In Marrakech, you can see the Atlas Mountains hovering in the distance. I have always heard how beautiful the Ourika Valley Atlas Mountains were and my interest was piqued. So we tore the kids away from the hotel pool and hired a guide to drive us for an Ourika Valley tour. He took us to the closest villages in Ourika – Marrakech was just an easy drive away of about 50 kilometres (approximately 31 miles). Although the Ourika Valley day trip was easy to arrange, we felt a world away from the cosmopolitan buzz of Marrakech. Moreover, even though the Ourika Marrakech route is so easy, we also felt that the area was a lot less touristy than the city of Marrakech.
An Ourika Valley Daytrip
Life in these villages in Ourika Valley Morocco appeared pretty traditional and the outside world seemed far away. On our Ourika Valley tour we saw people carrying their wares on donkeys, little children just hanging around and houses clinging to the cliffs onto which they are built. With only a 4 day weekend in the country, we are glad we saw a bit more of Morocco than just the city of Marrakesh.
These little villages date from the 16th and 17th centuries. They are populated by Berbers who have lived in North Africa for thousands of years. During the time of Arab rule in the Middle Ages, the Berbers congregated in the Atlas Mountains. Most Berbers practice Islam now but they also have their own traditional culture, food and music.
A colorful beast of burden by the Ourika River Atlas Mountains
On the less quaint side, you did get the hard sell from trinket sellers and children begging for money. My kids did ask why so many children weren’t in school as well.
Of course, we had to take the obligatory camel ride.
This little camel refused to be separated from his mother.
Ourika is great for hiking. Definitely avoid the summer months though because it will be uncomfortably hot. In the early Spring though you will see the spectacular sight of orchards and wildflowers blooming.
The Ourika Valley waterfalls are located near the Berber village of Setti Fatma but you will see smaller waterfalls elsewhere. We loved this Ourika Valley waterfall which our guide described as a Berber freezer.
The cooling waters chill this Coca Cola stand set in an Ourika Valley waterfall.
There are traditional markets and bazaars in the Ourika Valley but we did not visit on a day when they were being held. You know how much I love markets, bazaars and souks so this was a real disappointment.
We did, however, get to visit one of the women-run Argan oil cooperatives that are located in the Ourika Valley. They don’t cultivate the Argan nut here but they do process it for making into oil.
A House In Ourika Valley Marrakech
We were invited into a Berber home in the Ourika Valley for tea. I expect this home makes a pretty good living out of inviting tourists into their house because it was a seamless part of our Ourika Valley day trip.
This house in the Ourika Valley is built into the hillside and there are lots of little internal stairs. it was built on 3/4 levels and also a terrace from which there were amazing views of the surrounding countryside of the Ourika Valley.
The view of Ourika Valley from the roof top terrace of a Berber home
I liked the colourful baskets which hung on the walls. Old tagines stacked in the corner give evidence of feasts past.
Inside a Berber home in the Ourika Valley Morocco
This one-person hamam (steam bath) would be useful for those cold nights. You lit the fire outside and then took a bucket of water into the little hut and waited for the steam to build. Very efficient.
A sauna at a Berber home in the Ourika Valley
Our snack was made in the home’s kitchen. It was bread with delicious butter and honey on the side for spreads.
Tea, bread and honey was served for our snack on our Ourika Valley tour
The butter was made in the home from milk made by the family’s cow who also had his little room right after the house entrance but before you entered the family living area.
A cow made his home with the family at the house we visited in the Ourika Valley Atlas Mountains
Piles of wood are stocked up for the wood-burning fires. The walls hold the bellows to keep the fires burning. Both the heating and the cooking used wood-burning stoves.
A charming scene in a Berber kitchen in the Ourika Valley
The Rope Bridges of Ourika Valley
We were fascinated by these rickety rope bridges which crossed over the river below – a very Indiana Jones sort of experience.
Although this particular bridge had a gate (positively posh!), many of the bridges were just boards haphazardly strung together.
A gate keeps this rickety bridge from being used by interlopers.
In this case, the bridge was two logs covered in mud. Handrails are for wimps! When we went the Ourika River was quite low but this river can flow quite high and fast. For example, there are river rafting trips on the Ourika River.
The Ourika River in the High Atlas Mountains near Marrakech
Needless to say the children loved walked across the bridges. I was completely freaked out and made their father go with them! I could only stand by and pray that the boards were safe enough and ignore the rocks and rushing water right below their feet.
Clambering around a rope bridge in the Ourika Valley Morocco
The bridges seemed to lead to private homes as well as restaurants and other establishments. I thought the rickety rope bridges were a fascinating glimpse into rural Morocco – a world away from the health and safety concerns of Europe and the USA.
I’m glad we got to see this different, quieter side of Morocco. It felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the streets and souks of Marrakech. Ironically, we came back from our long weekend and had to deal with a broken down car. Usually we take a taxi to/from Heathrow but because it was only a long weekend, we left our car in the airport parking lot – with a light on which drained the battery. Oops.
I was even more glad though of our respite from urban life in the Ourika Valley. City breaks are a lot of fun but we find for a real mental break we need to get out into nature for a bit.
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Why you should take time to visit Ourika Valley Atlas Mountains Morocco
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Do you ever wonder what is behind a closed door? The doors in Marrakech that I saw contained so much detailed and colourful work that I could only wonder the extent of the beauty that lay behind the doors.
I am used to doors that blend into the background serving the their basic function as entrances and exits. Especially in big cities like London, you don’t want a super nice door attracting the attention of potential robbers to your house. Doors in Morocco, on the other hand, are much more flamboyant.
Moroccan doors are made of a variety of materials (wood, brass, plaster etc.) and colours. Intricately carved or rustic and basic, the doors are an attraction in themselves.
This hand of Fatima (hamsa) door knocker is a protection against the evil eye for the inhabitants of the house. Fatima was the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and a powerful woman in a male-dominated society. The hamsa is also a part of Berber culture.
I think this door looks like it has a highly stylised hamsa door knocker.
The variety and colours of Moroccan doors are a joy to photograph. As you can see I took that joy to heart!
There is even a flea market for buying old Moroccan doors – the Bab El Khemis, if you are so inclined. I didn’t buy any doors, tempting as they were. My children would have thrown a complete tantrum if they thought I was taking them antiques shopping when they knew they could be in the glorious hotel pool on a sunny day.
Hidden away down a side street and behind an unassuming wall in Marrakech is a peaceful garden oasis very unlike the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. Fear not, you’ll find it though because outside the walls are the usual taxis and hawkers that mark any tourist spot in this city.
Escape through the wall though and it is a different world.
Jardin Majorelle was established by a French painter Louis Majorelle in the early 20th century. He was an amateur botanist and the garden is a result of 40 years of his hard work. In 1947, he opened the garden to the public.
Iconic fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent loved Morocco. He had been born in French Algeria and so his love affair with the area was long standing. Saint Laurent discovered the Jardin Marjorelle on his first visit to Marrakech in 1966. He and his partner, Pierre Berge, purchased the Jardin Majorelle in 1980 to avoid it becoming a hotel.
The garden is now part of a foundation established to maintain its continued existence. In 2010, the street on which Jardin Majorelle is located was renamed Rue Yves Saint Laurent.
The Berber Museum is housed in the former art studio of Louis Majorelle. Opened in 2011, it has a wide range of artifacts relating to the Berber tribes of Morocco, including items from the personal collection of Saint Laurent and Berge. Saint Laurent and Berge felt it important to ensure that the culture of the Berber tribes was saved for posterity. The items range in date from the 18th to the 20th century.
The Berber Museum is very small with only 3 rooms. Similar to a haute couture dress, it is exquisite. The first room has a series of Berber accessories from daily life (bags, cooking tools etc). The second room is about jewellery found in the different Berber tribes. The pieces are incredibly ornate (and look heavy). The room is dark with a ceiling of pinpoint LED lights which shine like stars. It was easy for my children to imagine a nomadic life sleeping under the stars. The third room is costumed figures which was interesting because of the amount of wool used. In the heat of Marrakech, it’s easy to forget that the mountains must get very cold at night . Much of the explanation is in French but there are plastic-covered sheets in each room giving an English explanation as well.
The deep cobalt blue found throughout the garden is called Majorelle Blue. The blue is so intense it really makes the green of the plants pop.
I don’t know how well this blue would work in other climates where the sun is not so intense. All these colours seem practically fluorescent to us but in the Moroccan sun, they are merely bright.
We had lunch in the cafe which is located in a charming courtyard. It’s not inexpensive (about £10 for a club sandwich) but the food was delicious.
There is also a room which houses Saint Laurent’s “Love” collages. He made these collages every year to give as new year’s cards to his friends and clients. They are really charming.
The boutique has items for sale including jewellery specifically created for the Jardin Majorelle. Needless to say, it was all quite pricey!
Only 12 acres, the Jardin Majorelle is small and easy to navigate. We really enjoyed wandering the gardens for a couple of hours. It is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech and easy to see why. Sometimes you just need a break from the teeming masses of Moroccans trying to get you to part with your money.
The hours change for the seasons (Winter, Summer and Ramadan) so it’s best to check before you go on the Jardin Majorelle website. There are separate entry fees for the Garden and the Museum (both are a couple of British pounds sterling at the current exchange rate). Accompanied children under 9 years old go free.
Marrakech has the largest collection of souks in Morocco which are justly famous for their exotic wares. The souks were traditionally (and still are) separated according to the items being made and sold, for example, leather goods, slippers, spices, jewellery or lighting.
Craftsman work in the areas where the items are sold too. So you can see pieces being made. The souks are just marketplaces and are locked overnight when the vendors leave for their homes.
We took a guide with us through the souks because they are a confusing rabbit-warren of streets. Although the guide gets a percentage of whatever you buy from any store, he did help with shepherding the children through the souks. If they could they would’ve stopped at everything, but, presumably, his interests lay in getting us to his friends’ stores! Interestingly, there were pockets of calm in the side streets. The locals still come here to shop but there are also lots of visitors. Some of the stalls are clearly geared towards attracting tourist money with cheap souvenirs.
I really enjoyed seeing the different patterns on the doors. Many were incredibly intricate. These were ordinary doors for souk buildings but so much work went into them. The hand of Fatima (lucky hand) on the door below was everywhere.
Be prepared to haggle. The vendors are ferociously good negotiators but, if you are happy with the price you pay, then I’d say you have done fine! If they accuse you of being a Berber, then that is a compliment because the Berbers are expert hagglers. By the way, don’t ask the price of something unless you are seriously considering buying it. Asking the price does not signal curiosity as in the West but an opening salvo in the negotiating process.
The medina opens out into the gigantic Djemaa-el-Fnaa square. Of course, there was street food, too, on one part of the square. There are gigantic oranges waiting to be squeezed into juice, Moroccan sweets by the cartload, grilled meats and just about every Moroccan food you could imagine. We had a delicious (and cheap) meal at Chez Aicha with sausages, salad and freshly made bread.
My children were a little freaked out by the square truth be told, between the snakes, the monkeys and the aggressive touting. They found it all fascinating but had no intention of holding a snake or monkey. To be fair, they found the souks fascinating – it was only the square they found chaotic. As children are likely to do in unfamiliar surroundings, they would stop and look which seemed an open invitation to any nearby nomad to bring out a snake, a monkey or a trinket.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Marrakech souks (even the children). What do you think? Have you been to a souk and walked away with a bargain? I’m pretty sure I did not.
Every country I go to surprises me in some way. Although I have been to Marrakech before, our recent trip was a family holiday. The children always notice things that I don’t (for example the cats below) which I find interesting. Here are 5 things that I found surprising from my recent trip:
The countryside can be lush and verdant. I loved the way the colour of the greenery contrasted with the pinky red of the sand.
Although Morocco was a French protectorate only from 1912-1956, the French influence really is prevalent. For example, many locals speak French and French tourists abound. Our visit to the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech built by a French painter and then taken over by iconic designer Yves Saint Laurent was one of the highlights of our trip.
What exactly does this sign mean?? We were trying to decipher it and decided it probably meant no topless bathing (aimed at the French) and no burkinis (aimed at the strict Muslim crowd).
There are cats everywhere. We were told that cats bring good luck. We did not see one dog during our time.
Stark differences in weather
The weather was great. Dry heat during the day in the city and then cool evenings. We were surprised, though, at how much cooler the Atlas mountains were. We needed jumpers on our visit to a Berber village in the mountains but on our return to Marrakech, it was still a baking hot pool day.
If I did not have the Moroccan guide with us, my family and I would still be standing on a street corner in Marrakech too afraid to cross the road. It was absolutely terrifying because people just dart through moving traffic in front of buses, cars, horse and carriages, motorcycles etc. The guide, however, knew exactly when to cross and which car would slow down. It felt like a dangerous game of chicken.
The WiFi being patchy turned out to be a blessing. Usually when I get out of an airport, my carrier (Vodafone) switches over to the local carrier pretty immediately. In Marrakech, it took an entire day for Meditel to find my telephone. On the plus side, it was really pleasant to relax off-grid for a while!
Have you been to Marrakech? What do you think?