The kingdom of Morocco, on the northern tip of Africa, is home to many cultures including French, Arab, Spanish, Moorish and Berber – the name given to the group of non-Arab indigenous people who call north Africa home.
Through the centuries, Berbers have mixed with many other ethnic groups, notably Arabs. Despite this, Morocco’s Berbers have sustained a largely independent culture, with their own set of languages and a reputation for incredible hospitality.
While it’s estimated that about 70 per cent of Moroccans have Berber blood in them, only about 50 per cent admit to it and in some circles Berbers are still looked down upon – the word has derogatory connotations as it means barbarian in Arabic.
The situation is improving though, in large part due to the support of King Mohammed VI, who is half Berber himself. Even in a country so renowned for its friendliness to foreigners, the Berber people are well known for their hospitality and will insist you drink tea, share food or even accept presents.
Our guide Abdu, a Berber from a tiny Atlas village, proudly told us stories of his family and life and insisted one of my fellow travellers take his traditional katfan-like cotton outfit as a gift when he mentioned in passing he liked the look of it.
While Marrakesh is still known as a Berber town, the truth is, like most big cities, much of its specific Berber character has been swallowed up by its urban personality – and what a lively, heady, colourful and hundred-miles-an-hour spirit it is.
Even so, if you want a taste of Berber culture away from the city, there’s no better place to see it than in the Atlas Mountains or the Sahara – traditional Berber land.
And don’t be afraid if you blow a tyre – it may be a blessing in disguise.
» Samantha Baden travelled to Morocco with Topdeck (020-8879 6789). The nine-day Moroccan Explorer takes in Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Fez, the Sahara and Todra Gorge, and starts at £465, plus a £115 local payment fee.
CLASSIC BERBER-STYLE EXPERIENCES
» CAMEL RIDING IN THE SAHARA
Sleep under the stars, or in a Berber tent if you prefer, in the middle of Morocco’s sand dune belt, the Sahara. There’s a slew of lodges, known as auberges, in the region of Erg Chebbi, near the town of Merzouga, each offering a similar experience. They’re often Berber-owned so are likely to include a traditional meal, music and dancing if you’re lucky.
Be warned, you’ll be woken early to be saddled up and sent off on a camel ride (admire the way those dromedaries stay upright even on the steepest dunes).
You get off your beast to walk to the highest sand dune in the area, and from there watch a memorable sunrise. Afterwards, it’s back to the auberge to freshen up, drink mint tea and feast on a well-deserved breakfast.
» TODRA GORGE
The gorge is damn hot in summer and bloody cold in winter, but it’s worth braving the elements for one of Berber Morocco’s most breathtaking sites.
Todra is a true oasis on the southern slope of the High Atlas Mountains where Berber families have been tilling the soil in the same way for generations.
We were treated to a tour by 17-year-old Morad, from the nearby village of Talout, who showed us the extensive farming grounds tended collectively by his village.
The gorge itself is mighty impressive with a sparkling river running through it. Marvel as the early morning sun turns the rock pink and then a rich ochre.
The gorge makes a good base for day trips to the stunning palmeraies (palm groves) and nearby Berber villages, as well as southern Morocco. Stop off at Ait Ben Haddou – a stunning Unesco World Heritage hilltop town – or return to Marrekesh by way of the vertiginous Tichka Pass, which at its peak of 2260m, is the highest asphalt road in
You can always visit Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco, where many films – including Jesus Of Nazareth, Gladiator and Lawrence Of Arabia – were shot in the surrounding area. There’s even a movie studio and film school
in the city if you fancy yourself the next Ridley Scott.