Updated: Feb 23
After leaving the Sahara, the road took us north from Merzouga through Erfoud and from there to Er-Rachidia, where we swiftly took another grand taxi, six of us cramped in there with me and my girlfriend squashed on to the front seat, to Midelt. As its name suggests, this is a kind of middling place, in the Middle Atlas, mid way through Morocco. A kind of no-man's land between north and south which my guidebook nevertheless recommended because of the surrounding 'barren but breath-taking scenery'. It was barren, but it wasn't breath-taking; especially having come from the High atlas and the Sahara. The journey there though had been spectacular; another rocky valley, this one called the Ziz Valley, winding north to south, though of course without water. I had asked a couple of locals whilst travelling if this was a normal state of affairs, or if the water levels had dropped recently because of the dry summer that all European and North african countries had experienced this year. It seems that Moroccans are very worried at the prospect of global warming, because a rise in temperature and drop in rainfall could affect them terribly. Water is a very important commodity for everyone here, and the very real threat of the Sahara spreading northwards is something that there really is no solution for. It would mean the devastation of communities and loss of livelihoods in the whole area, not to mention a drain on the company economically as more and more people seek to leave to pursue opporunities elsewhere. Not a prospect that your average Moroccan wants to dwell on, but something that I pondered more and more as I travelled through the country.
We took a taxi out of Midelt and to a small agro-tourist place out in the sticks about 15km north. In my Lonely Planet, it sounded ideal: cheap, a swimming pool, friendly and knowledgable staff who would help you get to know the area. As it turned out, it was a pretty deserted camping complex, whose pool had been emptied the previous week and which was a bit over-priced. Some of the staff were friendly, but none spoke English, unfortunately. We didn't do much with the evening except take advantage of the TV room and watch cheesy American 80's films all night, whilst swatting away the ubiquitous flies which were buzzing around the place. Next day we went for a stroll up the waterless valley and were soon picked up by a couple of local lads, one of whom gave up his donkey for my girlfriend to ride. They insisted that we go and meet their family however, which we duly did. We spent a pleasant hour doing the by-now-familiar routine of questions and answers about where, why, how and when, and being watered and fed embarrassingly much. They were quite disappointed when we insisted on leaving, and rather wanted us to stay a few nights I fancy. We were shown around their apple orchard before leaving, and took a few pictures with them. The warmth of the welcome by Moroccan families is often touching.
Azrou - garden city We went next to Azrou, first returning to Midelt to pick up a grand taxi to take us the 100km or so north through the Middle Atlas. This fairly speedy mode of transport had revolutionised our travel and halved our journey time. Despite the more cramped conditions in the taxi, I was a big fan. As we sped through the countryside northwards, the scenery was perceptibly changing, becoming greener and more moderate; less mountainous, more hilly - it reminded me a bit of the highlands of Scotland in places, though obviously less green. We arrived at Azrou at sundown and witnessed a lovely sunset from a plaza just below the town's main drag. Azrou was lovely. It was a small town surrounded by rocky outcrops to the south and east. It was much greener than any town we had been to until then, and that in itself was a bit of a relief, a return to the normal in a sense. Our hotel was smack in the middle of town, and though a bit run-down, was cheap and functional. It also had a lovely big balcony which gave onto the town square and was a great place for people-watching. We watched people for a while and drank some local wine, then hit the restaurant where we served decent lamb with prune tagine by a somewhat stiff waiter who tried to rip us off. Not that I was that bothered, but generally we hadn't been ripped off in restaurants, so I was a bit surprised. Moroccans had been generally honest. They have different rules and will try to sell you anything but they will generally play fair where money is concerned. As it was a Saturday night, we went to a bar. As far as I remember, it was the last bar we ventured into in Morocco. It was utterly depressing, with the air of men who have nothing better to do but escape their wives; no jovial chit-chat, no music. Just expensive beer, depressed-looking men staring at their drinks, and us. I bought one small beer, which I couldn't finish quick enough as I watched a thoroughly inept game of pool being played out on a decrepit table, and left.
Next day, after strolling around the town and getting a few pictures from the surrounding hills, we headed north about 20km, to a place called Ifrane. I just wanted to see this place for the afternoon, before heading the 100km further north to Meknes. It was a unique place in Morocco, a kind of green oasis, full of gardens, neatly trimmed lawns and carefully tended flowers along clean, straight boulevards with clear signposting. There was, it seems, a lot of money being pumped in here, not for tourists, but for locals. It had a big and prestigious English language university and all the rich families from Meknes, Fes, Casablanca and Rabat sent their rich kids here to study English and whatever else would give them a better chance in life. If I sound cynical, it's because 80% of the country's education funds end up being funnelled through here into the hands of the elite. A country which has clearly defined lines between rich and poor. It was like walking around a kind of Beverly Hills 90210 set, California mixed with a twist of Milton Keynes for good measure. Utterly soulless and without any real sense of being a city at all. We strolled around and tried vainly to find a centre to it, but couldn't. Eventually, we asked someone in a souvenir shop near to where the taxi had originally dropped us. "This is the centre," he explained. "Nor are you out of it", I expected him to add.
Meknes - gritty beauty We got another taxi out to the Imperial city of Meknes. This driver had a death wish. I must admit that I am a bit of a back-seat driver, and every time he pulled out senselessly into the path of an on-coming truck, or attempted to overtake a line of traffic as a car was approaching before swerving back in, I groaned or made some obvious expletive in his direction. I think he eventually got the message, because he started grinning in my direction every time he swerved inanely out. To my eternal gratitude, we arrived safely in Meknes about 8pm, and I grimly gave the driver his 30 dirhams, wagging my finger at him as I did so. Like he cared. We took a 'petite taxi' to the ville nouvelle, or new town, of Meknes. This, the third 'Imperial' City of Morocco, after Marrakesh and Fes, is home to about 750,000, and seemed to have a real vibrancy about it, unlike anywhere we had been since Marrakesh. The nightlife of the new town was certainly approaching what you might expect in a European city, and promisingly, there appeared to be a number of bars selling alcohol. Our hotel, 'Hotel Grand', nearly lived up to its name, and had clearly once had a hey-day at some point, approximately 80 years ago. Its art-nouveau style betrayed its French origins, and it had somehow retained its sumptuous staircases and fine fittings, despite the rooms being rather standard. It also had a very pleasant terrace on the rooftop from which we could again get some good people watching opportunities, the hotel being close to the train station and near most of the seedy street life that goes on near stations in all big cities.
I went out to procure some wine, which is produced in the Meknes region and therefore quite cheap. I checked a couple of the bars, and was disappointed to find that they are no different to bars in other cities; essentially just pick-up joints where then only women are waiting around for men who will pay them. We explored Meknes and its souqs, which were generally a lot more manageable than Marrakech and even Essaouria. It had a living, working quality to it which we hadn't noticed in Marrakesh, which is much more tourist-oriented. Once you get past the souvenir and jewellery stalls, and you venture into the heart of the Meknes souqs, you see metal workers, leathersmiths, woodworkers, ironmongers, tanners. The place was quiet until about 5pm, when all of a sudden it seemed as if the whole town took to the street en masse, and then the whole area was swarming with people and you had no choice but to follow the tide which pushed relentlessly in one of two directions: in or out. It was a bit daunting, but there were no hustlers or pickpockets around. It was just people, locals out on the town, mostly just young people out to be seen. Despite the segregation between the sexes in Morocco and the lack of amenities or places for them to hang out, they still have a way of strutting their stuff in order to be seen and noticed. And some of the Moroccan girls are hard not to notice. We took a ride on a horse and carriage. Very touristy, I know. But hey, it's a great way of seeing a town, and much more comfortable than hoofing it around all day on foot. We got a bit ripped off, getting only 40 minutes when we paid for an hour, but we got to see Meknes really well, from its main gates and city walls to the medina and ville nouvelle.
Dying to see Fes
Next day, we would move on to Fes. It's only about ninety minutes by bus, an hour by grand taxi. The two cities are remarkably close by Moroccan standards, and it's a breeze getting from one to the other - a blessing in a country where you often find days disappearing whilst moving from A to B, even when it doesn't look that far on the map. Fes is the cultural and religious heart of Morocco, and the centre of its Islamic Orthodoxy. You can find green (the colour of Islam) predominating on walls and doors in the city. Fes acts as a barometer of popular sentiment - strikes and protests happen here before anywhere else usually - and, as such, it is a city which any Moroccan government needs to have onside. It's an ancient city - ancient as in one of the oldest cities in the world, and arguably one of the most iconic in Africa and the Middle East, ranking alongsde Damascus, Alleppo, Cairo, Alexandria, Tunis and Luxor. It oozes character and is probably like no other city you will ever visit. Once you enter the old walled city centre and medina of Fes, you are in a maze.
For Fes is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world. Its narrow, winding streets and covered bazaars are crammed with every conceivable kind of workshop, restaurant and market, as well as mosques, medersas (theological colleges) and extensive dye pits and tanneries - a veritable assault on the senses. We visited a tannery, Chouara, which dated from the 11th century, and the stench from the cow skins and dye pits was quite hard to take. Even from a distance. Watching the tanners at work from a bird's eye view, though, was fascinating. The ville nouvelle and its chic, cafe-lined avenues provide a jarring contrast to the medina. Sipping coffe and watching the passers-by along Boulevard Mohammed V, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in southern France. The young Fassis have cast aside the trappings of their parents' lives, adopting fashions and lifestyles more readily identified with the West. However, many remain without work, and the smart, clean Ville Nouvelle disguises the sad lot of the poorer people living on the periphery.
For the short-term visitor, Fes is difficult to come to grips with. The medina can be totally bewildering. The amount of hassle you will get just wondering through it is incredible. Don't think for one minute that you will blend into the crowd; you won't. You'll stick out like a sore thumb. The constant attention of unofficial guides, small boys, touts and bothersome shopkeepers may even colour your view of the city sufficiently for you to never want to come back. You literally have to swat them off like flies at times. And yet, Fez is a centuries-old, veiled, self-contained city where life moves to centuries-old traditions - a city which doesn't easily bare its soul. Given time, you will probably glimpse behind the veil and get to know the real Fes, one which doesn't involve constant pestering.
Good luck. Personally, I didn't. I really wanted to fall in love with the city - I'd heard so much about it, and had a picture of it in my mind before I went. In the end, I found the souq and the medina claustrophobic, hot and noisy - you don't have a minute to breathe. You get dragged from one carpet shop to another if you're not careful - and then to someone's cousin who has a leather shop - and then you go there for a cup of mint tea and get shown some embroidered slippers...it just goes on and on and you simply cannot escape it. It's like a tide. And no matter how experienced a traveller you are, I defy you to get out of there with your sanity, or temper, intact.
When I surfaced, having visited several leather shops, a metal worker, a tannery, a carpet shop (where I was offered my girlfriend in exchange for two camels by a piqued shopkeeper who failed to sell me a carpet), and countless other small businesses, I had to sit down for quite a long time to get my bearings and calm down. We had a walk out of the medina and out of the town to a Jewish cemetery on a hill just to the north of the centre, and looked down on the hive of activity below us. I felt a sense of relief - that I didn't have to live or work there, and that we didn't need to stay for more than a night. In fact, we didn't really have that option anyway, because our time was running out and we still had a date to keep with the Rif Mountains and Chefchaouen before we took a boat back to Spain.
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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous part, about the Sahara Desert, go here:
Stay tuned for the next, and final, part!