Constant sunshine? Check. Stunning scenery? Check. Comfortable accommodation? Check. Delicious food? Check. Excellent company? Check. We must be in Merzouga! What we didn't have were the warm evenings and balmy nights we might have expected, but the sun-drenched days with perfect visibility were the best thing a painter could hope for.
Our first night in Morocco was at the well appointed Hotel Le Jardin, a new venue for us, just 20 minutes from Ouarzazate airport. It was from there that we embarked for the desert early on Sunday morning. Lunch on the terasse at the restaurant Ferkla along the way was a pleasant break, and a first introduction to Moroccan cuisine for some of us. Replete with Berber omelette and juicy oranges, we completed our journey a couple of hours later.
In the afternoon, the desert greeted us in its finest clothing, as did Ali Mouni, our charming host, friend of thirteen years, and owner of the Nomad Palace. The sun, sinking low in the afternoon sky, threw crisp shadows from the long curving shapes of the dunes, and turned the sand a deep peachy hue, that begged to be captured in paint. Once settled into our rooms, we gathered for dinner in a cosy corner of the Nomad Palace, and discussed our plans for the week.
Weary travellers were grateful that we stayed in the environs of the Nomad Palace on the first day, painting subjects that acclimatised us to our new surroundings. Some chose rooftop views of the desert, others a Berber tent in the courtyard, or intriguing corners with earthenware pots, spring flowers, and Moroccan artefacts.
The next morning we ventured into the fertile world of the village Palmerie, where tiny green fields liberally dotted with date palms offered us a variety of subjects. Moroccan garbed locals, quietly tending their plots, might be captured by the brush of the curious painter, while the trees offered us shade and a place for our picnic lunch, with 'Berber Pizza' (Madfona), fresh oranges and mint tea. This sustained us until the evening, but before we returned to the hotel, we visited the Nomad Depot, where local crafts, carpets, and clothing are bought and sold. Some of the group revelled in the chance for a little light shopping, and a spot of judicious bargaining saw several potentially magic carpets begin their journeys to a new land.
Wednesday found us in 4x4s, racing over the piste (flat stony desert with sandy patches), to our next location. Deep in the desert, on a hill looking out on the magnificence of the Erg Chebbi, Morocco's largest single dune mass, a lonely auberge has all the appearance of a foreign legion fort of legend, and provides the perfect motif for our eager painters. The Salama, a smaller auberge where we based ourselves, fed us splendidly, and provided all the comforts a remote painting location might need. After the day's work was done, we went on an exciting trip around the the perimeter of the dunes, back to the Nomad Palace, pausing along the way to drink tea with nomads at their lonely settlement. The temptation to abscond with one of the adorable baby goats frolicked around us had to be sternly resisted!
The optional non-painting day gave the opportunity to those who chose, to join me on a local tour, taking in a visit to an historic Kasbah. Though empty now, it was once a royal residence. Onwards to a fascinating site where fossils can be seen in their natural state, followed by a visit to a fossil museum and workshop, where we found out how the million year old creatures are freed from their rocky captivity. A sumptuous home cooked lunch with Ali's sister, in the county town of Erfoud was a delicious added bonus.
Another day at the the Nomad Palace is never a hardship, especially when you have the chance to paint the friendly camels that Ali keeps for desert trekking. We were set up with our own three languid subjects, who delighted and sometimes frustrated us with their superior expressions and curious physiognomy. The young men in their traditional Berber robes who attended the noble beasts soon found themselves included in our paintings. The intrepid amongst us later rode these camels to the dunes for a spectacular sunset.
We didn't want to admit that it was our last day in the desert, so we journeyed to one of our favourite locations, an adobe built village, deserted since 1969 when the well dried up. It is now gently subsiding back into its natural form, giving us curious shapes and shadows, corners and vistas to tempt the most jaded eye. One family remains in residence who bring their water by donkey from the nearest source, several kilometres away. The only other resident is Yusuf, a gentleman who was born in the village, and has now set up an intriguing and artistic example of desert scavenging and recycling. He kindly cooked us our lunch of Berber Pizza in the traditional way.
Knowing what was waiting for us in the Dades Gorge made leaving the Nomad Palace easier for my husband and I, but it was a wrench to the rest of the group. Their sadness turned to delight when we arrived at the Hotel Panorama, and were greeted by its owners, the brothers Moustafa and Ibrahim. Both men are fellow artists, whose own work adorns the walls of their delightful hotel, which is perched on the side of the steep valley with views to impressively multi-colored peaks, and the meandering Dades river below. An idyllic afternoon's painting followed, before I took the chance to enjoy examples of all of the group's work, with a few words of encouragement and praise for everyone at the (almost) end of what was an exceptionally productive week.
On our final day we were back again at the hotel in Ouarzazate, where we started from. It was a last chance to spend time painting, to visit the local shops, or to just sit by the pool and enjoy the sun.
With best wishes for a creative spring,