Highlights of Morocco
Royal cities, cashbahs and oases
After the palaces, parks, mosques, squares, souks, medinas, walls and impressive gates of the royal cities Marrakech, Rabat, Meknès, Fès and port town Casablanca follow the woods and rough canyons of the Atlas Mountains and the sand dunes, oases and mud cashbahs of the Sahara. From Zagora, the gate to the desert, it's still 52 days to Timbuktu... by camel!
Travelogue & photos: Hans van der Ham
We are welcomed on the Marrakech airport by our guide Maria van Erp and driver Hassan with his assistant Abdullah.
We will travel over 2200 km over the next two weeks in a group of 35 people. When we explore Marrakech we also will have a city guide on the bus. This is obligatory in Morocco and will happen in every city we visit.
City gates, palaces, storks and huge parks
First we visit the Majorelle garden, a beautiful botanic garden with 400 kinds of palm trees and 1800 different kinds of cactuses. There are also lots of other plants and trees in the little paradise, like bougainvillea, bamboo and bay laurel. There is a pond with waterlilies.
At the center of the Majorelle garden is a gorgeous, cobalt-blue villa. It was built in 1923 by the French painter Jacques Majorelle.
We continue on to the famous Bab Agnaou Gate, one of the nineteen gates in the old city walls that give entrance to the cashbah of Marrakech.
Via the streets of Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, we arrive at the Saadian tombs from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, where hundreds of relatives of the Saadian kings are buried. There are beautiful wood carvings on and over the large doors. I took a large part of this trip 35 years ago and I immediately remember the woodcarvings.
We have a drink on a roof terrace with view of the old part of the city. We see many storks on the roofs and every now and then their bill clattering is deafening.
We walk to the nineteenth century Palais Bahia which has wonderful rooms with gorgeous ceilings. The rooms are not furnished, so it's a little bare.
Then the bus takes us to the Koutoubia mosque in the city center, near the famous Jemaa el-Fna square.
It is the largest mosque in Marrakech: it seats 20,000 worshippers. Its minaret is 70 meters high and it dates from 1147. The Giralda in Sevilla and the Hassan Tower in Rabat are modelled after this mosque.
With exception of the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, as non- Muslims we are not allowed to enter mosques. This rule was made by the French to prevent incidents with French soldiers (in colonial times) and was never withdrawn.
After our visit to the Koutoubia mosque it's time to walk to the souk behind Jemaa el-Fna square. In the square you have to be on your guard against swindlers, like the snake charmers. If you're dumb enough to not agree upon a price in advance, you're screwed.
When someone approaches me about taking pictures, I ask him how much it costs. "We'll see about that later," the man says. I'm dumb enough to accept this. As a consequence, I have to pay no less than 20 euro aferwards.
When I say I don't want to pay that much, I get surrounded by very intimidating men. Eventually, I pay only 10 euro, understanding that this is my own fault. Immediately, I am on the alert.
The souk is a web of narrow streets with stores. In one street they sell brass, in the next one woodcarvings, leather, meat, spices, etc. It's narrow, crowded and lively. Watch out for passing donkeys, mopeds and pickpockets.
After 5 PM all kinds of carts are rolled onto Jemaa el-Fna square, which are then converted into food stalls. It's Ramadan during our stay here and Muslims are not allowed to eat and drink until after sunset.
As soon as the sun sets, the waiters immediately stop serving and have some food and drinks themselves. We walk along the different food stalls on the square. The atmosphere is wonderful, but it's a pity that we are constantly accosted by stall owners who want us at their tables. At some point we take a cab and flee to our hotel.
Marrakech has two tourist bus lines with red doubledecker buses with open upper floors: the red and the blue lines. We pick the blue line, which drives mainly through the suburbs.
We pass the Majorelle garden and continue on to La Palmeraie, a huge garden with 150,000 palm trees. It is so vast (13,000 hectare) that there are even hotels, golf courts and villas in it. The bus drives through this beautiful area.
Back at our starting point, at the Tourist Office, we get on the red line and drive to the gardens of Al Menara. Another big park (90 hectares) with many palm, olive and fruit trees. At the center is a pavilion with a pond. It was built by a sultan who spent the night there with a concubine, who was afterwards drowned in the pond.
The pond is large and rectangular; in the past it served as a sweet water source for the sultans. The sun doesn't really co-operate today: we can't see the Atlas Mountains in the background.
The humongous Hassan II mosque still isn't finished
We drive from Marrakech to the port town of Casablanca, where we arrive in the middle of the afternoon. First we walk on the beach for an hour and then we drive to the humongous Hassan II mosque to take some pictures. Only of the exterior, because the mosque is closed today.
In the evening we go out for a while. It's lively, but the air is poisoned with (leaded) gas fumes. Crossing a street takes some contempt for death here as well.
The next day we first visit the medina and the market. It's still very quiet at the fishmarket. We pass the royal palace, which has huge gates and doors with exquisite stucco work and woodcarvings.
Everything about the Hassan II mosque is colossal: it seats 25,000 worshippers, its minaret is 200 meters tall. The complex has a surface of 9 hectares. Two laser beams with a reach of 30 km indicate the direction of Mecca.
Almost everything in and on this building is hand made. 35,000 artisans worked on its construction. And work is still being done, because the mosque, which was opened in 1993, still isn't finished. The huge chandeliers can be lowered electronically for maintenance. In the basement is a hammam, but it still isn't in use.
Opposite the mosque is a beautiful library, which isn't finished either. After the tour we leave Casablanca for Rabat.
The mosque and the Hassan Tower aren't finished
Around 3 PM we explore Rabat with another city guide. We start at the royal palace and them move on to the Mohammed V mausoleum. We are allowed to enter, even though it's a holy place for Moroccans.
It is a beautiful building. Inside, we look down on the tomb of the former king from a balcony. We are allowed to take pictures of the guards, both indoors and outside.
On the square in front of the mausoleum stand the unfinished mosque and Hassan Tower. The construction of the mosque and the tower began in 1195 and both buildings were meant to become very big. But Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour, who commissioned the buildings, died in 1199 and construction was halted. At that time, the tower was only 44 meters high; it was supposed to get twice as tall. The mosque didn't have more than a few walls and around 200 columns when the site was abandoned.
The two buildings are surrounded by an old, tattered wall with a few gates. Each gate is flanked by guards on horses. They are dressed in spotless white uniforms. We are allowed to take pictures of them. They can't ask or accept money, but the flesh is weak, isn't it? A little later, the changing of the guards takes place. That wouldn't be because of my coins, would it?
Afterwards we walk to the medina. We arrive at a kind of café with outdoor seating. It has a great view of the river, Wadi Bou Regreg, and twin city Saleh on the other side of the river. We can buy cookies etc. by the piece.
These cookies come with a kind of marzipan horn, which can be eaten with mint tea. It is a typical Moroccan candy.
We enter the part of the souk which dates from the late seventeenth century. It is recognizable by its cute narrow streets, painted white and blue. The other souks are much older.
Moulay Ismail's stables housed over 12,000 horses
We spend the night in Kenitra, north of Rabat. The next morning we leave at 8 AM for Volubilis, the most southern city of the Roman empire.
Also here we get a local guide. We see many beautiful mosaics, which often are in good condition. The ruins, too, allow for imagining what once was there.
From Volubilis, which lies on a hill, we see Moulay Idriss at the other side of the valley. This holy town is named after Moulay Idriss, who lies buried there. Sultan Moulay Idriss was the founder of the city of Fès.
For Muslims, this village is a substitute pilgrimage place, if they can't afford traveling to Mecca. Non-Muslims are not allowed within the walls at night, so they can't spend the night in this town.
After lunch we drive to Meknès, one of the four royal cities (with Fès, Marrakech and Rabat). We visit a workshop where embroidery, made by orphans, is sold and where iron objects, laid in with silver, are made. It's all very pretty but, as often happens, the things we like are the most expensive.
We visit the mausoleum of the extremely cruel ruler Sultan sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), who made Meknès the royal city and brought Morocco under central governance with an army of - among others - 15,000 African horsemen.
We drive through the famous Bab Mansour Gate to the supply buildings and the horse stables, which housed 12,000 horses. There is a big lake, which was used as a water supply.
We have a little time for a walk on the large square by the Bab Mansour Gate and then the bus leaves for Fès.
The medina has 4,900 winding streets
In Fès we get another new local guide. We take a walk through the old Arab district of Fès el Bali and have a look at the royal palace Dar el-Makhzen which is not open to the public. The doors of the palace are impressive and so are the mosaics.
We take a walk in the mellah, the Jewish quarter. The architecture is clearly different, with all the balconies. Moroccan architecture is rather inward looking, walls without windows. The windows are on the side of the courtyard. In the mellah, the windows and balconies are on the side of the streets.
The bus goes up a hill which offers a view of the city. There is a cemetary here and a pottery workshop. This last one is visible from afar because of the dense, black smoke that rises from its chimneys. This smoke is from burning olive stones for the ovens. Nearby, the gray clay is won that is used for the pottery.
We see how tiles, pots, fountains and tajines are made. The engraving is really impressive. Of course everything is hand made. This visit is really worthwhile, because the information and seeing the artisans work outwheigh the commercialism.
Back in the city, we walk through the crowded and lively streets of the medina, through which frequently heavily loaded donkeys pass as well. This is the only way to deliver supplies to the stores in the narrow streets. We visit a Quran school with a beautiful courtyard.
The medina has a whooping 4,900 streets. There is no logic or system to them. They wind and are very narrow; on top of that, all those packed donkeys have to pass through them as well. We even have a third guide now, whose task it is to keep the group together. Getting lost seems easy here, but also a disaster.
Obviously this is a pickpocket paradise and indeed: someone in our group loses his expensive digital camera. Backpacks are worn as breastpacks here.
It is a completely different world. In the butcher store I see a cut-off camel head hang on the wall. One has to experience the sights, the smells and everything that happens. It is a sensation I won't forget soon.
The famous tanneries of Fès are a highlight. We smell them from a distance. We are directed into a leather store, climb a few stairs and arrive in two upper rooms with balconies. From here we have a good view of a surreal scene.
Beneath us is a row of adjoining stone tubs in which men are stomping their feet in dirty substances in different colors. Every now and then they pull a hide out of a tub and then put it back in.
Until lately, urine was used for tanning. Apparently they now use a chemical agent. I doubt that this is an improvement for the tanners. It is well-paid work, but still... the stench is terrible. We get sprigs of mint to hold to our noses.
Via the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara
Cedars and cork oaks, oases and sand dunes
We leave at 7:30 AM for an over 300 km drive. We leave the region of the royal cities and are headed for the Atlas Mountains in the south. The remainder of this trip will be devoted to landscape and nature.
We reach the mountains soon and pass through beautiful woods of cedars and cork oaks. Our first stop is in Ifrane, which is known as a ski resort. The architecture here reminds me of Switzerland.
We have lunch in Midelt, a former miners town. On the way we see a group of macaques, which live in the wild here. They are the same kind of monkeys as the ones that live on the Rock of Gibraltar.
After Midelt we drive into the High Atlas mountains and descend after the last pass via the Tunnel des Légionaires (a passage between the rocks, constructed by the foreign legion) and the Vallée du Ziz into the half- desert.
We arrive in Erfoud, one of the largest oases in Morocco, at 5:30 PM. Soon after dinner we turn in, because we will be woken at 3:30 AM to see the sunrise in the desert.
At 4 AM we head into the desert near Merzoug in four-wheel drives. This part of the Sahara is called Erg Chebbi desert, an area of 22 by 5 km with dunes up to 150 m. It's cool, but definitely not cold. After a 45 minutes drive on unpaved tracks in the dark, we arrive in a Berber settlement, a simple mud inn.
We can choose between a 20 minutes walk or a camel ride. In the past I took enough camel rides, so I follow the Berber guide. A short time later, some Berbers appear from the dark, walk with us and want to sell us stuff.
Fortunately it's not hard to get rid of them, but they stay with us and will try again after sunrise. By that time with more succes.
Initially we walk behind one another. After a short while I want to overtake, but immediately sink. Later, during daylight, it turns out we are walking on a narrow dune ridge. In a random spot we sit down in the sand. The peddlers lie down comfortably.
Vaguely we see a few shapes on surrounding dunes. Now we just have to wait.
It's supposed to be beautiful to watch that red ball rise over the dunes. But it gets lighter and lighter and desperately we wonder: is this it or is it still going to happen. Well, this is it. Today, of all days, the horizon is obscured by clouds. In spite of this, I think it's worthwhile.
Todra canyon and Cashba Amridil
Mud walls rise behind a dry river bed
After breakfast we get on the bus again. We pass a group of camels with their herds and stop to take pictures. Sometimes we pass through a gate. These gates are borders between provinces and cities. At one of them we stop for photos.
During the whole trip we are fortunately given enough time to take pictures. I have been in situations where this was very different.
We look on the Tafilalt oasis with its palm-tree forest from above and continue on to the Todra canyon, where the rocks of the Atlas mountains go straight up for 300 meters on both sides. On top of the rock walls Berber villages and cashbahs are built.
At the end of the canyon is a restaurant, but it is on the other side of a murmuring creek. We find a place where we can jump from stone to stone to cross. We have a Berber omelet for lunch. Afterwards we walk into the canyon for a short distance. We see mountain climbers above us and some donkeys in the creek.
We get on the bus again and drive to a nearby oasis in the Draa valley, where we take a walking tour with a Berber guide. We see irrigation channels and lots of date palms. The guide climbs in a tree and picks dates for us.
We pass the tomb of a holy marabout and then see the beautiful cashbah Amridil rise up behind a dry river bed. Cashbah Amridil is well-known because it's pictured on 20 and 50 dirham bills.
A cashbah is a fortified residential building in which one or more families live. Nowadays most are no longer in use and are fallen to ruins or serve as tourist attractions.
But cashbah Amridil is still privately owned. The owner lives in Paris and the caretaker allows us to take a look inside, for a fee of course. The caretaker shows us around and tells us expressively about the interior and objects.
A reason that many cashbahs have fallen to ruins is that they are made of mud. They have to be maintained annually or they merge with the soil they were made of. It's a pity that the Moroccan government doesn't pay more attention to this cultural heritage.
From Zagora it's still 52 days to Timbuktu
After our arrival in Ouarzazate, where we will spend two nights, we visit a spice store, where the use of some of the merchandise is demonstrated. You can also have a massage here. They do good business.
The next day we drive 330 km over the mountains via Zagora and back. Just outside Ouarzazate we visit the Atlas filmstudios, where the "Asterix and Obelix in Egypt" movie was shot. Inside and outside the gate are life-size replicas of Egyptian statues which could use some maintenance. There isn't much to see. It looks somewhat rundown.
We stop on a mountain pass at 1800 meters to see the view. Immediately we are approached by Berbers, who have cameleons and mineral stones with them. You can put a cameleon on your shoulder or shirt for a picture and the stones are of course for sale. At the next stop people offer dates in wicker baskets for sale.
Then we see cashbah Taorirt, which looks like a fortress, on the other side of a dry river bed.
We pass Zagora, where we'll stop on the way back, and arrive in Tamegrouth, the farthest southeast spot of our tour,at 17 km from the Algerian border. This is the last village of the inhabited world. The salt route for caravans to Timbuktu and Mali began here.
In the library of Tamegrouth ancient and rare Islamic manuscripts are wasting away. You can almost see them fall apart. The building is also a kind of sanctuary where patients with all kinds of illnesses come to pray for healing.
During our walk in the village we see how poor this area is. There is a well for water and there are flies everywhere.
We arrive at the entrance of an underground cashbah. It was built underground because of the heat in the summer, when 50 degrees centigrade is rule rather than exception. This cashbah has a system of dark corridors, through which freqently heavily packed donkeys have to pass. I want to take a picture of a donkey, but its load presses me against the wall. I imagine the bizarre newspaper headline: "Dutchman squashed in underground corridor by donkey."
We feel as if we're in a mine. Someone with a burning torch takes us through a hole in the wall to a forge. Through another hole and stairs we arrive in a pottery store with earhtenware in the typical green of this town.
We drive back to Zagora, where we have lunch in an inn which is frequented by desert tourists with Land Rovers. Zagora isn't called "Gate to the Desert" for nothing.
After lunch we pass the famous sign that says that it's still 52 days to Timbuktu. By camel, mind you.
Cashbah Ait Ben Haddou was a backdrop for many movies
We have a long drive before us to Agadir, where we'll spend our last three nights. Cashbah Ait Ben Haddou is large and served as a backdrop in movies like Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Sheltering Sky.
The cashbah is on the World Heritage List of Unesco and is partly restored. We get off the bus and walk through a street with shops and a restaurant with roof terrace which has a good view of the cashbah.
Cashbah Ait Ben Haddou also is on the other side of a dry river bed. This cashbah is pretty, but the outside, seen from a distance, looks the best. It's clear that a lot of work is still needed for its restoration.
Now the long journey to Agagdir starts for real. On the way we stop in Taroudant, known for its thick city walls. On the way we see goats in an Argania tree. These trees only grow here and in South Africa.
During our last days in Agadir, we don't do much more than lazying by the pool and stroll on promenade, both in the daytime and at night. Agadir doesn't look like other cities in Morocco at all, but more like southern France. The promenade is beautiful, with white houses and hotels, and there is a lot of parading going on. The beach is great and wide. But other than this, there isn't much more to do than to look back on a wonderful vacation.