It was one of those plans that seemed like a good idea at the time - before we left Tunisia we booked an Intrepid 2-week tour of Morocco (Best of Morocco) to kick off season II in the Med. We may spend some time along the Moroccan coast next year on the way to the Canaries, so the plan was to see some of the interior of the country. We started off in Casablanca, which sounds sooo exotic (its not, but might be when they finish building it…). There were 16 of us in the group (7 Canadians (including another Keith!), 3 Aussies, 3 POMs and 3 yanks) and our fearless guide, the lovely Mustapha - who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Cat Stevens.
Our first stop was Rabat with its long and colourful history. Like most places in this neck of the woods it has hosted Roman settlements, but was also infamous for pirates who captured the vessels of passing traders - it is now home to the Moroccan parliament, I will leave you to draw your own parallels... We tried to visit the Royal Palace (one of many scattered around the country) but after being sent from one gate to another we gave up and moved onto the remnants of the earliest known settlement, now known as the Chellah. This is where we first saw storks nesting on the higher points of the monuments, many of them feeding young. Then followed a hair-raising rickshaw ride up to the Kasbah des Oudaias where we could see the rolling surf of the Atlantic Ocean. This was our first Kasbah (or fort) with its narrow alleyways, tourist shops and a lovely orange grove oasis. Good to check out the entrance to the marina which is apparently quite challenging and requires a pilot to enter. The marina is located quite a way into the river, very sheltered and should be a useful jumping off point for the Canaries next year. We took a slow stroll back to our lunch spot via the colourful, hassle-free Souq and then on to the bus for Meknes where we would spend the night.
The imperial city of Meknes was built when Sultan Moulay Ismail (a contemporary of Louis XIV) set out to create his own version of Versailles, using over 25,000 slaves to construct walls, gates and over 50 palaces. In the 17th century the Sultan turned Meknes from a provincial town to a spectacular Imperial city. We visited his immense Heri es Souani Granary, a mammoth architectural feat. Our timing was impeccable, as we departed just as a busload of Chinese tourists arrived! Mustapha then led us into the maze-like Medina for lunch in the home of a local family - camel burger was on the menu! I suppose I should say it tasted like chicken, however it actually tasted like beef with spicy sauce. Its only day 2 however we have eaten more bread that we would normally eat in a week! It’s served at every meal and there are so many different kinds – who can resist fresh, warm bread!
From Meknes we travelled past the pilgrimage site of Moulay Idriss, said to be the founding place of Shia Islam and the Moroccan equivalent of Mecca. We continued through rolling hills and olive groves to the archaeological site of Volubilis. World Heritage-listed Volubilis was once a provincial Roman capital, a distant outpost of the empire, and the remains make an impressive sight. The town is filled with mosaics along the Decumanus Maximus, many of which remain intact.
From there it was on to Fes, the spiritual and cultural heart of Morocco. This place was vibrant, noisy, fascinating, smelly and overwhelming. The well-preserved medieval old city is the mother of all medinas. The old city, known locally as Fes el Bali is like stepping back into the Middle Ages. The Medina is a labyrinth, which is alive with traditional craftsmen, markets, tanneries and mosques. You have to move quickly to get out of the way when you hear “Balak! Balak!” as donkeys and hand-pushed carts piled high with goods come barrelling down the narrow alleys. This is one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world, but that doesn’t make it quiet and peaceful! There are some beautiful buildings tucked away in in different sections of the Medina, and it is easy to get lost as one of our party did. It took some time to find him as Google maps is completely useless here. We visited a famous tannery, clutching sprigs of fresh mint to our noses, where we could overlook its dye pits from the safety of a terraced building. Of course there was some shopping involved but I managed to restrict myself to one pair of shoes! We also visited a ceramics factory to see the potters working in the traditional way, painting and adding metal inlay to their wares. Dinner was the local speciality of harira (yummy, spicy chickpea soup) and chicken-stuffed pastilla with couscous, served at the home of a local family.
Next we were on to the Middle Atlas Mountains heading south and inland through a variety of spectacular scenery – fertile valleys, cedar and pine forests and barren, rocky landscapes. The area is populated with wandering nomadic shepherds attending to their flocks as they have been for hundreds of years. We stopped off at some cedar forests to check out the Barbary apes, North Africa's only monkey, and the same kind found in Gibraltar. Our destination was the town of Midelt, nestled in a valley, now a market town it was originally built as a base for mining in the area, and is surrounded by farmland and orchards. We took a stroll around the nearby village of Bremmem located on the edge of a small gorge. The highlight of the evening was a traditional music performance from a local Berber group. Dress ups and audience participation was mandatory and it was great fun!
A five-hour drive towards the mighty Sahara Desert today with a few stops to admire views, and take photos of Kasbahs and date palmeries along the way. The scenery slowly changed from barren mountainsides to fertile valleys. We paused in a couple of frontier towns (Erfoud and Rissani), before reaching the end of the road at the small Saharan settlement of Merzouga. With a backdrop of the orange-coloured Erg Chebbi sand dunes, the Saharan village of Merzouga feels isolated from the modern world (except it has WiFi…). We quickly saddled up our daypacks, tied our turbans and mounted our camels, some more elegantly than others, for a one-hour sunset ride into the desert. Keith’s camel managed to detatch itself from the rest of the train, but fortunately did not make a run for it like his last camel ride! The dunes are really stunning a vast sea of shifting, wind-swept sand that's forms beautiful, undulating crests and valleys. We are 20 kilometres from the Algerian border, which apparently is marked by thousands of landmines - guess we won’t be wandering too far that direction! Our hosts put on a great feast of tagine, and we managed to bring some warm white wine to drink with it. We climbed the dunes to watch the sunset and sat around a raging campfire enjoying the sounds of the Berber drums and folksongs. Definitely no WiFi here, not even electricity or running water. The government recently advised that all of the Sarahan camps must be removed to be 100m from the dunes. With only 1 month’s notice there was no time to spare in moving these lock, stock and barrel to their new locations. We were fortunate to be spending the last night in our camp and apparently by the time we return to our starting point everything would be gone. Well after a sandstorm overnight that kept most of us awake there wasn’t too much left of our campsite anyway! Our tents, bed, backpacks, shoes, mouths and hair were all full of orange sand which had blown in under the door. Our roof was lifting off and one of the side walls was flapping all night. Others had to dig their way out of their tents. Certainly an unforgettable experience!
After a very cold and windy camel ride back to our starting point we begin the drive to Todra Gorge. On the way we stopped to visit the oasis museum of El Khorbat housed in a fascinating traditional mud brick building. The beautiful Todra Valley, follows the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and is dotted with mud-brick villages perched on hillsides. This remarkable location with sprawling green valleys and rocks sculpted into stunning formations by the wind is our home for two nights. Lucky because Keith has come down with Man ‘flu (although it might be camel ‘flu we are not sure at this stage…)
Keith stayed in bed and missed the gruelling 10km hike through Todra Valley and over a nearby mountain pass. We stopped at a Berber village where a woman with 3 kids prepared tea for us, can’t image how tough life is up here in the bone-dry hills. It’s a long way to get water from the stream, living in caves with stone walls and pens for the flocks of sheep and goats. The surrounding mountains and the famous Rose Valley in the distance make a sensational setting. Lunch was in a local kasbah, where we had the opportunity to check out the women’s cooperative carpet shop… No I didn’t buy anything here.
Travelling further south we passed ancient kasbah ruins, former colonial military outposts, austere mountains and valleys of palm trees and irrigated fields. A lunch stop in Ouarzazate, where productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky and Black Hawk Down (Dad's favourite) were filmed. We skipped the tour of the Atlas Movie Studios and checked out Kasbah Taourirt instead. Our final destination for the evening was Ait Benhaddou. Centuries ago, this was an important stop for caravans carrying salt across the Sahara. Today its grand kasbah, a fine example of clay architecture, has been listed as a World Heritage site. The self-proclaimed Moroccan Action man provided a demonstration of how to make couscous, Morocco's most famous cuisine. Who knew there was so much more to it than pouring boiling water over it! No points for guessing what’s for dinner!?
Leaving the Sahara we travelled over the spectacular Tizi n'Tichka Pass (2,260 m above sea level) to Toubkal National Park where we started to see snow-capped mountains and lush river valleys. At the end of the road in Imlil we packed our modest backpacks onto a mule and walked to the traditional mountain village of Aroumd, far from the reach of the modern world (but not from WiFi…). From the village there are stunning views across the High Atlas Mountains. We spent the night in a family-run mountain home (gite) full of smoke from the woodfire (the chimney might have been blocked by a stork nest) and freshly baked bread. A very chilly and quiet evening.
The next morning it was raining so we were a little late to get away on our walk to Sidi Chamharouch. It was a wet and slippery at first but the sun eventually broke through and we dried out. Apparently there is a shrine in the village we walked to but none of us had read the trip notes and our guide neglected to point it out – so we finished the walk at a café along with some more hardened hikers who were heading down having spent the night camping higher up in the mountains. The walk back down was a lot busier with more groups of hikers on their way up, as well as cargo mules laden with all sorts of wares.
Next we headed westwards towards the Atlantic Coast and the old fishing town of Essaouira, a city where the medina brushes up against the Atlantic Ocean. Sandstone walkways contrast with whitewashed houses, bright blue sky and the sand of the surrounding beaches and dunes. This artists' town was once home to sizeable British and Jewish populations, and its charm has seduced people like Orson Welles and Jimi Hendrix, who (according to local legend) spent much of his time here in the 1960s. It is a laidback place with a bit of a hippie/surfie feel to it and a very relaxed pace and no shortage of cafes and restaurants to choose from.
In the morning a local guide walked us through the old medina, Jewish mellah, port and skala (sea wall). We visited the local flea market and heard how anyone who was down on their luck could come here and seek help to return to their home town. The fishing port is a serious commercial operation, a very lively and smelly place. Mustapha took us there to buy some fresh seafood which we then took to a local restaurant for a BBQ. Cant get any fresher than that!
The last leg of our journey now and its on the bus to Marrakech, a city which is a feast for the senses. Dinner was at the lively Djemaa el Fna, one of the largest public spaces in the world and unique to Marrakech. When night falls it transforms into a hive of activity. Henna-painters, performers and storytellers share the square with a street food bazaar, packed with stalls loaded with Moroccan delicacies, including snail soup and goats heads! Unfortunately it is bucketing with rain and we both discovered that the coats we brought with us were no longer really waterproof – Keith didn’t even have a hood so his hair was quite the mess when we arrived. We sardined ourselves onto the public bus and got cosy with the locals. Our dinner was at a very animated food stand, with singing, clapping and chanting.
The next day we were free to do our own thing. We headed back to the Djemaa el Fna to find it completely transformed overnight. The food stalls were gone but had given way to juice bars and souvenir stalls, with the odd snake charmer and acrobat scattered around. We checked out the ruins of the Palais Badii, reputedly one of the most beautiful palaces in the world in its time, as well as the Saadian tombs, are a recently uncovered gem of the Medina. After lunch overlooking the Djemaa el Fna we decided to take the bus to the nearby Decathalon, where we bought sports shoes and new raincoats. We joined our fellow Canadian travellers for drinks on their spacious terrace, before heading out for a final group dinner at a nearby hotel.
The next morning we had a quick breakfast and said our sad farewells to our fellow Intrepid travellers. We took the bus to Casablanca for our last night in Morocco, spending a lazy afternoon followed evening stroll to the port and Hassan II Mosque, which we revisited briefly in the morning light before we left. Farewell Morocco, what a wonderfully diverse country, beautiful people, amazing doors, mosaics, history and culture. We will be back!