Morocco: a journey through the African kingdom

Morocco: a journey through the African kingdom


Day 1: Preparation for the trip; practical information; arrival in Morocco

Day 2: Volubilis; Fez

Day 3: Medina of Fez

Day 4: Middle Atlas

Day 5: The Sahara

Day 6: Todra and Dades Canyons

Day 7: Zagora and the South

Day 8: The Deep South

Day 9: Road to Western Sahara

Day 10: Legzira beach; Souss-Massa National Park

End: tree goats, Essaouira; return home

– You’re crazy! – The parent’s indignation was boundless. – What Africa, in your condition!

– But mother! – I timidly objected. – This is not “black” Africa, but the civilized Morocco.

– Civilized? Why don’t you go to more civilized France?

– And how do you imagine that? All around eating raw oysters, unpasteurized cheeses, tasting French wines, while I have to swallow drool mixed with a cabbage leaf, drinking water?! No way.

– What, are you picking countries based on food now?

– That too. Cooking is an important part of a country’s culture. France is not going anywhere from us, but I want to fully enjoy the trip there, and in the “situation”, unfortunately, it is impossible.

But my mother wouldn’t let up, giving more and more arguments against it, eventually getting to the bearded “but in the SS, pregnant women stayed at home, knitted booties, and didn’t even work after a certain period, but you…”. So I had to compromise.

– Let’s ask my doctor. Whatever she says, I’ll do it.

That was the deal. But I have to say that I was a little sly. Knowing the character and lifestyle of my doctor, who gave birth to both her children almost skiing in the Alps, I was pretty sure that she would give the “green light” to go. And so, in fact, it happened.

– Honey, relax and go have your babymoon! (Honey, relax and go have your babymoon!)

– Huh? (Huh?)

– You know, this is just like taking a honeymoon except you’re pregnant. In order to avoid the several sleepless nights that frequently come with a new baby, the couple will be able to take one “final” journey together. The idea is to give the couple one “final” vacation together before the numerous nights of insomnia that come with a new baby.)

Her only condition was that the trip take place between the fourth and seventh months, as the most predictable stage of pregnancy. Thus, Morocco fell to us during the holiday season, the Christmas and New Year’s vacations.

Why, indeed, Morocco? Was it really because of the alcohol restrictions? Of course, not only because of that, although we took into account this feature of the country.

Once, looking through the photo albums in a bookstore about “where to go”, I came across an amazing picture of goats sitting on trees. The sight was absolutely comical, unreal, and it was hard to believe in the existence of goat-squirrels.

– It can not be! I will not believe it until I see it with my own eyes!

The country with such exotic animals was called Morocco, and as I began to dig further, I became more and more excited about the idea of the trip. One of the country’s oldest cities, Fez, seduced me with its ancient medina and maze of narrow streets; the Varvara monkeys in the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas attracted me from a photography perspective; The Sahara, of course, would not leave anyone indifferent; the southern canyons and kasbahs promised to surprise with a bright palette of colors; and the Atlantic coast of the country beckoned with beautiful landscapes, the blue of Essaouira, the whiteness of Casablanca, and of course, goats. What was there to think about – we had to go!

All the more so because we wanted to visit a new continent, to plunge into an unfamiliar and not at all close to us culture. At one time, King Hassan II of Morocco compared the country to a tree with its roots deep in Africa and its leaves breathing the European air. Surprisingly, a beautiful and accurate metaphor and, as it turned out later, absolutely true. But first things first.

About driving. Without betraying tradition, we decided to explore the country by car. After driving in Central and South America, we should not have been frightened of the Arabian style. No, of course, to the European politeness they are a bit far, but the horror-horror was not noticed, so, small deviations explained by the local color.

The itinerary for Morocco is as follows:

Rabat – Volubilis – Fez – road through the Middle Atlas – Sahara desert – Todra and Dades canyons – Zagora – southern Morocco – Atlantic coast – Sidi Ifni – Agadir – Essaouira – Casablanca – Rabat.

We got a small and nimble Renault Clio (330 euros for 11 days, with included insurance and unlimited mileage), quite sufficient for the above route.

A GPS with a filled-in map of the country is absolutely essential, especially in the cities. Even the best paper maps of Morocco are not very detailed, it costs nothing to get lost in the center, street names are not usually written. Garmin helped us out countless times, including in chaotic Casablanca at night. GPS vector map for Morocco.

Road signs are written in Arabic script, but duplicated in Latin, or understandable without translation, as in the case of the stop sign; there were no problems with this.

Most roads in Morocco are free and also of good quality. Toll roads run between Rabat, Fez, Casablanca, Essaouira and a couple of other major cities that were not visited. The toll price is 20-30 dirhams. In the cities the speed limit is 60-80 km/h, outside – 120 km/h, many drive faster.

A lot of police ambushes in the bushes, with radars on tripods. Caught often. Scenario of getting rid of fines for various offenses (not stopping at a stop sign, speeding, accidental driving through a red light), from personal experience (blushing smiley face ๐Ÿ™‚

The policeman stops the car with a wave of his hand, asking it to pull over. He reads out what he wants to write a fine for, naming the amount. It has always been 400 dirhams, for any violation. Apparently, the figure was designed to scare the careless driver. After that, the policeman looks expectantly to see if the person haggles and after giving 20-100 dirhams, goes quietly about his business. We deliberately did not do this, and said: “Ok, write a ticket for 400 Dh, but we need a check. That word “check” just had a magical effect on each and every policeman.

They looked at us sadly, always asking the same thing: “This must be your first time in Morocco?” (implication: “Don’t you know how things are done here?”). On receiving an affirmative answer, they sighed: “Okay, go ahead, the first time is goodbye. If they knew how many of these “first times” we had by the end of the trip ๐Ÿ™‚ Between one another we joked that one day we would get a greedy guy who would take the 400 Dh offered. But it never happened.

Examples of road surfaces in different parts of the country:

The bypass highway around Fez.

A mountain pass in the Middle Atlas Mountains.

A rut into the Sahara.

The southern highway, parallel to the border with Algeria.

A sand-filled highway on the Atlantic coast.

The Royal Gendarmerie often checks documents at the entrances to towns; white tourists are hardly interested.

Gas stations were full-service, whether the chain French Total, the local Afriquia, or a small, nameless pump in the south. Gasoline cost an average of 11 dirhams per liter ($1.50). Where it was possible to choose, they asked for “sans plomb” (“unleaded”), and where not, they poured what was available. From experience, we highly recommend refueling in the south of the country every time you have half a tank of gas. We had a pretty nerve-wracking situation when we almost got stuck in the dark for a few days without being able to leave due to lack of fuel.

Also, in the countryside, you have to keep a close eye on your pets: donkeys, camels and other goats have a bad habit of suddenly running across the road.

In general, driving in Morocco (especially outside the cities) is easy and not stressful. And caravan drivers (RVs) will not let you lie, we often meet them on the roads of the country, in contrast to, say, Latin America. European tourists like to travel this way in Morocco.

About finances. We spent $2500 in the country for 11 days, not including airfare. Moroccan money is called dirhams, the exchange rate at the time of the trip was $1=8 Dh. By the way, dirhams are “restricted” currencies, meaning they cannot be bought outside the country as well as taken out. ATMs, as a rule, do not allow to withdraw more than 2000 dirhams at a time.

10 dirhams is the most common price for minor services. This can be a parking fee, a tip for the hotel porter, a brew of mint tea in a restaurant, and a fee for 2 kg of the sweetest Moroccan tangerines.

We almost always paid in cash, except for some hotels, where we accepted credit cards (Visa, MC). Hotels can be found for all tastes and wallets. We stayed in riad (guesthouse) for 90 euros per night, and in roadside motels without pretensions for $25. The average bill at a good restaurant for a full meal (salads, soups, second, drinks) for two – 200 dirhams.

About safety. Morocco in this regard, as they say, “user friendly”, as the omnipresence of men in uniform. They are very, very numerous, and in the cities, and on the runs between towns. Serious crimes are rare, especially against tourists, but you should not lose vigilance: pickpockets masterfully operate in the medinas, so it is better to keep everything of value closer to the body.

A few unpleasant minutes can be an attempt to trick tourists for money. I have already read about the scheme in various forums, so we are not caught, but to warn – will not be superfluous. It consists in the fact that driving somewhere in the desert area, you see a “broken-down” car and a grieving Bedouin, dressed in blue, festive clothes, signs asking you for help. What does the compassionate tourist do? Stops, asks how he can help. The sufferer in decent English asks for a ride to the nearest village, and there – surprise! – You find yourself in a store selling carpets, where your accomplices take over the business, making sure you buy and sell. According to reviews, they work so professionally that rarely does anyone leave without a purchase. Even if they succeed, the lost vacation time, plus spoiled mood no one will return.

Local kids categorically do not understand the word “no”, neither in Arabic, English or French, preferring to bunch around at the feet of male tourists (women are ignored), offering some cheap souvenirs. There is no need to shove them off, just walk calmly in the right direction, not paying attention; they will get off on their o On our way we met different Moroccans: both unpleasant intrusive traders in old Fez, and amazingly hospitable hosts of an auberge in the Sahara. People are different, as they are everywhere.

Particular attention should be paid to hygiene, sticking to the standard recommendations: always keep antibacterial wet wipes on hand, do not drink tap water, brush your teeth only with bottled mineral water, do not sing in the shower and keep your mouth shut. ๐Ÿ™‚ In restaurants, refuse ice in drinks, no matter how hot it is; from salads made of fresh vegetables that have not been heat-treated; in bazaars buy only fruits that are peeled. Following these simple tips, managed to avoid the most common tourist scourge.

About the language. English is rather difficult in Morocco. At best it is understood in hotels, rental offices, and occasionally in restaurants in large cities. The official language is Arabic, spoken by most Moroccans. French is also quite widespread and is the default language of communication with tourists. But, unfortunately, with French I was on “you”. How much more interesting and easy it was to learn Spanish before traveling in Latin America! I liked the rhythm and melody of it, and in general it was closer to my heart. I’ve taken French several times in my life, but it hasn’t worked yet because we don’t have an understanding of it.

But here Ilya came to the rescue, having acquired useful phrases rather quickly after listening to the Pimsleur audio course in the car. Thus, on this trip there was an unusual distribution of roles for us.

About the weather. Guidebooks advise to go to Morocco in the spring, from March to May, when it is not yet hot, and the landscapes please with fresh greenery. We did not have to choose. In December and January was cool, especially at night in the Middle Atlas Mountains (frost), and in the Sahara. Most of the time we wore gortex pants and jackets, dressing in the “caboose” principle. On the Atlantic coast at this time of year it often rained, but the sun did not spare our attention.

So, having finished our preliminary travel preparations, we were ready to head out to meet the African adventure. There were no direct flights from Houston to Morocco, so we again had to change planes at the shitty Charles de Gaulle in Paris. We flew in a new Boeing 777 from Air France, with an excellent in-flight entertainment system comparable to Chile’s LAN. The back rows on this Boeing are equipped with only two seats, which is very comfortable.

In Paris we had a couple of hours to change planes and then a flight to Rabat. The passengers were immediately pampered with Arabic sweets, some exotic salads with sprouted grains, and interesting snacks; the stewards were exclusively male.

The 2.5 hours to the capital of Morocco flew by unnoticed, and there it was, Africa, spreading like a vast canvas under the wings of the plane. Rabat airport is small, provincial looking, somewhat reminiscent of Hawaii. Neither Russians nor Americans need visas to enter the country, so we were modestly provided with an entry stamp in our passports, and an individual tourist number was also put there. These numbers are paid close attention at check-in hotels, checked by patrols on the roads, so it is better to make sure that the passport control employee did not mess up.

The car was to bring us directly to the airport building, but no matter how much we looked, we could not find a meeting person, although there was a prior arrangement. We bought a phone card at a kiosk and called the office and were surprised to find out that a messenger had gone to… Casablanca to pick us up.

– What the fuck?!?! You have an e-mail account with the Paris-Rabat flight clearly written on it!

– Most of our clients fly through Casablanca, so the employee thought…

– I don’t care what he thought! – Furious growled into the tube Ilya. – You have all the papers in hand, he can read, or what? We’re after a transatlantic flight, my wife is “pregnant”! Send someone else immediately, or we’ll cancel the reservation!

The employee arrived an hour later, which we spent trying hard not to fall asleep. He spoke practically no English, didn’t apologize, and took us to the hotel in silence, though we had planned to get there ourselves.

The weather was fine: a quiet golden autumn by our standards, and a pleasant +17ยฐC. The traffic in the city center was frightening at first: chaotic, pedestrians went under the wheels, traffic jams were usually created by traffic wardens, exhaust gases were hanging in the air like a blue film… But as we knew from our experience in other countries, “fear has many eyes”, and soon you begin to perceive all this cacophony as something ordinary and even to structure it somehow.

In Rabat we only planned to spend the night, intending to drive around the country the next morning. From home I booked a room at the Hotel Royal for 600 dirhams ($75); there were no problems with check-in. The front desk was graciously greeted by suit-wearing, respectable-looking men (only men were seen in the service industry in Morocco). By default we always give Russian passports, but here we had to show our blue American passport because the tourist number was on it. We joked that we didn’t need a third one – a green Moroccan one. That’s not a bad idea, we can have a rainbow collection. ๐Ÿ™‚

After ordering both, and the other, and the third, we took a couple more teaspoons of mint tea and got ready for the feast. It must be said that green mint tea (although there is a variation of mint leaf-black tea) is the national drink of Morocco. It is brewed absolutely everywhere: at home, in offices, and in cafรฉ-restaurants. Green tea was brought to the country by the British in the 19th century, and it was locals themselves who thought of combining it with mint. This drink has become a symbol of hospitality; to refuse offered tea is considered very indecent and offensive.

Mint tea (thรฉ ร  la menthe) is always served in small thin glass cups, more like beakers, painted with colored patterns. The tea leaves are rinsed beforehand with water to remove excessive bitterness. Then a generous bundle of mint along with the stems is added to the teapot, pressed with cubes of refined sugar to keep the leaves from floating to the surface, and poured with boiling water. By default, the drink is very, very sweet, and if you’re used to drinking tea without sugar (like us), the Moroccan will seem almost cloying syrup. Therefore, it is better to ask not to add sugar (“bla sukur”), it is perceived quite normally.

The waiter usually pours the first portion himself, holding the kettle high above the beaker table, thus allowing the potion to be enriched with oxygen. It is considered a special chic not to spill a single drop. ๐Ÿ™‚ In general, a real Moroccan tea ceremony, with its subtleties. We liked it very much and when they told us the price for this “diabetic’s nightmare” our wallet rejoiced – only $5!

On that happy note, we finished our first hours in Morocco and finally went to rest.


Day 2. Itinerary: road from Rabat to Volubilis – arrival in Fez – introduction to the concept of “riad”.

We had no trouble getting up at 8 am and realized that the transition to local time was successful. We had breakfast at the hotel in the usual style without any local tricks and immediately left for Fez (196 km).

Orientation is necessary to the sign “aeroport”, it is just next to the highway to Fez. The road was nice pavement, and also turned out to be with the division, for which we soon had to pay – the highway N6 is toll (you take a ticket in the machine, at the exit you pay for the kilometer, as in many European countries). The speed limit jumped to 120 km / h, but increased and the number of police ambushes, be careful.

Before settling in Fez for two days, we planned to stop at Volubilis, an ancient Roman ruin conveniently located along the way. The highway flowed briskly beneath the wheels, cutting through an endless stream of fields shrouded in the morning haze. The terrain looked a lot like the Italian province of Campania, bringing back memories of nostalgic moments from five years ago. To get to Volubilis, we had to make our way through Meknes, the third most important city in Morocco, where the GPS helped a lot; navigating the terrain was difficult, despite much experience. With the help of the navigator the obstacle was successfully passed and then ran a beautiful, winding 33 km through the plantations of olive trees.

In front of the entrance to the ruins (10 Dh per person), there was a large parking lot (many waiting for cab drivers and private drivers, public transport does not go to Volubilis); unobtrusively sold souvenirs, stamps; offered their services tour guides. We decided to do it on our own, guided by the information from the guidebooks, especially since the territory of the city is quite small – one hour is quite enough to explore.

Before settling in Fez for two days, we planned to stop at Volubilis, an ancient Roman ruin conveniently located along the way. The highway flowed briskly beneath the wheels, cutting through an endless stream of fields shrouded in the morning haze. The terrain looked a lot like the Italian province of Campania, bringing back memories of nostalgic moments from five years ago. To get to Volubilis, we had to make our way through Meknes, the third most important city in Morocco, where the GPS helped a lot; navigating the terrain was difficult, despite much experience. With the help of the navigator the obstacle was successfully passed and then ran a beautiful, winding 33 km through the plantations of olive trees.

In front of the entrance to the ruins (10 Dh per person), there was a large parking lot (many waiting for cab drivers and private drivers, public transport does not go to Volubilis); unobtrusively sold souvenirs, stamps; offered their services tour guides. We decided to do it on our own, guided by the information from the guidebooks, especially since the territory of the city is quite small – one hour is quite enough to explore.

The fact that Volubilis is now in ruins is not the work of any interlocutors, and not even the consequence of the fact that Sultan Moulay Ismail took out almost all the Roman marble to build his palace. Volubilis was unlucky in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when all the buildings in the city were destroyed except the Arc de Triomphe, built in honor of Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna. Strangely enough, numerous mosaics have also survived and can be seen walking among the ruins. The excavations began during the French protectorate in 1915 and are still going on, sponsored by the Moroccan government.

Trampled paths unobtrusively lead to the most interesting points; there are signs in English. They write simply: “House of the Bronze Dog”, “House of the Bronze Bust”, “House of the Column” – whatever was found in the vicinity, so it was called. The 8-meter-high beauty, the Arc de Triomphe, joins the restored Tangier gate at the exit from the city by means of a street, Decumanus maximus, which is wide even by today’s standards. On its sides are the ruins of many houses that were rented out as stores. The layout of all this is totally different from any Moroccan street – everything is clear, straightforward, and straightforward.

There were hardly any tourists this early morning, just a few pairs of individuals like us, which emphasized the secluded atmosphere of the place. The columns of the Capitol were topped by nests of storks, but we couldn’t see the owners themselves; it’s winter, after all, and they won’t be back for three months.

Through the Basilica’s wall of eight arches in a row, it was good to look out over a rare, lush, endless field, and think back hundreds of years… Still, the spirit of Volubilis is there; it’s there, if you stop and freeze. Those who need to regain their lost spiritual balance are welcome; your mind goes back to its place, and very quickly. ๐Ÿ™‚

The overcast sky and 12 Celsius were not conducive to long walks, so, after seeing all the important parts of the city, we loaded back into the car and continued our journey to Fez. We took the upper branch (via Moulay Idris), an old road with mediocre surface, not in our own footsteps, to the highway. After an hour’s travel, the Reno passes under the barriers of the checkpoints at the entrance to the city (the pale-skinned people are not interested).

The overcast sky and 12 Celsius were not conducive to long walks, so, after seeing all the important parts of the city, we loaded back into the car and continued our journey to Fez. We took the upper branch (via Moulay Idris), an old road with mediocre surface, not in our own footsteps, to the highway. After an hour’s travel, the Reno passes under the barriers of the checkpoints at the entrance to the city (the pale-skinned people are not interested).

We certainly recommend trying to stay in Morocco in a riad rather than a chain hotel for a more immersive experience. It does not cost prohibitively expensive (in our case it was 90 euros per night, breakfast included), and the experience is rarely authentic. There are quite a few of these little palaces around the country, especially in the larger cities. Our choice in Fez stopped at riad Ghita, primarily because of the convenient location, as well as a relatively small size – only 7 rooms, but all with gradation “suite”, ie “suite” on the hotel classification.

We drove through the “new” Fez, following the “medina” signs; it was enough. We had a prior agreement with the owner of the riad that we would meet his envoy near the Bab Sid gate, aka Bab R’cif. Although it would be much better if the owners would just give the GPS coordinates of the accommodation. Anyway, we parked at the gate in the public parking lot next to the buses (ring), and then went into the medina. Detailed acquaintance with it was not planned until the next day, now we just needed the phone. But even those few minutes spent behind the ancient walls was enough to understand that we had never seen anything like this before, it was truly Arabian exotic. I’m not going to jump the gun just yet, though.

Having successfully found the phone store, we called the riad from them and told them where we were. They promised to send someone soon. However, it took a couple more calls before the messenger deigned to show up. At this point the semi-negative emotions ended, and all that awaited us was a pleasantly relaxed stay in a luxurious house.

We were greeted at the entrance by our hosts with traditional mint tea and gazelle horn sweets. While we were sitting in silk cushions, our luggage was taken to the room, which had a striking ceiling height – it was exactly 5 meters high. The doors to the patio were decorated with stained glass; inside was a large bed under a canopy, sofas, TV, heater (very useful at night), a two-room bathroom, blue and white ceramics everywhere.

Tall doors leading to our room:

Meanwhile, dinner was being prepared for the riad guests. You have to order in advance, the so-called set menu under different numbers. It costs 200-320 Dh per person ($25-40), and is an authentic Moroccan-style meal, prepared and served according to all the rules.

As the guests took their seats on the couches, plates, saucers, bowls, and bowls gradually appeared on the tables, filled with a variety of hot and cold appetizers. The so-called “traditional Moroccan salad” was not a separate dish, but an entire series. In our case it was stewed eggplant and zucchini, red and my favorite black shriveled olives, pickled carrots and beets with greens, spicy, finely chopped tomatoes, rolls with rice, steaming yellow beans in gravy. And that was just the beginning of dinner! How to eat it all!

Actually, every salad or appetizer was 2-3 spoonfuls, but the total amount of food, of course, blew my mind. Alcohol, by the way, is not served, so you will have to make do with water or tea, faithfully poured into beakers as soon as you put an empty one on the table. And then the Tajiks came out.

I must say that we have a peculiar tradition: before traveling to a new country, go to a restaurant with the appropriate cuisine, which is not a problem in international Houston, and there “torture” the waiters about the most correct dishes and their combinations. In addition, it is very interesting to compare the impressions of the adapted cuisine and the authentic local one. So, in a Moroccan restaurant in the U.S. we were well enlightened about tajines (and pigeon pies, which we’ll talk about next time), so when we were in Fez, it was a good opportunity to compare “those” and “these.

Tajin is a dish of meat and vegetables cooked and served in a dish with the same name, and is very popular in northern Africa. The tajin is a massive ceramic or cast-iron deep bowl, tightly covered with a tall, tent-like, conical-shaped lid. Because of its peculiar shape, the upper part of the lid remains much colder than the lower part. The steam rising from the food being cooked repeatedly condenses at the top, gradually flowing down to saturate and enrich all the ingredients, thus giving the food a special flavor.

Moroccan tajine is made from large pieces of meat or poultry on a bone, and vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, onions). Dried fruits, nuts, honey, berries, special spices like “Ras el hanout” – a popular Moroccan spice blend whose name translates as “top of the shop”, i.e. the best. Meat, vegetables and spices are put into tagine without adding broth and then stewed on very low heat in its own juice for several hours. Needless to say, how soft the meat becomes!

We were brought two different tagines, veal and chicken, and both were quite different from what we had tasted in the United States. First of all, an almost complete absence of sauce (all absorbed) and, of course, a different flavor of spices.

Finally warmed by Moroccan hospitality we hung out for a while in the patio with the other guests (one of them was a three-month baby with French parents ๐Ÿ™‚ and then went to rest. A long and busy day awaited us in Fez.

Fez Medina

Day 3. Itinerary: Exploring the medina of Fez – tannery cooperative – view of the city from above – dinner in New Fez.

There is a saying in Morocco: if you’ve seen the medina of Fez, you’ve seen them all. This could not have fit better into our itinerary. In major cities no longer planned to stop by (although closer to the end of the trip still hit the medina of Essaouira), so one shot did not kill not just two “hares” but all available.

The word “medina” in North Africa refers to the old part of the city, built during the Arab rule in the 9th century. Fez is ahead of the rest of the world here; its medina is the largest in the world. Almost all Moroccan medinas arranged under the same scheme: the circumference of the wall in the center is a mosque, and around it begins to twist maze of streets, alleys and simply a short transition (sometimes up to half a meter long), of which, for example, in Fes, there are more than 9 thousand. This makes it impossible to travel by car in the medinas, and sometimes even two-wheelers can be difficult. The narrowness and confusion of the streets served as an additional obstacle in the way of possible invaders of the city.

In spite of the apparent chaos, there is a certain system, in particular the division into quarters according to religion and ethnicity, as well as the occupation of the local population. Walking through the medina, we passed the districts of weavers, shoemakers, potters, carpet makers, and, of course, tanners. In fact, the latter was the main objective of the day.

After an excellent breakfast in the riad, we stepped outside the walls of the old city at ten o’clock in the morning. It was semi-dark, with cats running around in large numbers, and vendors just beginning to lay out their wares on the stalls. A market in Morocco is called by the inelegant word “souq”; the closer you get to the center of the medina, the more of them there are. We carefully avoided using this word in the plural, saying, let’s go look in this souq or that one, and there are more… bitches ahead. Ahem, didn’t always succeed. ๐Ÿ™‚

In the guides to Fez, I have often seen the advice: never go to the medina without a guide, you can get lost in no time at all. This may have been the case in the past, but now there are colored signs over the streets, like a purple star, a green triangle, or a yellow circle, indicating different routes. And there are general diagrams of the medina at every more or less major intersection. So all a tourist has to do is to choose a path according to his or her own interests and simply follow the signs. As a last resort, there are boys running around the medina ready to lead the lost out of the maze for a few dirhams.

We made it safely to the tannery somewhere in the center of the city by the scheme in riad, and we didn’t even manage to get lost. After paying 20 dirhams ($1=8 Dh) to the guys at the entrance, we set foot in the tannery. They look picturesque – several dozen medieval stone baths, where, as centuries ago, the skin is dyed. The baths are located in a spacious courtyard, right under the open sky, so they only work when it’s not raining. And since rain is a rare occurrence in Fez, work goes on almost all the time.

The smell is peculiar, reeking of rot and dampness. Particularly sensitive natures can ask the guys at the entrance for a bundle of mint to add to it from time to time. In this stinky atmosphere, the artisans of Fez process valuable raw materials. Like their great-grandfathers and grandfathers, they work only with hides of animals whose eating is permitted by the Koran (pigs are safe ๐Ÿ™‚ In Morocco, they process and dress cow, camel, sheep and goat skins.

Several times a day, new batches of skins are brought into the tannery from the surrounding slaughterhouses. The most popular and cheapest local transport, donkeys, is used for transportation.

Even in the twenty-first century, tanners in Fez work without synthetic substances. This technology is becoming increasingly rare, while chemical substitutes are used in modern factories. Local craftsmen use quicklime to clean the hide from wool, and salt and chicken, dog or pigeon droppings are used to make the leather soft (remember the smell!).

All skin dyes are exclusively natural. They are made from plants. For example, saffron and pomegranate peel are used to produce yellow color. For green – mint, brown – the bark of mimosa. Well, to get a red color, you need paprika. It takes one week to dye sheepskin and goatskin. It takes two weeks to dye cow leather, and camel leather spends a whole month in the dye baths.

The workday of the local dyers is peculiar: they work not by days, and not even by hours, but by pieces of leather. The more pieces they dye, the more money they get. The average wage is 40 dirhams a day ($5). To say that their work is unhealthy is not to say anything. People spend five or six hours under the scorching sun, standing waist-deep in water and all kinds of solutions. The work is detrimental to health, but benefits the pocket, so local residents have to choose: either healthy or fed and clothed. Most choose the latter.

After the dyeing process is completed, the leather is rinsed for a long time and then laid out to dry in the sun. As for sheep and goat leather, it dries in less than a day. Cow leather dries in a day and a half, but the longest drying time is for the skin of camels.

Then the tailors take over, turning such blanks into sandals, jackets, belts and other joys of a tourist.

Soaked through not the most pleasant aromas, we decided to go up to the terrace, from which usually all the normal tourists take pictures, but not those who are looking for dirt. ๐Ÿ™‚ And there for the first time we met an obtrusive vendor who had set up a rug store on the terrace (surprise!). After the 10th “no thanks, we don’t need a rug”, “not at all”, “this one too, and that one, and the third one” denial, the salesman finally realized that he couldn’t get anything from us, and resentfully said: “No photo!” My husband diverted my uncle’s attention by politely reminding him that we had paid for entry and I ignored him and continued to shoot shots of the performance from above. would take as many pictures as we needed. The salesman became furious, raised his voice and started yelling for us to leave his store immediately.

– What kind of store, sir? We are at the tourist observation point.

– Leave, leave, no photos! – he got more and more heated.

We had finished taking off everything we wanted by then, and after exchanging not the most affectionate glances with the peddler, we went downstairs. Yes, that’s the Moroccan way of doing business, a lot of soul-consumers.

To relax and distract ourselves we chose the route “arts and crafts” on the map and just walked along the streets, occasionally dodging heavily laden donkeys. Work was in full swing: sewing machines chirped rhythmically in the garment section, hammers rattled in the coppersmith’s, and knives were forged and sharpened in the forge. In the streets the vendors did not molest at all, as long as you did not go into a bough. We bought a mint tea pot from one man dressed in a modest hooded cloak, but with a very luxurious watch on his wrist, for 350 Dh to 100 ($13), plus a photo.

Closer to the center, the streets were lined with stalls with rolls of cloth, impressive spools of thread, colorful slippers-babushas (something like Czechs with a crumpled back), beautiful, ornate kaftans (1300 Dh), and silk scarves with trimmings. There were several groups of tourists who squeamishly pressed their noses and listened to the guide’s stories with a mixture of amazement and disbelief on their faces.

Then there were numerous stalls with food, spices, henna, aphrodisiacs, and oriental sweets. Some of the honey and nougat stalls were completely covered with bees, which no one chased away. It is clear that they are not cockroaches, but still, somehow it did not make me want to buy from this trader.

Somewhere in the depths of the medina, on the way there was a restaurant “Zohra” – a surprisingly very quiet and peaceful place with a homely atmosphere. Resting on comfortable cushioned sofas, we drank more than one cup of mint tea with delicious cakes. And there was nothing to complain about service, they served accurately, without pressure and obtrusiveness. One bad thing: we did not remember the way there at all, and it is unlikely that we would find it a second time.

After walking around the medina for a couple of hours, looking at its ancient fountains and buildings (the city is more than a thousand years old), we suddenly felt the long-forgotten effects of the crowd. At the same time I remembered the St. Petersburg metro, when you after the working day, or vice versa, during the morning rush hour, trying to get to your place as quickly as possible, but all around pressing people, hundreds and hundreds of people, who almost physically suck all the juice out of you. Brr… I felt approximately the same in the medina of Fez and had a desire to isolate myself from the mass of people, preferably somewhere in the countryside.

Having read in the guide that one of the best panoramic views of the city from the height of the fort opens Borj Sud, took the car from the parking lot, and on the GPS-u rushed to the place in about 10 minutes. If you do not go to the archaeological museum at the fort, then do not take money for the passage to the territory. The only thing left was to climb over the fence and settle on the grass on the hillside, among the olive trees and grazing sheep.

The view of the city is indeed a delight. Founded in the 8th century, Fez is historically divided into three parts:

Fes el-Bali, the old medina where we have just been; one of the largest pedestrian zones in the world and listed as a World Heritage Site;

Fes el-Jdid, the second medina, founded in the 13th century, which includes the ancient Jewish ghetto of Fez;

and Ville Nouvelle, the New Fez laid out in 1916 in accordance with the principles of European urban planning.

From time to time calls to prayer were heard from the minaret below, and the calm air was filled with harsh sounds.

Soon a company of local women climbed the hill and started giggling shyly and covering their faces when they saw us. But their many children, without a shadow of embarrassment, surrounded my husband, looking at the “big white uncle” with all their eyes; they completely ignored me ๐Ÿ™‚ The women were about ten meters away from us, perched on a large flat rock. I could tell by the looks of them that they came here often.

Once we had recovered and freed from the heavy pressure of the medina crowd, we looked toward New Fez (2 km to the west) and decided it would be a good idea to have dinner there. Riad is great, of course, but we need to try something new as well. In the New Town we found another street named after Mohammed the 5th (a sort of analog of the Russian Lenin Avenue) and a lot of restaurants around it for every taste. We chose a modest “La Medaille”, guided by the sample menu on display.

Our acquaintance with Moroccan cuisine would have been incomplete if we had not tried harira and marshmallow.

Harira soup is a thick pea and tomato soup with lamb (optional) and spices, which is a symbol of Moroccan Lent. Harira is usually eaten for dinner during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is not uncommon at this time, for soup to be served for free, even at Moroccan McDonald’s in public places. (Good video recipe).

Well, a Moroccan marshmallow (pronounced “bastiya”) is a layered pie consisting of pigeon meat, hard-boiled eggs, and almonds. Each layer is separated from the next by an extra-thin layer of dough, and the marshmallow is sprinkled on top with powdered sugar and cinnamon. According to the local custom, the more layers and meat in such a pie, the higher the respect for the guest. Of course, the meat used is not that of the pigeons scavenged in garbage dumps, but of specially bred, domestic pigeons. And even in Morocco itself, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find real, “pigeon” marshmallow; very often they just use chicken meat. (Great recipe from my favorite Moroccan chef. ๐Ÿ™‚

The restaurant’s menu stated pigeon, but it felt like chicken by chicken. So I do not even know if we ate pigeons, or not yet ๐Ÿ™‚

After a hearty dinner with the traditional mint tea and to my surprise found alcohol in the form of beer “Casablanca”, we went to rest in the riad

Middle Atlas.

Day 4. Itinerary: Fez – Ifran – Varvara Monkeys – overnight in Midelt.

As sorry as it was to part with the hospitable riad, the road was calling ahead. From now on we had to travel in less populated places far away from big cities. We decided to say goodbye to Fez from the heights, stopping at Borj Nord – the northern fort located high on a hill behind the walls of the old medina. As always, GPS helped out, and in no time the car took us through the slums, right to the wide, beautiful boulevard Tour de Fes and to the discovered next to the fort free parking.

The fortress, founded in the 16th century, now houses the Museum of Arms, with an impressive collection of killing tools, from crooked eastern daggers to cannons painted with bronze patterns. Who is interested in this topic, it is definitely worth a look, reviews of the museum are good. And we just walked around its vast terrace with lovely views of the old town and the streets below. Periodically, schoolchildren came up, with their textbooks clutched under their armpits, politely saying hello: “Bonjour, madame!” and “Bonjour, mon seรฑor!” The difference with the kids running around the medina was obvious.

After withdrawing cash from an ATM on the way, we left Fez via New Town on South Highway 8 (heading toward Ifran, 63 km). Traffic circles cut the streets every hundred meters; Friday’s traffic was rather chaotic, reminiscent of Peruvian Lima. But once outside of Fez, it was easier. Unless, of course, we ran into a “steamroller” behind a truck crawling uphill. The highway is undivided, one lane each way, and just a wild number of ambush patrols; it’s best not to speed there. Our first encounter with the Moroccan police (of about 10 times) occurred on this stretch – caught while overtaking a slow truck. Scheme to avoid paying a fine I have already told in the first part, the main thing was to mention the word “check” and pretend that in French you do not understand (which is almost true :). For the “first” time they always let me go.

In the meantime, the landscapes of the Middle Atlas, also called “Moroccan Switzerland,” unfolded around us. To really appreciate these places, of course, you have to come in spring, when full-flowing waterfalls rush down from the mountain tops, fish bubbles in the lakes, and numerous flocks of sheep bathe in the green lush valleys. However, in winter, the sheep might just as well plough through the snowy expanses, leaving behind them contrasting patches of glades.

The red roofs of the village houses could be seen along the sides of the road. Local men gathered in groups, saying hello, pressing their cheeks together four times, discussing some world problems along the way. All this again reminded me of the Italian Campania, when I wrote: “In small villages people are very friendly, waving as we drove by. They wake up early and go out to traditional Italian ‘stand-up’ places. Groups of men of all ages stood on the sidewalks, sipping coffee and talking. And after that, they say women are talkative” ๐Ÿ™‚

After about 50 kilometers, we turned off the highway in the direction of the “lake road”, the so-called “Lakes Tour” that skirts the perimeter of three lakes. When there is a lot of water, the area becomes a real bird sanctuary, attracting a lot of waterfowl. The former King of Morocco – Hassan II – also liked to visit this area for excellent fishing. But in December, unfortunately, the reservoirs almost completely dried up, and only the wind drove columns of dust along the exposed bottom.

We returned to the main road, and in about 15 minutes we were already entering the wide streets of Ifrane. It was founded in 1929 by the French, and it is completely different from other Moroccan towns and really looks like a clean, doll-like settlement somewhere in the Swiss Alps. In addition, it is home to a prestigious university, where education is conducted only in English. Many progressive Moroccan families are very proud if any of their children study there. And there is also a summer royal residence in Ifrane. And it just so happened that on that very day, the king had to fly to his palace.

On the way from the airport to the city center, every 100 meters along the road there were soldiers wearing uniforms of different branches of the army. It must have been a holiday uniform, because it looked very nice and effective – red and white long caftans, black galoshes with white gaiters, wide turbans, and automatic rifles (without magazines). After gawking at the beautiful people, we took too long in the median, the center lane, and were stopped for it. After checking our documents, the gendarme officer simply scolded us and told us to be more careful in the future.

We arrived in Ifrane at lunchtime, which we took advantage of by stopping by La Paix restaurant. The place was clearly popular with students: groups of young people, some with books and some with laptops, were eating and studying at the same time. So much for “rustic” Morocco! But to be fair, such scenes were never seen in the country again.

Being away from the coast, it would have been strange to order seafood, but the fact is that the mountain streams of the Middle Atlas are home to trout; that’s what we were aiming for. Lunch did not disappoint (except the pumpkin soup was not so good), and after drinking mint tea, we were ready to soak up the experience again.

We set course for Azrou, a medium-sized town about 17 km south of Ifrane. But it was not it that was the goal of the route, but the dense cedar forest in its vicinity. The fact is that the cedar thickets were home to magots, or Varvara tailless monkeys, which we really wanted to photograph. It is difficult to determine the exact location of the monkeys, but they make life easier for themselves and tourists, coming out periodically to a small parking lot at the end of the forest road. Coordinates from our  (marked on the map).

It was the same in our case: as soon as we walked a dozen meters, waving welcoming packages of apricots and apples, the magots streamed out of the forest. They eat fruits, edible roots, cereals, buds, shoots, seeds of conifers, and some insects (locusts, beetles, butterflies); they can raid fields. They spend most of their free time on hygienic procedures, namely, catching fleas.

The females wait for the cubs to be returned to them by following the males at a certain distance. The males not only carry the cubs, but also take care of their fur, babysit, and play with them. And often they give them back to the females only when the babies are hungry.

In spite of their lack of a tail, magots are excellent tree climbers. At one point they spotted a young monkey, clutching an apple in each of his three paws and perched peacefully on a tall branch. There was snow in the woods, which did not bother the Magots at all; on the contrary, they were happy to get their hands on the thawing puddles.

Currently, the total population of this species is estimated at about 23,000 specimens. The Moroccan government has shown interest in conserving the monkeys, but until recently there were no protected areas in the country.

Having completely emptied our stock, the magots abruptly lost any interest in us, and switched to the next group of visitors.

We headed southeast toward the Sahara, which required crossing the passes of the Middle Atlas. Who would have thought that we would see snow in Africa, and in such quantities! Often the snowdrifts on the roadsides reached as far as the roof of the Renault, but we must pay tribute to the road service, the road was in perfect order, only occasionally covered with thin ice in the shade.

The thermometer was gradually dropping below zero, and when we entered the streets of Midelt (158 km from Azrou), it was already -10ยฐC. Midelt is a crossroads town, strategically located at the intersection of roads leading from north to south and from west to east. So there is no problem with accommodation or food there. Another thing is that almost all the lodgings and restaurants are of average quality, even ascetic, but not expensive. We were charged only $25 for a room in the Safari Atlas hotel, which after the riad in Fez seemed a bit of a bargain. Everything would have been fine, but the hotel had no heaters, so we had to warm ourselves up and adapt to the local cold by our own efforts.


Day 5. Route: road along the edge of the High Atlas – lunch in Rachidia – river crossing – Sahara – Erg Chebbi dune.

Midelt was already in southern Morocco, which was hard to believe after seeing a thoroughly frozen car after an overnight parking lot outside the hotel. While we were eating the included breakfast (yes, yes, for $25 there was also breakfast – communism the Moroccan way), the hotel clerk was pouring bottled water on the windows of the Renault, trying to melt a layer of thick ice. Half an hour later, both were done, and we headed strictly south on Route 13, toward the Sahara.

This was the easternmost edge of the High Atlas, the giant mountain range that cuts Morocco in two. Until the middle of the 19th century, foreign travelers, intimidated by the mores of the local population, practically never came here. Who would like the slogan “Death to all infidels!” which was used by the irascible Highlanders in relation to visiting travelers? But that’s all in the past. Today, the High Atlas people are clearly more interested in the tourist’s pocket than in the potential slaughter of its owner. Although something did flicker in my heart when we were once again stopped by a highway patrol for speeding. But, as always, worked the usual scheme of excuses, played out like clockwork: “400 dirhams – you need a check – first time in Morocco? – Yes, go ahead.” It seems that the trip took on a new motto: “Not a day without seeing the police! ๐Ÿ™‚

Parallel to the highway, the Ziz River carries its waters, on the banks of which veritable, lush oases are scattered. This river originated in the glaciers of the Atlas, and then gently descended through canyons before disappearing into the sands of the Sahara in Algeria. In the distance we could see the old forts of the French Foreign Legion, and soon we passed the Tunnel of the Legionnaires, still protected as a strategic site. It is very short, about 10 meters long; it was driven through the rock by soldiers in 1927, thus opening the way to the southern part of Morocco.

After the tunnel a whole series of fortified kasbah villages began, formerly used as protective citadels against the incursions of nomads from the desert as well as wild animals. At the moment many of them are abandoned, but in some of them people still live, farm and raise children. Some have been converted into hotels, a kind of rustic “riads. But in general, the Moroccan government does not show much interest in the preservation of this architectural heritage. Kasbahs are restored with foreign money, but in very, very small quantities.

What this region does well is dates. The Ziz valley is home to some 800,000 date palms, which bear fruit in October. In the past, camel caravans, exhausted from traveling through the desert, made a stop here for recuperation. And who, pray tell, would refuse such a splendid delicacy? During the season, bundles and boxes of dates are actively sold by kids on the roadside: it costs a penny, but it is a million fun! Not infrequently, we noticed large sheets on which the fall harvest was still drying. As they ripened, the dates changed color from bright orange to dark brown, or even black.

After leaving behind 154 kilometers of highway (from Midelt), we soon entered the wide and spacious streets of Er-Rashidia. Many roads leading to the Sahara start from this city. Founded by the French in the early 20th century, it was almost completely abandoned in the 1960s because of the catastrophic flooding caused by the River Ziz. But gradually the inhabitants returned to their native land, and now Rachidia is a typical crossroads town, like Midelt, but bigger and nicer We looked at it from the standpoint of, “Isn’t it time for a break?

The main avenue was decorated with beautiful banners and flags in red and green with gold stars. The streets were clean, and the local people roamed exclusively on eco-friendly bicycles. Gas stations had changed their names from the French “Total” to the local brand “Afriqua”, we fed our car at one of them (sans plomb), and our turn came.

For lunch we chose the most decent hotel in town, a 4-star “Hotel Kenzi Rissani”. The advertising promised a pleasant atmosphere at tables by the pool under the shade of palm trees, designed to protect us from the scorching sun. In December it was of little interest, of course, but we liked the proposed menu and decided to stay. The hotel was practically empty in winter, so the service was brisk – no one was in the restaurant except us. Vegetable soup (with extras), chicken kebab with eggplant puree, steak and two mint teas cost only Dh 220 ($28). The menu, by the way, also included wine, which is very rare for Morocco. But we somehow managed to do without alcohol, especially since I was not really allowed, and my husband was driving. While we were eating lunch, the hotel staff even washed the car, although we did not ask in advance. Probably the sight of a dusty Renault offended their sense of beauty

Finally, after finishing all the household chores, we headed to Erfoud (80 km) to dive into the Sahara from there. We should warn you that there is no normal road from this side to Erg Chebbi (it’s better to go through Rissani). The asphalt surface ends 10 km after leaving Erg Chebbi. In our case there was another obstacle – the river Ziz flooded after the rain. The road continued on the other bank, but how to get there? While we were hesitating at the edge of gurgling water, a muddy jeep whizzed by at full speed, rushed headlong into the river and, having reached the other side, raced off in an unknown direction. The depth was shallow, and there were a few concrete slabs under the water just in case the area was flooded, but it was not a Jeep, just a Renault Clio. The people at the rental company in Rabat knew where their car had gone! But we decided to take the risk, especially as there was no other way but to turn back. We swam across at very low speed, the water reached the radiator, but luckily we did not stall.

The dunes were already well visible on the horizon, but we still had to get to them somehow. There were a lot of ruts in the ground leading in different directions. Praise be to the GPS! Without it, we wouldn’t have made it out of this black and gray maze.

The local Moroccans themselves regard Erg Shebbi as a punishment of the gods. There is a legend according to which the inhabitants of one of the settlements did not help a stranger who came out of the desert. The stranger turned out to be, naturally, a divine force, who took the form of a tired traveler, and thus tested the good-heartedness and responsiveness of the locals. The guys failed the test, and the next morning they found everything around them blocked with sand.

Maybe under the influence of this legend, or maybe from other selfish motives, tourists are not left alone here. And when we were passing through town, and now on the approaches to the desert, there was always someone willing to “help”. To the phrase “thank you, we do not need anything” did not react at all, continuing to dig further, wondering – where, they say, rented a hotel. We amused ourselves by always mentioning different names, and what would you think – each time the “helper” found relatives in the specified place. “Oh, that’s my family, my brother/sister-in-law/grandnephew runs this inn. I’ll show you the way quickly.” Naturally, for a small bribe. And only the insistent “leave-us-alone-we-we-can-cope” and the confident demeanor deterred them.

We soon spotted a small hand-drawn sign on the side of a track that read “Auberge de Sud 3 km. Well, that’s nice! The Auberge (“hotel, asylum” in French) was made of clay and straw; traditional African motifs could be seen in the rooms; the common guest room was piled with cushions and rugs.

We were greeted, as always, with mint tea, which we had a great passion for from the beginning of the trip. The reservation made from home worked; the accommodation cost 25 euros per person, with dinner and breakfast included, no drinks. No liquor, as in many restaurants in Morocco, for whom it is important, stock up in advance.

Employees in bright blue turbans and robes showed the prepared room: a simple room with unpretentious decorative elements, a bed with a mountain of blankets made of camel’s hair and a toilet room… behind a screen. I don’t know why they couldn’t put up a door, the conditions seemed to allow it. By the way, this was not the first time we encountered a similar phenomenon. In a story about a trip to the islands of Belize, I described a similar case.

Erg (Arabic) is the common name for the sand massifs in the deserts of North Africa. The relief of the sands is represented mainly by dunes, stretched in the direction of the prevailing winds. By Saharan standards Erg Shebbi is tiny, only 22 x 5 km. By comparison, the Great Western and Eastern Ergs, which lie a little farther away, extend for hundreds of kilometers. But this Erg was accompanied by quite a developed infrastructure: a network of hotels at the foot, restaurants, tour bureaus. That is, you could see one of the most beautiful deserts on Earth without much effort and without going beyond the minimum comfort. For those who felt the need for a more exotic vacation, you can order a trip on camels deep into the desert, with overnight stays in Berber tents. Not this time, alas.

We climbed the dunes for about an hour, without much effort, because the sand was very dense and almost never crumbled. Yellow-orange barchans with such beautiful, rhythmic ripples on the surface stretched all around, that it was a pity to leave traces.

Somewhere below, a camel caravan appeared. Camels are slow creatures, so they climb leg by leg, much slower than a man climbs the mountain on his own two feet. They say it’s hard to ride a camel for more than 20 minutes when you’re not used to it – your butt gets tired :). Both guides and tourists were quite warmly dressed – at night in the desert it is very, very cold. If you plan to spend the night in a Berber tent, it is not superfluous to take sleeping bags.

The camels did not climb to the very ridge, but sat down in the lowlands, touchingly propped up, and dozed off in anticipation of the next ferry.

We climbed the highest dune that we found in the vicinity, and in the company of some frisky hasty beetles (the movie “The Mummy” came to mind, which, incidentally, was filmed here), we met our first sunset in the Sahara. There were no special colors and the sky was covered with a light haze. The dunes became a rich, brown color, and immediately it became sharply colder.

We descended in near total darkness (praise headlamps!), guided by the cozy light of the hotel far below, and arrived just in time for dinner.

It was nice to settle down next to the wood-burning stove at a small table, where a variety of bowls and plates of viands soon began to appear. First we were warmed by a generous portion of hot bean soup, followed by several kinds of appetizers: fried potatoes with eggplant, rice with beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. For our main course we had chicken thighs baked with figs, which was incredibly delicious. Dessert was fruit and a tricky tea made of some local Berber herb. Very pleasant to the taste, but pregnant women better beware, it depends, what kind of wormwood is mixed there. It was nice that there was no need to bother with tips, because dinner was included in the price.

Having asked for mint tea with nuts in the room, we went to rest and digest the experience of this busy day. It was quite chilly without a heater in the evening and at night, but the camel blankets came to the rescue.

Todra and Dades Canyons

Day 6. Itinerary: morning dunes – road to Todra Canyon – Dades Canyon – arrival in Ouarzazate – dinner in a Greek restaurant.

The day before, it was suggested that it would be nice to take pictures of the dunes, not only at sunset but also at dawn – when else there would be a chance … This responsible task fell entirely on my husband’s shoulders, it was decided to save me for the next exploits in the southern canyons. In the early afternoon Ilya went into the Sahara (sounds, yeprst!) and after spending about an hour and a half in the cold, he returned quite satisfied, with good pictures.

The morning dunes washed lazily in a gentle, orange light, rippled with sand. On their surface were numerous tracks of snakes and some kind of marmot; life in the desert did not stop even at night.

Having warmed up at breakfast with coffee and freshly baked steaming buns, we checked out of the auberge and headed for Rissani. We did not want to go back to Erfoud in our own footsteps, because it was a painful off-road drive. There was an asphalt road to Rissani (24 km to the south of Erfoud). People on donkeys were moving around on the roadside; the women were already fully wrapped in black hijabs, leaving only their eyes open.

Our goal for the day was the Todra and Dades Canyons, which are offshoots of the N10, which leads west to the Atlantic. This highway intersected with yesterday’s N13 in Rashidia, but to avoid giving a return detour, we decided that we would try to take one of the local roads, marked in suspicious yellow on the map

Worse than the yellow ones could only be gray and white (for quite off-roaders), but the fears were not confirmed. Without much effort Renault overcame 88 km of slightly undulating surface and, having frightened away the herds of sheep and camels, cheerfully jumped out onto a big highway near the village of Tinejdad. From there it was only 55 kilometers to Todra.

The Todra Canyon, formed in the High Atlas Mountains, is well known to European climbers who hone their skills there. The river of the same name was the creator of the canyon, leaving at its narrowest point only 10 meters between the 300-meter vertical walls

The exit to Todra was marked by a highly visible sign on the main road, and then ran for miles along the edge of the reddish cliff skirting the numerous kasbahs below. Palm oases invariably accompanied any populated area, diluting the greenery of the monotonous ochre color.

As soon as the car stopped, local children came running up, trying to sell simple bamboo handicrafts. They did not understand the word “no”, neither in Arabic, nor in English, nor in French… At the observation points, adults were waiting for us, offering a photo-op with a camel, or simply conducting a crude trade in the hope of selling souvenirs of mediocre quality.

At the point where the gorge narrowed noticeably, each car was charged 5Dh. As in the case of the Chilean road to the Seรฑo Otway penguin sanctuary, we were left with a feeling of trickery, Moroccan-style “Ostap Bender:

“Ostap realized right away that Failure might be profitable for a guy without prejudice.

“The amazing thing,” Ostap pondered, “is how the city has not yet figured out to charge grivnicks for admission to the Fail. It seems to be the only place where Piatigorsk residents let tourists in without money.I’ll remove this repugnant stain from the city’s honor and make up for the terrible omission.

And Ostap did as his reason, healthy instinct, and the situation prompted him. He stopped at the entrance to the Gap and, rubbing the receipt book in his hands, shouted from time to time:

– Buy your tickets, citizens. Ten kopecks! Children and Red Army soldiers free! For students, five kopecks! Non-union members: thirty kopecks.

Ostap hit for sure. The people of Pyatigorsk did not go to the sinkhole, and it was not the least bit difficult for a Soviet tourist to extort ten kopecks for admission to “somewhere”.

As they say, every failure has its own Ostap ๐Ÿ™‚

At the point where the gorge narrowed noticeably, each car was charged 5Dh.We had a sense of Moroccan-style deceit, similar to the Chilean route to the Seo Otway penguin refuge. “Ostap Bender:

“Ostap realized right away that Failure might be profitable for a guy without prejudice.

“The amazing thing,” Ostap pondered, “is how the city has not yet figured out to charge grivnicks for admission to the Fail. It seems to be the only place where Piatigorsk residents let tourists in without money.I’ll remove this repugnant stain from the city’s honor and make up for the terrible omission.

Ostap acted on the advice of his mind, his instincts, and the circumstance.. He stopped at the entrance to the Gap and, rubbing the receipt book in his hands, shouted from time to time:

– Buy your tickets, citizens. Ten kopecks! Children and Red Army soldiers free! For students, five kopecks! Non-union members: thirty kopecks.

Ostap hit for sure. The people of Pyatigorsk did not go to the sinkhole, and it was not the least bit difficult for a Soviet tourist to extort ten kopecks for admission to “somewhere”.

As they say, every failure has its own Ostap ๐Ÿ™‚

Recently, civilization has reached here: a hotel and restaurant were built right on the river at the foot of the canyon. Advertising banners persuasively advised to spend the night in such unusual conditions, or even to go out into the canyon at night – the adrenaline was guaranteed.

At this time of the year, the Todra River looked like a little stream, but it was extremely transparent and attractive.

There’s not much to do at the end of the gorge, just drive up, twirl among the same visiting tourists, take a couple of pictures, and that’s about it. The road goes on and on, taking away to small mountain villages in dizzying loops, but we had to go back to the highway (half an hour drive) to explore the neighboring canyon called Dades gorge

The gorge of Dades is parallel to Todre, only slightly to the west. The Boulmane du Dades sign points to it from the N10 highway. There are a lot less people here, and the locals hardly ever bother to come here. Partly because of this, I liked Dades better.

Soon high up on the mountain we saw the name “Kasbah Didis” and decided to stop by their restaurant, blessing the signs were well placed. The hotel was empty, rooms were priced at 380 dirhams ($48), out of season, but the food order the workers gladly took.

Soup harira, Moroccan salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and greens, bell peppers with vegetable oil), 50 Dh ($6 for two). We devoured it all in proud solitude on the high terrace overlooking the village, accompanied by donkeys mooing somewhere below.

Dades Canyon could not boast steep walls like Todra’s, but there were cliffs of rather bizarre, saponified shapes.

The good evening light successfully emphasized the silhouettes of leafless trees on the background of red hills, a very photogenic place. Where the road turned into a dirt road, we decided to turn back.

On this day, we could not reach Zagora, which is further south on the Algerian border, so we needed a place to stay for the night. Straight ahead was the rather large town of Ouarzazate, the Moroccan twin of Hollywood, which is home to one of the largest film studios in the world, Atlas Studios, and the Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator with Russell Crowe, and many others. It was all of interest because the main thing was to find a place to stay.

It was about 135 kilometers from Dades to Ouarzazate; the small villages were monotonous and uninterrupted, so it was impossible to drive fast. And then there was the evening, low sun beating directly in the face, swallowing whole chunks of road, and forcing the drivers to move almost by touch. But we did not encounter the police once that day, thus interrupting our daily communication with them.

Having arrived safely in Ouarzazate, we were once again disappointed in the Lonely Planet guidebooks. Not only are the maps printed wrong, but the lion’s share of their recommended businesses (restaurants, hotels) is absent. We both do not suffer from topographical cretinism, so the version of “self-serving, evil goons” can be safely discarded. In the end, not finding any of the hotels chosen in the guidebook, we settled at the first hotel we found. But what a hotel!

The 4-star Le Belere Hotel Ouarzazate was a huge, beautiful complex catering mainly to film crews. The lobby was gorgeous with Moroccan mosaics, and the staff was very polite and helpful. We stayed in the central wing overlooking the palm trees by the pool.

Once we were in a more or less major city, we decided to try our luck and get hold of some wine or champagne. After all, New Year’s Eve is two days away, and we wanted to celebrate it like a human being.

Morocco has long been considered the most “wine” among the Muslim countries with the annual production of about 35 million bottles. Most of the Moroccan wines are exported and sold to tourists. Since the Koran forbids alcohol, a Moroccan Muslim drinks on average no more than one bottle a year, and that mostly as part of condiments and sauces. But compared to other Muslim countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan), where alcohol is completely banned, Morocco is a fairly liberal country with regard to wine production.

Morocco has several major wine regions: around the town of Oujda in the northeast, between Meknes and Fez, and in the west, around Casablanca and Rabat. Local winemakers produce the finest wines of the Maghreb, including rare gray wines (vin gris). They are obtained by vinification of black grapes by the “white” method, and in fact have a pinkish color. The most interesting local brands are Ait-Suala, Red Guerrouane, and Rose Cabernet.

Only the question arose: where can we buy all this stuff? In one of the inconspicuous streets in the center, we saw an inviting sign for a supermarket, and oh, miracle! – Inside we found a whole wine department. But how they sold alcohol there, that was a separate song.

The salesman approached the potential buyer, looking around, furtively, listened to the order almost in his ear, and then disappeared either under the counter or into the back room. He would return with a dark, opaque bag, trying not to make any suspicious noises. Everything was done as inconspicuously as possible, so as not to offend the feelings of the faithful, who had not looked into the store for such a “shameful” purpose. By the way, it was the only place where I happened to see severely tipsy Moroccans coming in one by one for refueling.

We decided to finish the evening in the restaurant opposite, the Greek “Chez Dimitri”, especially since I read good reviews about it in various reports at the stage of preparation of the trip. In the restaurant you can even often see actors and actresses, of varying degrees of recognition, shooting at a film studio nearby. At one time, the place combined many functions: it was a gas station, a dance club, a store, a post office, and even a hot spot where soldiers of the French Legion hung out.

Today it’s all been reduced to the restaurant business, and a very successful one at that. The cuisine is a mixture of traditional French, Moroccan and Greek dishes, as a reminder of the origin of the owner. With great pleasure we tried lamb tajine, brochette de poulet (chicken kebab), Moroccan salad, and the beloved harira.

Near the end of the dinner, a funny encounter occurred: two Russian guys from the U.S. sat down at the next table. It would seem that the situation itself dictated a new acquaintance, after all, it is not every day you meet compatriots in Africa, and even living at the moment in the same country as you. But after listening to them for about 5 minutes, I suddenly had no desire to get acquainted, because it was a total apotheosis of apotheosis! We sat there with goggled eyes, thinking that such characters meet only in jokes.

Oh, what a gibberish was flowing in there! Of course, I understand that most emigrants sooner or later start using foreign words in their speech. Especially in professional topics, where the Russian equivalent does not immediately come to mind, if at all. In homeopathic doses it’s okay, but when the whole speech is built on phrases like: “na-last-vike-tripped-cruise-do-bahamas” (I translate: a friend last week went on a cruise to the Bahamas), then it’s no laughing matter.

– Are they kidding? – I whisper quietly to my husband.

– That’s the thing, they’re not!

It was nothing compared to the classic “pisik or poslish” or “there’s my children playing straight” – it was all a child’s play as compared to the ranglish of the two Pennsylvanians.

And so we went parallel to each other, Russian people in the African expanse ๐Ÿ™‚

At the hotel there was a pleasant surprise in the form of a heater, which really came in handy on a Moroccan December night. The next day there was a not-so-easy drive through the south of the country to a place that was no longer a tourist destination.

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