Morocco from coast to desert

A colorful tour in Morocco winter 2006

Tannery in Fez
Tannery in Fez

The desert landscape is fascinating and despite its barren soils its full of life and colorful people. Our love and fascination for the desert drew us to Morocco, as well as the long lasted dream of Marrakech. In our younger years Marrakech was known as a recreation and playground for rock stars and beat poets. Many a youth met challenges in this mythical fairytale city.

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We planned the trip for a long time and for the first time I used other travel blogs to get useful information. Because of this information we decided to take a bus across the Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate where we would hire a car with a driver and from there plan the rest of the trip.

Map of our round trip in Morocco.

But first we landed in Casablanca with Air France. At that time it was no direct flights from Oslo to Marrakech as it is today. We spent our first night at a really bad hotel on Aveny de Paris next to the Medina. It was time to get out and have some food. So we wandered into the Medina, the old part of the city. This was really the place for the locals filled with anything else than tourists and tourist goods. That would change as we travelled to other cities. We had heard a lot about how easy it was to get sick from food in Morocco, so we jumped right into it and eat in a small cross street where an old man sold barbecue food from a very little charcoal grill. For a moment we thought; if we survive this – we will survive anything! And we did survive. People were friendly and many wanted to talk wondering where we came from. Unfortunately, we do not talk French so it was not that easy. But mostly it was not a problem for us in Morocco.

Next day we found our way to the railway station and got tickets on the famous “Marrakech Express”. At home we had played this tune by Crosby, Stills & Nash many time, just to get in the mood. The train journey met our expectations. It takes around 3,5 hours and we had a very pleasant trip and it was easy to get in contact with other passengers. Everyone wanted to give us good advices for our stay in Marrakech. We travelled one 1. Class and that are recommended. Our tickets where for a compartment for 6 persons. We shared with a traditional dressed Moroccan woman, a Canadian woman with her Moroccan husband and then us.

We stayed 3 nights in Marrakech and had ordered a room in a Riad in the Medina, Les Jardines De Mouassine. It was owned by to French guys and also had a small restaurant part with very good food. The place is situated in the middle of the Medina, but at the same time secluded and quiet. The roof terrace was a nice and tranquil place to relax. We can recommend this place, the standard is good and the price is middle range.

From Medina in Marrakech, Morocco.

A Moroccan Medina is a huge labyrinth where it is hard to navigate. The houses in this chaos are built of brick and clay and there is not possible to see what is on the inside. The houses are completely closed against the outside world, but open up inside to a patio with an open roof. Often it is like a Garden of Eden revealing behind the fortress like walls.

We had just our 2 days in Marrakech to explore the Medina with all its bazaars, street markets and nice eating-places. Time went too fast. Some years later we went back to Marrakech for a week. For us this is a city we can return to all the time. You can always discover new things. If you are interested in art and craft the bazaars are an Eldorado. In the narrow alleys it is a smell of exotic spices and a range of goods its hard to imagine.

Many people will find the bazaars stressing and uncomfortable because the salesmen are very pushy. But it only applies to stay nice and smile, but not be pressed into bargains without being serious interested in buying something. If you are only window-shopping, keep smiling but don’t take part in any discussions. It can pay off to shop in places that may look expensive from the outside, but our experience is that you get more help and the buying pressure in such places. We found that the prizes often was less there than in the outside bazaars. If you want to shop in the bazaars, you have to learn how to bargain, its part of the game.

The famous big square Djemaa el Fna is situated south in the Medina. Everything can be seen here. During daytime there are snake charmers, musicians, street vendors, henna painters and beggars dominating the place. When the sun goes down the place transforms into a giant food market. Eating here is a necessity when visiting Marrakech. Every evening, more than hundred stalls are set up on the square and a huge amount of food is prepared. It’s a great variety of seafood, barbecue meat, vegetables and fruit and a lot of stuff we don’t really recognize. Just sit down on one of the many tables where young men are trying to convince you that their food is the best ever. The smoke and steam lays low over the whole square whilst the scents spread tempting around us. Here they sell the best fresh juice you have ever tasted. Our meeting with Marrakech became just the experience we had dreamt of.

Djemaa el Fna, the famous food market in Marrakech, Morocco.
Djemaa el Fna, the famous food market in Marrakech, Morocco.

Just outside the Medina on the west side, you will find the bus station. The day before departure we went there to get tickets for the bus to Ouarzazate. The bus left early in the morning next day and we where told to be there in good time. Before we left Norway I had read that the bus sometimes failed to go due to too much snow in the mountains. It was late in December, but the road was now clear after having been closed just some few days before. There are several bus companies driving this distance. Among them Supratours and CTM bus. We took a normal local bus and it was OK. The advantage is that you get close to the buzz, but then the disadvantage can be that they are often overcrowded and they can be very hot during summer time.

The Bus stopped in Taddert for lunch.
The Bus stopped in Taddert for lunch.

Before departure the bus was literary stormed off by all kinds of sellers. They offered cheap jewelry, napkins, toothpaste and chocolate. Beggars also entered the bus and some of them where quite persistent. The bus was already crowded with passengers so the situation got really chaotic. The bus trip was supposed to take 5 hours, but I think it took nearly 7 hours.

This is one of the greatest bus trips we ever had. The route goes up against the Atlas Mountains and through the Tizi n´Tichka pas, 2260 meters above sea level. In the small village of Taddert, the bus stops for half an hour and you can by lunch and use the toilette. Driving down from the Atlas Mountains you enter the Great Plains, a mixture of sand, stones and rocks with interesting rock formations. We came from buzzy Marrakech and entered the Berber Kingdom. The roads where of surprisingly good standard. Along the whole route, small villages were holding on to the hillsides. Small cultivated plots shined in strong green colors in spite of the cold and patches of snow many places.

Crossing the Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate, Morocco.
Crossing the Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate, Morocco.
Near the mountain pas Tizi n`Tichka, Morocco.
Near the mountain pas Tizi n`Tichka, Morocco.

Ouarzazate is situated on a plateau, 1160 meters above sea level and has about 70.000 inhabitants. The city is the capitol of the Ouarzazate Province and the name comes from Arabic and means The Gate to The Desert. In the south and east the desert begins. We had ordered a place at Riad Kerabo, situated on a hill overlooking the city. A French couple ran the place. It was a charming place with a big pool. But it was too cold to use it. The hosts could not speak a word of English but we managed anyway. Later we experienced that a lot of people could speak English and communication was not a problem. The food at Kerabo was great and tasty and we got to know and appreciate Moroccan wine, such as Domenich la Sahari or Ksar. There are many more good wines in this Muslim country. This Riad is no longer on the net, but there are many accommodations in all prize ranges in Ouarzazate.

Driving towards Ouarzazate, Morocco.
Driving towards Ouarzazate, Morocco.

Ouarzazate has a modern architecture, but also as all cities in Morocco it has its old district, the Medina. This area is also known as the land of Kasbahs. Kasbahs are old fortified buildings in earth and clay with towers in all corners. The inside is often a dark labyrinth of rooms to confuse the enemy. Earlier the city was a Foreign Legion base.

Ouarzazate is today a center for the film industry. Many well-known films and TV series are filmed here and in the surrounding areas. Several countries have their own film studios just outside the city. The city is also the starting point for trips out in the desert and to the Draa Valley. So on the city square you will find a large variety of tour operators and it is easy to find a suitable company where you can hire a car with a driver to take you wherever you want. Hiring a car for self-drive is expensive in Morocco.

Canyons on the road to Draa Valley, Morocco.
Canyons on the road to Draa Valley, Morocco.

The day after we rented a car and a driver to take a day-trip through the Draa Valley. Our driver Sharif picked us up early in the morning. From Ouarzazate the route went upwards before we waved us down through a landscape shifting from red in every shade to yellow, brown and black. There was little water in the rivers, if anything. But the structures in this rugged landscape where majestic. Well down from the mountain passes; we reached the Draa River and the oases on both sides of the river. The palms stood close together as far as the eye could see. Villages and big palace like Kasbahs lay side by side with only some hundred meters between. Sharif informed us in his charming English about everything from history and daily life of the people living here. We got to know that many of these Kasbahs was abandoned and decayed. They where abandoned because it was easier to build new ones than to repair the old ones.

A deserted kasbah, Morocco.
A deserted kasbah, Morocco.

Our day-trip went through the Draa Valley via Agdz and then to Tansihkt, Zagora and Tagounite. After that we went to the sand dunes of Erg Chigaga near the small city of M´hamid. In Zagora we had lunch and enjoyed the sign telling us that it will take 52 days to go on the camel caravan to Timbuktu. A captivating thought, but today the border to Algeria is closed and the caravans do not use this route any more. This trip with Sharif took 9 hours and was a great adventure. The landscape was changing from dry to lush; it was strange and fascinating, but very beautiful.

Draa Valley, Morocco.
Draa Valley, Morocco.

We got an agreement with the same company to have the same driver and car on a 5 days trip to Fes, one way only. The tour operator had to pick up a group in Fes so we got a very reasonable prize. On the first day we drove via Skoura, Kelaat M´Gouna, Dadès pas, Boumalne Dadès and Tineghir to the oases Todgha Gorges. There we spent Christmas at the Palmeraie Guesthouse. While we where waiting for the Christmas dinner we breathed frosty smoke and sat fully dressed in our bed with double up of synthetic carpets to keep warm. What a Christmas Eve! From the Minaret we hear loud yelling and soon the three wise men will come with frankincense and myrrh. We drank leftover wine from a plastic bottle and imagined that we where nice and warm. The Christmas dinner was the usually tandrine, food cooked in a clay pot filled with beef and vegetables along with bread.

On Christmas Day in the Palmeria, Morocco.
On Christmas Day in the Palmeria, Morocco.

Next morning we wake up to ice on the puddles and the car windows had to be cleaned for ice as well. Below the Guesthouse was a small oasis with figs and date palms on both sides of a small stream. We had time enough to explore the oasis in some early morning hours. A deserted Kasbah was exciting to examine. Frosty mist created a magical feel in the peaceful oasis.

A two hours camel ride out in the desert was our next exciting adventure. We drove to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi near Merzouga where we were staying overnight in a Berber camp out in the desert. But before we came that far, we drove across vast desert plains where the nomads at this time of year were herding their cheeps, goats and camels. We passed Tinejdad and Rissani before we came to Merzouga and could see the red sand dunes in the distance. The camel ride started at a hotel built like a Kasbah and with a toilette worse than anything we have ever seen in this part of the world. A Berber tent was the best opportunity in this area!

Out into the desert, Morocco.
Out into the desert, Morocco.
Staying overnight in a Berber camp, Morocco.
Staying overnight in a Berber camp, Morocco.

On the way north we stayed at Hotel Kasbah Asmaa. A nice hotel conveniently situated by the road north, on a mountain plateau all by itself. After several days with quite primitive accommodation it was a luxury to find a warm hotel room with a bath tube and nice warm water. We had slept fully dressed and without serious washing for 3 days so the first thing we did was getting undressed and straight into the bath.

Meknes is one of Morocco`s four Cities of Kings and on our route the next day. We went for a walk in the Medina of Meknes and passed through the famous gate Bab Mansour. We also got time to have a nice lunch at the square just outside the Medina.

Volubilis, Morocco.
Volubilis, Morocco.

On the way to Fes we stopped at Volubilis, an old roman town. The impressing ruins are protected by Unesco. We never regretted hiring a local guide. With his many stories he gave us a vivid picture of earlier life in this roman town. The most impressing, I thought, was all the mosaic floors still almost intact.

Morocco is well known for its four Cities of Kings, Marrakech, Meknes, Fes and Rabat. They are all on Unescos World Heritage list, except Rabat. We visited them all on our round trip and I think Fes was the greatest experience. We arrived Fes in the afternoon and Sharif had helped us to find a hotel in the middle of the old part, the Medina. It was a beautiful Riad, run by locals. Therefore; no serving of alcohol as in the Riads run by the French. The food was excellent and tasted deliciously with mint tea and water.

Fes is a fantastic city. It is a little smaller than Marrakech and it is easier to navigate through the narrow allies. But its still possible to get completely lost. We hired a local guide for the first day and that we benefited a lot from.  The highlight was the visit to the oldest leather tannery in the world and probably the most photographed place in Morocco. Unlike Marrakech that is situated on a plain, Fes is scattered out on many small hights and hills and the allies of the Medina goes up and down.

Leather tanning in Fes, Morocco.
Leather tanning in Fes, Morocco.

We stayed most of the time in the Medina the days we spent in Fes. The city has many nice restaurants and small cafes where you can enjoy your lunch and a glass of wine on the roof terrace overlooking the city.

New Year and Id, the Muslim celebration that this year fell on our New Year, was celebrated in the capitol Rabat. We went to Rabat on train and it took about 3 hours. We had not managed to get a hotel before hand. We thought it would be easy to sort this out from Fes. But it turned out that many of the hotels was closed during Christmas and New Year. So we ended up in one of Rabat`s best hotels, La Tour Hassan, where we stayed for 4 nights. We also celebrated New Year at the hotel with other guests. This is just a fantastic hotel that in spite of all the luxury, it offers a cozy and informal atmosphere. The staff is great and helpful and the garden is something from a fairy tale.

Per on his way into the Medina in Rabat, Morocco.
Per on his way into the Medina in Rabat, Morocco.

Rabat is a very beautiful city on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It has a small Medina with stalls mainly for the local community. Unlike Marrakech and Fes there are not so many tourists here. Huge parts of the city are very modern with wide streets, avenues and green parks. There are sand beaches in between the cliffs with a long waterfront. It was not swimming temperatures when we stayed in Rabat, but the waterfront was a great place to be and enjoy how the sea forces eroded the landscape.

The Atlantic Ocean, Rabat, Morocco.
The Atlantic Ocean, Rabat, Morocco.

Morocco is a country we love to go back to. Some years later we went back to Marrakech for a week. Then we also visited Essaoira, a myth spun city on the coast north of Marrakech. From Marrakech to Essaoira it is easy to take a bus to and from in one day. In Easter 2014 we will head to Morocco again and explore the southern part of the country. But first we will visit Ouarzazate once more; there we will hire a car and driver and head for Tarfaya, a small city on the coast near the border to West Sahara. Antoine de Saint-Exupery lived here for a period and wrote his first novel. This has given him a memorial outside the house he rented and as I am a big fan of his writing and especially ”The Little Prince”, I just have to visit his place.

Morocco is an easy country to travel in. The roads are very good and public transport is well developed. People are welcoming, nice and helpful. The food is great. The landscape is majestic and the country is colorful in all respects.

View from Draa Valley looking at the Atlas Mountain, Morocco.
View from Draa Valley looking at the Atlas Mountain, Morocco.
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