Morocco is a land rich in natural beauty and unforgettable places that are both fascinating to visit and intriguing to explore. But we never realized how touristy this country is. Basically, a playground for Europeans looking for cheap holidays and avoiding the cold winters of Europe’s north. Having said this the most southern part (Western Desert) had still lots of places if you like to go off the beaten track. For those who want to immerse themselves in Moroccan culture and history there are hundreds of mosques, palaces and other historical sites such as the ancient city of Asilah. As memorable is the Moroccan landscape such as the High Atlas, Oregano Mountains (in winter you can even ski here) For the 4×4 enthusiast the sandunes around Mhamid are spectacular. However, it surprised me that the Western Sahara between Dakhla and the Mauritania border seem to be forgotten? Before we entered Morocco, a must stop was the ROCK. Known as Gibraltar. The Spanish South Coast known as the Costa del Sol consists of a series of large beaches, coves hidden amongst cliffs and some of the best marinas in the world are located here. We had a fabulous lunch at the beach and it was time to leave and head for Gibraltar and find a bush camp overlooking the world-famous rock of Gibraltar. The road to Gibraltar runs through typical Spanish villages. Oranges, lemons and olives grow in abundance and many are just along the roadside or in the middle of the villages. Unfortunately for us the weather turned nasty and cold. When we arrived at our campsite across from Gibraltar the wind was howling, and the rain was pelting down. So, we decided to try and cross to North Africa tonight. And yes, we did get a ticket. I think there must be 200 ticket sellers alone in Algeciras and we got a spot on the 6.30pm boat. At 7.45pm we arrived in Morocco and we gained one hour. Customs was efficient compared to the borders we crossed in Africa. Less than 1 hour later we were cleared.
We travelled via Tangier and Cape Spartel South and yes, only one day back in Africa and we again found ourselves driving in the dark! But driving was safe and well organized compared to other parts of Africa. First priority is to find the Mauritanian Embassy in Rabat and we are not sure if this still exists or whether we must travel to Casablanca for our visa. Early start to enable us to arrive on time at the Mauritanian Embassy in Rabat. We arrived five minutes before the consular section closed! How lucky can you be? Well it took a bit of push and shove, but we got in. (Lucky, we do not speak or understand French). Inside it was the usual African mayhem. No electricity, no computers and with 20 people in a room of 4×6 meters. We needed to keep the door open, so we had some fresh air. It also allowed some light to come in, so we could see to read the paperwork and complete it. At last it was our turn but because we forgot to put in our residential address, we received the form back. But the official needed lunch so we just had to wait. And wait and wait. THIS IS AFRICA! 30 minutes later we again presented the paperwork, forked out $136 Euro for a dual entry visa and three minutes later we were told to come back tomorrow at 2pm. Time to visit Rabat and check out a possible camp-site on the beach, in the suburb of Sale. No good news to come our way because the police will no longer allow bush camping in Rabat. The city of Rabat is very European with wide tree-lined boulevards. The traffic is well organized despite the many new road works going on. We had lunch on the beach before we visited the walled suburb of Sale and its medina. The Grand Mosque is closed for non- Muslims. It then came time to find a camp spot south of the town. The weather was perfect, but the wind was cool, and the waves were high. Camping on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean is perfect in nice weather but when it rains and with a gale force wind, it is a different story. We were expected back at the Mauritanian Embassy at 2pm in the afternoon so at midday we left to make sure we would be in time. 2pm became 2.15pm and then 2.45pm. We waited and waited, and it was now 3.15pm and still no sign of anyone. In the meantime, it was pouring with rain with gale-force winds while we waited outside for someone to hand us the passports. At 3.30pm they finally opened the door! We were at last handed our passports and multiple entry visa. Back to our campsite where the sun was out but the wind was still howling. Casablanca means “white house” and the town looks like a sea of white houses. Casablanca has the largest trading harbour in Africa. It is also the financial/industrial heart of Morocco, not to mention the university city. Due to the building of the large Mosque Hassan II, Casablanca has become a second Mecca. We have been told it is the third largest Mosque in the world, but it has the highest minaret in the world at 200 meters high, which has a laser on it that beams 30km to the East (Mecca). The mosque rises out of the water (Atlantic Ocean) on a rocky outcrop reclaimed from the sea. The Mosque holds 25,000 worshippers and accommodates 80,000 people in courtyards and the square around it.
The other must see was Rick’s Cafe known from the movie “Casablanca”. It is now run by a former US diplomat, but it has a great atmosphere and lots of nostalgia. It serves everything from hamburgers and lamb chops to a variety of Moroccan dishes. After lunch we travelled out of Casablanca towards Azemnour an old walled city on the river with very nice houses. From here it was on to El Jadida. This town lies on a 17km long bay with a sandy beach. The city looks more like a southern European city, but the chimneys of the chemical industry give a bad first impression. The rain continued! Because we are not returning to this part of Morocco, we are hoping for some nice weather as we are told the next part is a very scenic part of the coast. In our opinion, Morocco is not Africa but very much Southern Europe with a mix of Muslim. The area is very much agricultural and in our view the towns of Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca are very Western, except from the Medina’s. Even the girls in shorts and jeans seem to have replaced the Burka and Vail.
CENTRAL COASTAL MOROCCO
As we are heading further south this will start to change we are told. By the time we arrived in Essaouira just before lunch, the sun was out. We parked the truck and walked around the old city. We walked across the city walls, to the small harbour where, for a few dollars, we bought a plate full of fresh fish. After lunch we proceeded to our overnight camp spot around 30km north of Agadir. On the way we purchased some fresh bread and bananas. The coastline has lots of perfect camp spots right on the water. But we decided to stay at Atlantic Parc (we are told Morocco’s best camping). Here will have time to do the last shopping, do the washing and fill up our water tanks for the long drive through the Western Sahara and Mauritania to Bamako in Mali. At last we woke up to the first day of perfect sunshine. So, we decided to spend another day here as the location was perfect. Around 11am Moroccan Rachid Nabil came past telling us of his painting qualities. And he convinced us that we should have a Sahara Desert landscape on our tuck. He showed us 2 books full of paintings he could do for us. (He must have done over 300 motorhomes). It worked out that he had a lot of knowledge of the tracks into the Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali. As an Artist he spends 3 months in Mali buying coloured sand and ingredients for his paint. Anyway, we exchanged lots of mud maps. No GPS. Our French is poor, however with arms and legs and with broken French we seemed to get by okay. The local bakery supplied us with 2 freshly baked French sticks, 2 loaves of bread and 4 eggs – all for just 80 cents. It was hard to leave but we had to get going and move south so we don’t get caught by the wet season in Ghana-Togo and Benin. Before we left, we had to get some fuel and do the last-minute shopping. We have been told of a Marjane Supermarket in Agadir. The road to Agadir was perfect and so was the scenery. Agadir is a European style tourist destination. Agadir was destroyed in 1960 during a terrible earthquake, but today the city has been rebuilt. The Marjane Supermarket has 50 checkouts and sells everything from groceries to TV’s. After lunch we left Agadir and we decided to make it another short day. We found some perfect spots along the beaches driving along the coast in the Western Sahara. But the wind was strong, and sand was blowing everywhere.
After our West Africa adventure, we arrived back in Morocco
BORDER WESTERN SAHARA TO MARRAKESH
The only problem was that we missed the painted rocks as they were on the south side of Tafraoute. But with the heat and urgent need for a shower we didn’t mind. Next, we found a great track to get us to Marrakech the back way. This way we would do the Atlas Mountains twice. The Atlas Mountains are part of a mountain range stretching about 2,500km (1,500 miles) across Northern Africa through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The highest peak is Mount Toubkal in Southwest Morocco, which has an elevation of 4,167 meters (13,671 feet). When we arrived at the bottom, we were surprised to see snow still on the top. We were at 2,500 meters and the outside temperature was 37 degrees Celsius. The Atlas Mountains separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert. The distance of this track was only 110km, but it took us nearly seven hours to complete. The scenery was stunning, but due to the high temperatures in the valleys, it was very hazy. Unbeknown to us at the time, the Atlas Mountains are rich in natural resources. There are deposits of iron ore, lead, copper, silver, mercury, rock salt, phosphate, marble, anthracite coal and gas.
We arrived in Marrakech and by following our GPS we finished up right in the centre. On every corner there were signs saying No Trucks. Anyway, it gave us a good first impression of Marrakech and it looked perfect. Police were helpful and were not worried about our large size. After all, ours is a Motorhome. All the main parts of Marrakesh in walking distance. Marrakech is situated at the foot of the High Atlas, the highest mountainous barrier in North Africa. The desert borders it to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Marrakech was in the news only 6 months ago for all the wrong reasons when the well-known Angana restaurant was bombed and 14 tourists died. Marrakech, it also called the “Red City” and is the most important former imperial city in Morocco’s history. It is located near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and is the second largest city in Morocco. Like many North African cities, the city of Marrakech comprises both an old fortified city (the medina) and an adjacent modern city (called Gueliz) with a population of around one million people. Marrakech has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco and has one of the busiest squares (djemaa el Fna) in Africa. The square bustles with acrobats, story-tellers, water sellers, dancers and musicians. Marrakech is an oasis of great and rich plant variety. Throughout the seasons, orange, fig, permanganate and olive trees give off their fragrances and display their marvellous colours and luscious fruits. The precious gardens of the city conceal numerous native plants or other species that have been imported during the centuries: giant bamboos, yuccas, papyrus, palm trees, banana trees, cypress, philodendrons, rosebushes, bougainvillea’s, pines and various kinds of cactus plants. Marrakech is a gateway from the West into the East, being only 2 to 6 hours from mainland Europe. Many Europeans use Marrakech as a weekend getaway. We spent the whole day in Marrakech and visited the souk and we took the Red Bus and toured around the city. Unfortunately, Marrakech came in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons when a cowardly and criminal group left a bomb in a bag full of nails in the crowded well-known Marrakech cafe Argana in Djemaa el Fna square. Fifteen innocent people died and more than 25 were injured. Relaxing day around the pool, and tonight we are off to Marrakech by night. Catching up on the website and responding to emails received. Unfortunately, when our emails were ready to send we were advised that the server was down. We will just have to wait and see if we can send them tomorrow. At 6pm we left for Marrakech by night. By night, food stalls open in the square turning it into a huge busy open-air restaurant. Unknown to us, beer is not available on the square except one or two outlets, but they are charging 7 Euro plus for a small beer. The main square of Marrakech, is used by locals and tourists. This time it is mainly Moroccans returning for summer holidays from Europe. During the day it is predominantly occupied by orange juice stalls, youths with chained Barbary apes, water sellers in colourful costumes with traditional leather water-bags and brass cups, and snake charmers who will pose for photographs for tourists. As the day progresses the entertainment on offer changes. The snake charmers depart, and in the afternoon and evening the square becomes more crowded, with Chleuh dancing-boys (it would be against custom for girls to provide such an entertainment), story-tellers (telling their tales in Berber or Arabic, to an audience of appreciative locals), magicians, and peddlers of traditional medicines. As dark descends the square fills with dozens of food-stalls, and the crowds are at their height. The square is edged along one side by the Marrakech souk, the traditional North African markets, which service both the common daily needs of the people of the city, and the tourist trade. On the other side there are cafe terraces where one can escape from the noise and confusion down in the square, and on yet on the other sides there are hotels and gardens. Narrow streets lead into the alleys of the medina quarter, the old city. We were advised to go and visit a nice Moroccan restaurant (Comptoire) but as we did not meet the dress regulations (I wore shorts), we were not allowed in. We finished up where most people finish up on the square and had a superb meal for around 5AUD each. Having been two days in Marrakech and on the square, I can tell you it is a unique experience. The spectacle of Jamaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes … voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, and taste. After 3 days in the city centre of Marrakesh we decided to look for the highly recommended camping outside Marrakesh. And we met lots of campers from Europe on a 3-4-week holiday. Yes, we have arrived back on the tourist trial! But it also has an advantage and for the first time we camped in a Caravan Park, which is set up by Europeans but unfortunately it is poorly maintained by locals. Despite the ‘Dogs Must be on Leash’ signs, everywhere you look, the owner’s dogs roam free and to make things worse, the camping owners do not clean up after them. The whole place needs cleaning up. Let’s just hope this camp ground does not become another dilapidated facility like the many others we have seen on our travels through Africa. Being the only decent camping area in the Marrakech, they have a niche market, hence prices are high, and the attitude is take it or leave it. Despite a nice pool for us 2 days was enough here.
The Atlas Mountains, there are several mountains that carry the name Atlas
- The Middle Atlas lying completely in Morocco. The Middle Atlas is the westernmost of three Atlas Mountains chains that define a large plateau basin extending eastward into Algeria.
- The High Atlas, south of the Middle Atlas and separated by the Moulouya and Oum Er-Rbia rivers, stretches for 700 kilometres (430 miles) with a succession of peaks among which ten reach above 4,000 meters (13,000 ft.).
- The Saharan Atlas of Algeria is the eastern portion of the Atlas mountain range. Not as high as the Grand Atlas, they are far more imposing than the Tell Atlas range that runs to the north of them and closer to the coast. The tallest peak in the range is the 2,236 m (7,336 ft.) high Djebel Aissa. They mark the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. The mountains see some rainfall and are better suited to agriculture than the plateau region to the north. Today, most of the populations of the region are Berbers.
The Anti-Atlas extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest of Morocco toward the northeast to the heights of Ouarzazate and further east to the city of Tafilalt (altogether a distance of approximately 500 kilometres / 310 miles). In the south, it borders the Sahara.
- The easternmost point of the Anti-Atlas is the Djebel Sarhro Mountains and its eastern boundary is set by sections of the High Atlas range.
- The Tell Atlas is a mountain chain over 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) in length, belonging to the Atlas mountain ranges and stretching from Morocco, through Algeria to Tunisia. It parallels the Mediterranean coast. Together with the Saharan Atlas to the south, it forms the northernmost of two more or less parallel ranges which gradually approach one another towards the east, merging in Eastern Algeria. The area immediately to the south of this range is a high plateau, with lakes in the wet season and salt flats in the dry season.
The Rif mountains North of the Middle Atlas and separated by the Sebou River, are an extension of the Baetic Cordillera which stretches all the way to Spain’s Sierra Nevada.
MARRAKESH TO ZAGORA
It was back to the High Atlas Mountains. It didn’t take long before we reached 2260 meters and crossed the pass called Col du Tichka; this road is the main road to Quarzazate and is in perfect condition. To get to Ait Ben Haddou, we turned off just after Taddart and travelled via Telouet to Ait Benhaddou. Telouet is a Kasbah along the former route of the caravans from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. It lies at an elevation of 1,800 meters (5,900 ft.) and was the seat of the El Glaoui family’s power. The palace can still be visited but it is steadily becoming damaged and is slowly collapsing. We are told work is underway to have it restored. Camping at 1400m has its advantages because the mornings are nice and cool. We decided to stay another day. The scenery was stunning, and we wanted to have a look at the best Kasbah in Morocco.
Ait Benhaddou is a ‘fortified city’, and it is situated along the former caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara Desert. It is situated on a hill along the Ounila River and is a beautiful example of a Kasbah. Unfortunately, the Kasbah sustains damage during each rainstorm. Most of the town’s inhabitants now live in a more modern village on the other side of the river; however, ten families still live within the Ksar. This is a communal housing compound and it is typical of the type built in the Maghreb area. The buildings are set in a strategic position against a mountain. They have angle towers and are surrounded by steep defensive walls. The Ksar consists of larger and smaller private houses, but also communal areas such as a market place and a Mosque. All are made from moulded earth and clay brick. The walls and towers are often ornamented with decorative motifs. It is very touristy but nevertheless impressive. The Kasbah has been UNESCO World Heritage since 1987. This site has also been used for several films, the most well-known of which are Laurence of Arabia and the Gladiators (with Russell Crowe). It took us a little while to work out what the word Kasbah meant. A Kasbah is a type of Medina, Islamic City, or Fortress (Citadel). It was a place for the local leader to live and at the same time act as a defence when the city was under attack. A Kasbah has high walls which usually have no windows. Sometimes, they were built on the top of hill to make them easier to defend. Some of them were also placed near the entrance to harbours. Having a Kasbah built was a sign of wealth of some families in the city. Almost all cities had their Kasbah, the building being something necessary for the city to survive. When colonization started in 1830 in northern Algeria, there were a great number of Kasbahs that survived for more than 100 years. The word Kasbah may also be used to describe the old part of a city, in which case it has the same meaning as a medina quarter. Once we left Ait Benhadou, it was only 30km to Ouarzazate, a modern town catering for tourists. We picked up some cash at the ATM, topped up our fuel and we are on our way to Mhamid where we are planning to sleep a few kilometres away from the Algerian border amongst Morocco’s highest dunes (also called the Moroccan Mini Sahara). The road was perfect, but we were caught up in another ferocious sand storm, so we didn’t get to enjoy any scenery. While we were driving further south, we realized that this valley was full of date palms. Once we arrived in Zagora, we spotted a thermometer in town and it showed 52 degrees Celsius at 1.15pm
ZAGORA TO MHAMID
The wind had dropped, and the visibility improved a little. As we entered town we were followed by 3 or for 4 mopeds and when we stopped to do some shopping we were offered an oil-change, guide service, camel rides and some-one to show us the best camping in town! As we were not staying in town, we thanked them all and went on our way. We were about 40km south of Zagora when the road became narrow and the visibility was reduced as the wind picked up again. It was worse than the heat coming out of a hair dryer. It was hot, very hot, and even at 1700 meters above sea level, it was 43 degrees. Once we reached Mhamid we were told it was 54 degrees at 1.30pm. We were then also told that the electricity was off, so no water and no bread. Anyway, our plan was to continue further into the desert. But with the visibility nil, and the soaring heat, we were told we could only proceed with a guide. But we were told to wait a few days because the weather would get worse, the wind stronger and visibility will be down to zero. Our temperature gauge showed 50 degrees at 5.45pm. The digital temperature gauge has not been below ‘High’ since 10am this morning. (49 is the highest temperature our gauge displays). Mhamid is only 20km from the Algerian Border and the tracks around here were used for the Paris to Dakar Race. With the very poor forecast and the very high temperatures, we had one huge decision to make today and that was – should we continue or not? Our plan was to sleep in the desert tonight at an Oasis approximately 65km from Mhamid. In the end, we decided not to venture into the desert on our own tonight. And stayed in Mhamid for a few days. Based on the information we had that the town had a camp area with a pool. Wrong! – the pool has broken down! Worse still there is no water and no electricity and to top it off, no telephone reception either (no internet despite our 200-dirham modem! Mhamid is also called the Mini Sahara town as it is the closest town in Morocco to the Sahara Desert and it has a few sand dunes up to 400 meters high. As I finish writing this it is now 9.30pm and the temperature is still showing 44 degrees Celsius. We just hope that we don’t encounter another sand blasting tonight like we had in the Western Sahara and Mauritania. According to the weather forecast, the weather tomorrow will be like today. Strong winds and sand storms and very high temperatures. We will wait and see.
By the way if you like to know what 50 degrees plus feels like, here are some details based on our experiences in North East Ethiopia-Sudan-Saudi Arabia-Mali:
Your deep freezer becomes a fridge, barefoot in the Motorhome results in blisters and burned feet, it will give you constant floor heating at night, it allows the air-conditioner pipes to expand and leaks occur, drink 6 to 7 litres of water per day and no need to go to the toilet; a can of beer has to be emptied in 2 minutes otherwise it is warm, 1 litre cold water is warm within 5 minutes, tap water from the water tanks reaches 45 degrees hence washing up water comes out at the right temperature.
If you go to sleep, it feels like the electric blanket is on high. But looking back it was all fine and we did survive. An experience to remember.
MHAMID TO FEZ
A few weeks during this trip and coupled with our experience last year in Sudan, Syria and Jordan, we have come to the sad conclusion that despite being very nice people some Arabs have a very low standard of hygiene and it was only when we arrived at Le source du Meski that we were really confronted with this. The campground was full of Moroccans on holiday and the condition of the place was a total disgrace. Dirt, garbage, overflowing toilets, crap everywhere (literally); wash basins full of junk and garbage.
The pool area was no different; everything just gets thrown on the ground and in the pool! As for swimming, this is a man only activity and all women sit around the pool fully dressed. For Clary the idea of swimming had gone in 10 seconds when she realized that she would be the only women in the pool and she would have a 1000 Moroccan man staring at her. No thanks, as it was already late in the afternoon and we decided to park here and stay the night. But our plan to enjoy three days at this so highly recommended camping ground has been unanimously changed to just the one night. A real shame as the location is perfect. But like many well set up places in this part of the world, it appears to start off well, but maintenance and a lack of standards and upkeep seem to be the issue. After we spent last night at the worst camping spot in the whole of Africa, we decided to cut our planned three days stop and leave this place. The setting under the huge date palms with the natural spring water is a million dollars. Unfortunately, the people who use this pristine area don’t know how to look after it and keep the place clean. When we checked out, we were asked why we didn’t stay any longer. We explained how we felt and how we were appalled by the filthy state of the place. Then in reply, the answer we received was, “We are so sorry, if you come after the Moroccan school holidays things will be clean again, we really apologize for the mess.” They were basically telling us that they agreed with us and that they couldn’t do anything about it until after the Moroccans left. The staff told us they can’t keep up with the mess so they only partly clean while the Moroccans are there. We are guests in Morocco, so I suppose we must accept this or move on. Our choice was to move on. we back-tracked to El Rachida before making the climb back up into the mountains again. Today’s trip once again took us up to an elevation of 2000 meters. The views were beautiful and would have been even more spectacular if it wasn’t for the heat haze. At about midday we arrived in Midelt, a market town and former French administrative post in central Morocco. Midelt is situated in the high plains between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges. At 1,508 meters (4,948ft), it one of the highest large towns in Morocco. After a cold night (not so cold but the coldest we have had because it was down to 19 degrees) we left early this morning. Leaving behind one of the highest towns in Morocco, it didn’t take long before we reached an altitude of 2,100m. Along the way we saw many semi nomadic Berbers living on the highlands in their tents and raising sheep and goats for slaughter and/or wool. The meat and wool are all sold in Midelt. The region, being relatively cool, also produces plums, apples, walnuts, apricots, pomegranates, wheat, corn, and a wide variety of garden vegetables. The first major town after Midelt was Azrou, which means rock in the indigenous Tamazight Berber language. Azrou is one of the famous Berber cities in Morocco. The town is in the heart of the Middle Atlas region of Morocco. From here we followed the main road to Fez via Ifrane. Ifrane is also called little Switzerland. In fact, the town is a ski resort in the middle of the Middle Atlas region. At 1665 meters (5460ft) it has an alpine climate and a remarkable European style. Because of its elevation, the town experiences snow during the winter months and a cool climate during the summer. Ifrane is also the place where the lowest temperature was ever recorded in Africa, -24 degrees C in 1935. I am not sure that I would describe it as Little Switzerland though.
FEZ TO CHEFCHAOUEN
From here we slowly drove out of the mountains until we arrived back at around 450 meters and the town of Fez. It only took the first traffic light till we were welcomed by the friendly locals with the question, “Can we help?” “Do you need guide?” “Do you need camping?” etc. It was first off to the Marjane to do shopping and again the locals followed us. Everyone has a brother who is an official tour guide and they all are working on the camping. They clam up when asked which camp ground they work for. (There are two in Fez). Anyway, it is all part of the fun and we might talk to the guides tomorrow. First, we are off to Diamond Verde and the pool, with live music and huge slides. we had spoken to three guides, two of whom tried to over- charge us. Hence, we gave the guide business a miss.
Fez is the second largest city of Morocco, after Casablanca, with a population of approximately 1 million. Fes was the former capital, and one of Morocco’s four “imperial cities.” The others being Rabat, Marrakech and Meknes. Fez has 3 distinctive parts, Fes el Bali (the old, walled city), Fes-Jdid (new Fes, and the Ville Nouvelle (the French-created, newest section of Fes). All 3 parts are very interesting. Its medina is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.
The University of Al-Karaouine, founded in AD 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. It has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”. Having a GPS, we were not really worried about getting lost in the Medina. Having seen so many Medina’s during our travels in Northern Africa and in Syria and Jordan the hustle and bustle of the Medina and its markets are alike, but like any market, you have this feeling that you want to have another look. You will eventually find your way out via lots of dried fruit, leather goods, ceramics, textiles and food stalls! Officially there is no chance of getting to see the tanneries by yourself, however, just 10m left of the entrance is a leather shop that offers views to the tannery free of charge and you can see it all from the balcony. Expect to be pressured into buying goods from the shop in return. It is possible to get into the tannery itself, hang around near the entrance until someone offers to take you in. He will get you past the entrance and then you can wander in amongst the workers. A word of advice – wear closed shoes and maybe bring a mint leaf to sniff if you have a weak stomach. The tour is free, but it is expected that you pay 1-5 dirhams to your guide. While we were in the Medina we realized that this one was very much catering for the tourists as many walking trails were marked in different colours. The Tannery in the Medina is a must and features leather-making techniques unchanged since the middle Ages. Men walk the narrow paths between huge vats of lye and colourful dyes, water wheels creak as the leather is rinsed, and buildings facing the tannery are covered with pelts hanging to dry.
Visit early in the morning before the sun hits the tannery and the stench sets in. We visited this in the afternoon and it wasn’t the smell but the hot sun that was our problem. It is very touristy and not as interesting as the souks in Syria, Sudan and Jordan, but as a last glimpse before heading to Europe it was nice. The Berber pharmacy in the Medina is a must and its hundreds of jars of twisted root and twig neatly lined up along the walls. Don’t eat the seed-pod like things the proprietor offers you. Although he’s eating them also, they are very high in estrogen and can cause a man’s nipples to be sore for several days afterwards. Other points of interest include: Bou Inania madersa – a breathtaking 14th-century religious college. The best example of Islamic architecture a non-Muslim can see in Fez; the view from the hills surrounding the old city is spectacular; there are two fortresses overlooking the old city, the Borj Nord, which contains an armaments museum, and the Borj Sud, which is being developed for tourism. The Merenid Tombs next to the Merenid Hotel, provide excellent panoramic views over the Medina and the wider city. Entrance to the Moulay Idriss II shrine, the tomb of Fez’s founder, is restricted to Muslims only, but the view from just outside its doors is still well-worth seeing. Similarly, the Qaraouyine library and mosque and the al-Tijani mosque have beautifully decorated exteriors and worth a visit even by those who cannot enter them, which includes all foreigners considered to be non-Muslim. In all we think that Fez has been the nicest city we visited in Morocco. Marrakech was interesting and the central square of Djemma el Fna was a great spot to watch the world go by, but Fez left a much greater impression on us. We finished staying much longer than planned in Fez. Our next stop was the roman city of Volubilis (or what is left of it). The Romans made their mark on Morocco from around 150 years BC until the Arab conquest in the 7th century. The site covers approximately 40ha (100 acres) in area. But the main area of Volubilis, and the only area that really attracts visitors, Moroccans and foreigners, is no more than 800 x 600 meters (measured by the walls). Volubilis had a population of about 20.000 people. We spent about 30 minutes on the site but to be honest, after having seen Palmyra in Syria we were disappointed.
Just 3km away from Volubilis is Moulay Idriss, the holiest town in Morocco. Parts of the town are forbidden to non-Muslims, this applies to the centre of town during the day, and at night, the whole town. Spread over a low hill, the town has a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wind their way upwards. As we were not allowed to visit the centre we decided to move on. We then entered the Rif Mountains a mountainous region of northern Morocco, stretching from Cape Spartel and Tangier in the west to Ras Kebdana and the Moulouya River in the east and to the Mediterranean Sea. In the north the Rif Mountains rise to 2448m above sea level at their highest point. This rugged area has some fertile valleys used for agriculture, which is likely to include illegally gown cannabis, for which it has become famous to some. Within these mountains you will find white washed villages in an Andalusian style – not surprisingly as when the Moors were finally pushed out of Spain by the Christians.
As we came around a bend in the road, we were instantaneously hit with the simply beautiful city of Chefchaouen where everything is set out dramatically up the mountain slopes. Its blue-washed houses, narrow cobbled streets, and mountainous backdrop create a tranquil and photographic setting. Isolated in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is one of Morocco’s hidden treasures. In town we looked for the Azilan Campsite, which was above the town looking down on a stunning valley and an absolute panoramic view. We woke up to a perfect panoramic view over the valley. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast and then it was time for the walk to Chefchaouen. This small mountain village sweeps you away into a state of calm with its colour scheme that embraces every imaginable shade of blue bold splashes of cobalt, turquoise, teal, white and starlit blue surround each corner and cobbled alley. Dreamlike and peaceful during the day this blue and white washed city has breathtaking sunsets as we have witnessed last night. The old city is relaxed and has plenty to explore. We enjoyed the freshly squeezed orange juice, and watch the world go by from one of the cafes in the main square. The mountains, which can be seen from the end of every cobbled street, are rugged and majestic. Chefchaouen is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, and the weed is sold all over town. It is essentially legal and smoked by many of the locals, which helps account for this village’s slow pace. It is an intrinsic part of the city life and sold together with herbs, spices and vegetables in the local markets. And the whole world blames Amsterdam! The only problem was that with 45-degree heat, the walk into town was long, even though it was all downhill. On the way back, we took a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade enjoying the view of the valley below us.
CHEFCHAOUEN to TANGER
Again 2 days became 5 days and reluctantly, we left Chefchaouen. It was such a pretty town, with friendly people and a perfect camp – ground overlooking the town. After we left Chefchaouen, our next stop was Tetouan. We were warned about the hash sellers, but we didn’t see any. However, there were police road blocks everywhere, something we had not seen since the far south of Morocco. I think they were looking for some-one or something. Tangier, the capital of the region, has a rich history due to the historical presence of many civilizations and cultures that conquered this area from the 5th century BC. Tangier sits at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean. After the disappointing cities of Casablanca and Rabat, we found Tangier to be a beautiful city with large promenades, beautiful beaches and hundreds of sidewalk cafes and bars. Tangier has a hugely multicultural society that is predominantly Muslim, with small Christian and Jewish communities who express tolerance for one another. Tangier is a town at the crossroads of Africa and Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Tangier has an individual character and it is one of the oldest cities in Morocco. Tangier is a port city and very much a tourist town, serving everything from Moroccan families on 2-month holidays to Europeans on one-day African excursions. The town beach has a great setting. It makes up a several kilometre-long curves with the white houses of Tangier. West of Tangier, we visited and camped near Cape Spartel, which has nice beaches and is a good alternative to the town beach. You have mountains on all sides, yet with a wide and (not always) clean beach with all the necessary amenities. This is our last stop in Morocco. It is such a shame that many facilities such as the camp grounds are so grubby with rubbish laying around all over the place. This disappointing aspect is in stark contrast to the beautiful country with its beautiful people. Today, it also started to dawn on us that this will be our last week on the African continent. It has been two wonderful years of many impressions and great memories. It is hard to believe that we have covered nearly 90,000km
On our last day in Morocco we had a little disagreement with the camping manager. We couldn’t find him, the gates were locked, no security to be found, so we could not get out and the boat was leaving at 10am! We found him after an hour looking for him. Don’t you hate those campsites? It’s no wonder most of us like camping in the bush. It was peak hour in Tangier with plenty of traffic and we were in a hurry. Just over 40km west of Tangier is the Tangier Med Ferry Port. This is the largest port complex being built in Morocco. Although there is already a port in Tangier, this new project has been initiated as part of the regional development to increase the business opportunities. The Tangier Med Port is strategically located at a point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic and the distance between Europe and the African continent is at its shortest (just 14km).
Once completed, the Tangier Med Port will offer all the latest and modern facilities with respect to port infrastructure and passenger facilities. Let’s hope they maintain it! We understand that most ferry companies are moving their operations to the Tangier Med Port. We arrived at 8.45am hoping to catch the 10am boat (Fast Ferry). First, we had to get our tickets organized and get rid of the many helpers; next police, next customs, next police again and off to the boat, it was now 9.35am and we were the last on after the semitrailers and even before we got out of the truck the boat was already moving. The boat left 30 minutes early. Lucky, otherwise it would have been a four hour wait. One hour later we arrived in Europe, last one on the ferry means first one off. Yes, 30 minutes later we cleared customs (computers here) and we were in Spain.