As Morocco’s natural border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara Desert, The Atlas Mountains may just reflect the North African country’s last distant treasure.
Barren land dotted with the sparse olive tree and earthen structure pass by as I make my way toward the auburn mountains looming ahead of me. I say looming as they seem to emerge from this no man’s land representing Marrakech outside the medina’s walls; the local suburbs of this rural land.
As the mountains get closer, the peaks creep higher and before I know it, I am among the 2500km of mountain range that sprawl not only Morocco, but also Tunisia and Algeria. It is here where indigenous Morocco can still be found within local, Berber villages formed around kasbah structures and women weaving wool-worn rugs from the foothills of the Atlas to the highest peaks.
I settle in at the foothills of the Atlas at Kasbah Bab Ourika just in time for an afternoon trek through the streams, ravines and villages of the adobe-washed town before a effervescent sunset illuminating the peaks at least 10 shades of pink and red before the starry night sky swallows the mountains until morning.
Kasbah Bab Ourika
Only 45 minutes south of Marrakech’s hurried medina is a landscape so rural, you suddenly feel worlds apart from familiar civilization. Seemingly built into the mountainside with the structure as old as time itself, Kasbah Bab Ourika–in reality only nine-years-old–engulfs you in a new way of life by way of serenity that accompanies a slower pace. “The Kasbah architecture reflects the way of life of Berber people; their simplicity, kindness and warm welcome,” says owner Steven Skinner, an Englishman who found himself taken by the aura of Morocco’s mountainous region.
So, in 2008, Skinner opened the custom-built, 26-room property not only to reflect the indigenous Berber philosophies, but to ultimately give back to the villages around the property, with an ecologic responsibility for the local nature, as well as the local people, by employing more than 60 families from the surrounding communities.
Skinner saw it as a unique opportunity to create a property that only continued to expand past his original plans–it began with a few guest rooms in the main Kasbah, matured to 15 rooms, and then came 12 additional rooms as detached villas surrounding the Kasbah. Most recently, Skinner decided to open the hotel’s organic restaurant and plethora of excursions to day visitors. “It’s a vision of rural life, a different vision of the country which is impossible to have in the cities,” he explains. “So, people can enjoy a day trip to get away from the madness of town.”
And that is exactly what Skinner says his full-time guests appreciate–the stillness of the nature, the calmness of the views all offering a bespoke sense of adventure from the tranquility of the infinity pool. It’s a daydream come true at the Kasbah, or for Skinner, just a dream come true that he can share this with so many.
“If you are looking for a TV in your room or nightlife, you may be better staying in Marrakech,” he laughs. “Here, nature is overwhelming and the landscape unique. Light changes throughout the day, creating different and magical ambiances, from dusk until dawn, sunrise to candlelight.”
The Berber Villages
Whether you’re at the foothills or the high ridges, a trek through the Atlas Mountains unveils local communities tucked into the terrain of the land; blending so naturally into the landscape, you’re never quite sure when you’ll stumble through the next. These are the villages of the indigenous, where young boys kick soccer balls with grins revealing the sentiment of true joy and mothers walk with one hand interlocked in their daughters, the other in the reins of their donkey, carrying supplies for the week.
They are communities that are so far removed, yet so coherent. A call to prayer plays the echo of the mosques throughout the hillside communities, so that even with the bellowing summon, the clay-dusted streets become even emptier, even quieter than before.
Although the term Berber has claimed their personalities for centuries, their lesser known, self-pronounced label is the Amazigh–reflecting their status as indigenous, free people dating back to 10,000 B.C. In fact, the term Berber is widely found offensive, as it stems from the term “barbarian,” which was cast upon them when the Romans began populating North African territory.
It’s part of a controversial makeup that separates the modern adjustments to society at the foothills versus the antiquated ways in the high mountains, however, one that visitors can be sure will be clarified with an introduction; locals specify their title preference typically before sharing their own name.
Rugs from High Elevation
Aside from the predominant composition of farmers in the local villages, women tend to occupy the creative field with their intricate weaving of wool rugs; an infamous souvenir for tourists that visit Marrakech’s souks in the medina.
“Moroccan rural rugs tell stories, secrets, and intimate details of the feminine life that can’t be told openly in these environments,” says Mint Tea Lovers’ founder, Beatriz Maximo, who recognizes that the rugs are so much more than pieces of art hanging at the medina for tourists to take home to remember their time in Morocco. “You can find bits of wedding dresses, bits of baby clothes, bits of life in these rugs; it’s about love, family, loss, hidden passions and dreams.
This is exactly why Maximo started Mint Tea Lovers last year, although it was an idea forming in her head since she first visited Morocco 19 years ago. She reflects, “The most sweetest moments in the country have been passed with a glass of mint tea in hand, surrounded by beautiful Moroccan women on a beautiful Moroccan rug.”
Now, Maximo, has the ability to understand more about what inspires the women to create these pieces of art, so she can pass along the stories and sentiments with the sales of her rugs. “I visit the mountains to meet the women to discover how the design and the shape depends on the mood, the weather, the landscape that surrounds them,” says Maximo, further explaining how through her company, she’s learned that rugs are often done by more than just one person. “The women in the family work together on the same rugs and you can notice it, which is what makes them unique.”
From ornate, vibrant wedding rugs that can be hung on walls or used as throws on couches, to traditional, simple weavings for hallways and large spaces, no two rugs are ever the same. This is exactly what makes purchasing a Moroccan rug so appealing to visitors and selling Moroccan rugs so appealing for Maximo. “It’s history and art. And showing off the work of the weavers, the beauty of their work is a tribute to a country that has given me so much.”
Experience Kasbah Bab Ourika with Electrify Getaways on our trip to Morocco this May.
Photos by Terry Munson