro in Essaouira (but Villa Maroc is also an old favourite). The children carried their own booster pack back packs as it can not be guaranteed that these will be available, or if they are EU standard. The best restaurant in Morocco is this one in Essaouira: