Morocco with children :
by : Andrew James
“Has your daughter got any teeth?” asked Salah, as his battered blue Mercedes clambered up through olive groves into the Anti Atlas. “Seven”, said Susanne, proudly. “Good,” he said. “Then she need not have fear.” Salah was proving rather impenetrable, but this was one of his darkest remarks so far. After some pressing, he told us that Berber women in the Atlas mountains – and he was a Berber himself – wove spices into their clothes to ward off unwanted glances from men, but that these spices also had a distressing effect on toothless babes.
We thought we’d prepared for every potential eventuality for a young family in Southern Morocco, but women wearing dangerous spices hadn’t been on the list.
Choosing a winter holiday that was both exotic enough for well-travelled parents and fun and safe for the children (Rhena, aged one and Thomas, three) had not been easy. Sri Lanka was first choice, until the Tamils detonated that idea. In Goa there was no reasonable-priced accommodation with enough space. South-east Asia would’ve been good, but last time we went there Thomas had blown up like a balloon.
The waves were rather bigger than the children’s experience (courtesy of Brentford Leisure Centre) but not too big, and the sand was good enough to eat – at least, Rhena thought so in the vicinity of Balinese mosquitos, so we thought it wise to wait for his immunity to increase.
Initially the hassle factor steered us away from Morocco, especially Morocco with children, but after exhausting other possibilities it seemed that the resort city of Agadir offered a heady mix of sun, sea, sand… and separate rooms. The heat was consistently between 25 and 30 degrees most of the year. And the hassle? Well, faced by the children, it simply evaporated. More of that later.
Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of southern Morocco, is a modern town of no particular distinction. It was all but destroyed in an earthquake in 1960, which killed 15,000 people, and was then rebuilt to cater for tourists. Its lack of intrinsic interest is compensated for by its facilities and its location in the Souss valley between the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas mountain ranges.
Our hotel proved to be three hotels amalgamated into one, and was copiously equipped with 5 swimming pools. The beach was a ten-minute toddle away; its waves were rather bigger than the children’s experience (courtesy of Brentford Leisure Centre) but not too big, and the sand was good enough to eat – at least, Rhena thought so.
There were few Brits, and fewer children. Most of the tourists were French and German, and towels made typically early poolside appearances. We found, though, that by gently goading our children to screaming pitch we could quickly clear some lebensraum.
The children were equally potent against the hassle factor. On the beach, the killim sellers forgot their business when offered a mouthful of sand. Tank Engine and his Troublesome Trucks got us round the crowded souk with Marrakesh during which I nearly came to blows twice with supposed “guides” who got aggressive when I refused to buy anything in the shops they coerced me into. All in all, we concluded, we were safer with the children.
Initially, we’d tried leaving them in the hotel’s mini-club. But iles to spare (try getting an arabic-speaker to say Troublesome Trucks) and up in the mountains shy Berber children would only allow themselves to be photographed if our two were there too.
Without the children as a human shield, it was a different story. Susanne came back, fuming, from a solo trip into town after failing to shake off a very persistent pair of young men. And I made a 24-hour side trip to Marrakesh during which I nearly came to blows twice with supposed “guides” who got aggressive when I refused to buy anything in the shops they coerced me into. All in all, we concluded, we were safer with the children.
Initially, we’d tried leaving them in the hotel’s mini-club. But Madam Pompom (not her real name) florid in French although she was rumoured to be German, seemed less interested in children and more interested in making a new fashion statement with every dawn. Her long and highly-coloured fingernails were plainly incompatible with the contents of nappies.
So we set about our explorations en famille. We discovered that chartering taxis by the day often worked out cheaper than if we’d gone on any of the available bus excursions to the same destinations, and had the additional benefit of an attentive driver.
By far the best expedition was a 300km journey up into the dramatic Anti Atlas, with its perched kasbahs, pansies, wild wheat, crystal air and scenery that some all-powerful stagehand changed when you weren’t looking. At one moment you might think yourself among the pastoral Alps, the next in the Cuillins, and then on the moon.
Another day we headed inland into the Souss valley, carpeted in fruit plantations, to Taroudannt, a Berber city in 500-year-old ochre walls. Here in the Palais Salam, a former pasha’s palace turned into a lovely hotel, Thomas rampaged around the patios hunting out tortoises amongst the hibiscus and fig, banana and orange trees, and calling everyone he met a “smelly-bum car-park”. The hotel was even able to oblige his demand for green ice-cream (pistachio) which was quite excellent everywhere.
Probably the most willing of our drivers was Omer, whose Merc we’d chartered for the two-hour trip to Immouzer, in the friable Atlas. Omer had one major disadvantage: he spoke no French. The trip was like a language lesson, with him pointing, and us repeating like a primary school chorus from the back seat.
The word that really stuck was “shims”. Right at the outset Mustapha was concerned that there might be too much shims for bebe, and he was right: away from the Atlantic haze, the sun got stronger as we climbed higher. Rhena flaked out on the back seat, and we were loath to wake her when we arrived, so while we went off to view Immouzer’s remarkable waterfall Mustapha gently rolled the Merc from tree to tree, to keep “little Fatimah” away from the shims.
There were, of course, moments of awkwardness. Thomas had a sudden need in the middle of one of Agadir’s boulevards and dropped his trousers. Moments later two soldiers sauntered up, and I thought we were in trouble. But they hunkered down, poked the children, giggled, and gave them a dirham each.
Eating and drinking wasn’t a problem either, and both children proved quite happy to sit in cafes and drink the ubiquitous (very sweet) peppermint tea. Fresh fruit and bread was everywhere (even in Berber territory you can still get fresh baguettes in the medina), although inevitably, towards the end, we had a dose of what Thomas christened “wee-wee-poo”.
Most of the encounters in the mountains were with men. The children found Berber women’s yashmacs unsettling, and the henna-ed patterns on their hands didn’t help. In fact, the women were generally far slower to come forward.
It was Salah who put this in context for us. As we were walking around another seemingly deserted mountain Kasbah, he explained that many of the menfolk had gone away to work in Casablanca or France, and while away they expected their wives to stay indoors.
In that mountain society, there was a stiff penalty for disobedience. He told us of one village where a well-known Berber musician had come to play. Most of the village had turned out, and someone had captured the evening on video. When the men came home in the summer, they got hold of a copy of the video, saw their wives in the audience and divorced them.
Despite that severity, we never had a less than warm welcome. Whether it would have been much different without the children I can’t say, but we would certainly have met fewer people. On our last evening we went out for a celebratory bottle of earthy red, while our favourite babysitter administered the night-time “titty” (her word for dummy). Sitting in the light of the setting shims, with a glass of Mugrat in hand, we toasted health, wealth, and holidays with children.