Exploring Morocco’s Berber Heartland

In the hills south of Marrakech, traditional Maghrebi life can be experienced alongside outdoor adventures, rustic-luxe lodgings, and the most succulent tagines in the country.

A Berber village in the Ouirgane Valley. (Photo courtesy of Domaine de La Roseraie)

The gait of my horse fell into a slow and steady rhythm as we zigzagged up through a Berber village named Marigha in the foothills of Morocco’s High Atlas range. Our small group of riders clopped alongside chest-high earthen walls that delineated garden plots shaded by olive and fruit trees. It was a bucolic moment in the soft late afternoon sun, with the calls of flitting birds and the swoosh of horse tails interrupted occasionally by the voice of an unseen person calling out to another. Above the village itself, we traversed bare, brick-colored earth limned with smooth boulders eroded by wind and rain toward our goal, a knoll, where we dismounted to appreciate the view of the Ouirgane Valley.

I had left hot, frenetic Marrakech a few days earlier for the cooler temperatures and slower pace of this Berber heartland. Along with horse riding, there would be plenty of trails to walk (or mountain bike), one particularly spectacular ruin to explore, and some deeply satisfying food.

Forty minutes south of Marrakech, the road began to climb gently away from the plains. Scattered villages sprouted from the hills, the monochrome uniformity of their red-earth houses broken only by white window trim or a brilliantly hued carpet draped from a flat roof to dry in the sun. I had timed my drive to pass through the small market town of Asni on Saturday morning to catch its weekly souk, which remains a major social event for people from the surrounding hills. After browsing the market’s bounty of spices, fruits, vegetables, and terra-cotta cookware, I continued on to the southwest. It’s a farther 10 kilometers to Marigha and another five to reach Ouirgane, the valley’s main settlement, both of which are excellent bases for exploring the area. And for eating well.

Garden-fresh greens delivered to the door of a village house in the foothills of Morocco’s High Atlas range. (Photo: Jeff Koehler)

One of the culinary specialties here is the tagine, which is the name of both the succulent, slow-cooked stew and the terra-cotta pot with a conical lid in which it cooks. From manor houses to humble homes, the tagine holds pride of place on the daily table, and its importance to the cooking of these hills cannot be overstated. The same can be said for the breads that are served alongside. In Ouirgane, the local bread is called tarnot. Plate-size, slightly chewy, and with a curve from cooking on the inside wall of a simple cylindrical clay oven, it has a sweet hint of smoke from the pine, juniper, or olive wood used to fuel the ovens.

For lunch one day, I opted for the lamb tagine at Chez Momo II, a traditionally styled guesthouse set on the hillside above Ouirgane. Just as in homes, the hot tagine pot was placed in the center of the table to eat directly from it. The flavors of tagines are layered, complex, and often blend the sweet and savory, producing an aromatic stew that never fails to please. It often feels that what is most important is not the pieces of lamb — there was a good-size chunk tucked under the pyramid of steamed carrots and potatoes at Chez Momo — but the sauce at the bottom of the pot. For that, there was a generous basket of warm tarnot bread to mop up every morsel.

After lunch I went to check out a much-buzzed-about hotel project in Marigha. It’s the brainchild of Fabrizio Ruspoli, the Italian aristocrat who opened Morocco’s first riad hotel, La Maison Arabe, in the medina of Marrakech back in 1998 — a stunning thought today considering such properties now number in the thousands. Ruspoli, who hails from one of Rome’s noblest families, has exquisite taste and an obsession with detail, a combination that made La Maison Arabe one of the finest places to stay in the country. Just prior to the pandemic, he sold the hotel (it’s now part of the Singapore-based Cenizaro group) and decamped to the foothills of the High Atlas. Later came a whisper campaign about a new project that had his faithful clientele booking rooms as soon as the September opening date was announced.

Left to right: Cooking bread over a traditional earthen oven; the sitting room of a villa at Olinto, Fabrizio Ruspoli’s new hotel in Marigha. (Photos: Jeff Koehler; Ebony Siovhan)

Named Olinto (doubles from US$700), the hotel wasn’t quite ready for guests when I visited in June, but the ever-gracious Ruspoli invited me to have a look anyway. We passed through a courtyard and restaurant to a wisteria-covered terrace, beyond which silvery olive trees framed an emerald-green swimming pool. Planted with luxuriant native gardens of oleander, jasmine, lavender, acanthus, and eucalyptus, the grounds overwhelmed me with the variety and density of their greenery. A small stream runs through the property, with public spaces (including a hammam spa) on one side and nine earthen-walled villas on the other. The latter, each with a rooftop lounge and a botanical name, were designed to blend into the verdant landscape. As with La Maison Arabe, Ruspoli has fashioned the hotel with interesting nooks and passageways that are not immediately visible. “You don’t see it all at once,” he told me. “You must discover it little by little.”

The next morning, I drove up into the mountains toward the 2,100-meter pass of Tizi n’Test along a twisting road that followed the course of a narrow river. The hillsides were dotted with junipers and pines, their flanks etched with dry-stone terracing for olives and almonds and carob. Every so often, the valley floor would widen and turn dense green with a fertile oasis.

After an hour I reached Tinmel Mosque, one of the country’s most spectacular (and least visited) historical sites, and one of only two mosques open to non-Muslims in Morocco. It was here in the early 12th century that the powerful Berber Almohad Empire, which went on to control much of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, began. And also ended. In 1276, their power on the wane, the Almohads retreated to the hills around Tinmel to make a last stand against the rival Merenid dynasty. They lost, and the Merenids destroyed the entire town of 16,000, leaving only the mosque standing.

Left to right: A lamb tagine at Chez Momo in Ouirgane; the arcade-flanked mihrab (prayer niche) at Tinmel Mosque. (Photos: Jeff Koehler)

Built in 1153 and partially restored in the early 1990s, the mosque today is largely roofless with some sections of the original honeycomb vaulting (muqarnas) intact. “Three thousand people could pray here at once,” explained Youseff, the young keeper of the key, a position passed down in his family through multiple generations. Around us were buff-colored walls, slender pillars, and sculpted arches adorned with floral and geometric motifs. A few years after constructing Tinmel, the same hands built Marrakech’s Koutoubia Mosque, one of the wonders of Islamic architecture.

On the way back down to Marigha I stopped in Ouirgane at Domaine de La Roseraie, the valley’s best-known hotel and restaurant. Sprawling across 25 hectares, it was opened in 1970 by the former general manager of La Mamounia in Marrakech, one of the most fabled properties in the region. Fittingly, the name means “rose garden.” “There are 10,000 shrubs of over 300 different varieties on these grounds,” said the founder’s affable son, Nabil Fenjiro, who runs it today. It was late spring and my visit happened to coincide with a massive blooming.

While Fenjiro keeps a stable of sure-footed Arabian-Barb horses on the property (“horses offer a different, slowed-down perspective,” he told me), the top activity for his guests is hiking in the hills. “Things have remained unspoiled,” he said of the valley’s many small Berber villages. The hotel sits adjacent to Toubkal National Park, established in 1942 with the towering Jebel Toubkal — at 4,167 meters tall, North Africa’s highest peak — at its core. And with a fire blazing in the fireplace on the main building’s broad veranda, this is the most romantic spot around.

Strolling through the vast grounds, I thought back to something that Ruspoli had told me about his decision to move to this valley. “The quiet here feeds us,” he said. “It nourishes us.” At that moment, though, such lofty thoughts were secondary to a different type of nourishment. I was hungry. These hills nurture and sustain, but so do tagines. It was time for lunch.

Poolside at Domaine de La Roseraie. (Photo courtesy of Domaine de La Roseraie)

This article originally appeared in the December 2022/February 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Break in Berber Country”).

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