The torrential rain starts pounding down just minutes before I arrive at Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson’s luxury retreat in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Not exactly the way this moment had played out in my head as I’d dreamt of it over the past five years, but our driver Mouhssine, clocking my panicked expression in the rearview mirror, says, “the rain will definitely stop in a few minutes because it never rains here at this time of year”. After all, he adds hopefully, the name Kasbah Tamadot means “soft breeze” in the language of the local Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa who make up about 60 per cent of Morocco’s population.
It’s a fact I can only laugh at as hail starts tapping at the car window. The mountain gods, it seems, are not happy today. But I’m determined not to let them ruin my fun, or to disappoint Mouhssine. So I pull off my leather sandals, slap a smile on my face, and talk my travel buddy into escaping Mouhssine’s car and making a dash for the shelter of the hotel: one, two, three… Go!
Two minutes later we stand shivering in reception barefoot, wet clothes clinging to us like cling wrap, cheeks pink with embarrassment. Not a good look for our arrival at one of Morocco’s most luxurious hotels, but within seconds a staff member has thrown a jellaba cape around each of our shoulders, given us some soft leather babouche slippers to wear (ours to keep, we’re told) and whisked us into the Kanoun dining room for some head-swimmingly sweet mint tea followed by a three-course lunch. After a week in Morocco eating nothing but couscous and tagines, I’m delighted to see some other options on the menu and opt for a tomato and mozzarella salad, a spicy lentil stew and a desert of Eton Mess. We eat, we chat, the rain continues to drop down in thick sheets.
After lunch, we spend some time exploring the hotel’s opulent red-walled salon, filled with music, games, books and plush leather chairs, and the series of chiselled courtyards dotted with rose petal-filled fountains and reflecting pools. It’s a bit of a tease when we’re walked by our very own butler past the rain-pocked infinity pool and sodden tennis courts to our quarters, tucked away in a verdant corner opposite the resort’s vegetable and herb gardens.
But outdoor pursuits are forgotten the moment we step over the threshold of our sumptuous tented suite, one of nine scattered about the property, along with 18 rooms and suites. Shaggy black and white Berber rugs are strewn across the wooden floorboards, brass chandeliers hang from the tented ceiling and opulent drapes frame the windows. I decide to keep my cape on, feeling very Scheherazade the Arabic queen from One Thousand and One Nights as I trail my hands over the wooden antique furniture and walk out onto the deck – complete with its own hot tub to take in the views of the glistening Atlas Mountains.
We decide to make the most of the rainy afternoon and light the chunky scented candles, brew some herbal tea from the complimentary mini bar (we resist the small bottles of red, white and rosé Moroccan wines for the moment), and while away the hours reading coffee table books on Berber textiles, wallowing in the clawfoot bathtub with the double doors opened to the mountains, and napping on the plush couches. When it comes to the time when we’d normally be enjoying a sunset cocktail by the pool, we crank up the Moroccan music on the in-roomstereo, crack the rosé and order room service for a decadent carpet picni
The following morning I nervously peep around the curtains and see that the rain has finally abated. And as the clouds part during our traditional Berber breakfast of baked eggs with tomato and succulent meatballs, we’re given our first glimpse of the snowdusted peaks of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at4167 metres.
Soon Mouhssine picks us up and drives us 15minutes into the mountains, which stretch about 2500 kilometres across northwestern Africa, extending through Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. We’re met by the side of the road by our affable, warm-eyed Berber guide Mohammad.
He’s dressed in a leather jacket and Nike track pants but with a cobalt-blue Berber scarf, or cheche, draped over his shoulders, and is flanked by two sad-eyed mules and their leathery-skinned muletiers. We jump into the surprisingly comfortable padded saddles of our steeds and start making our way into the scree-covered burgundy mountains, which Mohammad tells us are so intensely red because of the high levels of iron ore in them.
We press on for an hour and a half, the great stone folds of the mountains all around us seeming to shift as the cloud shadows move over them. We pass serpentine slithers of greenery sliding in and out of the moonscape ravines, among which Mohammad points out juniper bushes, wild pepper trees, the occasional prickly pear cactus and groves of towering Atlas cedars. He tells us there are Barbary macaques in these mountains – bears, leopards and lions, too – but we don’t see any of these creatures today.
We cross a chocolate-milk-coloured river, climb another steep rise scattered with loose rocks, and spy a distant promontory topped with clusters of stone and adobe houses that blend almost seamlessly into this wild landscape. This is our destination, the old Jewish village Anraz where Mohammad’s family have lived for five generations.
Entering Anraz is like taking a step back in time. We pass flatroofed mud brick houses, terraced farm gardens filled with apricot, apple, almond and olive trees, some of which Mohammad tells us are hundreds of years old, and the occasional skinny donkey.
“Life hasn’t changed much here because we’re so isolated,” says Mohammad as we approach his family home. “We still build our own houses by hand, make our livings from sheep, dates, camels and nuts, everything we eat is grown here, and everyone in the village knows each other’s business,” he adds with a laugh.
We reach his home, a squat dwelling typical of the Berbers in the High Atlas with mud-slathered stone walls and a wood-raftered roof. Immediately we’re shown up to the rooftop terrace, where we take a seat on a colourful rug that his mother has woven by hand and look out over the undulating mountains. Mohammad pours heavily sugared mint tea in a long, thin stream into our small glasses, then serves us home-baked flatbread which we rip into shards and stuff with fresh salads.
Next comes a fantastically fragrant, fruity chicken tagine, served in a clay terrine, cooked by his mother, a shy woman wrapped in colourful mismatched fabrics who Mohammad introduces us to when he takes us downstairs to see the hand-built earthen oven she cooked our meal in. In Berber culture, hospitality graces even the simplest of homes, and this is no exception. As we eat, Mohammad tells us that Berbers have inhabited the mountains and deserts of Morocco and Algeria thousands of years before the Arab conquest brought Islam here in the seventh century. “Even though most people still call us Berbers, we prefer to call ourselves Amazigh, which means Free Person…” he says.
Just then, a brief sun shower passes over, ending in a burst of sunlight that floods the valley below with a flaming gold light. I could happily stay on this rooftop all day, or all year for that matter, but before long it’s time to jump back on our mules and bid Mohammad’s family farewell. On our way out of the village we pass an old man sitting on a wall on the edge of the village, his sun-withered face gazing out over the mountains, content to simply sit and take in their stillness and silence. The perfect image of the Free Person, that I know will stay with me for a long time.
Later that afternoon when we’re back at Kasbah Tamadot the sun is still out, allowing us to lie by the infinity pool surrounded by apple trees, manicured cactus and palm gardens, and mini Berber tents decorated with colourful Moroccan rugs. When the clouds roll back in we decide it’s time for a massage at the Asounfou Spa, where we’re covered with herb-scented oils.
Afterwards, there’s time for a quick turn about the hotel’s Berber Boutique, which sells traditional Berber rugs, hand-embroidered clothing, jewellery and other gorgeous things created by local craftspeople through the foundation set up by Richard Branson’s mum, Eve. Then, all that’s left to do is head back to our room, pour ourselves another glass of that deliciously crisp rosé, take a seat on the sun loungers on our deck as the sun slants low through the bougainvillea, and finally enjoy the soft breeze this bewitching retreat was named after.
It seems we’ve finally made peace with those wily mountain gods after all.