Morocco: Escape the Marrakesh chaos at this wellness and yoga retreat
There's a knack to rubbing and aerating cous cous, but judging by the mess around my workbench I haven't mastered it. "I only ever use instant at home," I confess, as a blizzard of grains billows from my hands like a snowstorm.
"Sometimes we use that too," says chef Tarik, taking my hands and lowering them over the sieve. "It's fast and takes only one hour to cook."
It's day two of my Moroccan wellness and yoga retreat with small-group tour company Gypsian Boutique Tours, and already I'm being encouraged to recalibrate my usual frantic pace to a slower, more mindful one – one grain of cous cous at a time.
Our morning had started with a leisurely breakfast on the rooftop terrace of Riad Les Yeux Bleus Marrakesh (with honey so fresh the bees were still buzzing around it), a traditional hammam treatment (including a luxuriant hair washing that put me to sleep) and lunch overlooking the pool at La Maison Arabe (where Winston Churchill used to dine). Discovering that our "wellness" tour is just as much about eating and relaxing as downward-doggingis music to the ears of this food loving, yoga-fearing guest.
A 45-minute drive from Marrakesh brings us to Atelier de Cuisine, an organic cooking school in the Amizmiz Valley, where Hassain the "tea master" welcomes us into the garden.
As Hassain adds fresh mint, sage and geranium to the pot we learn that the water has already been twice boiled over coals for at least an hour. "Never rush tea," Tarik translates. "To make time for your family and guests is the greatest gift of all." While Hassain pours the steaming brew backwards and forwards in the time-honoured manner we relax on comfortable cushions, listening to Tarik talk about family recipes, about cous cous, and how it is traditionally served only on Fridays (when families gather for lunch after prayer), and about his dedication to organic produce.
After the tea ceremony we attend a spice lesson, learning which marinades to use (cumin with fish, cinnamon with lamb) and the health benefits of each before moving to the garden. Stepping lightly we fill our baskets with pungent coriander and pretty zucchini flowers, stopping occasionally to snack on ripe cherry tomatoes, their mix of sweet and tart bursting on our tongues like warm nectar.
Over the next hour we chop, pound, mix and stir before arranging the meat, vegetables and spices in heavy clay tagines to simmer over hot coals. The resulting feast – sweet lamb with apricots, lemon chicken with olives, and cous cous with carrots and zucchini – is served alongside caramelised pumpkin and roasted aubergine salads and an array of sweet treats that has us swooning. If this is wellness Moroccan-style, I'll have seconds please.
Australian woman Candace Warner founded Gypsian Boutique Tours in 2012. After years of living, travelling and guiding across Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Syria, Candace knew the kind of group tours she wanted run – small enough so guests could feel like independent travellers (6-12 people), but with a knowledgeable person taking care of the arrangements. "We wanted to shake travel up a bit," says Candace, who now runs the boutique business with her mother, Susan, and sister, Libby. "We believe you can stay in lovely accommodation, but still sample street food and have authentic experiences."
For me the real strength of Gypsian Boutique Tours is that either Candace or her mother leads all the tours (while engaging local guides in historic locations). "We can adapt activities depending on the weather, local events or individual interests," Candace says. "Having me here on the ground means our tours are flexible."
True to her word our small group negotiates a later start for the next morning's yoga class, our combined wish for a sleep-in outweighing any desire for sun salutations. To be honest, yoga is a struggle for me. I'm not bendy enough, and with a body shape more akin to a praying mantis than a lotus flower, yoga studios usually leave me feeling self-conscious.
I'm hoping that regular yoga combined with an itinerary rich in cultural immersion, soft adventure, good food and pampering will provide the body-soul balance I'm after.
Starting the morning with breakfast cake (yes, it's a thing) and rescheduling yoga until 9.30am is the kind of balance I approve of. Yoga instructor Perumal puts me at ease with one sentence – "Yoga is the foundation of all movement," he says. "Whether you are a runner, golfer or gardener." I love this, his emphasis on movement, not mantra. On the rooftop of our riad Perumal leads us through a series of stretches focusing on our necks, shoulders and backs, simple moves we can replicate at home. After the long-haul flight the gentle movements feel good, but it is the view over Marrakesh, with its endless web of rose-coloured ramparts and minaret towers, that works it's magic.
There is more magic at street level when we meet local guide Lahcen, whose Berber name means "from the desert nomads". On foot we follow his flowing djellaba through secret doorways and down hidden stairways meeting butchers, bakers and ceramic tile makers, the unseen army of people who make this beguiling city work.
"Marrakesh is such a beautiful mess," says Lahcen, his outstretched arms sweeping across the sea of coral-coloured kasbahs, when we pause for a coffee break on a rooftop terrace.
Back at street level we enter the chaotic maze of the souk district deep inside the medina quarter. Even now, months later, I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I emerged dazed and confused, clutching four hand-painted bowls, two silver teapots, a leather ottoman, a concrete camel, a handcrafted lock and a jar of spices designed to "improve my cup size".
It is mid-afternoon when we pile into 4x4s and drive to Scarabeo Camp on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains. We arrive on sunset, with the world pink and hazy and blurred. Through the gusts of swirling sand we can just make out our Berber-inspired tents, billowing like paper lanterns anchored to the dusty dunes.
Dinner is served in a private tent, a Lawrence of Arabia world of bleached couches, cushions and glowing candles. After the vibrant colours of Marrakesh the washed out desert tones are an immediate relief. We start with a trio of salads – eggplant, carrot and tomato – followed by lentil soup and beef and apricot tagine, all washed down with a local white wine. Afterwards we sit around fire pits and gaze up at the night sky, the stars blazing like pinpricks in an ebony sheet.
After a night cocooned in my luxury tent I'm up with the sun, crunching across the dunes ahead of our pre-breakfast yoga, unfurling my mat before the others arrive. As the sun bursts through the clouds I stretch out, breathing in the desert's silence. Surrounded by such magnificence I should feel small and insignificant, instead I feel blessed, and grateful to be here at this time, in this moment. Perhaps this praying mantis is learning what true mindfulness is all about.
MORE INFORMATION visitmorocco.com
GETTING THERE Emirates flies to Casablanca via Dubai. See emirates.com. Marrakesh is a further 2.5 hours by road.
TOURING THERE Gypsian Boutique Tours offers an 11-night Wellness and Yoga Retreat to Morocco from $5469 (airfares excluded). Prices include boutique accommodation, most meals, transfers/transport in private mini-bus, daily yoga with personal instructor, cooking class and luxury hammam. gypsianboutiquetours.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Gypsian Boutique Tours