Kasbah du Toubkal and the world of Berbers in High Atlas mountains, Morocco

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Reasonable plans. This is the name of the small book with Berber girls on the back cover, which you can find on many places across Kasbah du Toubkal. At first glance, this is a book about the history of a hotel, although an unusual hotel. Actually, it is a small book about the big things in life – like patience, striving for development, overcoming stereotypes and the courage to open your eyes for something new.

A collection of unique hotels in our section Lodge as an experience.

And before we get you bored, this article will still be a story about a hotel. An extraordinary hotel, though. To be correct, not a hotel but a Berber Hospitality Centre at 1800 m up in the High Atlas mountains in Morocco. A venue that puts at one place the best of both worlds – the one of Berbers, living in the area for centuries, and the one of the British owners, raised in a quite different world. We will tell you about a place where authenticity is not thrown in your face in the shape of a staged show program, but neither falls behind the luxury and comforts which contemporary travellers (we among them) prefer to keep, no matter where they go.

We enter the Kasbah du Toubkal.

The yard of Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, Morocco
The yard of Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, Morocco

The mule stops in front of the high solid gate, above which rises a high stone tower overlooking the still snowless peaks of High Atlas. Stepping through the gardens, we read the signs with the names of the plants, while curiously looking around.

It is a strange feeling, like we are in someone’s yard or in some tiny village up in the mountains, wondering on which door to knock. The buildings left to the alley are reddish, regular-shaped, like most of the houses in Imlil village, from which we are coming. Against them is the green yard with more flowers and trees. On its opposite side we notice small doors and stairways which lead to more houses and rooms. A few more steps and we find ourselves by the entrance of the main building of the Kasbah du Toubkal.

The cozy foyer/dining room of Kasbah du Toubkal
The cozy foyer/dining room of Kasbah du Toubkal

Orange water and dates in milk

We cross the unusually high treshold and upon entrance to the half-dark room with burning fireplace to the left, we are invited to give our hands. This is tasse – the ritual of washing the hands to the guests before eating. They sprayed our hands with a few drops of orange water from a special pot. Then we rubbed them with the refreshing liquid to get ready for the next ritual of hospitality – they offered us dates to dip in milk and eat.

Welcome ritual number 3 (doubtlessly, the most popular welcome ritual in Morocco) is the serving of Moroccan tea. It is our seventh day in Morocco, we have drunk a lot of welcome tea and we are now looking forwards to it. One of us prefers it without mint, another one without sugar, but everyone from the staff is incredibly kind and hospitable and a few minutes later the pot, the sugar and the 4 small glasses arrived on the table, while we waited to see our rooms.

Berber-style tea on the terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal, High Atlas mountains, Morocco
Berber-style tea on the terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal, overlooking the High Atlas mountains, Morocco

We are almost used to the habits in Morocco, including the fact that showing you the room in your hotel is not something that happens immediately upon arrival. This doesnt’t bother us anymore and why should it, when we are welcomed, put to sit and offered tea? Haven’t we travelled all the way to here to enrich ourselves with impressions, to discover places and cultures, to feel the atmosphere, instead of hiding behind 4 walls, not knowing from who and what?

The truth is that during our Moroccan trip sometimes we wished that we were first let into our rooms to refresh and relax and then enjoy the tea. However, the good thing is that in Morocco you can drink tea at all times. And nothing prevents you to have one more cup after the personal refreshment time.

At this moment the receptionist arrived, ready to show us the room. Our group of 4 slept in two different types of accommodation – half of us in Berber salon and the other half in a deluxe double room.

A night in a Berber salon

Berber salons are not traditional hotel rooms, but rooms based on local custom. In Kasbah du Toubkal there are several such rooms, small and large Berber salons. All of them are named after villages in the vicinity.

Small Berber salon in Kasbah du Toubkal - the lower level
Small Berber salon in Kasbah du Toubkal – the lower level

The rooms have two levels. The down level is usually acting as a living room, equipped with couches and a coffee table. The upper level should act as a bedroom and is equipped with mattresses to be slept on. Our room (Small Berber Salon) was small, maybe about 10 sq.m., but could accommodate up to 7 people to sleep. In the summer, if you wish, you can be provided a sleeping bag to spend the night on the terrace, under the stars.

The upper level of the Small Berber salon at Kasbah du Toubkal
The upper level of the Small Berber salon at Kasbah du Toubkal

Berber salons do not have an ensuite bathroom and use a shared bathroom, which is very nice and large enough for everyone. The only inconvenience is that it is not next door to the room and in the winter reaching it through the cool foyer may be a bit uncomfortable. However, if you are really cold, you should better visit the hammam.

Even though it was small, our Berber salon made us feel cozy and comfortable. It featured almost everything you would find in a normal hotel room – a sitting area, soap, towels, kettle, complimentary tea, coffee and fruits. The salon itself was located just next to the dining room and the exit to the terrace so we had all the coziness and comfort Kasbah du Toubkal has to offer.

A cozy moment on the panoramic terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal, overlooking High Atlas mountains
A cozy moment on the panoramic terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal, overlooking High Atlas mountains

Hammam at Kasbah du Toubkal

We arrived at Kasbah du Toubkal in the afternoon after an exhausting 4-hour drive from Eassouira. The previous day we had had a (traditional) hammam in Essaouira where one lady cleaned us thoroughly and then another one gave us a massage. However, during these procedures we got quite cold and the hammam did not match our image of the cozy place where you find warmth after a busy day.

Anyway, we are great bath enthusiasts. And immediately after we discovered the hammam in Kasbah du Toubkal, we booked a visit. It is mandatory to make the reservation for the hammam and the good thing is that they reserve the hammam just for you or your group. You can stay in the hammam for up to 30 minutes.

We were so impatient to try the hammam and once the time came, we didn’t wait a second more. In the hammam there is a changing area and also a basin with cold water to cool down and refresh if you feel too hot in the steam room. They gave us instructions and left us enjoy the coziness and warmth of the hammam.

Maria in the hammam at Kasbah du Toubkal
Maria in the hammam at Kasbah du Toubkal

The hammam at Kasbah du Toubkal is not like the SPA centres where someone gives you a clean, a massage, etc. It is a self-service bath, an experience as close as possible to a local hammam.

Indeed, a nice hammam was not an easily accessible service for a long time in Imlil. Until 2004, the closest public hammam was in the town of Asni, 17 km away. So few people from the villages could visit it on a regular basis. The hammam in Imlil village was one of the most important projects developed in the area. It opened on December 18, 2004.

So what do you do in a hammam, in case you have never visited one before?

Many Bulgarians older than 35 years still remember the public baths across the country, where they were taken as children by their parents or grandparents. The public baths in Bulgaria looked quite like the Turkish hammams. They consisted of a large hall with fountains for hot and cold water along the walls. Visitors were supposed to fill a bucket with water adjusted to their preferences and then clean themselves with it. The public baths were quite cozy places, filled with steam and warmth, making you want to stay inside for hours.

The cold basin in the hammam where Maria did not dare to jump in - Kasbah du Toubkal
The cold basin in the hammam where Maria did not dare to jump in – Kasbah du Toubkal

Our time in the hammam passed quickly and we headed for dinner, warmed and refreshed.

The corner by the fireplace

The table in the corner, by the fireplace, became our table. We picked it immediately after arrival, for our afternoon tea. They had just lit the fire and we sat in the embrace of the coziness in the half-dark corner, warmed by the first flames.

There is some amazing coziness in the dining room of Kasbah du Toubkal. Let’s mention again that this is not a restaurant but a dining room where guests are welcomed, served what the host has prepared for the day and enjoy the food and hospitality. Dining at the Kasbah is always a pleasure, even if there is lamb for dinner. (Two of our group initially said that they don’t eat lamb and another one is a vegetarian).

The dining room at Kasbah du Toubkal and our group in the back corner
The dining room at Kasbah du Toubkal and our group in the corner

When you are a guest and you are invited to dinner, it is polite to appear on time. The dinner at the Kasbah takes place from 19 to 21h. So we did our best to arrive on time, because we don’t want to be impolite. We settled on our cozy table, beautifully arranged with ceramic dishes, cups and mugs with signs in Berber language.

Berber-style lamb

Every dinner in Morocco starts with bread and light appetizers like butter, olives, etc. The oven for the bread is just metres away from the dining room and the aroma of freshly baked home-made bread had filled the whole room.

The other aroma we scented (and were more sceptical about) was the one of the lamb. As we have told in our other article about trekking in the High Atlas mountains, lamb is among the most popular meats in the region. And quite often you will be offered exactly this. While wondering how the lamb would be prepared and what actually would we have for dinner, the soup arrived.

Here is how they serve the soup at the Kasbah du Toubkal
Here is how they serve the soup at the Kasbah du Toubkal

You really feel like a special guest when the host arrives on the table with a pot of hot soup, just removed from the fire. In the half-dark corner its colour was not very recognizable but we were informed that it was soup from lentils and other legumes. Berber soups are very interesting, more like cream soups. They contain so many different vegetables and herbs that you can hardly distinguish them. But when the soup is so delicious, nothing else matters. This lentil soup was a bit spicy and woke up our appetite and curiousity for the main course.

The hot vegetable soup -Kasbah du Toubkal dinner
The hot vegetable soup – Kasbah du Toubkal dinner

The lamb arrived in a very convenient plate, together with the side dishes – carrots, rice, baked tomatoes. We are always amazed how so simple and common products can be prepared in so delicious and sometimes unexpected ways.

Lamb with vegetable side dishes
Lamb with vegetable side dishes

In Morocco spicy carrots are a common meal. The rice and potatoes, however, can be prepared and seasoned in numerous ways. But the most important thing here is the lamb and the fact that we ate lamb and we loved it. There wasn’t a track of the specific flavour that we don’t like in lamb. For dessert we had fruits – the most common dessert in Morocco, very refreshing.

Drinks at the Kasbah du Toubkal

As Morocco is predominarily Muslim country, alcohol is an uncommon drink among locals. Local laws forbid Muslims to buy and drink alcohol. However, it is still possible and legal for tourists to buy and drink alcohol, if they insist. In the cities and tourist resorts there are restaurants and shops with a license to sell alcohol. There are even a few wineries in Morocco, created to serve the tourist demand.

Kasbah du Toubkal does not have an alcohol license. However, visitors are allowed to bring their own alcoholic drinks and they will be provided glasses. We decided to pay respect to local people by not bringing any alcohol to the Kasbah. But we have to admit that at one point we were a bit envious towards a group of Scandinavian yoga retreaters who enjoyed one bottle of wine after another.

A cup of tea is always a good idea at the Kasbah du Toubkal
A cup of tea is always a good idea at the Kasbah du Toubkal

Thoughts from the terrace

After dinner we go up to the terrace in the djellabas we borrowed from Petar and Elena, the other part of our group (in the Berber salons they do not provide djellabas, only in the ensuite rooms). And while enjoying the almost full moon, throwing light to the whole valley and the surrounding hills, we feel almost like Berbers and think about life in the Imlil valley, now and then.

Djellaba is a traditional outer dress in Morocco, usually a wide robe with a hood. It can be made of wool or a lighter fabric, depending on the season. Djellabas are warm and comfortable, despite men who are not used to them might feel like in a dress.
The Imlil valley seen from the terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal
The Imlil valley seen from the terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal

Kasbah du Toubkal – the beginning

Kasbah du Toubkal is a place with an exciting history. If you dedicate just half hour of your time to read the story in brief (on site you will have plenty of opportunities), you will feel the place in a totally different way.

In the first half of 20th century this hill hosted the summer residence of Caid Souktani, a local chief during the time Morocco was a French protectorate. Souktani was a colourful character, he liked his comforts, and before electricity arrived in the valley he had hydro-electric power, driven by a water wheel that still exists beside the entrance to the Kasbah. When Morocco gained its independence in 1956, Caid left and the Kasbah fell into ruin. *

Reasonable plans

The modern history of Kasbah du Toubkal started in 1973 when British man Mike McHugo, then a 19-year old youngster, arrived in Imlil, looking for adventures and ideas for organizing trips for Brits to Morocco. The ruins above Imlil village caught his eye and dreams for the decades ahead. The turning point was in 1989 when Morocco allowed foreigners to buy land. Arranging the documents took 6 years but finally, in 1995, the construction of Kasbah du Toubkal started.

But it was not only about building a property. It was making a dream come true. The dream to build an extraordinary place that will not only provide comfort to the owner and his guests but will also be an active member and contributor to local life and wellbeing in High Atlas.

Kasbah du Toubkal nowadays
Kasbah du Toubkal nowadays

The secret to success of Mike and his local partner Omar, who manages the Kasbah, is in the reasonable plans. Both men knew that in order to achieve something, they should do it together with the local population. Moreover, they should find a way that all the people in the valley develop and progress together. Last but not least, they know that non of the above will happen easily, nor quickly. This is why they do their best to make reasonable plans and be ready for compromises.

The terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal with views to high Atlas
The terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal with views to High Atlas

25 years up the mule path

One of the first things that impress the visitors of Kasbah du Toubkal is the difficult access to the complex. The road ends in Imlil and the Kasbah is reachable after a 15-minute walk uphills by the narrow mule path. Mules have been one of the most important things for the local Berber population for centuries. They are a part of the wokforce as well as the natural ride through the hills of High Atlas. Berbers use mainly mules because they are stronger than donkeys but cheaper to maintain than horses.

Mules are the natural ride through the hills of High Atlas
Mules are the natural ride through the hills of High Atlas

Every single piece of the Kasbah du Toubkal, including construction materials and furniture, has been transported on the back of mules, and sometimes on the back of men. And despite this might have been quite more expensive, labor-intensive and slower than bulldozing a road, the owners agreed that it had to be done in harmony with life in the mountains and local habits.

A dirt road passes by a hill above the Kasbah du Toubkal. However, there is still no car access to the Kasbah itself
A dirt road passes by a hill above the Kasbah du Toubkal. However, there is still no car access to the Kasbah itself

The heaviest single item brought to the Kasbah was an industrial washing machine. Bringing it uphills by the mule path needed 48 men.

Another curious fact is that during the construction of Kasbah du Toubkal there was no electricity in the area. Electricity arrived in 1998.

Kasbah du Toubkal, seen from the path above the village
Kasbah du Toubkal, seen from the path above the village

The home of Berbers

An imminent part of Kasbah du Toubkal’s existence is being in harmony with life in the Imlil valley. Every carpet, pillow, piece of linen, dish or cup with a traditional Berber inscription.. none of these is there by accident or bought in industrial quantities from a faraway country. Everything that can be supplied locally has come out of the hands of tens of men and women in the Imlil valley, despite sometimes being much more expensive and slow to produce.

The candle-lit dinner at the Kasbah du Toubkal
The candle-lit dinner at the Kasbah du Toubkal

All the staff serving tourists, including tourist guides, muleteers, cooks, etc., are also locals. And the feeling that you are a guest in a berber house is absolutely authentic.

The covered terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal
The covered terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal

Nowadays Kasbah du Toubkal is a motor of life in the whole Imlil valley. It not only provides jobs for tens of people, but also takes active part in local development. The body that takes care of the local development projects is called Association Bassins d’Imlil (Association of the villages in the Imlil valley) and was created with the initiative and will of Kasbah du Toubkal’s owners.

A trigger event for the creation of the association was the will of director Martin Scorcese to use the Kasbah du Toubkal for a stage of the movie Kundun, a film about the early life of Dalai Lama. The Kasbah’s owners said that they would agree only if people from the villages agree, if local labour is used where possible and if the rent income goes for the welfare of local communities. After a discussion with local leaders was created the Association of the villages in the Imlil valley with a goal to develop and execute local development projects. So, in 1996 the Kasbah was transformed into a Buddhist monastery.

A number of projects have been developed and executed since then. Among them, improvement of the water supply in the valley, improving the quality of life and work of mules, helping Berber girls continue their education. The latter is probably the most important of all, but the most difficult as well. It started with the construction of a boarding house in Asni where girls from poor families to be supported to live and study. At first, convincing fathers to let their daughters live away from home was a hard job. However, in the recent years the project attracts more and more interest. Now one of the challenges is to provide the financing to support more and more candidates. And also support for girls who want to continue their education in university.

3 days across High Atlas

Imlil has attracted mountain lovers and trekkers for decades. It is a place both for those who prefer short nature walks and those who aim at climbing peaks. The valley is a popular starting point for the ascent to the highest peak in North Africa – Djbel Toubkal (4167m). And despite we are not active mountaineers, we embraced the idea for a trek across High Atlas, organized by Kasbah du Toubkal.

High Atlas mountains, Morocco
High Atlas mountains, Morocco

We have to admit that one of the most difficult things for tourists in Morocco is the communication with locals. There is not only the language barrier but a cultural one as well. In another article we will tell you about some peculiarities of this country. But when you are up in the mountain with the Berbers, where few people speak any foreign language (Arabic is not popular in this area either, despite being an official language in Morocco), the challenges are even bigger.

The good thing is that the staff at Kasbah du Toubkal speaks wonderful English. And they are ready to organize for you whatever you wish. There are various treks – shorter or longer, easy or advanced. We agreed on a medium-level guided trek to the Azzaden valley and back, accompanied by mule to carry our bags. Our whole adventure in the High Atlas included one night at the Kasbah, a trek to Azzaden valley and night at the Azzaden Trekking Lodge in the village of Ait Aissa (owned and managed by the same owners as the Kasbah), and another night at the Kasbah before we left for Marrakech.

Our team with our guide Abdul and the muleteer
Our team with our guide Abdul and the muleteer

We are telling about this trekking in a separate article. But now we return to the moment when, tired and dusty, we cross the treshold of Kasbah du Toubkal again.

Relax in a deluxe double room and thoughts about High Atlas

On the second night at the Kasbah our group exchanged rooms. We settled in a warm deluxe double room, featuring all the wonderful amenities related to this kind of accommodation.

Deluxe double room at Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, High Atlas, Morocco
Deluxe double room at Kasbah du Toubkal
Another double room at Kasbah du Toubkal
Another double room at Kasbah du Toubkal

The hot bath quickly revived our powers after the long trekking and the two days in the mountains.

The double rooms at Kasbah du Toubkal feature a luxury bathroom
The double rooms at Kasbah du Toubkal feature a luxurious bathroom

Kasbah du Toubkal is not an ordinary hotel so there is no official star categorization. Generally, it is close to our image of a 4-star hotel. Most of the rooms are standard or deluxe double rooms with ensuite bathroom, traditionally but luxuriously furnished, with comfortable beds, a sitting area, coffee and tea facilities. Berber salons, which we mentioned earlier, coud be compared to hostel rooms, their prices as well.

No matter what room they are occupying, all guests of the Kasbah have access to the amazing common terraces, tea and coffee during the day, delicious traditional breakfast. But most of all, they receive the joy and the energy of the unique experience to live with Berbers in the High Atlas

The terrace of Kasbah du Tpubkal and the views towards High Atlas mountains
The terrace of Kasbah du Toubkal and the views towards High Atlas mountains

For dinner we sat again in our cozy corner by the fireplace. This time they served us veal meat balls, mindblowing chicken and garnishes like potatoes, rice, carrots and cauliflower.

Our second dinner at Kasbah du Toubkal
Our second dinner at Kasbah du Toubkal
Breakfast at Kasbah du Toubkal
Breakfast at Kasbah du Toubkal

In the morning, a bit saddened, but also filled with the energy of the past three days, we enjoyed for the last (for now) time the delicious home-made cornbreads with butter and honey, before our mule arrived to take us back to Imlil.

The sign that tells a lot - the history and philosophy of the Kasbal du Toubkal in only a few words
The sign that tells a lot – the history and philosophy of the Kasbah du Toubkal in only a few words
You can also visit Kasbah du Toubkal without sleeping there. Against a small fee you can spend a day in the complex, including tea and drinks. You can also visit for lunch or dinner. All invoices in the Kasbah include a 5 % charge which goes to the Association of the villages for local maintenance and development projects.
A part of the information in this story is obtained from the book Reasonable Plans: The story of Kasbah du Toubkal by Derek Workman, an official edition of Discover Ltd. You can download the whole book here.

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