Fes, deserts and gorges
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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A very smooth, suave man offers to help me out and one of his men is assigned and over one hour later and 50 euro lighter (after endless negotiations with various officials when it seems I won't make it through) I drive through into Morocco
I take the tollway for the first section to Tetouan and it's an eerie feeling being the only car on this brand new 4-lane freeway (obviously hardly any Moroccans can afford it).
After the short section of freeway I meet the real Morocco - a narrow, windy road through the Rif mountains (the main town is Chefchouan, which is the marijuana-growing capital of Morocco I find out later), full of old cars and trucks, most of them driving in the middle of the road, and cutting me off on corners as I try to pass them, boys sitting by the side of the road every 100 metres in the heat selling buckets of stone fruits, truckie stops in the mountains (a couple of concrete buildings - chicken cooking over coals, legs of lamb hanging on hooks in the heat, fruit in baskets on sale, men sitting around drinking sugary mint tea - I join them, it's delicious). The drive takes over 4 hours and about 30kms out of Fes the police have set themselves up with a radar gun and are enjoying themselves booking virtually everyone driving along this section of road. It's very organised - they have a little open-fronted hut set up by the side of the road, with a couple of desks, a receipt book, official stamps etc, and I get hit with an on-the-spot 400 dirham fine (about $60)
I eventually make it to Fes after a long day, meet Alison at the Boujloud Gate (the main entry into the old city, the medina) and thankfully she has done some research with the help of a local and takes me to see a couple of riads, and within a short time I am ensconced in my room and savouring being in a completely new and exciting environment.
Fes (fourth largest city in Morocco, population of nearly 1 million) is the oldest of the imperial cities (the others are Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat), and is the most important historically. The city was originally mainly populated by Muslims from from what is now Tunisia around the 800s, and in the late 1100s was one of the largest cities in the world, and a scientific and religious center where both Muslims and Christians from Europe came to study.
After the Christian reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Moors and Jews (in 1492)
many of them came to Fes and settled - the Arabs in the Andalucian quarter (Andalucians are known for beauty of their women and their bravery, the Kairaouinis have the money), and the Jews in the Mellah (means salt in Arabic and is the generic name for Jewish ghettos in Morocco - it's said to be derived from the job given to Fassi Jews of salting heads of executed people before they were hung on the city gates)
We are staying in the medina near the Bou Inania Medersa, one of the most famous Islamic schools in North Africa. My riad has been relatively recently renovated, but is very typical in it's design - a 3-4 storey building with rooms arranged around a beautifully tiled and decorated courtyard (many have a fountain in the centre) - the outside walls have no windows at all - family and social life is all internal. For some reason I never find out the name of my riad and can only find it by following the signs for another riad nearby.
There are a kaleidoscope of impressions as I go outside and wander through the medina over the next few days. It is made up of a couple of main thoroughfares 2-3 metres wide, and a labyrinth of thousands of lanes and alleys, many leading to dead-ends (it is the largest car-free zone in the world). It's amazingly intimate - it's virtually completely lined with shops, trades, workshops (many only a metre wide and 2 deep, filled with 5 or 6 people working away), people sitting on the ground selling vegetables, herbs, chickens, etc. It's cooler in there than outside as the sun is filtered through a light covering of timber slatting, cane mats, etc and it is always thronged with people, through which donkeys loaded with every imaginable thing are driven with shouts and whacks on the rump. Many of the men are dressed in traditional robes (Alison is disappointed that they wear trousers underneath as she is keen on trouserless men :), eg sarongs, pareos, etc, and yellow babouches (a type of pointy-ended soft leather slipper)
One day we explore the Mellah with a very knowledgeable old gentleman as guide (he asks us at the end for money to buy a large bottle of beer). Most of the Jews arrived with Muslims driven out of Spain in late 1400s and they played an important role in the city, and Morocco as a whole (one of the ministers in the current government is Jewish), although very few live there now. We visit the synagogue (which has remained in excellent condition) and stroll through lanes lined with Jewish houses - these are different to houses in the medina as they have tiny outside windows, and little terraces and balconies with ironwork. We also manage to track down an antique shop with many Jewish objects (including a tall clock, like a grandfather clock, except it's a sundial), which Sandy, a friend from Australia has told us about. Sandy (a writer, journalist, radio broadcaster, etc) and his wife Suzanna bought a riad in Fes 6 years ago and renovated it - the story is told in her book called "A House in Fez" published late last year. We meet Sandy a couple of times (I have my first beer in Morocco with him) and are invited around to his riad, and sit around in the courtyard and have tea with him and another expatriate, Kleo (from Germany), who has also bought and renovated a riad, which she is running as a commercial venture - each bedroom has been beautifully and individually decorated (see the pictures) and the view from the rooftop terrace is fabulous
Another day I engage a young man named Said to take me around the main sights of Fes (there are any number of guides around, both official and unofficial, sometimes it seems virtually every male in Fes is a guide) - the University of Al-Karaouine (founded in 859 AD and the oldest continuously operating university in the world), the Karaouine Mosque (one of the largest and holiest in the Muslim world - founded 857, can hold 20,000 people - you can't go in but you can see the ablutions area and one of the prayer halls from a gate), the leather tanneries - a large open air space with hundreds of vats full of dye and pigeon dung, a ceramic workshop employing scores of people.
We are there during the Fes Festival of Sacred Music and we attend a few concerts - the best was Fadhel Jaziri, a Brotherhood (Hamadcha) of Sufis from Tunisia at the Bab (gate) el Makina - a older male and and a young female singer (father and daughter?), a group of musicians (including a striking woman wearing a white garment with an enormous collar and a green robe with a peaked hood playing a type of zither), and a troupe of dancers, who bob their bodies about and whirl with the music. Later that night we went to another venue to listen to a Tuareg group - the Tuareg are nomads from the Sahara, are matrilineal and the women don't traditionally wear the veil - the men do, usually coloured indigo blue
We make a day trip to the country - Alison has been in the medina for more than a week and is feeling very cooped up. We visit Meknes about 60 kilometres from Fes (a former capital under the reign of Emperor Moulay Idris in the late 1600s), then go on to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, which was an important Roman town situated near the westernmost border of the Roman Empire. There is lots to see there but it's a searingly hot day and there is no relief at all from the sun so in late afternoon we drive up to the hilltop town of Moulay Idris, named after the founder of one of the main dynasties (Moulay is roughly equivalent to Saint). Idris founded both this town and his tomb is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Muslims.
From a distance it looks like many other hilltowns around the Mediterranean, and it even has a large piazza around which people are strolling and surrounded with cafes with tables outside. Among the sea of men sitting at tables Alison spies one woman sitting with her husband (she even has her hair uncovered), so we sit at the next table and watch the sunset.
We are both now feeling the need for some wide open spaces so one fine, hot morning (every morning is fine and hot :)we set off south. We pass by Ifrane (created in 1929 by the French - alpine villa style houses, broad, suburban streets, university, swimming pool), Azrou (near a prominent rock), Midelt (in the middle of bleak plain of scrub and desert), and stay in a lovely adobe hotel at Er Rachidia, several hundred kilometres south of Fes
We have been travelling in an air-conditioned car and when we get out the heat is unbelievable. We go into the lounge room of the hotel and it's even hotter inside. A young French couple in there have been unable to move all day. We find out that a camel train will be leaving in the evening for a Berber encampment in the dunes so we decide to join it (Alison is somewhat reluctant as her only other experience of camel-riding is in Egypt when her camel ran off with her aboard and jolted her spine badly).
Alison, the young French couple and me get on our saddles (my camel is at the front and is called Jimi Hendrix), then hold on tightly as the camels get up - the angle is quite steep as the rear goes up first, pitching you violently forward, then the front (or is it the other way around, in which case reverse the description - forgive me, my brain was fried from the heat)
After about an hour through the surreal landscape (I keep having to tell myself that I'm riding on a camel through the Sahara desert and it's real) we reach a valley with several Berber encampments, at the foot of a very tall sand dune. Shortly after we are joined by Rafa (Rafael), a young Spanish guy from Valencia, who caught the next camel after us (Rafa very kindly invites me to visit him if I ever visit Valencia "your house is my house", and of course I take him up on it later :).
The sand dune is an irresistible challenge and I start climbing straight up, rather than walking around to another side where there is a longer, but much shallower slope. Climbing the sand dune is gruelling - every time I put a foot in, the sand from up to a half metre above pours down and covers my lower leg. But as you all know I'm a stoic, so I keep going, even though my heart is pumping away very fast and my leg muscles are screaming, and finally I make the ridge, and a short while later I reach the top. I am gratified that I reached the top well before the young French guy (he's the only other person to make it - forgive my puerile competitive spirit - one of my friends told me years ago that I'm competitive and I didn't believe her, but it seems she's right), and we sit up there for nearly an hour comfortably in silence, each with our own thoughts.
Our guides have laid out mats on the sand so after dinner (tagines and mint tea) we lay out on them and watch the stars and fall asleep
Next morning I wake up before dawn and walk barefoot across the dunes in the pale pearly light (I've always wanted to say that, and it exactly describes it) to find a good vantage point to watch the sun rise. Other people staying in other encampments have done the same so there's about a dozen other people sitting on dune tops waiting for the sun to rise as if it's a mystical rite - it must look weird to the local Berbers, who see it every day.
We are told by our guide at breakfast that we are only 52 days by camel from Timbuktu (that will have to wait for another trip), and we saddle up and ride back before the sun gets too hot.
After our interlude at Erg Chebbi we head north, then west, south of the Atlas mountains, which run right across Morocco. We head for the Todra Gorge and run into Bridgette and Raj, a couple of Alison's friends from Australia. We have hung around with them in Fes for a few days and it's amazing to meet them here. They have hired a local guide with a van and driver to take them on a tour around Morocco. The Todra Gorge is a deep gash in the mountains, with a lovely cool river flowing through, and I can't wait to jump in for a swim (in my underwear - I have brought my bathers but it would be too awkward to change into them, then I stupidly leave them behind, so the rest of my swims in Morocco are all in my underwear)
Bridgette and Raj's guide is taking them to stay at another gorge (Dades), which he says is nicer, so we end up following them and staying at the same place. It's a small family-run place (Auberge La Fibule) and it is simple and beautiful. It is constructed of adobe, which has been decorated with stencils of Berber characters and symbols. The ceiling is of an interesting wooden construction, the bathrooms are tiled with seemingly random tile designs (but it looks fantastic), the bathroom basins and walls are made of tadelakt, a waterproof lime plaster, in short, we love the place. The owner is Mohammed, who is a musician and poet (he has several CDs out and has played in Europe), and his son Mustapha keeps us entertained. He has a number of favourite expressions which he has picked up from tourists and uses all the time - fabulous, that's lovely (in a posh English accent), and awesome (in an American accent, somewhat like arsome). The first evening we eat out on an enclosed terrace and drink Moroccan wine with our meal - yes, I didn't know wine is made in Morocco either.
Mustapha organises an overnight trip for us out to a Berber cave encampment, so next day we set off on a 3 hour walk up a dry riverbed, then into dry red hillsides covered in wild thyme and other herbs. It is beautiful picking thyme as you walk, crushing it and releasing the herby odour and holding it to your nose.
The encampment is fantatstic - we reach an area with trees and a stream, above is a flat area with a ledge in front of a small rock face, with several caves hollowed out. Nearby is a pen for holding goats and sheep, and a mountain behind. I think we are expected to sleep in the caves but after dinner we just lay down and go to sleep outside.
Raj and Bridget leave after this expedition, and Mustapha suggests another excursion, to the Valley of the Roses, although the details are vague.
We drive down the road towards the main town Boumaln Dades, then we turn up a very narrow street in a village and eventually come out on to a shockingly rough dirt road. I have mistakenly understood we are driving the car to a point where we will get out and go for a 2-3 hour walk, but it turns out we are driving to the Valley of the Roses over this road. As I drive I wince as we hit potholes and just scrape over sharp rocks, but after more than an hour of this torture (virtually all in first gear) we amazingly come to a sizeable town. We drive through and after wending our way through numerous roadworks and a river we eventually make it on to a bitumen road and visit a town whose name I cannot remember and Alison goes successfully shopping for a number of rose-based cosmetics and a bottle of medicinal honey (she had lost an earlier one bought in Fes) - we both had irritated throats and are constantly clearing them and coughing, probably because of the extremely dry and dusty conditions.
Before we leave Mustapha takes us to meet his grandfather Mohamed (100 years old), and aunt, who is the giggliest person I have ever met, which is strange because I rarely heard anyone laughing in Morocco.
On the morning of our departure Mohamed's kids washed my car - as you could imagine after several thousand kilometres of desert and dirt roads it was full of dust inside and out, and we drove away sadly after several days of staying with these lovely people.
There's not much else to recount about the trip to Marrakech other than it continued along the dry, desolate countryside to Ourzazate (where there's a couple of film studios), from where we drove up into the Atlas mountains, over a high pass, crossing over into northern Morocco, then down into the evocatively named Marrakech, which is the starting point for the rest of the trip.