Ravishing off-radar Morocco

Southern Morocco’s stunning, mutable landscape is the protagonist of a dramatic new narrative. Maria Shollenbarger embarks on a journey punctuated by dreamlike mise en scènes that takes her to some of the region’s remotest and most evocative locales

La Maison des Arganiers, the first stop on the Dar Ahlam Route du Sud
La Maison des Arganiers, the first stop on the Dar Ahlam Route du Sud

High above the village of Amtoudi, in Guelmim-Es Semara province in the far south of Morocco, there is an ancient agadir, one of the fortified granaries that nomadic tribes utilised centuries ago to cache their precious reserves of wheat, dates and spices along North African trade routes. It clings to the top of an ovoid escarpment at the edge of a canyon, its corners marked by crumbling watchtowers; local guides date its foundations back 3,000 years. From the road below, it has the appearance of a small city, a maze of streets and rooftops. But ascend the rocky path that snakes up the escarpment’s flanks around 800m to its summit, and you discover that this is an illusion: the ordered, walled city is just stones – great shards thrusting out of the earth, into which the nomads carved deep storage caves, sealed with thick palm-wood doors and massive locks. The view is arresting: the tiny village in its canyon, the ridged mountains, and beyond, the vast, mute desert. When the muezzin calls from the mosque below, his prayer ricochets off the cliffs and morphs into a multitude of echoes, whirling up and around the agadir (pictured overleaf), until they fade, one after the other, into the elemental blue sky.

La Maison de l’Oasis, the second stop on the Route du Sud
La Maison de l’Oasis, the second stop on the Route du Sud
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This Morocco – this land of stones, silence, mystery, and not another tourist for many miles – is the one Thierry Teyssier wants you to experience. Thirteen years ago Teyssier, a Frenchman well known in his country for his theatrical events planning, opened Dar Ahlam (pictured on final page), the elegant maison d’hôte set deep in the palmeraie of the southeastern city of Skoura. The name means “house of dreams” in Arabic, and thanks to the exquisite attention Teyssier visits on every detail, Dar Ahlam is a dreamlike experience indeed. At supper, you might be collected from the lounge after an aperitif and led through the dar’s maze of rooms to an alcove that was dark and empty an hour earlier, and is now set with richly engraved brass chargers and thick linens and lit by 100 candles. During an afternoon walk in nearby Sidi Flah gorge, you could round a corner and be surprised not just by a wide, gorgeous vista, but a shaded bivouac from which to enjoy it, lined with kilims and cushions. Such mise en scènes, as Teyssier calls them, are the point of Dar Ahlam: to elicit delight through revelation.

An ancient nomadic grain loft, or agadir
An ancient nomadic grain loft, or agadir
The Sahara Desert’s undulating sand dunes
The Sahara Desert’s undulating sand dunes

Hence my afternoon atop the agadir and a handful of other exceptional experiences spread across a few memorable days in September. They are the next chapter of Teyssier’s narrative; he calls it the Route du Sud – a four-day journey through some of the emptiest, most evocative corners of southern Morocco, taking in its beauty from undiscovered, private vantage points and a few spectacular roads more or less unknown to anyone but locals. At three remote locations along the way, roughly equidistant from one another but vastly diverse in landscape, Teyssier has constructed and designed small maisons des rêves – dream houses, each finished by regional artisans: one (pictured on previous pages) high atop a hill above groves of argan trees; one (pictured above right) deep in a virtually off-the-map oasis; and one (pictured overleaf) perched dramatically on the side of a red canyon. Each is, given the extreme remoteness of the coordinates, outstandingly beautiful.

Red cliffs of El Gezira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, south of Mirleft
Red cliffs of El Gezira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, south of Mirleft
La Maison Rouge, the third stop on the Route du Sud
La Maison Rouge, the third stop on the Route du Sud

Together with his operations director Hicham Hraid‑Rochette, Teyssier spent four years exploring the Anti-Atlas and scouring the southern deserts and coastline, leveraging every contact, perusing maps and historical texts, and taking dozens of unpaved turnoffs in pursuit of places that would, in their aggregate, tell a story through beauty-saturated moments, suggestive moods and total privacy. “Building the mise en scènes was actually quite a straightforward task,” Teyssier says. “These southern regions have a cultural richness of such singularity, it was easy to find materials, recipes, experiences and ways of living to reference in each place.”

The swimming pool at Dar Ahlam
The swimming pool at Dar Ahlam
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But it’s the ravishing, mutable countryside that is the protagonist of his tale. The Berbers are said to have a proverb: “The land where the stones know you is worth more than the land where the people know you.” In the deep southern reaches of Morocco – often nearly (sometimes wholly) empty of civilisation, but replete with scenes of staggering beauty – it’s an easy sentiment to understand. Rock cairns, their makers long since vanished, appear out of nowhere on the plains, set against backdrops of towering mounds shaped by far greater and more ancient orogenic forces. Huge fields of figues de Barbarie – prickly-pear cacti – spread hectically across hills and valleys but seem somehow symmetrical, the blooms of peachy fruit tracing almost significant patterns amid the sea of acid green. We followed a route hugging the base of the huge yellow argan-covered hills that meander down the coast, past the villages of Mirleft, Sidi Ifni and others – dense clusters of white blocks at the edge of the slate-blue Atlantic. We sped through numinous desert, past patches of quartz dust flaring on saffron sands and ancient lakebeds striated with ribbons of basalt and limestone, bracketed by mountains shearing diagonally from the earth and scored with ridges so even and deep, it was as if they had been raked by some otherworldly machinery.

The journey commenced just northwest of Taroudant in the late afternoon, in a small whitewashed house – from the outside, a simple, slightly crumbling cottage, like the half-dozen others in the tiny two-family village surrounded by nothingness; inside, an exquisite jewel box of hand-embroidered bedlinens, custom-made bath fixtures, and deep, inviting chaises next to fireplaces. It set the tone for what I could expect during the following days. On the Route du Sud there are many hours logged in a (quite sumptuously appointed) Toyota TX, it’s true. But throughout the journey, crossing countryside in which the scenery changed utterly on a sometimes hourly basis, there were long walks, climbs if you wanted them, mule rides if you wanted those, and many choreographed pauses that leveraged the surroundings to their full dramatic effect. In settings that were often stripped back to their most irreducible elements, I wanted for nothing. South of Mirleft on the coast (pictured above), just as I was becoming a bit restive looking at the ocean from the comfort of the car, we took a sudden right, dipping down a russet road towards the shore. On a ridge, jutting like the prow of a ship towards the horizon between two deep deserted bays, an immaculately laid tray table waited as if conjured from thin air (prepared, in fact, by an advance-operations team who track each Route du Sud client, orchestrating such surprises with the precision of a film crew). I breathed the salty, pearlescent Atlantic mist and sipped a lime-rosemary cordial, then strolled the deserted bluff a few hundred yards, where I was collected. Similar scenarios unfolded everywhere: in a hushed green oasis, I breakfasted on hot bread slathered in cactus-scented honey produced by the women of the oasis; it was baked in a palm thicket just behind the stunning one-bedroom cottage where, the night before, I’d bathed in a claw-footed tub. In the evening on the final leg of the route, on a terrace high on a cliffside above a dry riverbed, I sipped vin gris from Meknès and for half an hour gave my undivided attention to the graceful bowing of attendants lighting lanterns throughout the house and along the path, their glow slowly strengthening in the fading light and the sun casting a sharp, visibly moving shadow that eventually turned the razor-sharp orange peaks across the empty valley a muted purple.

But it was Amtoudi that lingered in my mind – and my imagination – weeks after I returned: the elegant lunch, reclining on cushions and kilims, in the deserted hilltop fortress; the animated canvas I stepped into there one of space, solitude, history, mystery and primal beauty – a distillation of a dream about Morocco.

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