Staying in Morocco for a few months usually means that you spend almost all the time at work occupied with different projects. Weekends can be more relaxing but still, since the distances are quite large, you hardly find an opportunity to truly discover the country. It was similar for me during my eight months stay in Rabat and Casablanca. In the last days I finally found the opportunity to cross nearly everything on my must-see-and-do list for Morocco. The plan was to take a one week tour and visit the Atlas Mountains with their canyons and skiing resorts, the Merzouga desert, the Ouzoud waterfalls and the small city of Essaouira, the capital of gnawa music.
We started our trip in Casablanca and drove till Ifrane, the world’s second cleanest city (after Calgary) according to MBC Times. Swiss-like town as well has its own skiing resort where Moroccans usually get their first experiences with snow. Early in the morning we continued to the springs of the Oum Er-Rbia by passing a small and more or less unknown Lake Ouiouane. On the contrary the spring are famous far and wide by their astonishing waterfalls and rapids, accompanied by romantic open-air “salons de thé”. It surprised me that some of the springs are salty, which is not very practical if you are thirsty.
After a glass of traditionally very sweet mint tea, not really for quenching our thirst, we had been driving back to Azrou where we took the road to Errachidia. This larger town in Sahara is historically known as an important crossroad of camel caravan routes. Not far away from Azrou the oldest (800 years) and biggest cedar in Morocco Cedre Gouraud can be seen. Unfortunately it doesn’t grow anymore, but with its dried branches is still spectacular. The tree is “guarded” by quite friendly Barbery apes. Although they can be found across the Middle Atlas Mountains, here they are are well accustomed to visitors and prepared to “strike a pose”.
All excited, we continued our journey towards the Sahara by Midelt and the Ziz gorges. When reached in moonlight, rocky gorges appeared like we had been landed on the Moon. Furthermore, warm desert breeze proved that we had left fresh Atlas climate. After spending a night in Errachidia we took our breakfast at the Blue sources of Meski campsite. A swimming pool there is filled with water from a natural source. Local shop owner explained to us, that the water is so cold, that in the heat of summer due to the temperature differences, swimming is nearly impossible for most people.
As soon as we had passed the oases in Tafilalt region we left our car in the village of Merzouga and took an organized overnight tour to the dunes of Erg Chebbi. The visit includes a camel track, easy dinner, music with drums and sleeping in a million star hotel (not exactly, we were sleeping in a nomadic Berber tent on a soft mattress). Despite the fact that everything is going according to a staged scenario, the physical experience of desert structures is still inspiring and cannot be achieved with any virtual tour. The next day after the “send-removing” shower we visited a small fossil museum with dinosaur skeletons located in Rissani. The visit is free, but almost everyone leaves some Moroccan Dirhams in the museum shop.
Near Tinerhir ksar (fortified village) at the beginning of the High Atlas Mountains the impressive cliffs of Todra gorge are another natural landmark that should not be missed while traveling around Sahara. Regardless of crowds they are worth a visit. Especially due to good restaurants therein.
Our road trip soon continued and close to the city of Ourzazate, “The door of the desert” (considering coming from Marrakech), we get in touch with Hollywood. Partially open to the public, the Atlas Corporation Studios, provided sets for The Mummy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra and many others. However, some of them were also shot at the picturesque Ait Ben Haddou ksar, a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We left Sahara by Tizi N’Tichka Mountain pass (2.260 m) and soon reached Marrakech on the other side of the Atlas. In a formal imperial city we spent most of the evening on a balcony drinking Moroccan mint tea while watching vibrant Place Jemaa el-Fna, another UNESCO Site. In the morning, visit of the Majorelle Garden was the main plan. It was my second time, but I can’t help it, as I simply adore it. The art-deco villa with an astonishing garden created by French painter Jacques Majorelle has been owned by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and industrialist Pierre Bergé. Yves Saint-Laurent died in 2008 and his ashes were scattered in the garden. There is also the Berber Museum opened in 2011, the same year when the Tamazight, Berber language, became Morocco’s official language alongside Arabic.
Later, our roads lead us to the Oukaimeden (3.257 m) skiing resort with a view of Toubkal (4.167 m), the highest peak in North Africa. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit there were only a few meters of snow (in length) which allowed us to enjoy only a short ride.
After sleeping in Damnate our next stop was Ouzoud. The wateralls (110 m) near Tanaghmeilt village in High Atlas are one of the main Moroccan attractions. A spectacular view is not the only thing that you can enjoy there. Even just smelling tajines (a traditional dish prepared in an earthenware pot) in small open-air restaurants is something that reaches the visit. It is also possible to take a short ride by a kitschy boat almost directly under the waterfalls.
From Ouzoud Falls we took a long drive to the Atlantic coast where we overslept in Diabat near Essaouira. The hidden village is known for its anecdote that American musician Jimi Hendrix spent few summers there. Some people say ruins of the palace in the sand, inspired him to write the song Castles Made of Sand – others say that he was never even in Morocco. Regardless of what we believe, since the 60’s Essaouira (Portuguese Mogador) is known as a gathering of artists and surfers. Today the town with excellent fish restaurants especially comes to life in June, during the Gnaoua World Music Festival dedicated to gnawa music, a mixture of Moroccan and sub-Saharan sounds.
The last day of our one week trip we spend driving along the coast: from romantic windy and forgotten Cap Beddouza through touristic Oualidia to our last stop of lively Casablanca. Our road trip circuit was ended.
Within eight days (11-18 April 2014) we traveled by a rented car around 2.500 km, an average of more than 310 km per day. This was possible since the roads are unexpectedly well-maintained mostly everywhere we had been driving. We slept in low-cost hotels and took the breakfast in local cafes. Lunch and dinner mostly in cheaper restaurants with excellent Moroccan cuisine. The cost of the whole trip was about 260 € per person excluding the flight from Europe but with organized tour in Merzouga which was about 35 €. The first three days we traveled in a group of five people over the past five days in a group of three.
I can’t say that after this journey I know more about Morocco, but certainly I will always keep the memories from the road close to my heart.