More than location, weather or food, a great host can make a holiday truly memorable, as Esther Addley finds when she meets the amazing Jacqueline
Moroccan magic … a log fire warms the salon in Riad Samsara.Photograph: Alexandre Dupeyron
We had been terribly unlucky with the weather, said Charlie, our charming and relaxed tour operator on receiving our emergency call. But everything was going to be fine now. “I’ll send you to Jacqueline,” he said. “She’ll look after you.”
Come on in … Jacqueline Brandt, host at Riad Samsara. Photograph: Alexandre Dupeyron
Talk about an understatement.Weary, sore, and trying to shake off a miserable fug, we were greeted at the door of the Riad Samsara by a chic tornado of a Frenchwoman, all embraces and apologies on behalf of her adopted country. “Beautiful young lady! It is a disaster! You are safe now. I am your Moroccan maman and this is your Moroccan home!”
Disaster is not too strong a word. Late October is a sensational time to see the High Atlas – everyone agrees. With the mountains getting their first dusting of snow, and the deciduous orchards below the snow line bursting into dazzling oranges and browns, it is the perfect season for sightseeing, whether by car, on foot or by mountain bike.
But as we set off from Marrakech on a looping road trip across the Atlas and towards the Sahara, we found that reality was a little different from what we’d read on the message boards. Winter had arrived early – earlier than anyone could remember – and was making its presence felt with spirted enthusiasm as our feeble Peugeot set off for the winding Tichka pass. When it started to rain thunderously as we left Marrakech, we laughed. Rain! In the desert! By the time we reached the foothills it was snowing, with visibility down to about 15m, as lorries careered past us on the narrow, winding roads.
After a few hours, we turned off towards the Glaoui family kasbah at Telouet, described as one of the most extraordinary sights of the Atlas. Within a few 100 metres, we were met by a group of 4x4s gesturing furiously at us to turn round, as the muddy rivulets running across the road swelled to torrents.
Back on the main road, a rockfall from a cliff almost did for our axle. When we at last limped, under darkening skies, into our hostel close to the spectacular hill town of Aït Benhaddou, star of Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, we were cheerfully informed that the river we would have to cross to visit the fortress – in summer, an empty wadi – was impassible.
The following day was not much better, offering another miserable drive and culminating in a freezing mountain hostel in the Dades Gorge, where we discovered our room had only one small electric heater. It was when the German couple eating dinner next to us complained about the truly dreadful food and were greeted with abuse that we resolved to leave the rest of south-eastern Morocco for another trip. We slept in our clothes, rose at 6am and drove like fury back to Marrakech, where we hoped, at the very least, we might encounter a warm bath.
But as we were ushered into the courtyard of a beautiful old Marrakech riad, and to a jewel-like salon, all scarlet rugs and rich leather pouffes and low, silk cushions, we realised our luck had changed. In the corner was a roaring log fire, and a tray was set with hot mint tea and cake. “I thought you might like to eat here this evening and not have to find a restaurant,” said Jacqueline. Then she showed us to our room, one of just three in the riad, where there was an enormous bed, more plump cushions, another open fire and, in the bathroom, a huge marble bath. It was all we could do not to weep.
It would be tough to find someone who would not enjoy an exquisitely restored, homely riad in the heart of Marrakech’s medina, garlanded with trailing roses and bougainvillea. And given what had preceded it, we were certainly warmly disposed to Riad Samsara. But there is no question that what turned our calamitous trip into one of the most delightful holiday experiences I have had was the warmth of the welcome from the proprietor.
Jacqueline Brandt moved from France to Marrakech in 1999 with her husband, hoping to paint. Some years later he returned to France, but she had fallen in love with the old house in the northern part of the Medina that would become Riad Samsara (named after her favourite Guerlain perfume). Her housekeeper and cook have become her family here, and her guests are encouraged to feel the same way. We were advised where to eat and what to see, which hammam to visit for a spa treatment, the best way to haggle in the souk (a smile, a gesture, a polite “non” – “Say you are with Madame Jacqueline!”). Best of all, though, was sitting on low pouffes in one of the riad’s two salons to eat exquisite tagines, salads and local desserts, before leaning back on a cushion in front of the fire, kicking off our shoes and dozing.
After a couple of days, Jacqueline offered to show us her place in the mountains, where she truly fell in love with Morocco. Situated just beneath the 4,100m Mount Toubkal, the Douar Samra is a traditional berber house made of wood and earth, which she has restored and expanded into an extraordinary mountaintop refuge with spectacular views to the valley.
The mountaintops were snowy and there was a chill in the air, but though the guesthouse is mostly without electricity and lit by candles, it was bursting with colour and cosiness.
The loving restoration of the douar has provided employment for many of the villagers in nearby Tamatert. It is furnished with their rugs and textiles, and a local woman, Rashida, caters for everyone on low tables in the large communal lounge. While we were there, locals of all ages wandered into the house to be offered cake or sweets and be introduced to the guests. We shared mint tea with a village elder, one of the few who speaks French. The villagers call her “Monsieur Jacqueline”, the old man told us affectionately, because “she has the head of a man”. As he left, Jacqueline filled the hood of his long woollen djellaba with oranges for his children.
The douar won’t be for everyone – it’s a little rustic, and there’s a moderately challenging uphill walk from the village to reach it – but for a lesson on how to create a tourist development in the heart of a very poor community, it is difficult to better.
We returned to Marrakech for one last night before flying home. Jacqueline had stayed in the mountains to welcome another party, and we were the only guests in the riad. After supper the cook left and we were asked to bank down the fires and put out the lights ourselves, as Marrakech fell dark and silent outside the courtyard walls. We opened Jacqueline’s guest book by candlelight. “You promised us a holiday,” a previous guest had written, “and have given us a home.” We knew how she felt.