A trip to the village of Ouirgane, 60km or so south of Marrakech, was meant to be a reviving day in the hills and an opportunity to see a different side of Morocco. But it ended up being something of a trial.
It started OK with us hiring a car in Marrakech’s European-looking new town. I quickly got the hang of driving again and off we went down the wide boulevards of the Ville Nouveau, lined with pink and red mansion blocks, shops and cafes. It was choked with traffic but rather less characterful than the Medina.
We drove out past seemingly abandoned developments on the edge of the city, through a flat landscape of olive groves, past run-down but rich-red villages, fields of scrub and shepherds herding small flocks of sheep and goats from one sparse patch of greenery to another. In the distance, the Atlas Mountains appeared tantalisingly through the haze, snow on their peaks, like a giant and jagged, impenetrable wall.
We eventually began to climb into the foothills and the landscape changed, the roads narrowing as the mountains began to enclose us. At times the road clung precariously to the rock, giving Graham his regular bout of nerves.
The hills boasted the deep red soils that are such a feature of Marrakech’s cityscape, but were scarred by erosion and covered in low-lying bushes and trees. Occasionally we passed old men standing by the side of the road selling crystals and fossils.
Our normally reliable Lonely Planet guide had promised a dreamy escape in Ouirgane but once we actually found the village, after much driving round and temper tantrums on my part, the disappointment in the car was palpable. A modern reservoir on the edge of town looked depressingly industrial rather than inviting and romantic.
The book had also promised a lively weekly market but, after parking the car, we were instead treated to a dusty set of stalls with manky fruit and veg and a random collection of other bits and pieces scraped together by apparently desperate stallholders. There was absolutely zero to delay us.
Worse was the collection of pestering locals we attracted. Each came out with the same set of well-rehearsed lines, each wanted to be our best friend, each clearly wanted to make a quick buck. Instead they got nothing and succeeded only in driving us away. It was the sort of behaviour I’d expected in Marrakech, not out in the sticks.
We diverted into the old village, where a group of happy children played by the mosque and teased us in French as we nosed around. The place was desperately run down and the red mud walls of the buildings looked worryingly unstable.
Unsure whether we could go for a walk anywhere, we jumped in the car and drove somewhere for lunch. L’Oliveraie de Marigha was down the road, a small hotel set in an olive grove and utterly charming. Lunch was served overlooking the pool, which in turn had magnificent views of the Atlas mountains beyond. The food was good, the service excellent, the grounds magnificent.
Things went downhill again after that. We decided to take the car up the mountain to the hamlet of Tassa Ouirgane at 1300m, where another little hotel promised to welcome visitors. But the single-track road was nothing more than a dusty, pot-holed dirt track that our poor little car barely coped with.
Terrified that we would come across another vehicle and fearing that we might end up with the bottom ripped off the vehicle, I sweated for Britain as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. I barely had time to take in the picturesque landscape, the remarkable formations created in the red soil and the peaks around us.
By the time we got to the ancient hamlet – the car caked in a layer of dust – we decided that going further would be insane. So we gave up and bone-shook our way back to the main road.
Having achieved so little and with my mood black, we drove back to Marrakech. On the way we stopped at a point where the road met a river, and where a local festival was drawing to a close. The wide river bed, which must be incredibly lively during the snow-melt season, was punctuated by streams and lumpy gravel islands, where musicians danced, stallholders sold their wares and camel and horse rides were offered. Over the road, a string of identikit cafes quenched thirsts. I filled several bottles of water in a largely unsuccessful bid to clean the hire car.
Our enjoyment was curtailed by the arrival of yet more pesterers, most of them crusty old men who queued up to try to relieve of us of our dirhams. Having worn us down we made a hasty retreat and drove back to Marrakech, where I got a telling off from a cop for going through a red light in the chaos of rush hour and generally got hysterical at my inability to find a car parking space near the local branch of Avis.
Car dropped off and relieved to be home, we ate and drank in our riad and enjoyed tajines with the excellent Rachid serving in the cool courtyard. Lit only by candlelight, with the sound of water in the background, it was soothing, healing and romantic in equal measure.