© Dr David Wood
Head for the hills
A couple of MDs drive beyond Marrakech on a countrywide tour of Morocco
Morocco has an immense variety of experiences to offer the visitor. There are snowy peaks and sun-soaked deserts, dazzling coasts, cities of domes and minarets. In between, the fortunate traveller will discover palm oases, almond trees, gorges and rock formations of the Anti-Atlas. Each of its ancient cities of Berbers and Arabs has a medina, or old town, with hundreds of narrow winding streets, while its newer districts tend to have a distinctly French influence. Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912-1956.
Last February, I travelled with my wife, Nina, our daughter, Lindsay, and a classmate of mine, Dr Michael Evans, and his wife, Mirella, on a two-week adventure through Morocco. We rented an SUV and did our own driving, both on the good highways and on the not-so-good back roads.
Marrakech, Morocco’s most visited city, was a good starting point. It’s bustling, chaotic and full of life. Inside the thousand-year-old walls there are palaces, mosques, tombs and, of course, souks, or markets, with their endless allies and streets lined with every kind of shop imaginable — except those that sell alcohol. This is a Muslim country, after all. Its principal landmark is the Koutoubia Mosque. It was built in 1147 and its splendid tower stands over 70 metres tall. No building in the city is permitted to exceed its height.
From Marrakech, we headed to Essaouira on the coast, and were immediately struck by the light and beauty of the seaside port. Huge rolling waves crashed into the ramparts that protect the town and medina. It has a big beach and a fishing harbour, so seafood is a must here.
As we drove along through argan tree orchards, we noticed something extraordinary. Climbing to the highest branches, almost as agile as monkeys, were goats! We’d read about it — and doubted it — and yet there they were, defying gravity and feasting on succulent (?) argan leaves and fruit. Some of the trees were positively weighed down by goats, and we saw a kid perched at the top of one tree, the branch bent beneath his weight. The fruit of the argan tree produces an oil that’s a treasured commodity in Morocco and very expensive. It’s used for cosmetics, cooking and medicine.
For more glorious beach scenery, head further down the coast to Morocco’s premiere beach resort, Agadir. The town was levelled by an earthquake in 1960 and has been rebuilt to host sun worshippers from all over Europe. The nine-kilometre beach makes for a spectacular walk and surfers are aplenty. While it may not be “the real Morocco,” it’s certainly a nice place to take a break in the sun and surf. Southeast of Agadir, in the heart of the Anti-Atlas, is Tafraoute — or “tough-route” as we called it because of the drive on narrow winding roads. We drove through spectacular arid mountains filled with almond trees in bloom. Clouds of rose coloured blossoms were everywhere! At sunset, the rock formations and mountains turned pink.
High and dry
A six-hour drive east through more mountains and almond groves brought us to one of the most famous Kasbah towns, Ait Benhaddou. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this collection of Kasbahs, or fortified mud-brick castles, has crenellated towers and arches, and its wild beauty has attracted movie makers. It’s a must-see on anyone’s list. Our guide boasted about having been an extra in a number of films, including James Bond, The Living Daylights, The Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator. During our trip, Ait Benhaddou was the only “dry town” we encountered. Otherwise, most B&B- and small-hotel owners seem to know where a bottle of wine or beer could be purchased.
Driving east leads through a series of palm oases and a couple of amazing gorges: the Dades and the Todra. A bit further brought us to one of the highlights of our Moroccan adventure, the Erg Chebbi dunes. We stayed in Merzouga, at the Hotel Kasbah Azlay (kasbahazalay.com), a stunning place near the dunes, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Our host, Mohamed, greeted us with mint tea on his rooftop terrace and then quickly ordered a delicious “Berber omelette,” full of onions and vegetables, and fruit salad for lunch. After a brief siesta, we were off on a camel trek in the desert. From our perch atop the animals, we saw dunes in every direction. It was spectacular. They changed in colour from caramel to pink to ochre as the sun went down, bringing on a brilliant starry night.
A lot of these small towns are “dry,” but we wanted some wine with our evening meal so Mohamed sent me off with his brother, Omar, to the only licensed place in town, the local campground, where I was able to purchase wine and beer to celebrate our great day. Supper was typical Moroccan fare: a delicious tagine, a meat stew full of vegetables, spices and sometimes prunes, cooked over low heat in a special clay pot and served hot. Subsequently our hosts put on a magnificent Berber music night, complete with drums, singing and chanting.
The next day was an eight-hour drive through the Ziz gorge and over the eastern side of the Atlas mountains, which brought us to Fes, Morocco’s oldest imperial city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearly 600,000 people live in its medina with 13,000 little streets and allies, most unmarked! It’s like Marrakech on steroids with its multitude of souks and famous tanneries and carpet shops.
We stayed at the beautiful Riad Rcif (riadrcif.com, a former Pasha Palace that dates back to 1372 and has been painstakingly restored. Absolutely fabulous! The intricately carved patterns adorned all the walls and doors that weren’t covered in mosaic tiles. Again the food was excellent, and the ladies even tried the hammam, a Moroccan hot bath with massage.
Coasting through Rabat
Just east of Fes are the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, filled with magnificent mosaics and triumphal arches from the second century CE. This city is thought to have been founded by Juba II and his wife, Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
Further east on the coast is Rabat. At one time, it was a haven for Barbary pirates and known as the Republic of Bou Regreg. In 1912, the French protectorate made Rabat the political and administrative capital of Morocco, and it now boasts a population of 1.5 million, and is also home to the country’s main university.
Rabat’s minarets, Kasbahs and medina contrast its wide avenues and green spaces and fountains created by the French. The Oudaia Kasbah has ramparts that overlook the Atlantic, and its pretty little blue and white streets and doors are some the nicest in Morocco.
One of the most striking sites is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the father of Moroccan independence (1956). Made of white Italian marble, the mausoleum has an amazing 12-sided dome over the sarcophagus of Mohammed V. Next to it is the half-finished minaret of the Hassan Mosque. Built in 1196, the 44-metre-tall tower stands over rows and rows of white stone columns. The mosque, which was to have been the largest building in the Muslim west, was never completed and the great hall was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.
Morocco’s current king, Mohammed VI, has been on the throne since 1999. He brought modernity and justice to the country. Improvements in infrastructure and law enforcement have provided much needed stability, making Morocco a safe place for western travellers.
Finally, on the northern tip of the country, facing Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, is Tangier. Once the Roman capital of Mauritania and Tingitana, it was an “International City” during the French protectorate. People travelled there from all over the world. Tangier’s pretty hilltop medina overlooks its rapidly expanding port and massive beach, which is lined with hotels, clubs and restaurants. The Musée Archéologique, housed in a former sultan’s palace, has the amazing Roman mosaic The Voyage of Venus from Volubilis on display. This city is often the landing point for day-trippers from Spain, who barely get a taste of what Morocco really has to offer!
An interesting side trip is the Grotte d’hercule, which has an interesting view over the Atlantic through an opening that is the shape of Africa in reverse.
Morocco has many fascinating cities and beautiful landscapes. It’s now truly opening up to western tourists, who can feel quite safe among these friendly people. While Arabic is the official language, everyone from the cab drivers to the hotel receptionists speaks beautiful and fluent French, and many also speak English. Throughout our travels we felt welcomed by the Moroccan people, who were proud to show us their beautiful country and its myriad riches.
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