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Wonders of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains

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On Tuesday10th March 2020, at an ungodly hour, our group was picked up at various local locations and headed for our flight from Manchester to Marrakech. The Covid-19 virus was beginning to become a concern in the UK so there was a little trepidation among the group. More of this later. It was dark and pouring with rain.

On arrival in Morocco it was sunny and warm. First impressions on the bus journey to the complex was that of a bustling, vibrant but quite poor city. There were many mopeds. Our hotel, the Riu Tikada Palmeraie is a thirteen-acre complex with superb food and facilities. We settled in and had a briefing from our excellent tour manager.

The whole experience was so well planned throughout the week. We had a really wonderful time being shown many aspects of Moroccan life and scenery. This country is between the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert. Sand is everywhere. The soil is quite poor but they are still self sufficient in food. Orange trees line the main streets.

On Wednesday we were taken on a tour of the Red City in the centre of Marrakech, visited the souks (markets), observed the largest mosque and the Saadian Tombs. The wonderful marble floor, intricate plasterwork and tiling observed here were a feature in much of the Moroccan architecture. We were given demonstrations of traditional carpet making, followed by a visit to a herbalist / pharmacist who was so vibrant and funny.

On Thursday we had a long bus ride to the coastal town of Essaouira. On the journey out we stopped at a factory making Argan oil, which is widely used in Morocco. We also stopped at one of the most amazing sights, tree-climbing goats. They climb the trees to knock the nuts onto the ground.

Essaouira has been influenced by various invaders, Romans and Portuguese among others. Some of us had a wonderful fish meal while others chose to explore the shops in the town.

One of our party was struggling; our tour manager and the bus crew were very kind and supplied a wheelchair for him.

On Friday sadly, it was arranged for our fellow traveller to return home due to his health. Again, the kindness and efficiency of the team from Regent Travel was excellent. Some of the party went into the souks again.

On Saturday we travelled to the Atlas Mountains through the valley of Ourika. The highlight was visiting a Berber family for mint tea and homemade bread. The whole family was welcoming and the mother was a great character who is very entrepreneurial. In the evening we were taken into the Square in Marrakech to observe the vibrant market and street food scene which happens before sunset. One of our party was starting to show signs of breathing difficulties. We knew that things were getting worse in the UK due to the virus. At this time there were only two cases reported to be in Morocco, in Casablanca.

On Sunday, at breakfast, our tour manager informed us that the lady who was struggling the night before and her husband were not well and that she had called a doctor. We visited the Majorelle gardens designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. We then visited the Bahia Palace and gardens. Again we marvelled at the intricate Moroccan and Islamic designs.

On return to the hotel we were asked to keep together although the doctor did not think our friends were suffering from Covid-19. News from home was beginning to become more serious.

On Monday we had a free day but some of the other nationals were being whisked out of the hotel at short notice due to the news that many countries were closing their borders. In the UK the families of some of our group were starting to panic, getting in touch with Regent Travel and even the Home Office. Our tour manager sat us down and said it may be the end of the week before we could get a repatriation flight. Well, what to do? I had planned how to get home by land and sea and it was impossible unless you crossed the Sahara, got to Cairo, and travelled up the Balkans to Northern Europe. Then Norway shut its borders!

Again our tour manager cannot be praised highly enough, along with the Regent team.

She got packs of cards for us and we passed the afternoon playing various games. The clever ones played bridge, some played whist, some played snap or other games. We were then told that a plane would be coming for us in the morning at the time we had booked. RELIEF.

On Tuesday 17th March we headed to the airport and were swept through customs. One French group let out a roar as their plane did not arrive. We left at 12:05 and had an uneventful journey home to a nice spring-like day.

Thank you so much to those who organised this holiday: our U3A team, and particularly to the tour manager, who was wonderful.

Since then we have all been self isolating. Keep Well and Carry On.

Text and photos by Christine Stewart

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