Morocco: Surfing the souks
Thomas Breathnach dipped into the cultural melting pot of Morocco and found an appetising mix of desert, friendly villages and tempting surf
It's Ireland's closest taste of the exotic. The Moroccan melange of French, Arabic and Berber riches has long gifted the alternative package holidaymaker with a winter oasis.
While last year's Arab Spring unrest may have deterred potential newcomers, the Western Kingdom is now in the midst of a tourism bounce, which sees it jostling for the accolade as Africa's most visited nation.
So what's le vibe?
With a clean slate of preconceptions (save for some sand dunes and souks), I ventured south on a nomadic break to discover and savour the cultural choc du Maroc.
After touching down in Agadir, my friend Carolyn and I made for the ancient market town of Taroudant. Our late-evening transfer, deep into the Sous Valley, veiled any sense of bearings until we suddenly pulled up to the palm-fringed Dar Zitoune riad; a traditionally inspired palace nestling around a secret garden courtyard.
It certainly had the signet of a regal hideaway. A dapper bellboy ushered us through a labyrinth of fragrant roses, almond groves and limes trees to our pretty bungalow.
Had we arrived in the Garden of Eden?
After a mint-tea nightcap in the luxurious boudoir bar, we awoke the next morning to a sunshine breakfast on the courtyard as finches and bulbuls peeked for croissant crumbs through the shrubbery.
Nearby Taroudant was a frantic scene of rural Arab-Berber life. Men rode ram-shackled chariots along the old town's magnificent ramparts. Herds of goats grazed the bustling streets and merchants traded fowl, figs and all things fragrant in the markets.
It was a case of largely tourist-free organised African chaos and we were relishing being in the thick of it.
Being novelties in town, it wasn't long before we were courted by an affable young man content to offer his tour-guiding expertise as a quid pro quo for practising his Anglais.
Sadly, 'Moumou', who was clearly in commission cahoots with spice trader Mohammed, soon got the heave-ho, and for the remainder of the afternoon, Carolyn and I assumed the identity of monolingual Swedish tourists.
"Only Svenska!" is one very useful phrase every tourist should pack with them.
As we strolled under the warm winter sun towards Place Assareg, the town square was packed with hoards of men gathering around prophesising storytellers and musicians.
Restaurant Roudani offered the perfect viewing terrace and we sat down to a tasty Moroccan salad, chicken tagine and a fruit plate for 65 dirhams (€6).
As the traders started their journey back to the hills, we returned to our haven at Dar Zitoune for the night: no kasbahs were to be rocked in this traditional town after sunset.
Our next stop was in the westernised town of Agadir, Morocco's sub-tropical Atlantic resort (and former bag-a-waiter-getaway for Deirdre Rachid-Barlow in 'Coronation Street'). We were staying at the low-octane and exceptionally friendly Argana Hotel, a short stroll from Morocco's largest souk and Agadir's six-mile beach.
The strand stretches north towards the town's plush marina district, where a hillside carved with the Arabic script of God, Country and King dominates the backdrop.
For our first dip, however, we ventured south, where sand mounds dramatically spilled into the ocean as if straight from the Sahara. We'd barely soaked our toes before being pea-whistled at by a pair of gesticulating gendarmes; it seemed we'd chosen the private beach of King Mohammed VI as our paddling pool.
Back to the cheap dunes, s'il vous plait!
Being on the foothills of the Atlas mountains, we continued with a tour of Africa's most famous range, with local guide Mustapha (Sunway, €34).
Not long after leaving Agadir, our 4X4 was grinding gears deep into the arid abyss; ravines, gorges, and abandoned dam ruins lending a 'Jewel of the Nile' sense of adventure.
Soon, a glistening river bed surrounded by a lush jungle of date palms appeared below us; the quintessential desert oasis, or Vallee du Paradis to locals.
After step-stoning across the waters, we wandered through dense plantations of pomegranates and bananas before ascending to the dusty and desolate Berber village of Ankrime. There, we were welcomed into a humble whitewashed home for an impromptu spread of fresh, clay-oven-baked bread and honey.
Having been evaded by mountain fauna the entire day, that evening, descending the byroads back to Agadir, we were stopped in our tracks by a lone camel loafing on the roadside.
They may be the ships of the Sahara, but Mustapha informed us that in these parts, the animals are still used for leather and, as they're considered halal, meat.
As we hastily hopped out to photograph the beast, suddenly a 50-strong harem emerged from the bushes, caravanning towards us like some Jurassic migration. They were all anchored by a salivating bull, restrained at the ankles by his shepherd and cha-cha-ing past in hot pursuit. This, you simply wouldn't get in Tenerife.
Later that week, we journeyed along Morocco's south Atlantic coast, where cliff faces sweep down to golden beaches, peppered with bobbing fishing boats and scores of wave riders in the waters beyond.
Our final resting post was Paradis Plage, a luxury surf and yoga resort in the go-slow fishing village of Imi Ouaddar.
The vibe here was instant calm.
Outside, surf-bleached Norwegians kicked back in the beach bar to the sounds of Air and Morcheeba. In the main atrium, traditional brass lanterns filtered through the building like a fantasy light installation from an art gallery, while our ocean-view suite, in soothing tones of ivory and sable oozed with contemporary Moroccan design.
Tres sheikh, indeed.
Travelling around Morocco can be best done by shared taxis or hopping on a local bus, but being in backpacker territory, we opted to reach the nearest town of Taghazout by hitch-hiking.
It wasn't long before we were sandwiched between four rather incurious men in an old Renault estate, adorned with sheepskin rugs and Quran dashboard stickers.
Taghazout itself has a chilled vibe; a shabby town splashed with market traders, hippy combi-vans, surf shacks and juice bars. We explored its narrow streets of blue-shuttered terracotta homes stacked around an idyllic inlet, before lunching on tuna steaks at Argana Bay Social Club.
We were soon approached by a grinning bearded Bedouin, accompanied by his muzzled camel, Ulrika. "Hey! I take you to the Sahara?" he offered, yanking on his companion's reins.
"Another time, my good man." We'd a surf lesson at two.
It was to be my first surf lesson, in fact, the winterish swells of Inchydoney having never quite lured me into a wetsuit the way the warm Canary currents seemed to be doing here.
Our guru was Elias, a local lad who had previously hung 10 with the likes of Kelly Slater. "This isn't tennis," he joked, "Sometimes we get back on the beach with no clothes on."
But under Elias' succinct "make love to the surfboard" tutelage, I soon found myself "popped up" on my board catching my first waves – if only for a Marrakesh minute.
I guess Elias, just like Morocco's Franco-African melting pot of surf and souk, had taught me to always embrace the new.
Merci beaucoup, bro.