Just hearing the name Kasbah Ellouze never fails to bring a smile to my face. The best maison d’hotes in tout le monde (in my opinion!) may be a world away in Morocco but whenever we visit it always feels like coming home. We’ve just returned from our third visit to Kasbah Ellouze, and are already dreaming about our next, which for people who have until now followed the philosophy of never returning to the same place, this change of direction should say it all.
Kasbah Ellouze is hidden away in the remote little village of Tamdaght, in the rocky desert between Ait Ben Haddou and Telouet. Nested cosily on the edge of a gorge overlooking a blissfully calm almond grove oasis, it’s a perfect pocket of peace. An oasis in itself. From the road you wouldn’t even know it was there, so it’s a bit of an insiders tip! We’ve jealously guarded our secret for several years, having shared it (relucantly) only with family and close friends who have travelled with us, so part of me doesn’t want to spill the beans to the wide world. Yet this gem of a guest house deserves to have it’s trumpets blown loud and clear, and I’ll not lie when I say it makes me feel good knowing people have visited after hearing about it from me. So everyone’s a winner!
It had been a hot and arduous journey driving west across Morocco all the way from Merzouga to Tamdaght, and tempers were beginning to fray. I’d organised the holiday, on which we had invited a couple of friends, promising them we’d arrive mid afternoon so we could enjoy a refreshing dip in the pool and relax on the terrace before the evening meal. Yet we were several hours behind schedule due to our driver’s incredibly timid right foot (riding a camel would’ve been faster), and it was now nearly 8pm, time for dinner. I was fuming at losing an afternoon at my favourite place, and close to tears because my perfectly laid plans weren’t going as smoothly as usual.
However as soon as we pulled up and slid thankfully out of the car, we spied Omar the camel guy and our worries quickly began dissipating. Omar seems to have a second sight as he is always there to help with luggage before you even know you’ve arrived. He lives next door to Kasbah Ellouze and looks after the camels Charlie, Stan, Ella and Maryline, as well as acting as porter for the guests. He doesn’t get a wage from the guest house, so if you do ever stay, please make sure you have a few dirhams for him as he relies on this, and on his camel and walking guiding services for a living.
Omar loaded our oversized suitcases onto his cart with practised ease, and we followed him along the now familiar alleys until we came to the entrance to the Kasbah. The tears that threatened were now ones of joy.
As we step wearily over the threshold, rather aware of the desert dust and travel fatigue clinging all too closely to us, our world is transformed as soft, muted tones of jazz welcome us into the calm open patio area.
French owners Colette and Michel are there to welcome us back with open arms, and moments later the smiliest, most genuine guy ever, Lahcen, comes bounding down the stairs to say a cheery bonjour. Despite the language barrier (my French being pretty non-existent, and hubbie’s even worse) we still manage to communicate with him through unmistakable smiles and gestures, and I’m sure he remembers us as the tourists whose entire vocabulary consists of putting lots of tres in front of bien when they can’t come up with anything better. It seems to work.
Hubbie at his linguistic best:
Lahcen: Ca va bien?
Hubbie: Erm, oui merci, I’ll have a beer please.
I’ve learnt a few more phrases since last time and managed to tell Colette about our tough journey and disappointment at being later than anticipated. She immediately, in very good English, tells us we’re not late at all, and of course we’ve got time for a swim. We can have dinner whenever we’re ready. I could’ve hugged her. So I did. Smiles all round as the stresses of the day melt away, immediately forgotten in the warm embrace of our favourite kasbah.
Finally able to unwind, we went up to one of the many terraces to enjoy some refreshing mint tea and much appreciated homemade biscuits. I have to say it’s some of the best mint tea in all Morocco – just the right amount of sugar, unlike many places who either put in too much, or too little.
Omar and Lahcen had kindly taken our luggage upstairs to our favourite room and we barely glanced at the familiar abode as we excitedly flung off our clothes and squeezed into our swimwear. What could be more perfect than a relaxing swim in the evening sun before what we knew would be the most delicious feast ever.
Food for the soul
An hour later, now sufficiently calm and composed, we changed for dinner and went to sit in the lounge for our usual pre dinner nibbles and drinks – a cuba libre for me, and a Flag beer for hubbie. I love being able to say ‘usual’!
A soulful saxophone (yes, it is possible) was blending subtly with a double bass from the speakers in the jazz lounge, and for the first time since arriving in Morocco I felt able to enjoy dressing a little smarter as we looked forward to a most civilised and sociable evening. Colette and Michel are jazz enthusiasts, having owned a jazz club in France, and the lounge wall is plastered with black and white photos of all the greats, signed and addressed to the owners themselves, creating a lovely ambience with a personal touch. Sometimes dinner is served in here, at the traditional and comfy low tables, although when the weather is warm, as it is now in October, it’s usually out on the terrace which benefits from a welcome breeze from the gardens.
Dinner was, as always, delectable. Michel was a top chef back in France, and it shows! We began with breads and Berber soup which was presented in a traditional ceramic terrine and left on the table for seconds (or thirds…). The gentle hum of dinner conversation drifted around the terrace, as Lahcen and the team busied themselves between the tables, always on hand if you needed them, whilst never imposing on our privacy. They were keen to ensure we are enjoying ourselves, and this is where the tres tres tres bien comes in. Really must learn some more vocab!
Next up is my personal favourite, Chaariya (Moroccan broken vermicelli noodles) with onions, dates, spices and all sorts of other tasty morsels, finished as always with a sprinkle of icing sugar and cinnamon which sounds bizarre but works wonders with the taste buds! There’s a mouthwatering chicken and lemon tagine, which is one dish I normally avoid in Morocco since it so often tastes like the cleaning product cif, but here at Kasbah Ellouze, it of course proves the exception. The meat just falls off the bone, and there is exactly the right amount of juice to mop up with bread after we’ve polished it all off. Colette comes over for a chat, always so attentive and genuinely interested in all her guests, and makes sure everyone knows exactly what is on the menu. Dessert, if you have room, is often home baked date gateau, or mousse made with fresh seasonal garden produce. This time it was pomegranate, the perfect end to a perfect meal.
A night cap with a view
Our bellies full, we heaved ourselves up to the terrace to take our after dinner mint tea. The brick was still warm from the afternoon sun and sweet perfume scents from the garden oasis were strong and heady in the still night air. A superb vantage point to gaze at the stars twinkling over the mountains as the valley settled down to slumber.
Finally our comfy beds beckoned and after sorting out the mess we’d made in our earlier haste, we fell asleep with smiles on our faces in the silent pitch blackness, a slight breeze from the window ruffling the curtains contentedly.
What could be a better way to start the day than a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, with delicious warm homemade breads, pancakes, yogurt and fruit, whilst listening to the gardens come slowly to life.
The best standard rooms are Brahim (room 2) and Aicha (room 1) as these are the only two with windows overlooking the oasis and surrounding mountains. Our favourite is Brahim as it’s tucked in the corner, has plenty of space to spread out including a sofa and wardrobe, and is tastefully decorated in tones of red and orange. The ensuite has a shower, and whilst the plumbing isn’t the most spectacular we’ve ever come across (please take the remote location into consideration!), it just adds to the rustic charm of the place. Despite not always having hot water, I wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, a cooling shower is often what you need after a day out in the heat after all.
Aicha room is lovely too, and has 2 windows rather than 1, with a view out to the terraces as well as the gardens. We tend to prefer Brahim as it feels a tad more private. The other standard rooms are pleasant but without the views.
There are some suites, the best (in my opinion) being Hasna, the one above Brahim and Aicha. It enjoys more space and stunning views from higher up, but the air conditioning is in the lounge area rather than the bedroom so it can get rather hot in the height of summer.
Kasbah Ellouze is the perfect place to chill out and enjoy just ‘being’. The comfy terraces with their secret nooks and crannies invite you to sprawl out with a good book, perhaps having a break now and then for a dip in the gloriously cool pool, and of course tea and nibbles whenever the need takes you.
When you tire of that, or when it gets too hot, take a stroll down into the cool gardens (they are vast and you won’t tread the same path twice!), say hi to the locals, see the crumbling walls of the old Glaoui Kasbah, and paddle across the river to look at the troglodyte caves. If you do cross the river, scramble a little way up the side of the valley where a spectacular reward awaits…
In Tamdaght village you can also visit the inspiring but ruined Glaoui Kasbah which is lived in by some families who are trying to do it up bit by bit. They have no funding and rely on donations from tourists like ourselves who knock on the door and ask to have a look around.
It’s quite an odd experience as it feels like poking your nose around someone’s home, but the family only live in a small part of it, and they appreciate the little financial help we can give in their attempts to save this magnificent structure for generations to come. Pretty cool place to live if you ask me!
If you’re still feeling energetic, or need to walk off last night’s dinner, Omar will take you to visit nearby grain lofts, more troglodyte caves and the surrounding area by foot, or on camel. If you fancy discovering more about the culture and traditional way of life in the village you can go and learn how to bake bread at the home of a local family, and find out where your yummy breakfast comes from!
Most people just stay overnight at Ouarzazate on their way to the desert and don’t really stop to appreciate what this area has to offer, besides a cursory glance at Ben Haddou.
Ait Ben Haddou – a visit to the iconic fortified hilltop village made famous by the filming of many of the classics such as Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven is a must. Stop for lunch in one of the cafes with great views of the village, and shop for souvenirs on the walk up to the grain loft at the top. Just make sure you haggle with gusto!
Quad Biking – several different options, including half day trips around Ait Ben Haddou and the film sets, or ride out to the lush Fint Oasis, which is brilliant fun for amateurs and experienced alike. Stop for refreshments including bread and mint tea at a Berber house or auberge in the oasis. We’ve done this twice now, and each trip is different.
Ouarzazate – visit the two film studios, kasbahs, see the storks, take in the bustle of the markets, or simply get to that ATM you’ve been needing to find. Personally I think it’s more atmospheric to stay half an hour away at Ben Haddou (or of course Kasbah Ellouze) rather than Ouarzazate, which is essentially just a town with little appeal beyond the tourist sights.
Draa Valley and Dades Gorge – take a day trip through either of these stunning landscapes and you won’t be disappointed.
In essence, Kasbah Ellouze has the perfect blend of rustic yet comfortable tranquility, warm hospitality, delicious food and enough exploring and activities to keep you busy when you’ve had enough relaxation.
Colette told us when we departed: if you come twice, that means you’ll be back for a third visit. But if you come three times, it means by the fourth you’ll be wanting to buy! We’ve considered purchasing a Marrakech riad, but perhaps when Colette and Michel retire and return to France (hopefully not too soon, the place wouldn’t be the same without them), it might just be something for us to consider! I can hear hubbie sighing resignedly in the background.
Although I endorse Kasbah Ellouze with all my heart, don’t simply take my word for it…come and find out for yourselves…just don’t tell anyone else about our secret!