The first thing we did Thursday morning after eating breakfast and checking out of the Baghdad Cafe was to drive to Skoura, which is not only the site of a huge palm oasis, but also home to many notable kasbahs. (That term means a fortified residence — usually the one-time home of some big cheese.) We'd read in our guidebook that the most impressive one in Skoura could be reached via a footpath in back of another kasbah that has been converted to a hotel and was on the main road. We found it, and a hotel employee, very friendly, said we could park our car there. On a balcony, he pointed out our destination, looking magnificant in the distance. He led us to a low wooden gate in the hotel garden. We should go through it and follow the pathways. He explained the route in a loose and rather confusing fashion, but insisted it was “VERY easy! No problem at all!”
Maybe 10 minutes later, S and I were deep in an almost Irish green paradise. The palm trees were big, and there were olive and other tall trees. The paths twisted and turned, and the thought occurred to us that we could soon get very lost.
In the end we didn't; the hotel guy proved to be right. We glimpsed our target, made our way it, and it lived up to its reputation. As we were leaving, we passed a couple dozen French tourists waddling in the wake of a Moroccan guide (later we saw their big fat bus out on the road.) It struck me that if you're shepherded in a group, you never have adrenaline-charged moments where you don't know if you'll ever find your way out of the palmery. But for us, they're part of the charm.
At other times throughout the day, we were happy to be independent and mobile, if occasionally stressed. When we got hungry, we stopped at a joint called Cafe Valentine. It didn't look promising, but no better alternatives were at hand. The young guy behind the counter suggested that “Berber omelettes” could be a good light lunch. That sounded safe and fast, so we assented, but a half-hour later, we wondered if we hadn't taken another (figurative) wrong turn. Our host finally reappeared with a basket of light and flavorful bread, however, and then he brought us two tagines filled with a bubbling mixture of baked eggs, tomato and onion sauce, a bit reminiscent of huevos rancheros, without the tortilla or beans. It was delicious, and with a plate of tasty tangerines, a tall bottle of water, and mint tea, the total tab, including tip, came to about $11.
After lunch, other highlights of our road trip included an initially baffling search for the Damascus roses for which the area around El Kelaa M'Gouna is famous. Each spring, the women of the area supposedly harvest the petals, which then are processed into rose oil and subsequent derivative beauty products. We saw plenty of the beauty product shops,
but it took us a long time to identify the rose bushes (baffling because the guidebook had said there were more than 4000 km of hedges of them. We finally figured out that the large thornless shrubs covered with delicate pink blossoms were probably them. (They looked nothing like hybrid teas. But they were ubiquitous.)
Our last detour before heading to Tinghir and the riad I had booked near there was a gorge that cuts off from the Dades Valley (“Route of a Thousand Kasbahs”) and climbs up into the Atlas Mountains. The Dades Gorge turned out to be one of the more striking landscapes we've ever seen. At first it looked to be a cousin to some of the famous geological formations of the West — the Grand Canyon, say, or the national parks of Utah. But soon some striking differences became evident. The walls of the gorge are studded with kasbahs both ancient and new, some under construction. It's not crammed with them. But it somehow made me think of the chalets you might see in the Alps. A third exotic note were the astounding profusions of greenery (fields, trees) on the floor of the gorge — like a splash of Louisiana in the midst of the arrid, rugged American West.
The gorge was so jaw-droppingly beautiful it should have been the highlight of the day. But there was one more wonder. I'd reserved our riad online because it had rave reviews on Trip Advisor and cost only 54 euros (including breakfast). Located outside the center of Tinghir, I could only consider it because I knew we'd have the car. I was hoping for a clean, pleasant room to sleep, but what we got felt like a true oasis kasbah. An aging Frenchman named Philippe completely renovated the old structure seven years ago. He told us he moves regularly between it and France. Thus it feels like his private home, impeccably decorated, graced with a courtyard garden, a rooftop viewing platform, a private jacuzzi and sauna and hammam that put the one in Marrakech to shame. S and I scrubbed up, using that amazing black soap, melted in the sauna, bubbled in the jacuzzi, then went on to a dinner that rivaled some we've had in Paris. We slept well.