No sooner have my Timberlands hit the tarmac of Casablanca's airport than a blast of desert air blindsides me. This flying carpet of Moroccan history, with its billions of granular artifacts, is the country's signature greeting. And so the trip — part nostalgia tour, part meandering history lesson — aptly starts with a confetti shower of Morocco's past.
Several decades ago, my brother-in-law, then a Peace Corps director, called Morocco home. Now my sister, her two children, and I have accompanied him back. Friends are there to meet us, and an hour later we're in the capital, Rabat. The city's bustling souk is our first sign that the 450-mile spice trade route, a paved arrow into the heart of Berber country, is close at hand. This ancient road, skirting gorges, emerald fields, and the Sahara, is cryogenically preserved in time, an asphalt descendant of the original spice trail running from Timbuktu through the western Sahara.
From the outskirts of Rabat, southwest to Casablanca and due south to Marrakesh, the route choreographs scenes straight out of a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic. Camels lounge under orange trees heavy with fruit. Apostle-like elders finger worry beads; shepherds prod goats. Young and old shuffle by in long robes called djellabas. Concealing torso and legs, these cloaks create an amazing mirage of levitation. The hood, when raised, engulfs the face in grim-reaper shadow.
The interior of Morocco is almost entirely free of eyesores — no knockoffs of Calvin Klein T-shirts; no McDonald's signs. Any anachronisms — such as a Bryan Adams tune playing on a fellow traveler's tape deck — are drowned out by the muezzin's call to prayer. Our rented Hyundai is the only modern intrusion on a trail where traffic jams mean donkeys braying at oxen.
From Rabat, our first day's drive of just over 200 miles takes us to Marrakesh, where we spend the night at La Mamounia, the most sumptuous hotel I've ever encountered. In the morning we're on our way to the terraced fields of Taddert, the first caravan staging post in the 127 miles between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate. Today, traders still hawk semiprecious stones and fossils. A 1939 plaque from the Guide Gastronomique de la France honors Taddert's musty village inn, no longer a source of Escoffier-level cuisine.
On roadside bluffs outside Taddert we spot the first of hundreds of fortress-like pisé (clay or mud brick) manor houses, or casbahs, many surrounded by fortified palaces called ksour (a single one is a ksar). As my brother-in-law fearlessly navigates around sheer rock on one side, oblivion on the other, we chug up the 7,413-foot Tizi n' Tichka pass. Along the way we see egg-shaped Islamic shrines, women swatting indigo rugs, and rivers bleeding clay.
Suddenly, salesmen appear beside our car, hawking today's inventory of asparagus, lizards, and chunks of quartz-amethyst with a fool's gold interior of shocking orange. In this, one of the world's oldest shopping malls, I have entered the minor leagues of haggling. While rock bargaining, I learn the back-of-the-hand snub, that cookies are tradable, and that a Flair pen thrown into the deal means 30 percent off. But be warned: Any rental car attracts a mob of faces and clawing hands. And in this market, all sales are final.
Such cutthroat commerce isn't the only heritage from the spice road. The casbahs all along the trail are lacerated by wind and rain. Nowhere is this primal battle more eloquently waged than in nearby Telouet. We drive to the cusp of the Tizi n' Tichka pass before downshifting toward the town and its casbah. Once the seat of the powerful Glaoui family, which aligned with the French during the fight for independence, the casbah has been punished with the slow torture of raindrops melting its wood-and-mud-brick towers — yet somehow its Moorish reception and harem rooms have retained their extraordinary stucco filigrees and mosaic tiling. On our way out, we spot a double rainbow.
From Telouet, the spice trail enters oases wild with date palms and spiky ferns. Bordering the Asif Imini stream, the town of Anguim has a craft cooperative devoted to carpet-making and embroidery. Tuesday is market day, and the local women tote heavy reeds while the men recline, admiring all the work they don't do.
Only 30 minutes northwest of Ouarzazate, across the Mellah River valley, looms Aït Ben Haddou, an imposing coral-tinted ksar of tapered clay towers, familiar from the nearly two dozen Hollywood films shot there. Our guide, Ahmet, was an extra in Lawrence of Arabia.
If Aït Ben Haddou is an architectural wedding cake, then Ouarzazate shows more restraint. The town's greatest asset, besides the Krupp cannon, the Scud missile of its day, seems to be the Hotel Riad Salam. With glazed mosaic tiles, copper wall hangings, and an interior courtyard filled with orange trees, the Riad Salam bestows the mythic comforts of a trade-route oasis stop — plus indoor plumbing.
The hotel's breakfast of honey crêpes, ham and cheese, and frothy apple juice provides fuel for our third-day road plan: a 120-mile trek to the windy border of the Sahara. The Drâa River valley, land of palm groves and alfalfa fields, is scented with oleander. In Zagora, at the southern end of Boulevard Mohammed V, we pass arcade stalls displaying lamb and honey-sweet dates to find one of the world's great photo-ops: a sign reading TOMBOUCTOU 52 JOURS (52 Days to Timbuktu). That's camel days.
Speaking of camels, there are six of them awaiting riders on Zagora's sandy outskirts, and more camels a dozen miles down the road past Tamgrout, where the smooth spice road disintegrates into a rutted trail. At the Tinfou Dunes we finally decide to take a ride, led by a guide named Mohammed — a Reguibate nomad, or blue man of the desert, wearing a sheath of blue muslin whose dye has tinted his tobacco skin pale indigo.
A single-humped camel obeys Mohammed's every command as a rope depresses its tongue. This leash brings the eight-foot animal to its knees. I climb aboard, keeping a firm grip as the camel's feet sink into the 50-foot dune. From this perch, with my bath-towel kaffiyeh and local medal of valor, a rabbit made from a folded palm leaf, I am transformed into T. E. Lawrence.
Our car's bucket seats are a humbling return to reality. As we leave Tamgrout's moonscape and head back to Marrakesh, 250 miles northwest, we stop at the ramshackle town of Tadoula, where kids offer us a tour in exchange for a bushel of oranges. Farther on, in Tizirine, the entire village has gathered for a hillside funeral. It's a privilege to witness this ritual: 300 townspeople, burial rocks in hand, stand on a bluff overlooking a swaddled body. The silence is broken by a bloodcurdling ululation from the women, signaling that mourning has begun.
For us there's one more essential stop on the spice trail: Marrakesh's medina, home to perhaps the world's most electric souks, sequestered behind a six-mile ring of salmon-colored ramparts. My family and I enter Djemaa el Fna square, "the place of the dead," a plaza at the edge of the souks, and immediately recognize the backdrop for the opening murder in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. We are surrounded by "Allah"-crying beggars, acrobats, soothsayers, men twirling tasseled fezzes, food carts offering goat's head soup, and scooters (one carries recently beheaded chickens hanging from the handlebars). I lose my nephew to two snake charmers who have him smilingly draped in deadly cobras. What salesmanship.
The souks sell everything: flutes, tagines (earthenware casseroles), embroidered saddles, copper, wood, textiles. Rusted palace locks lie in a basket beside writhing turtles. The merchants' persistent come-ons provide a constant din. When we enter one store, its salesman flatters us with nicknames: my 19-year-old niece becomes La Gazelle, and I, with pad and pen, am promoted to Ministre de la Culture.
But I'm ready for ploys like this. The spice road's onslaught of drive-by commerce has apprenticed me for the ultimate transaction: the carpet purchase. Mine begins with rounds of mint tea, a.k.a. Berber whiskey, amid 20-foot fabric towers. Soon a procession of 20-by-15-foot rugs splashed in shades of saffron and evergreen lines the room, and I'm listening to details and more details about kilim weaving techniques, the peculiar hue of Berber rugs, and on and on.
Then dueling calculators emerge, and my brother-in-law whispers advice. Teeth clench. More rounds of tea. "C'est impossible!" is blurted out. Leaving the store chops the price by 20 percent. As the proprietor implores us to return, a handshake and a touch to the heart seal the deal.
At the spice trail's last stop, with my mercantile prize, I can't help but hear Paul Bowles's words: "Business is business, and prayers are prayers, and both are a part of the day's work."
ANDREW MARTON writes about entertainment and is co-author of The Muffin Lady (HarperCollins).