Itinerary: Casablanca – Rabat – Meknes – Voloubilis – Fes – Atlas Mountains – Erg Chebbi – Tinerhir – Todra Gorge – Vallée des Dadès – Ouarzarzate – Marrakesh
Royal cities, kasbahs, mosques, couscous, medinas, desert and the Atlas Mountains, these are more or less the ingredients for a trip to Morocco. Located on the northwest coast of Africa, 25 million people inhabit an area that is twenty times the size of the Netherlands (17 million people). At 4 p.m. local time (two hours earlier than in the Netherlands) we arrive at Casablanca airport. The quieu at the passport control is long, but that’s nothing compared to the time it takes to get our luggage. Only when someone talks to an employee does our luggage arrive on the belt (albeit a different one than where everyone is waiting).
Casablanca (or Dar al-Beida, as the Moroccans call the city) is the economic capital of Morocco and with five million inhabitants the largest city in Africa, after Cairo. The city has nothing to do with the romantic film classic Casablanca (which was also not filmed in this city) nor does it remind you of the atmospheric Morocco that you expect. Just a big, busy city, with high office buildings and apartment blocks, billboards and a lot of traffic. A city where almost everything is bilingual (Arabic and French), McDonald’s and Pizzahut have their branches and the wide boulevards have a French rather than North African feel.
Our hotel is on the edge of the city center and is a standard tourist hotel that is barely worth its three stars. By the time we get there, and night falls. It’s Ramadan (and will be for two more days) and people hurry to the mosque, called upon by the chanting from the minarets. Praying and eating: between 7 and 8 p.m. the streets are deserted. After eight we go looking for a restaurant. Men sit on the various terraces. Cafes are the domain of the man in Morocco, on the terraces there is usually not a woman to be seen. We find a kind of eatery, where we are the only customers and where we get reasonable food for little money. We’re going to sleep early tonight. Tomorrow we’ll see what the rest of Casablanca looks like.
Walking in Casablanca the next morning, it becomes even more clear how much this city (and country) was influenced by the era when it was a French protectorate. If it were not for the Arabic script you see everywhere, you’d imagine yourself in the suburbs of a large French city. The buildings are built after French architecture from the early twentieth century, most streets are called ‘boulevard’ or ‘avenue’ and the fact that you walk past the ‘boulangerie’, the ‘super marché’ and the ‘pharmacie’ also gives you the feeling of being in Paris rather than Morocco. It’s the faces of the people, their clothes, the smells and the mosques that give the city its North African atmosphere.
It’s Sunday morning and still very quiet on the street. Most shops and restaurants are closed. We walk along Place Mohammed V, the main square of the city, with a number of striking buildings around it: the Préfecture (with clock tower), the Palais de Justice and the old post office. Then we walk past the busy roundabout Place des Nations Unies and the old and dilapidated (and not so interesting) medina (we will visit plenty of interesting medinas later in this trip). This part of the city in particular is old and dirty.
Casablanca has few sights, but one makes the city worth visiting. The Hassan II mosque is the main attraction of the city. The modern mosque was built in the eighties of the last century and is located directly on the Atlantic Ocean. It is the third largest mosque in the world (after those in Mecca and Medina) and can accommodate 20,000 worshippers. Many more people can find a place on the huge square in front of the mosque. The square minaret is 175 meters high (unlike the round minarets in the Middle East, the minarets in North Africa are square). The mosque is a magnificent structure, with beautiful mosaics, decorated doors, arches and colonnades. A fine example of contemporary Islamic architecture.
From the Hassan II mosque we take a ‘petit taxi’ to the hotel. These little red taxis (in other cities they are blue or beige) drive about everywhere and take you to your destination for a small fee. The patisserie in the street where our hotel is located is very busy. People are shopping for the upcoming Eid Mubarak, the holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan. In the shops and at stalls on the street there are all kinds of sweet and savory sandwiches, of which we buy some and take them to the Parque de la League Arabe a little further away. This is a large green oasis in the midst of the noisy city, with long rows of palm trees lining paths with large photographs on display. In the grass, residents of the city relax and children play. A good place to sit and read for a while before the sun goes down.
The guy at the rental car office is kind enough to explain to us how to leave Casablanca: at the third traffic light turn right, then the first left and after eight kilometers there is a sign to Rabat. The first two clues are correct, but a Rabat sign is missing. We’re not surprised, because until now we have hardly come across directional signs and you sometimes have to search for street signs as well. A good map and a sense of direction are therefore an advantage. After eight kilometers we cross a highway, so we decide to take it, in the hope that we are going in the right direction. After a few kilometers a sign (finally) confirms that we are indeed driving towards the Moroccan capital.
It’s an hour’s drive to Rabat. Via the main road that leads right through the new city, we drive straight to the Bab el Had, one of the gates in the old red-brown city wall that separates the old city from the new city, built by the French. From the Bab el Had we follow the Boulevard Hassan II until near the river Bou Regreg. Here is the Tour Hassan, an unfinished tower that should have become the minaret of the Hassan II mosque. In 1776, however, this mosque was destroyed by an earthquake and in front of the tower is now a large square with only the columns of the mosque. On the other side of the square are the mausoleums of former kings Mohammed V and his son Hassan II. From the Tour Hassan you have a nice view over the river and Salé, the conservative sister city of Rabat, on the other side. The Tour Hassan is also visited by many Moroccans. Many visitors are festively dressed on the occasion of Eid Mubarak, which is being celebrated today.
After the Tour Hassan we walk down the Rue des Consuls in the old medina, where it is quite busy, but where unfortunately the shops are closed today due to the national holiday. On the other side of the medina we arrive at the Kasbah des Oudayas. This fortress is a town in itself, with numerous small streets with small houses, all painted white and blue. We walk criss-cross through the very picturesque streets until we arrive at Café Maure, the ideal place to relax for a while. On the shaded terrace and the cooling breeze from the ocean we enjoy a glass of mint tea and local sweets.
From the kasbah we walk back through the medina. We are now hungry and decide to buy something to eat at one of the stalls on the street. The busiest is at a stall where they cut flat breads in half and fill each half with a mixture of sausages, meat, onions and couscous. Busy usually means good so we order two sandwiches. We don’t know exactly what’s in it, but the taste of fried liver and the sheep’s heads sold at the next stall give us an idea…
The Royal Palace in Rabat is a modern palace in the midst of a large walled site. We have to show our passport to enter. It turns out to be a small town within the city, complete with ministries’ offices, employees’ houses and the inevitable mosque. The palace itself is not accessible, but through the beautifully designed gate you can catch a glimpse of the royal entrance. The guards keep a close eye on the photographing tourists and make it unmistakably clear if you get too close to the gate.
Our hotel is centrally located on Boulevard Mohammed V, right in front of the parliament building. In front of the hotel is a large terrace where it’s buzzing this late afternoon it’s. While the sun slowly sets behind the parliament building, the inhabitants of Rabat stroll along the boulevard. Some traditionally dressed, others very modern. Girls with and without headscarves, men in djellaba and boys in jeans, children playing with balloons – all mixed up. Every day around dusk, social life takes place here. It is pleasantly busy.
Meknes and Voloubilis
The next morning we get ready for the drive to Meknes. When we have left the city (luckily there are signs here) the road runs through a flat, barren landscape. As we get closer to Meknes, the landscape becomes more hilly. The area between Rabat and Meknes is emerging as a wine region and indeed we see vineyards here and there (later this trip we will come to the conclusion that the quality of Moroccan wines still needs some improvement…).
First we want to go to Voloubilis, an old Roman city, north of Meknes, but once near Meknes we don’t see any signs anymore. Despite our map and our reasonably developed sense of direction, we still go the wrong way. After searching for a while and asking for directions, we decide to reverse the plan: first Meknes and then Voloubilis. We park the car just outside the city walls. Once within the walls, you immediately arrive at the imposing city gate Bab Mansour. The gate was built in the early eightteenth century by order of the Sultan of Meknes, who is also responsible for the defense walls surrounding the city. Opposite the Bab Mansour is the Place el Hedim, a large square with terraces on one side and bordered by the medina on the other.
For many Moroccans the tomb of sultan Moulay Ismael is a holy place and it’s one of the few holy places in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims (do take your shoes off before entering). The interior of the building is completely tiled with colorful mosaics. Back at Place el Hedim we are approached by the owner of one of the restaurants – in fluent Dutch. He turns out to have a Surinamese girlfriend (hence the good Dutch) and has a nose for recognizing Dutch tourists. We sit down at his place to enjoy lunch, a cooling breeze and the view over the square .
In the narrow streets of the medina not all shops are open and it’s not very busy. After a few turns left and right, we arrive at the Madrase Bou Inania. This Quran school was built in the fourteenth century. You can enter for ten dirhams and that is highly recommended. The madrase has a beautiful courtyard with a fountain. The floor and the lower part of the walls are tiled with mosaics and the stucco above is completely decorated with geometric figures. The wooden gates also feature carvings with abstract shapes. Literally every little part is decorated. Via a narrow staircase you reach the first floor, where the small (two by two) student bedrooms were. Another staircase takes you to the roof of the madrase, from where you have a nice view over the roofs of the medina and the mosque next to the madrase, with its minaret and green roof tiles.
When we go look for a restaurant to have dinner, this turns out to be a difficult task. Although it is pleasantly busy in the city, the few restaurants that are there are closed. There is, however, a patisserie or an ice cream parlor on every street corner and there are countless cafes populated by men. At last we find a pizzeria near the hotel. Fast, cheap and above all: open.
Some 35 kilometers north of Meknes is Voloubilis, an ancient Roman city that was a thriving city in the second and third centuries. Most of the buildings have disappeared, what remains are a large triumphal arch and some upright (or re-erected) columns. Why Voloubilis attracts visitors, however, are the many mosaic floors of the ancient Roman houses that once stood here. These are quite well preserved. Moreover, from the ruins you have a beautiful view over the surroundings.
It takes a while to find how we get from Voloubilis to Fes, because the roads around Voloubilis don’t seem to match the map. A police officer eventually points us in the right direction. The road to Fes runs through an endless hilly landscape, which looks dry and barren. Undoubtedly the result of a long, hot summer. When we get close to Fes, we run into the same problem as a few times before during this trip: everything is very poorly signposted. Signs are missing, difficult to read or do not correspond to the map. Until now we always arrive at our destination, albeit after a lot of searching, grumbling about missing signs and making a lot of u-turns.
The Tour de Fes, the ring road around the old city of Fes, doesn’t quite fit the map either, but we still manage to find the place from where you have a nice panoramic view over the old city. The large mosques with their minarets and green roof tiles are clearly recognizable. For today we will stick to this image of Fes, tomorrow we will visit the old city. First we look for our hotel, which is located in the ‘nouvelle ville’. We know how to find the way there to the address, but the hotel appears not to be there. After asking twice, two guys on a moped offer to take us to the hotel. They skillfully guide us through the busy traffic and a few minutes later we are in front of the hotel. One of the guys tries to buy us a guidebook for when we visit the old town tomorrow and insists that we eat at a ‘friend’s restaurant’, but we are of course not interested in that. I give him 30 dirham for taking us to the hotel, which he takes grudgingly.
The next day we visit the old city of Fes. It actually consists of two parts: Fes el Jdid and Fes el Bali. We focus on Fes el Bali. We park the car just outside the city walls at the Bab Boujeloud, the most beautiful and famous but relatively new city gate of Fes, built in 1911. The gate has a blue and gold mosaic on one side and a green and gold one on the other. After the gate you walk into the ‘main street’ of the medina, the Talaa Kabira. At the beginning of the Talaa Kabira is the madrase Bou Inania. This Quran school has the same name as the one in Meknes and is also similar in architecture. Here too you’ll find a courtyard decorated with mosaics and carvings.
The old medina is a maze of countless narrow streets, accessible only to pedestrians and mules. Everywhere are small shops which sell all kinds of stuff: babouches (traditional slippers), leather goods, spices, carpets, meat (sheep’s heads) and so on. It’s a very busy place and we regularly have to get out of the way to let a mule pass. We are also constantly being approached by guys who want to show us their shop, lead us to a restaurant or act as a guide. We manage quite well to find our way down the small streets. To the left and right of the Talaa Kabira are small souks, dead-end and mostly covered streets where traders are located who specialize in things like henna tattoos or copperware.
The Talaa Kabira eventually ends at the great mosque of Fes: the Kairoyine mosque. This mosque is off-limits for non-Muslims, but the large gate is open so that we can still have a look at the courtyard of the mosque. It’s amazing how, in the midst of all those narrow streets, with buildings that don’t look like much from the outside, you suddenly find such a beautifully decorated courtyard. Around the corner from the mosque is Place Seffarine, a small square where we take a break.
Next we walk towards the Chouaras tanneries. This is the largest of the three leather dyeing-houses in Fes. The deying happens in open-air and at some of the surrounding shops you can go to the roof terrace, from where you can see the dyers from above. What you see there is truly incredible: below is a kind of square that is completely filled with vats, together resembling the structure of a kind of large egg carton. The vats are filled with dye in which the large leather hides are dyed. New hides are drying in the sun on the roofs. The stench is enormous. Men and boys stand on and in the vats to ‘wash’ the leather hides. Some are up to their waists in the dirty stuff. It’s hard work, in the pungent stench and full sun. It seems nothing has changed here since the Middle Ages. This is how the hides were dyed back then and this is how they still do it today. Unbelievable…
As we walk on, the inevitable happens: we lose our way in the maze of streets. We guess, trusting that we will automatically return to a point that we recognize. When I walk past a mule that I saw standing there before, it turns out that we are again at the Talaa Kabira. When we go look for a place to eat, one of the many inconspicuous doors in the Talaa Kabira opens onto a beautifully decorated courtyard that serves as a restaurant. An oasis of calm in this busy medina. Here we can relax for a while from all the impressions, sounds, colors and smells in Fes el Bali. When we are back at our hotel later that afternoon, we relax by the pool for a few hours. Tomorrow we are going to drive a mere 425 kilometer straight through the Atlas Mountains to the south.
We leave Fes via the N13 to the south. We are just on our way when it starts to rain. The weather has been beautiful the past few days, but today is a grey day. Soon we drive into the Atlas Mountains. This part is called the ‘Moyen Atlas’, compared to the ‘Haut Atlas’, which is yet to come. We drive over the mountains, through cedar forests and past Ifrane, a kind of Swiss mountain village, neatly raked and with chalets, very un-Moroccan. After the mountains follows a large plateau, an endlessly barren, rocky plain with here and there a herd of sheep and the occasional village.
When we get to the town of Midelt it’s time to stop for lunch. No sooner have we got out of the car than a young man suggests that we have dinner at the Fes restaurant around the corner. He starts talking about Dutch travel companies like Djoser and Baobab and that they always eat at this place. Well, if he knows those tour companies, maybe it’s okay… And it is: the food is excellent, especially the selection of local appetizers is delicious. Afterwards, however, we are more or less obligated to come to a carpet shop a little further down the street, which turns out to belong to the same guy. We are given an explanation of the meaning of the motifs on Berber carpets and we are shown various examples. It takes a lot of effort to convince the enthusiastic seller that we really are not going to buy a carpet from him. After we’ve made our point, his friendliness quickly disappears. Too bad that people who appear friendly are in fact really after your euros…
After lunch we enter the ‘Haut Atlas’. The mountains here reach above 3,000 meters, but fortunately the road runs over a somewhat lower pass. The weather continues to be bad. Dark gray clouds hang over the mountains and the rain beats incessantly against the windshield. The soil cannot handle so much water and the mud-brown water regularly flows over the road. In some places we have to go through the water at a walking pace. At one point I suddenly have to hit the brakes when the cars in front of us unexpectedly stop for a flooded stretch of road. The wheels of our car fail to grip on the wet road and the Renault Clio comes to a stop just a few centimeters from the car in front of us… Very slowly we drive down the flooded road.
After Er-Rachidia, the last major town, we leave the N13. The roads become narrower and the landscape more barren. The soil and rocks are reddish-brown and the view is wide. The environment here is reminiscent of the southwestern United States. Due to the bad weather, we don’t take many pictures, but at one point, when the sun pokes through a hole in the clouds, a perfect rainbow shows over the valley. A fluke. It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Erfoud. Tired of the long journey, we take up residence in the Kasbah Tizimi hotel, a traditionally decorated hotel in the shape of a kasbah on the outskirts of Erfoud.
The next day, thankfully it’s sunny again. Early afternoon Ibrahim shows up to take us to Erg Chebbi, the desert southeast of Erfoud. The first part is still on the paved road, but after half an hour the road ends and we continue straight through the desert. A dry, barren plain as far as you can see. Only a palm tree or a kasbah here and there. Ibrahim skilfully drives the all-terrain vehicle through the landscape and after a while the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi loom up. Golden dunes in the middle of an otherwise gray desert. We stop at Kasbah Tombouctou, where we have some time to relax. At 5 p.m. Ibrahim comes to get us to continue by camel.
Two camels with their shepherd are quietly waiting on the edge of the sand dunes. We are hoisted on the backs of the camels and swinging they get up. What follows is a breathtaking one hour trek over the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. This is how a child imagines the desert: sand, sand and more sand. Soon it seems as if we are the only ones in the world. Only the sound of the wind and the gentle steps of the camels in the soft sand. Rolling dunes as far as you can see. Very special and almost unreal to walk in the desert on a camel like this. I have to say, however, sitting on the back of a camel is not really comfortable. Every step the animal takes, you bump back and forth. But the view makes up for everything.
We stop at a high dune to watch the sunset. But on top we are almost blown away by the rising wind and we are literally sandblasted. It’s already getting dark when we arrive at the oasis where we will spend the night. At the foot of a dune, about twenty Berber tents are arranged in a circle. One of them is for us. Only a few other tents are occupied. The tents are made of camel hair blankets stretched over poles, inside are two mattresses with sheets and blankets. We are welcomed with a glass of mint tea, later we are also served dinner. When it’s dark, the stars come out. Because the night is so dark here, there appear to be more than at home and the oasis is lit by the moon.
At half past five we get up to watch the sunrise. The sunrise over the sand dunes makes for beautiful pictures. This completes our stay in the desert. Well, almost then: first we have to go back by camel for another hour to the place where Ibrahim dropped us off yesterday. The return trip is at least as uncomfortable (it will leave my muscles sore for a few days), but also just as beautiful.
Tinerhir, Todra Gorge and Vallée des Dadès
Back in Erfoud we continue our journey towards Tinerhir. The road runs through the south of Morocco, which is characterized by barren plains, with the mountains of the ‘Haut Atlas’ in the background. Along the way a number of small villages, where the women all wear black veils and the men ride on donkeys. There is also a remarkable amount of people cycling here: the bicycle as an alternative to the donkey.
The villages we pass through look shabby. Only the main road is paved, many houses are unfinished or empty and next to the road are rocks, rubble and waste. The drainage also leaves much to be desired. The heavy rain of two days ago is still cuasing trouble here and there. At one point we have to cross a low bridge, where the water does not flow under, but over the bridge. And quite fast too. The youth of the entire village has come out to guide cars through the water across the bridge. Very slowly and in first gear our Clio manages to get across. The excess of water here is lacking elsewhere: the rest of the area is barren and mountainous. At 1:30 p.m. we arrive in Tinerhir, where we will stay for two nights.
After a good night’s sleep we drive to the Todra Gorge, just north of Tinerhir. A narrow road winds between the mountains of the ‘Haut Atlas’, in the valley are the green fields of the local Berber population. The lush, palm-covered valley floor contrasts sharply with the bare reddish-brown mountains. On the way we pass through several small villages, where every second house offers itself as a restaurant with a panoramic view.
The architectural style here in the south is different than in the north: mostly simple, square houses, with small windows to keep the heat out, often painted pastel pink with mint-colored doors. Against the mountain slopes are old kasbahs, which have been built with clay in the traditional way. Because the clay is made from the soil of the mountains, the old houses have the same color as the surroundings. Unfortunately we have to turn around earlier than planned because the road has been broken up and our Clio is not an all-terrain vehicle.
The next day we leave Tinerhir to drive to Ouarzazate via the Vallée des Dadès and a bit of Gorge du Dadès. In the vicinity of the Dadès River are small Berber villages between the mountains, where women carry large bales of maize or hay on their backs. Unlike in the north of Morocco, where you mainly saw men and children hanging out on the street, here you also see many women in the streets, mainly carrying things on their head or back. Every now and then a pile of corn with legs passes by. Underneath is a mule, which is so loaded that only its nose and legs stick out. This is also how people get the most out of trucks here: three times the maximum permitted loading weight is no exception…
After the Vallée des Dadès, another piece of dry, barren landscape follows. Here and there are some sheep or camels. By the end of the afternoon we arrive in Ouarzazate, once an outpost of the French Foreign Legion and now a well-known stop for tourists in transit.
After spending the night in Ouarzazate, we take the N8 towards Marrakesh. The road leads straight through the ‘Haut Atlas’, but unlike a couple of days ago, today the weather is nice and we can enjoy the views. Via the winding mountain road we pass the Tiz-n-Tichka pass, the only mountain pass in this part of the Atlas mountains. The winding road forces us to drive slowly, although some taxi drivers think the route is a kind of race track. After a while the mountains turn into hills and the road becomes straighter. We are now driving almost straight towards Marrakesh. We drive around the walls of the old city and it immediately becomes clear that, after five days in the south, we are back in a big city. Traffic is busy with cars, mopeds, buses, taxis, cyclists, pushcarts and horse-drawn carriages and everyone seems to be in a hurry.
Our hotel is located in the Gueliz district, the ‘nouvelle ville’ of Marrakesh, which was built by the French in the last century. Just like Casablanca, the city therefore has a French feel, the wide boulevards are not inferior to Paris. The wide Mohammed V Boulevard is full of shops, restaurants and terraces – what a contrast to the south of Morocco!
The next morning we take a ‘petit taxi’ to the old town. We are dropped off at the Saadian Tombs, one of the tourist attractions of Marrakesh. The tombs of the Saadian sultans are crowded with tourists. We continue through the Bab er Rob and the Bab Agnou, two of the eight city gates in the sixteen kilometer long city wall of Marrakesh. Marrakesh is a popular place for filming and indeed a film crew is at work near the Kasbah mosque. The minaret of the Koutoubia mosque towers above it all, making it the most important landmark in the city.
Next we walk to the Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh. In the morning the square is not that busy yet, but by the end of the afternoon the square fills with people, musicians, snake charmers and sellers of oranges and other food. The sound of the snake charmers’ flutes can already be heard from afar. North of Jemaa el Fna are the souks, the narrow shopping streets, where you can buy all kinds of stuff. In the covered Souk Smarine you will find everything from babouches to silk scarves, from leather bags to water pipes, from spices to copper plates and from tourist t-shirts to glass tea sets. It is also difficult to find your way here, although it is not as bad as in Fes. We wander around a bit and after a while we are back where we started: Jemaa el Fna.
Our journey in Morocco is almost over. The next day we have to get up very early (at 4 a.m.) to go to the airport of Marrakesh, from where, with a transfer in Casablanca, we will fly back to the Netherlands. Morocco is a country of many faces and a country of contrasts. The difference between the north and the south, the mixture of the Arab and Berber cultures, the western influences versus the traditional, the contrast between the (royal) cities and the (poor) countryside. An Islamic country like Morocco is a fascinating travel destination and takes you to a different world. One that is far removed from the western world in some respects, especially in terms of living standards, the role of Islam and the position of women.
A travel destination that also has some downsides. As a tourist, you cannot show yourself anywhere without being addressed constantly and quite intrusively. After a friendly “Bonjour, ça va?” it soon turns out that you are seen as a walking wallet. Everyone wants to earn money from you and that’s quite annoying. Morocco is also not a very clean country to say the least: there is a lot of litter everywhere and the amount of flies at market stalls and restaurants are an indication that hygiene is not the highest priority here. But for those who want to visit an Islamic country and are interested in Arab and Berber culture, Morocco is worth a visit and an accessible travel destination. In any case, we have gained a lot of impressions and experiences.