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Benvenuto, Club Valtur:
Marrakech, Morocco

 

by Fred Steinberg

Pool palm trees sunset landscape


It was not a good sign, literally or figuratively. Our flight to Marrakech had arrived on time at ten p.m. but our arranged pickup was nowhere to be seen. There were signs for the Sheraton, La Mammounia, Safir and a host of other hotels, but no Club Valtur. I wondered a bit on why we had come to Morocco. But friend Roger had raved about the beauty, history and food in Marrakech during a country tour there and had happily stayed at a number of Club Valturs in Italy, so the combination seemed to make sense. (I later discovered that Roger was a pasta addict, whose Sicilian ancestors owned a rigatoni factory.)

The small airport emptied quickly so we went to one of the few remaining open booths and a friendly car rental agent called the Club. We were told that they had our reservation but the US office had not advised them of our arrival time and the hotel driver had left. They advised us to take a taxi and we would be reimbursed.

We found a cab and were quoted a $20 fee. After loading our luggage and getting in, two of the drivers “friends” jumped into the cab with us at which point we jumped out. The friends got out after we renegotiated a “private” fare of $25 and off we drove into the very dark desert night on a bumpy dirt road with no springs and only parking lights. Twenty bouncing minutes later we turned into a group of low slung buildings set like an oasis amid miles of windswept desert scrub.

We were immediately surrounded by a group of identically dressed Club Valtur “Equipe” or counselors who welcomed us in fluent Italian. An English speaking Equipe soon appeared and after apologizing for the pickup confusion asked to “borrow” our transportation voucher. (It was never returned despite numerous requests and we never were reimbursed.) We were shown to a bright, modern, comfortable room and asked to return to see the Activities Director. Over some drinks and snacks she explained that few of the guests or staff spoke English but two couples from Malta would be arriving at the end of the week whose English was quite good. She was sorry we had missed the “Moroccan Night” dinner as it was the only local food that would be served. But she assured us that we would love the various varieties of pasta and other Italian fare that would be served at all lunches and dinners. (By the end of our six day visit, we had sampled enough varieties of pasta to satisfy the entire population of Naples.)

The Activities Director explained the daily schedule which reminded me of my young days at summer camp including aerobics, calisthenics, guest-participation evening shows put on by the Equipes, volleyball, archery, table tennis and, of course, bocce. The large pool, which promised to be our savior from this over fraternization, turned out to be occupied a good part of the day with group water aerobics, swimming races and an Italian form of water polo in which drowning ones opponent seemed to be the ultimate goal.

Most of the remaining day and night time seemed to be taken with various other tournaments and games directly by the Equipe, Club Valtur’s version of Club Med’s GOs. Between formal shows and activities, various Equipes entertained themselves, and supposedly the guests, by belting out off-key renditions of Elvis, Louie Prima and the Great Caruso from the terrace adjacent to the pool over the Club’s hyperactive sound system.

Welcome to Club Valtur, the Italian version of Club Med, with some 27 locations, mostly in Italy and North Africa. In fact, the two clubs were affiliated for some thirty years until the nineties and operate with similar philosophies – self-contained, comprehensive and constant activities. Rates start at $800 weekly including airport transfers (usually – see my first paragraph), three meals daily, unlimited beer, wine and soft drinks and thrice daily half hour shuttles to Marrakech.

After one day, overwhelmed by the intensity of the Club’s environment and a desire to see more of Morocco, we signed up for three tours. The second evening we took a horse-drawn carriage ride around the City, admiring the stately homes and gardens on palm-lined streets, the Koutoubia, the 70-meter high spiritual beacon of Marrakech which has summoned the faithful to prayers for over 800 years and the architecture of many mosques. We walked the main medina surrounded by hundreds of carts overflowing with fruits, flowers, herbs and grains. In the main square outside the Souks were basket and pottery stalls, wood carvers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, musicians, public scribes, musicians, street dentists, fortune tellers, snake charmers, fire eaters, potion vendors and pickpockets – a feast for the eye, ear and nose.

A tour through the Ourkia foothills of the High Atlas Mountains provided an opportunity to view the typical brown and barren landscape of North Africa, broken by oasis-like compounds dotted with fig, walnut, fig and date trees and an occasional Berber Village. At one we viewed the simple lifestyle featuring adobe huts, basic agriculture and community kitchen facilities. A demonstration and sampling of the local diet staples of flat bread made over hot rocks and sweet mint tea was most interesting. Unfortunately this Berber Village visit was to be repeated on the other tours we took. In fact I suspected that the toothless, smiling, wizened, elderly women kneading and pounding the flat bread dough and shucking the giant mint tea leaves at the three similar villages was the same person.

A city tour with a two-hour visit to the souks – despite the obligatory stop at a small Berber village on the way to Marrakech – proved our trip highlight. The Saakian tombs from the 16th Century, the Bab Agnaou and the Kasbah Mosque were most impressive. But in Marrakech it is said that all roads lead to the souks. That’s probably true if you know where you are going. And in the souks you better know where you are going or be with someone who does. They are a loose confederation of outdoor and covered booths and shops that continue in tangents and circles seeming to lead only to more booths and shops. Sections are devoted to everything copper, wool and cotton items to kitchen items, crafts and jewelry. Dispersed throughout the maze of alleys are carts and stalls of drink and food from every kind of nuts and sweets to kebobs and tagines, the tangy local stew made with vegetables and a selection of meats.

Our favorite souk section was the one devoted to spices. The smells and sights of hundreds of open sacks of saffron, cloves, cumin, pepper, ginger, mint leaves and other spices take you into another exotic world. The dried food section also beckoned. Sacks of almonds, ground nuts and chick peas were piled next to barrels of dates, figs and olives. The adjacent herbal apothecary shelves were laden with bowls of henna, ghassoul and flasks of rose extract in addition to khole and various male aphrodisiacs. One of the “pharmacists” quickly found an Italian-speaking friend and did a brisk business with some of our group. Many of our group females spent a good deal of time and dirhams in the fragrance and cosmetics section. Reasonably priced containers of local perfumes and fragrances made attractive gifts to bring home.

We reluctantly made the obligatory carpet factory visit (owned, of course by the tour guide’s cousin who swore he would give us the best price in souk history) just off the main souk where our Valtur group was subject to bladder-expanding cups of mint tea and one of the most sophisticated hard sells in the history of North Africa. Unfortunately Italian seemed to be one of the few languages the pitchman, who claimed he spoke nine languages, did not speak. So he focused his spiel, which included his two young assistants displaying Yacout, Berber and Tuareg carpets and caftans in a mountainous pile we thought would keel over, on the three of us who spoke English. We feared we would be entombed in the pile as a permanent monument to misdirected sales resistance so one by one we feigned the call of nature and waited outside the shop for the guide and the Italians who seemed to be enjoying the show but had absolutely no intention of parting with another Lira.

On our final day we took a Land Rover Caravan tour over the historic slave and gold trails into the High Atlas mountains. To no surprise, we found no slaves or gold and the mountains were hardly high. This disappointing tour featured a salt flat tour (about as exciting as going to your local CVS and watching them fill prescriptions) and once again to a somewhat larger Berber Village where the (same?) wizened old women served flat bread and mint tea. Included was a “free” visit to a Berber pump house – no doubt one of the eight wonders of the world. Well it was kind-of free. As the door closed behind the first group let into the small house the rest of us were told to wait a few minutes until they were finished. After about 10 minutes we heard loud arguing, mostly in Italian. After a few minutes the group stormed out explaining in halting English that while admission was indeed free, exiting was not. The elderly women pump house host apparently would not unlock the door until they had given “contributions” and the Italians refused. How this was resolved was lost in translation but the rest of us decided to forgo this Moroccan highlight.

After stopping for lunch at a “traditional” outdoor Berber restaurant where we were delighted to be served some local fare, we noted an attached crafts display with local pottery, crafts and other tourist tchotchkes, much of which looked suspiciously similar to the items in the Club Valtur gift shop as did the sales lady. However she declined to confirm any affiliation claiming she spoke only Darija (native Moroccan) and some Italian. My suspicions that this restaurant and shop were somehow connected to the Club were somewhat reinforced when it seemed like our ride back to the Club was very circuitous and took less than an hour vs. the four hour morning ride.

After visiting the pasta bar for the ninth time in five days that evening and drowning ourselves in a few extra glasses of free Italian vino we prepared for our early departure the next morning and bid “arriverderci” to Club Valtur. 

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