MARRAKECH, Morocco >> Our two rows of camels rested in the darkness before dawn near the circle of tents in the towering Erg Chebbi dunes, a few miles from Morocco’s border with Algeria. The cool air carried the aroma of coffee brewing as the sky began to lighten.
To the west, a guide was leading three camels and their passengers on a dawn ride. To the east, a few of my travel companions were climbing to the top of a huge dune. As the sun’s rays broke across the dunes, the color of the sand seemed to change from dark terra cotta to light orange.
It was dawn in the Sahara.
You can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and magic in this place, one of the most fabled deserts in the world. The chance to spend a night in the desert was one of the experiences that drew us to Morocco. But so much of what we did on our 13-day trip was totally unexpected.
Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are nearly as high as any in the Alps — and so are their ski resorts. In spring the verdant green valleys and broad pastures look like rural Wisconsin.
Driving through the mountains, we stopped to see the stunning rock formations at Todra Gorge, a canyon popular with climbers and hikers. Farther north, archaeologists are excavating the Roman town of Volubilis, established by pioneers sent from Rome to create an olive oil industry.
In modern contrast, the tonier parts of the capital city of Rabat and Casablanca could be mistaken for any big city in southern Europe, complete with an Ikea store and Land Rover dealership. And yes, we made a stop at Rick’s Cafe, but it’s as inauthentic as a Hollywood movie set.
In the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech, we sipped gin and tonic by the turquoise-blue swimming pool of Auberge Chez Momo in Ouirgane, a hotel made up of stucco bungalows with a lake view that could just as easily have been in Provence.
In other words, we found a lot more in Morocco than deserts and casbahs.
In Fez and Marrakech the narrow alleys of the mazelike markets, or souks, sell everything from cheap tourist trinkets to fine, hand-woven carpets. They’re as captivating for the pieces on offer as for the people-watching. Fez is more traditional and seems more authentic. Marrakech is a short getaway for Europeans, and it’s not unusual to see women in skimpy bathing suit cover-ups shop alongside locals in long hijabs.
Morocco’s recorded history begins with the Phoenicians and Romans who colonized a region that had been inhabited for thousands of years. Arab armies from the east brought Islam in the seventh century, reshaping the culture and creating ethnic tension with the indigenous Amazigh people — a tension that remains to this day. (Morocco’s ruling dynasty, for example, is ethnically Arab and claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad.) The Amazigh are better known as Berbers, but that’s actually a pejorative name, derived from the word “barbarian.”
The French put down stakes here in 1912 as Europeans carved up Africa and remained in control until 1956, bequeathing at least two things that are rare in the Muslim world: a modest wine industry and a Monday-Friday workweek, unlike the Sunday-Thursday schedule common in Muslim countries.
One day during a drive through the mountains, we stopped to speak with an Amazigh family that lives in tents not too far from a road. The 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were quiet but curious. The mother and father showed us their tents and, through a translator, answered questions about their lives.
Another extended Amazigh family runs Hotel Awayou, a rustic inn in the M’Goun Valley of the High Atlas Mountains. (The hotel, where our room was secured with a padlock, was a good place to stay in an area with few options; just don’t expect many amenities.) We took part in traditional afternoon tea and learned that men dominate the tea-making rituals in Morocco. The usual way to serve the Chinese green tea is loaded with sugar and mint, a bit too sweet for most Westerners. We watched women washing laundry at the side of a river, while local men cruised around town on motorcycles.
On the path of the casbahs, the mud-brick fortresses that dot the landscape and were stopping points along the caravan routes, we visited the walled city of Ait-Ben-Haddou, where scenes from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Game of Thrones,” among others, were filmed. Indeed, it looked familiar, and a climb to the top gave a good workout and a good perspective.
But back to our sojourn in the desert. Getting there was a big part of the experience: 90 minutes on a camel, rucksacks with overnight necessities strapped to the saddle, cameras flopping from straps around our necks. Riding a camel is not like riding a horse. You’re higher off the ground, and it’s much more wobbly. But after a while we settled into the journey knowing that even with some discomfort we were lucky to be on this once-in-a-lifetime trek.
Shortly after arriving at camp, our group gathered in a canvas-topped common area and drank wine and beer while cooks prepared our meal in the dining tent as the sky grew dark. After a fire and some music under the stars, we set off along a carpeted pathway to our tents with beds and full bathrooms. I doubt I was the only one pinching myself before dozing off.