Facts and Factoids

  • The word Algeria comes from the Arabic name for Algiers, which means island - El Djazeira.
  • With a population of approximately 40 million, Algeria is geographically North Africa's largest country by area. Before 2011, when South Sudan became independent, Sudan was the largest.
  • The official languages of Algeria are literary Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). French is a semi-official language and the currency is the Algerian dinar.
  • The renowned Algerian novelist, Albert Camus, played as goalkeeper in the football team for the University of Algiers, which may therefore be the world’s only university to have had a Nobel Prize-winning goalkeeper in its team.

Is Algeria All Desert?

  • The Sahara Desert covers 80 per cent of Algeria.

A Very Brief History of Algeria

  • Algeria has a long history of invasion. The ancient Numidian kingdom initially just covered modern day Algeria, but later expanded, across what is today known as Tunisia and Libya. After invasion by the Phoenicians it became the Roman province of Numidia. The Arabs, Ottomans and French followed.
  • Over a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962, following colonisation in the nineteenth century.

Is Algeria a Poor Country?

Algeria has the third most important economy in the Middle East and North Africa, but many of its people are poor. The national rate of poverty in Algeria is reported as 23 percent.

Is It Safe to Go to Algeria?

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

This is all entirely accurate. We have an armed guard most of the time in the desert. but no hint of trouble anywhere. The Algerians so far (except in airport queues) have been very gentle, polite and respectful. There is no hassle or belligerent selling. But there are very few tourists and not many souvenir stalls to promote anyway.

What to Do in Algeria?

I'm visiting:

The Algerian Sahara

Today, my tour group is flying from Algiers, on to Timimoun in the middle of the Algerian Sahara. The plane of the moment is a 72 seater ATR and we’re delayed for 45 minutes in the bus, waiting for two more passengers. It turns out the missing pair are Alec and Alison, the Australians who couldn't come on the tour. Fortunately, the weather is good and it’s a fairly smooth flight, once ground control take the off the manifest, so not too much Rescue Remedy is called for. The clouds begin to part and reddish brown rocky sand with patches of rippling dunes is increasingly visible. I’m sitting next to Riva, an extremely entertaining 78 year old, who still practices equalities psychotherapy. As Martin points out, ‘There’s only one more Riva to cross.’ The flight takes two hours and we’re only half way into the largest country in Africa.

Security in the Sahara

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

So far, we’ve avoided any security convoys. There’s been a heavy police presence in the cities, but apparently this is because the gendarmerie are  busy with important football matches. Robbie deems this a good thing. He says they slow everything up and the bus is often required to wait for ages at changeover points. However, they are ready for us at the airport and escort us the five minutes’ drive into town. Disappointingly, they are aboard a Nissan 4WD. I was hoping for an open top truck and muscly men with AK47s perched on the back. They have demanded to know all our plans and will be with us tomorrow when we go into the desert. Though we are allowed to go on, into Timimoun on our own.

Timimoun

Today's walking tour of Timimoun is more than a little chaotic. We trail after Robbie who keeps losing his way, exclaiming that things have moved since his last visit and blaming his confusion on the heat. And it's only Spring. The temperature gets up to 45 Celsius, on average, in July. It’s a typical oasis town in that there are gates, fortresses and stockades with pointy crenellations and plenty of date palms. But it’s very different from those in the UAE. For example, the walls (except for the newest constructions) are made of red mud. This area was once part of the Sudan.

Most of the sand strewn streets are eerily quiet. We’re unsure why, until we come across all the women gathered under one awning, dressed in their most gorgeous finery. There’s a wedding taking place. Unsurprisingly, the villagers are not keen for us to participate. The darker skinned peoples of this isolated desert outpost are far more reserved than their coastal cousins and very few are keen to be photographed. One little boy runs away, terrified, at the sight of a camera.

So we decamp to the main street, where there are some photogenic beehive shaped structures and a little market. The large hive shapes, known as marabouts, are saints’ tombs, liberally sprinkled across the desert. There are a lot of holy men. Some of the tombs in town, like the walls, are fake, built purely for aesthetic reasons. Our hotel is wonderfully located with views across the palmerie to the sandstone formations and dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental (Western Sand Sea). It’s an excellent place to watch the sun go down.

Our Leaders in Algeria

Today, we are once more way down the police priority list. We have been instructed to venture out on our own and take one of the hotel employees with us. Robbie is ecstatic, but I’m less sure. I don’t think, ‘We haven’t needed them so far’, quite cuts it. Briham, the designated escort, looks the part in his flowing white djellaba, (clothing here is much more traditional than that worn up north) but he isn’t armed. At least it’s an opportunity for too many Life of Briham jokes, with Middle Eastern type scenery as props.

And we aren’t going to be able to rely on the dynamic duo who are our leaders either. George has a nose bleed and looks fetching with cotton wool stuffed up his nostrils. Jamie has turned his finger septic by picking at a splinter. Martin’s theory is that this all a ploy to enable them to plunder the pristine first aid kit. (At this point I should say that they are actually both very good at their jobs and they take all the ribbing in good part). In addition, Robbie has produced a very battered straw hat from his bag and proceeded to try and unflatten it, restoring it to some of its (very ancient) former glory. I’m wondering if we should have left it in the tiny museum. But it suits him.

The Sebkha Circuit

The Sebkha circuit is the sightseeing trip in Algeria. Our drive takes us, precariously (it’s not really bus country) along some very narrow tracks past abandoned villages and mud fortresses (ksars). One old Ksar has a network of caves underneath - still used by villagers to escape the extreme heat in the summer months. The route continues along the edge of the cliff with stunning views of the Sahara - arid land, flat-top hills, oases and of course the sand dunes

There are also more stretches of social housing. The accommodation is free, but unsurprisingly the Algerians are  not very keen to take up residence. Most of the people in work in Algeria are hired by the government and there isn’t much employment available round the Algerian Sahara. There are also an irrigation system, a handicraft shop and an imagined view of the sebkha (salt lake), after which the circuit is named. The access track is 4WD country only. Thankfully, we can see it from the hotel instead.

Some of the village roads are closed, as the wedding is still going on when we wander out for dinner. The bridegroom is processing around on a panoplied horse, his expression changing in succession from sheepish to proud and back again. His friends also take turns riding his steed and bearing the ceremonial gun and sword that accompany him. We're having our own simultaneous celebration. It’s fellow traveller Wendy’s birthday today and Mohammed has obtained a fancy cake. Though he has to be really strongly persuaded before he will remove the numerals he has added, to celebrate her exact age. The bridegroom is posing on an island in the pond behind our outdoor table as we sing Happy Birthday. He lets off a gunshot to add to the air of excitement (and confusion).

The Road to Taghit

It’s a stunning drive northwest to Taghit, through desert that turns all shades of yellow and gilt. There are perfect flat topped mesas, amazing huge dunes and more red ochre ksars. Today, we are travelling in convoy, police front and back. And I can now see why Robbie thinks our escort is a nuisance. Not only do we have to hang around at district boundaries while they change over, we also have to make our coffee stop at ‘my cousin’s café’ instead of the planned stop in the one town we traverse. This is despite Robbie’s vociferous remonstrations. The word ‘dickheads’ echoes down the bus. But at least AK47s have been flourished.

Beni El Abbas, our oasis lunch stop, is described in the itinerary as ‘The White City’. But its arched colonnades and casbah are perplexingly, yellow ochre, with cinnamon shading. ‘Well’, frowns Robbie. ‘I think it was white when I came ten days ago. They’ve redecorated’. It brings a whole new meaning to go out and paint the town, but not quite red in this case. We tour a tiny hospital hermitage (four monks, five nuns) founded by Charles de Foucault and a ramshackle museum stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia, documenting local history through the ages. From here, we skirt the Grand Erg Occidental with tantalising glimpses of dunes, until we reach the western most tip at Taghit.

Taghit

I follow a camel track (hoof prints in the sand) up a steep and stony hillside past a lone marabout (they are cuboid with domes aloft in this region). On top of the mountain I’m king of the world for a short time, gazing out over the sand sea. The golden barchan crescents overlap into the rock of the hamada. There are whoops echoing from far down below, where more intrepid folk are teetering over the dunes in quad bikes - wadi bashing.

Other hardy souls are climbing the track to the top of the granddaddy dune. It towers 120 metres behind the village. Martin has pointed out that it’s a shame there isn’t a Terry in the group. Then we would have 'Terry and Dune'. Doh! The dune with the village, fortress and casbah spilling down the hill in front, would be impossibly picturesque, if it weren’t for the satellite mast placed strategically in the backdrop.

South to the coast again to Oran and Tipaza

Robbie's History of Algeria

On board our bus heading out of Algiers are Algerian Guide Robbie, the driver (of course) and smiley Mohammed, a representative from the tour company in Algeria. (Mohammed tells us that is real name is Abu Bhukar, so he was known as Bob at school). That makes over one member of staff to two of us, counting English leaders George and Jamie.

Robbie engages in lengthy explanations about North African history. He tells us that the original reason anyone was interested in conquering North Africa was because an aphrodisiac plant/Viagra act alike, ferula tangetalia or silphium, was one of the main crops. The monks frequently grew it. So much for the granary of Europe. I check up on this information and discover, that according to Wikipedia, silphium was a medicinal cure all and a contraceptive. In addition to his theatrically delivered and dubious historical knowledge, Robbie is brilliant on French literature. I suspect he also knows more about English literature than most of the passengers on the coach.

Djemila

It’s three lane autoroutes, once out of town, with very few vehicles. So, what traffic there is feels the need to straddle two lanes wherever possible. Travelling east, we are traversing the Atlas Mountains. Triangular green peaks are interspersed with villages and  pastureland,  patched with bright yellow rape. Flocks of sheep (somewhat perilously) take advantage of the longer grass on the verges of the road, brown cloaked shepherds watchful. Several times, we pass blocks of new accommodation  under construction - social housing funded by oil money.  Most of the building is three or four storied flat roofed in yellow, cream and brown. It’s not wildly pretty but it melds in well.

Over the ancient border from Mauretania to Numidia, the Roman ruins at Djemila (Cuicul) are well worth the stop. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautifully laid out down a hillside. It's framed by mountains and delightfully replete with spring flowers thrusting through the paving slabs.  And, it's Friday and the site bustles with Algerians in holiday mode. A pair of small boys with mournful faces sell us traditional flower wreaths, which we dutifully place on our heads. There are more good quality Roman mosaics than I’ve seen anywhere before. The best are displayed on the walls of the museum. And Robbie has a good time, declaiming in the amphitheatre.

Constantine - City of Bridges

Constantine (Roman Cirta) is worth the visit to Algeria all on its own. It has a spectacular setting on a huge rocky outcrop split by a deep gorge. As the city expanded seven bridges were built to facilitate access – they vary in style and age, with a new suspension bridge having been recently added. Once we’ve clambered up countless steps, the views are varied and memorable. The weather is a mix of drizzle and heavy cloud, but the mist adds to the atmosphere, as it rolls though the ravine.

There’s a colourful and atmospheric bey’s palace to view. The curator hasn’t turned up. He’s taken his daughter to hospital we’re told. So, we sneak around peeping through doors. Next, another huge mosque, Emir Abdelkader Mosque. This one is the biggest mosque in Algeria (until they've finished the new one in Algiers). It’s very modern and we have to get togged up in suitable robes and scarves.

We also scoot through the casbah, very much the local food shopping centre. It's mostly sacks of fragrant spices and copious amounts of fresh meat. Sheep’s stomach and intestines seem to be favourites, with cows and sheep’s heads also proudly on display.

The food we’ve eaten so far has been traditional North African fare, couscous, tagine, and dried fruit. It’s a bit of a trial trying to avoid tomato, which features in everything. Today, at lunch in famous Cafe Tidis. I'm trying not to order it, but names are misleading. Cheese tagine is minced meat with cheese and tomato, soufflé - a flan with a lot of runny cheese – and tomato, lentil soup- with tomato base. I have more luck with the brochettes. The tender calf liver is especially delicious.

Lastly, a visit to the museum. We tour the prehistoric, Phoenician and Roman artefacts at top speed. Robbie’s guiding consists mostly of ribald stories about the Roman emperors.

We’re flying back to Algiers on Air Algerie. I’m not hugely enthusiastic about this idea. The Boeing 737 looks ancient and a military plane crashed here earlier this week. In addition, it’s now raining heavily and storms are forecast. Check in has already been a minefield of misinformation from Robbie about queuing and the need for passports in Algeria. Smoking is still very common here and one of the check in clerks has a lit cigarette in his mouth, beneath a 'No Smoking’ sign. Then another plane out into the Sahara.

Oran with a Football Team from Algeria

Another plane to Oran. There’s a premier league football team from Algeria travelling on this one. Suitably track suited, they are accompanied by some wives, headscarved and decorously attired and another loud group of females, lashings of makeup up, dyed hair and the tightest of jeans. Mohammed describes them as ‘ladies of the night’. One of the more sophisticated of their number has disappeared into the cockpit. I assume she’s in the jump seat… the pilot executes what can only be describes as a handbrake turn before taking off, rapidly, the plane at an angle to the runway.

Robbie has an engagement elsewhere tomorrow, so is handing over to other guides in Oran. Student Remy is introduced and gives an introductory explanation about this important French, Spanish and Ottoman influenced city. This deteriorates into the battle of the guides, as Robbie interrupts to tell us ‘the most important facts’. Poor Remy has more to contend with at dinner, where a surly but efficient garcon does his best superior, cynical curled upper lip act in our bustling French restaurant. He treats him with particular disdain (excellent crevettes). There’s more interesting service at breakfast, when a high handed waitress just waves me away with a brusque ‘Sit Down’ and brings me a tray of things I don’t want to eat.

Touring Oran

Remy has been replaced by Islam today. Islam in his turn was a replacement for someone else who is ill and even Islam is suffering from toothache. Moreover, his English isn’t up to scratch (not much call for it here, there are very few tourists he says), so Mohammed translates. Our route seems designed for maximum frustration.

Oran is the second largest city in Algeria, and we're off to explore. We drive past the Place du Premiere Novembre 1954 and are taken to wander on the promenade above the port. The streets are very narrow and twisty and navigation demands all the driver’s skill. There are several stops, while other vehicles manoeuvre or drivers are found in order to clear their cars from the route.

Walking would be a much better option, but nevertheless we pile back on the bus, drive into the centre, disembark and follow Islam for some time, before viewing the balcony of Albert Camus’ house. The guide says he lived there for 15 days (there isn’t a plaque), with his second wife and moved out because he didn’t like Oran. (The itinerary promotes Oran by saying that Camus wrote a novel based on the city. It doesn’t tell you it was The Plague.) The café where he wrote has been promised, but no, it no longer exists. 

We are deluged with many friendly ‘bonjours’ and the odd more hostile ‘This is a Moslem country,’ as we retrace our steps to the ornate concrete cathedral. This is now a library, and annoyingly close to our hotel. Birds flutter through the rafters, as George notes poetically, ‘‘Pigeon shite all over the place’.

Next, a bustling street market to wander, before we board the bus and drive in crawling traffic along the promenade (again) in traffic to Cafe Bonbon for a drink. Then back along the promenade to Place du Premiere Novembre, where we stop this time to view statues and the opera house. We visit the crumbling, but charming (aesthetically at least - there is a large harem area) bey’s palace. Then along the promenade again in the other direction, to end up round the corner from the coffee café, for lunch in a self-service restaurant. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

Santa Cruz Mountain

In the afternoon, we drive up Santa Cruz Mountain which overlooks the commercial port, the fishing quay and the military harbour, in the next bay. It's surmounted, at 400 metres, by Santa Cruz Fort, one of the three forts in Oran. This one was built by the Spaniards

There's a small chapel, known as the Chapel of Santa Cruz, close by. it's been refurbished with a tower, which has a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, The domed church at the summit is barricaded off for renovation and the fortress is closed. (No-one has brought the key.) Cloud rolls in to obscure the city panorama below. Then we return to our hotel, via Place du Premiere Novembre, of course.

En Train in Algeria

We’re completing our circuit of Algeria by catching the train to Bilida. Here, we’re to visit more Roman ruins at Tipaza, before returning to Algiers on our bus, which is racing to meet us, with our luggage. We’re in first class and the carriages  (like the generally well maintained roads) continue the French legacy. We’ve even got USB ports and power sockets. The ride is a little bumpy, and there’s some frenetic overuse of the whistle, but the view out of the windows is increasingly scenic and flower bedecked, as we hug the rolling speckled green foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Tipaza

Tipasa, as the city was then called, was first a Punic trading-post, turned into a military base by the Roman emperor Claudius. It was his springboard for the conquest of the kingdoms of Mauretania. The city grew under Emperor Septimus Severus (who was born in Leptis Magna.) Tipasa was then destroyed by the Vandals in 430 CE, reconstructed by the Byzantines one century later and finally, reduced to ruins by Umayyad forces in the seventh century.

The ruins are therefore a remarkable and battered mix of Numidian, Punic and Roman temples and monuments, overrun with Algerians on their weekend break. Their setting, by the water, is idyllic. The sea breeze wafts over the site and the views across the bay are stunning. Robbie has cried off again today; he’s sick. Except that George has just seen him here, in Tipaza with his wife, and possibly another group of tourists. Meanwhile, in his absence, we’ve had an erudite and enjoyably coherent explanation from a retired archaeologist we’ve borrowed for the afternoon.

The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania

The huge stone block mausoleum, just outside Tipaza is ostensibly the burial site of the last king and queen of Mauretania. No-one has ever found their remains, but grave robbers have been suggested. The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania was built in 3BC, on a hill some 250 metres above sea level. The elements, and possibly vandalism, have reduced the height to 33 metres from an original 44. The square base was decorated with 60 Ionic columns but the capitals have be removed. More theft?

It is well worth the additional stop off. Then, we join the long queue of traffic heading back to Algiers. Groups of bikers weave in and out of the cars, hoodies rather than helmets, showing off with almost vertical wheelies and by lying flat on their saddles. Crazy stuff. When they get bored with this they pull over on the hard shoulder, for a cigarette, or a chat with their mates.

Casablanca

The name Casablanca is so evocative - one of the most captivating films of all time. I suppose it was inevitable that our first stop in Morocco would be disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a little bland, quite modern and huge – it’s Morocco’s biggest city. The only compelling sight is the imposing Hassan II Mosque, built alongside the sea. It’s the largest in the country, the world’s seventh biggest mosque and it took five years to complete; it was finished in 1993. The mosque’s minaret, at 210 metres high, is currently the world’s tallest, but that won’t last long. The Arabs are very competitive over their mosques and tall towers.

Also, alongside the port, the remains of Casablanca’s eighteenth-century fortifications - the sqala, And there's a vaguely atmospheric harbour area the French built Quartier Habous, with shops and eateries.

There's a medina, of course, leading from the bastion, with whitewashed crooked alleys, but it's nineteenth century, mainly residential and otherwise features glass fronted shops selling cheap clothes. It's not even very touristy. but I can still be a tourist and indulge in a little henna hand painting, before we move on. The painters are located in the famous main square of Casablanca, based originally on French colonial barracks and known officially as Mohammed V Square. It's more popularly known as 'Pigeons' Square', for obvious reasons. Well, we'll always have Paris.

Rabat, Capital of Morocco

I'm on a group 'adventure tour'. And our bus next travels up the coast, to the capital, Rabat. This was, for a time, the base of the notorious Sallee Rovers, who were corsairs. Rabat became the political capital by default, in 1913, during French occupation, as there wasn’t a capital at all at that time.

Although it's not really viewed as important as Casablanca, Rabat’s an old established city and there’s a much more appealing historic heart to explore on foot, the picturesque Kasbah des Oudaias fortress overlooking the water, the twelfth century Hassan Tower, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V (huge and white with a green tiled roof – the colour of Islam), and the Dar al-Makhzen, the king’s official residence, (they won’t even let you close enough to take a picture, unless it's one of the mounted guard.). The utterly charming blue and white painted houses are said to reflect an Andalusian influence.

Morocco - A Very Short History

  • Morocco has been inhabited since Paleolithic Era times and was incorporated into the Phoenician Empire, later followed by the Romans. The Vandals followed (being true to their name and destroying things) Vandals, before the Byzantine Empire interceded in the 6th century.
  • Then the region was conquered by the Muslims in the early eighth century, but broke away from the Umayyad Caliphate and the first Moroccan state was established by Idris I in 788. It has since been ruled by a series of independent dynasties, expanding at times (11th and 12th centuries) to include most of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb.
  • Colonialism was a constant threat, as Morocco occupies a strategic position, at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Morocco was the only North African nation to escape Ottoman dominion. However, in 1912, France and Spain divided the country into respective protectorates, reserving an international zone in Tangier.
  • Morocco eventually regained independence in 1956, as a constitutional monarchy. Morocco’s current royal family, the Alaouites, dates from the 17th century. Mohamed VI has been King of Morocco since July 30, 1999.
  • Morocco also lays claim to the territory of Western Sahara. Spain decolonised the territory in 1975 and ceded its control to Morocco and Mauritania. This led to guerrilla war and in 1979, Mauritania relinquished its claim to the are. However, the war continues with local inhabitants determined to push for independence to rage. Today, Morocco occupies two-thirds of the territory, and both side remain in deadlock.
  • Morocco's long history and varied terrain result in a diverse identity with a vibrant mix of Berber, Arab, and European culture.

Volubilis, Roman Ruins in Morocco

History on board, we're heading east, to Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber/Carthaginian/Roman city, thought to be the ancient capital of Mauretania. The city was invaded by local tribes around 285 AD and never recaptured by the Romans, though it remained intact. It was finally destroyed by an earthquake in the mid eighteenth century. We don't linger. It's raining hard; the storks are melancholy, peering down from their nests atop the remaining pillars, and the mosaics have become small ponds.

Meknes

We take refuge in nearby Meknes, one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco (Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh and Fez have all been capitals.) Meknes was Founded in the eleventh century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, and became the capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727), son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. In those days Meknes had a massive palace complex together with extensive fortifications and monumental gates. His mausoleum remains there. Today, it's an adequate shelter against the rain.

Fez, Morocco

Fez el-bali (Old Fez) is the world’s largest active medieval city. It is refreshingly authentic and totally absorbing. As is common in these parts, the old city exists in close proximity to the new. This is one of the largest souks in the world, a fascinating labyrinth of mosques, cafes (lots of men drinking coffee and playing board games) and artisan districts. There are alleys crammed with weavers, carpets (of course), brass workshops, coppersmiths and tanners. The faithful duck through archways into minuscule mosques. There's also another King's Palace. You're allowed to take pictures of the doors on this one.

The tannery area is world renowned and ridiculously photogenic, from our lofty viewpoint. It’s like a huge white mancala board, though the depressions are filled with soaking leather rather than balls. The workers stand in the vats up to their waists as they wrestle with the steeping hides. Dyed skins of varying hues are draped up the edging walls. Although it’s aesthetically enthralling we can’t stay long. The stench is almost unbearable.

And the souk calls. We’re told this is the finest craft work in Morocco and thus encouraged, I acquire a beautifully painted orange and blue coffee table. It’s wrapped in brown paper and sits at the back of our bus. Several of us have also bought djellabas, the one-piece unisex, hooded, coverall garments that are Moroccan national costume. We’ve had a very touristy trying on ceremony in one of the shops, complete with sugary mint tea. (Other outfits were involved too.)

Dubbed Moroccan or ‘Berber whiskey’ tea has become the national drink of Morocco. It was introduced to Morocco in 1854 by blockaded British merchants. Seksou (couscous) is the national dish and we’ve already sampled plenty of this, served up in traditional pot tajines, with a rich meat and vegetable stew. Olives and dried fruit (apricots, prunes, dates) are usually also involved. There’s a huge variety of dates on offer on the street stalls here and the best are extraordinarily plump and delicious.

Merzouga, Morocco

Turning south, we climb steadily into the dramatic Berber country landscapes and fortresses of the Middle Atlas and on to the desert settlements of Erfoud and Merzouga. En route we take in a lively livestock market with sheep tethered head to head (who knew they would tessellate?) and sehirras (witches) dispensing curses and potions. Next, a carpet warehouse (more mint tea). There’s now a beautiful, brightly coloured rug rolled up, next to my table. Haggling involves parting with my watch.

Merzouga lies on the edge of Erg Chebbi, an area of truly spectacular high golden dunes. There are various 4WD trips on offer, but the huge crescent shaped ridges are begging to be climbed. It’s an inelegant scramble - but they are truly stunning. There’s an optional camel trek on offer, with camping in a traditional Berber-style tent. To my horror, everyone else in the group chooses to camp and it seems churlish to opt out.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to go. The camel ride into the dunes is amazingly serene. The camel saddle isn’t too uncomfortable, or the camel too badly behaved. And it helps to truly appreciate the vastness and splendour of the desert. Though I can’t get the theme from Lawrence of Arabia out of my head. I haven’t quite got Lawrence’s white flowing garb on, but my djellaba makes a brilliant riding outfit. Unfortunately, the long pointed hood turns out to be more Star Wars than French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I’m sure it will make a great dressing gown when I get home. The camping is all that I feared. It seems that the tent is optional too. After singing round the camp fire everyone sleeps under the stars. It’s far too cold to be romantic.

Todra Gorge and Skoura, the Palm Grove Capital of Morocco

Skirting the southern slopes of the Atlas, through rose growing country, and following the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, a criss-cross of oasis towns and Berber villages surrounded by lush palmerie and olive groves . Along a narrow pass through the towering yellow ochre cliff walls of the Todra Gorges in the High atlas. These 40 kilometres of deep canyons were scoured out by the Todgha (Todra) and Dades Rivers.

Ait Benhaddou

Then west, to UNESCO classified Ait Benhaddou. It’s yet another breathtakingly photogenic site. The mud-brick built town nestling into the hillside, is studded with arches and crenelated towers. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the movie industry. Scenes from Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth and Lawrence of Arabia were all filmed here. One of the small village houses – earth floors and chickens running round -- has a room dedicated solely to a signed portrait of Russell Crowe in his Roman costume.

Facts and Factoids

  • Morocco’s flag is red and green (traditional colours in Arab flags), with a pentacle which represents the five pillars of Islam.
  • One of the words for “money” in Morocco is wusakh d-dunya, or “dirt of the world.” Moroccan money is formally called the dirham (abbreviated DH), but it is commonly referred to as flous.
  • Morocco is one of the world’s largest producers of illicit cannabis. The word “reefer” derives from the word Rif, a northern area of the country.
  • Traditionally, the liver, not the heart, is considered to be the symbol of love in Morocco.

Essaouira, Morocco

Our westernmost stop, coastal Essaouira, features more charming blue and white houses. Perhaps because of the filming in the area Essaouira has been something of a celebrity hangout for some time. Orson Welles stayed here in the 1950s, Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix in the next decade and the inventor of the first pedestrian crossing light, Leslie Hore-Belisha, is buried in the Jewish cemetery. Maybe this is why the shops here in the old walled Medina are even more enticing. The local craftsmen have a deft and unique touch and it’s impossible to resist the delicate boxes and exquisite jewellery. The beach is pretty and the sunsets gorgeous.

Marrakesh

To be honest, Marrakesh (the Red City) is something of an anti-climax, after Fez and all the other stunning sights. It’s interesting, of course, but ultra-busy, with too many tourists and too much hassle. Would be guides trail you all the time.

There’s plenty to do. The medina (old town) is huge - it’s easy to get lost - and the riyadhs are elegant and shady. When I’m not in and out of the souk I manage to cram in the Koutoubia Mosque and its tower, the Saadian tombs, the Ben Youssef medersa, the Dar Si Said Palace (now the Museum of Moroccan Art), the The Bahia Palace ( mid to late 19th-century), the Menara Gardens, the Majorelle Gardens (designed by Yves San Laurent) and a visit to a traditional Hammam. (They are quite vicious with the exfoliation - it’s like being attacked with a Brillo pad.)

I mustn't forget to mention the Mamounia Hotel. This Five Star establishment is an institution boasting a host of celebrity guests: Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl to mention just a few. They like to quote Churchill, who apparently said “This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used.” He had good taste. It's a relaxing place to sit by the pool (striped awnings) or sip a cocktail in the ultra smart bar, if you don't mind the hole in your wallet.

The best option, in Marrakesh, I discover, is to find a roof top café and look down on the Djemma-el-Fna (huge main square), watching all the street food vendors, storytellers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers and clowns. It’s far more relaxing up top, and in any case, no-one will let you near their act in the square, particularly if you have a camera, unless you’re paying up front - especially the snake charmers.

There’s just time for a final shopping flurry. A last purchase is a huge copper lamp. It’s been an expensive trip. And it’s a good job that Royal Air Maroc are so relaxed about carry-on luggage and baggage allowance. My newspaper covered lamp sits in the overhead bin and the rug sails happily into the hold, stuffed inside my table.

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