I read a number of books about Morocco before our trip, in particular a few by Paul Bowles. While I had trouble getting through parts of his stories, I found his outsider’s viewpoint to be an intriguing glimpse into a incredibly complex country. Morocco has a deep Phoenician and Berber history, and the far southwest border of the Roman Empire even ran through northern Morocco. Then the Vandals and Byzantines came along in the 5th and 6th centuries. Arabic and Islam spread to Morocco in the 8th century and then it only got more complicated. Between French and Spanish colonization in the early 1900s, I got lost in the intricacy of who had what, when and how. And don’t ask me how Morocco and Western Sahara are related. That’s still an ongoing dispute. But one thing stuck out. Morocco’s diverse history has left it with an incredibly friendly population, who, while only a short distance from Europe, live a world away from the average European.
This is a long one.
We left the Erg Chebbi dunes and Hassilabied (near Merzouga) to head north toward Fes. Not wanting to rush, we planned on stopping in Midelt for the night just to break up the drive.
Having read about a tourist loop near Rissani that included a number of historic ksars, or fortified dwellings, we decided to check some out. Unfortunately, we found it difficult to find this route, despite following the one sign we saw. Fortunately, we saw a tour group stopping near Moulay Ali Cherif mosque and tagged along to an unidentified ksar, which has very intricate mud work.
Leaving Rissani, we headed further north into the Ziz river valley, which was no less than spectacular. The contrast between the green around the water and the never ending brown elsewhere made for some great photo opportunities. Plus, the flat topped cliffs and viewpoints helped a bit. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine the Ziz valley to be just as stunning.
Along the Ziz River near Meski there is a spot called the Source Bleu. For a modest 5 Dirhams (50 cents) you can enter the grounds, swim, picnic, and hang out. Well, only the boys were swimming. The women and girls were all involved in a group sing along in the shade. And the men were drinking tea in the little cafes. We wandered through the area and eventually ended up in a palmery where we found a crystal clear channel where women were doing laundry.
Jumping back in the car, we continued north through more incredible valley sights, eventually nearing the snow capped mountains again. We went through 4 police checkpoints this day, though were stopped at none. One, outside of a military town, even had spikes laid out ready to deploy. Riki wouldn’t let me sneak even a photo from my phone, so I have no documentation of these. I was going to be really stealthy, but that was vetoed.
Throughout our trip we encountered a feeling of things yet to come. For instance, huge, new gas stations that look fancy from afar, but when you get up close, you realize that the shop, cafe, and even service center are completely empty and have never been opened and won’t be any time soon. Entering many towns, the roads would widen, be dotted with oh so many street lights and speed bumps, and there would be nothing on either side of the road. The most fun were the gates in the middle of nowhere. Huge, ornate structures we could see from way off and would pass through thinking we were entering another town. And then there would be nothing. Not even a house. It is as if Morocco is preparing for major, instantaneous development.
We arrived in Midelt late afternoon and briefly hunted for the Sunday carpet souk (market) before deciding if must have only been in the morning. Then we hunted for somewhere recommended to us to eat, failed and then just settled on a place near the bus station. This was a fortunate find, as I had the best chicken pizza I’ve had in ages.
I upgraded us to a nicer hotel when we were in Midelt (13 Euro more). I thought that after two nights in the desert we may need a few extra comforts. We didn’t really need the rose petals scattered on the giant, sand-free beds, but the scalding hot water and English television were real treats.
We had been warned while in the desert that a few days earlier there had been a decent amount of snow on our impending route, causing traffic jams and accidents. Luckily, the roads were clear upon entering the cedar forest near Ifrane. We did spot some of the endangered Barbary apes in the snow along the road, but opted not to stop to feed them like many of the other cars.
We slowed long enough to get a few shots of the apes and the snow.
Ifrane is supposedly the Switzerland of Morocco. You can see why by the variation in the architecture and the vegetation – complete with mountain chalets. Wanting to get to Fes in time for a late lunch, we just did a driving tour and continued on our way.
We tried to do some birding just outside of Ifrane, but the lack of water in the Aoua lake made that tough. Though we did spot a big grey heron and another black and white bird from our travel guide.
Riki handled the entry into Fes like a pro. After what seemed like a hundred roundabouts, we finally found the dirt parking lot where we were to leave the rental car for three days, at the very reasonable price of 30 Dirham ($3) per night.
We spent the next two days wandering the Medina of Fes, taking in pretty much all the regular tourist sites. I particularly liked the Medersa Bou Inania and the Medersa Attarine. While we could not access as much as the one in Marrakech, they had the same intricacies on every surface.
Fes’s medina was much easier to navigate than Marrakech’s. Fes has a few different major routes that are pretty well marked. Each is color coded and tells you the destination as well. Since we were staying near the Blue Gate, we often just had to find one of these major routes and follow the zig zagged path back to our riad.
Riki often looks for unique art when we travel. It can be difficult to find things we like that are within our budget. But while wandering Fes, we ended up at the end of a very narrow alley in an artists’ coop. The man spoke French and we managed to ascertain that this guy, his two sons and a few other people all sold their art in this shop. Riki was drawn to the style seen below, and we bought one of the larger pieces as we felt it represented the colors of Fes better than some of the others.
I later purchased a small rug, where I wrongly asked if I could have tassels added to one side to match the other. The salesman said no problem and before I could figure out what he was up to, he started to unravel the end without tassels. I stopped him before he could do more than a few rows and decided to trim them myself later.
I was not particularly fond of visiting the tannery. The best views are from the balconies of the neighboring shops and if you don’t want to buy anything, the shopkeepers expect a donation for the necessary mint leave to cover up the stench. Despite our small donation, we were still hassled a bit while just trying to take some photos. And its awful to imagine having that job. The guys stand in chemical muck and pigeon droppings all day. Often times without any protective gear.
We walked up to the Merenid tombs one afternoon, a decidedly nice view, but had a very strange experience. By this time, we were used to being told we were going the wrong way and offered directions from people who were looking to make a few Dirham. But the little boy who we met at the top of the hill really threw us for a loop. He seemed to be all alone and we chatted a little in broken English/French and he pointed to where he lived and where he went to school. As we were leaving he asked us where we were staying and where we were going. We told him roughly and politely said we knew how to get there so we didn’t need any help. But that did not deter him and he proceeded to “lead” us back down the hill and into the Medina. This is where Riki and I tried to pull a fast one on him, thinking he would get distracted in the chaos of the medina. So Riki went one way and I went the other and agreed to meet at the Blue Gate. The kid continued to “lead” Riki and we weren’t able to lose him until we got in a taxi headed to the other side of town. Even then, he watched us go. He never asked for money, nor really said anything, just walked a few feet in front of us, quietly glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still there.
We had been eating 10 Dirham ($1) sandwiches for most of our meals, and mainly from the same stand. On our last night, the stand was closed so we went to the next one over. These sandwiches are basically grilled mixed meat with a delicious tomato sauce stuffed in a thick round bread. Easy enough. But as we watched, the cook took our raw meat slapped it on the grill and used the same hands to open the bread and then leave it propped up on the raw meat resting on his counter. We paid for the sandwiches, but were ready to toss the bread, until we realized, the bread is about 10 cents at another stall. We’ll just dump the cooked meat into new bread and be on our way. So that’s what we did and still with some apprehension we had our last supper in Fes.
The next morning we checked out and retrieved our car safe and sound from the dirt lot. We continued north and west to Volubilis, a Roman archaeological site. The drive was really beautiful, though we encountered the worst roads so far.
Volubilis is a Berber and Roman city from the 3rd century BC. Under the Romans, it grew and even had a basilica and aqueduct. The incredible mosaics of the fancy houses have been largely restored, though are sitting out baking in the hot sun with no cover. Not sure that’s the best preservation method, but it certainly makes for an impressive visit. There is a new museum on the site which really explains the history well and displays some of the artifacts found there. I have seen a number of Roman ruins, from all over Europe, but Volubilis was the best at really portraying how the city would have been. I’m not sure if that’s because of the extensive restoration they have done, or just the sheer amount of ruins and mosaics still left. Whatever it was, you can really imagine how the city looked under the Romans and how impressive it would have been.
After a few hours in the scorching sun, we heading south again to Meknes. We left our car under a tree and the parking attendant gave us a twig as a receipt. We checked into our room, which was little more than a bed in a cubby with an attached bath separated by saloon style swinging doors. And the whole room was directly over the alley below, with one little window at the far end. Luckily, we had little luggage and only stayed one night.
Road to Meknes
We found Meknes to be a much smaller city, with a lot of students and much more diversity. The souks had a more modern feeling and the medina much less crowded.
We got followed by a man who insisted on showing us a silver shop and the typical work they did there. It was neat, as they pound the silver in thin threads, but we weren’t really in the mood for any metalwork.
After mediocre food in Meknes, including tacos filled with french fries, Riki was excited to travel along the coast and find some seafood. We stopped in Mohammédia, just north of Casablanca to see the Atlantic Ocean and have lunch before returning to Marrakech.
Back in Marrakech we headed straight for the airport to return the car. Right outside the airport, we got hustled out of about $10 trying to fill up our gas tank, and even though we realized it was happening, we had no proof, and thus had to end our road trip with a bad taste in our mouths. We took the bus back to the medina and checked into a different riad, which had tiny kittens on the roof and a very picturesque courtyard. A much better way to end our two weeks in Morocco.
“Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes became a reality. He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.”
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles