Morocco (2016)

Azrou, Ifrane and the Cedar Forest

On Tuesday, we travel to Azrou to visit the market and are talked into buying a tablecloth. In addition, this is finally the day in our lives that we see monkeys and ski slopes on the same day!

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Monday was the first big travel day of this trip: in about seven hours from Marrakech to Azrou by bus. The latter city is a while north-east of Marrakech, not too far from Fes (unless you have to walk). The trip went quite comfortably and quickly with a few short breaks for coffee, tea and refreshments. For the lunch break in Beni Mellal we had what is locally known as a piqnique: we carried a large basket of freshly bought bread into a restaurant/bar to dress and eat them there, buying the drinks from the bar. That worked quite well, and we got along splendidly with the cheerful staff of the restaurant, who were promptly assisted in doing the dishes by several of the ladies in our company.

During the drive, the landscape was continuously changing, especially once we entered the Middle Atlas. One vista after the other unfurled itself outside the bus windows. Very noticeable was how green the landscape and hills were. I am actually not sure what we imagined Morocco to be like (probably like a large Indiana Jones movie set, minus the Nazis), but the dry landscape surrounding Marrakech probably came a lot closer than the one we were currently driving through.

Panorama of a view across a reservoir along the road to Azrou.

NAfter a long day with some sleep, an indoor picknick, magnificent views and Geert’s berber music, the bus pulled into what looked like a nice and well-to-do city: Azrou. The driver had the bus climb onto a hill and we alighted in front of a rather chique hotel, which looked mostly like a Swiss chalet. When it turned out the hotel had a bar that served beer, the floodgates were opened: like a pack of hungry wolves descending onto a deer, the group threw itself at the bar, which was run by the Moroccan twin brother of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, sporting the same moustache and wide grin. Cheers! To our arrival in Azrou!

At the real souk

Sheep. Sheep everywhere. I have never seen as many sheep in my life as I have seen today, even when added up. It all started this morning at the souk, Azrou’s market. As Geert already explained in the morning’s introductory class (yes, we set out every day being well-informed), this was a proper souk. Not the mostly tourist-oriented one in Marrakech with souvenirs, odds and ends and pushy salesmen, but a travelling market that the region around Azrou depends upon: on the one hand to buy items that would otherwise require travelling to a city farther away, on the other for farmers and craftsmen to get their wares to their customers.

On an empty lot the size of several football pitches on the outskirts of Azrou, a huge market was indeed set up where truly everything was being sold, both new and second hand. Vegetables, potatoes, spices, fish, shampoo, dresses, new shoes, old shoes, bicycles, parts of bicycles, mobile phones, phone chargers that looked like they predated Alexander Graham Bell, bug spray, bags, suitcases, thermo bottles, beggars (okay, they were not being sold, but they were there), fruit, new pans, old pans—it was hard to think of something not being sold there. And then there were the sheep. A separate section of the market was dedicated to cattle traders, who sold flocks of sheep to other traders, who transported the animals in sometimes rather crude fashion (like dragging them by a single leg) to their vans to load them into, for example, a sheepcage on the roof. These traders then sell the animals on to families in the surrounding villages.

It was incredibly busy on the market, especially given that between all the market stalls and people there are also carts, donkeys, cars and sometimes even trucks manouevering, and in the vicinity of the cattle market there are flocks of sheep, of goats or even the occasional random cow added into the mix. With all the smells, colours and sounds of the market, you could easily wander around the for hours and get lost (“No, that is where we came from! We have already been there, haven't we? No, wait! Oh, we are here now? Turn left at the beggar, right?”), and time went by very quickly.

Trapped by a souvenir salesman

After visiting the souk, we had some time left to also head into Azrou’s smaller medina. It was not long, however, before we were intercepted by a local salesman, who immediately identified us as Dutch (quite good, actually, our apparently Germanic looks previously mostly made people take us for Germans) and explained that his brother lives in Rotterdam. Of course he had a lovely little store with beautiful items (everything real Berber!) and if we had time, we should come and have a look, and he would also give us his business card, so if we would just follow him, and off he went. As we were intending to go visit some small shops anyway, and he walked onto a busy bridge rather than into a dark alley with an ‘organs for sale’ sign next to it (to name but a hazard), we decided to indeed follow.

Marrakech? Fes? Everything there is for money! This is Azrou. Azrou is relaxed.

He turned out to have at typical small souvenir shop like there are so many, with a seemingly random assortment of goods. Tajines? Check. Scarves? Check. Old-fashioned coffee grinders? Check. We had a look at his wares, while he went into the back area, looking for his business cards while praising Azrou. This was not Marrakech; everything there is about money. This was also not Fes; everything there is about money, too. Shops? Money, money, money. Guide? Money. No, we were now in Azrou. Azrou is relaxed. We could calmly have a look around, we did not have to spend anything, and we could return at any time we wanted to. I am assuming that all of this must be true, or he certainly would not have told us so five times. Oh, he also had some nice carpets by the way, if we would just move aside? One was immediately pulled off the shelf and rolled out across the floor. Did we like it? Real Berber! Yes, we did indeed like it, but we did not want a carpet. No problem, he had bedcovers too. One immediately came rolling out across the carpet, quickly followed by numbers two and three in varying colours and patterns.

We nodded amicably and said that unfortunately the carpets and bedcovers were too large to bring back with us, at which point the pile on the floor was quickly added to with two table runners, three table cloths and four pillow covers, from cactus silk to berber silk to berber wool. Oh, also nice if we wanted something different, handmade wood carvings from local cedar wood. At this point, an elephant and a giraffe were handed to us. Ah, but no! We were from the Netherlands. Milk! A wooden cow was pressed into our hands instead. As the busily talking man started to run the real risk of disappearing behind the steadily increasing pile of goods and wooden zoo on the floor, we decided that one of the tablecloths was indeed quite nice and very reasonably priced, and that we could bring that along. Martin too was interested in one of the tablecloths and two miniature tajines, so one Ahmed was called in to pack our items of choice, while our hands were vigorously shaken, Martin and myself received two kisses on the cheek and we were given the man’s business cards. We said goodbye to him and left him to clean up the majority of his inventory.

Into the Cedar Forest

The rest of the medina turned out not to be particularly spectacular. We walked around for a bit, but did not find anything we wanted and returned to the bus–waving to the passing shopkeeper from before, hand on the heart and everything—to enjoy a piqnique at the hotel. After the lunch, we headed back into the bus for a walk in the Forêt du Cedres, the cedar forest. Across an asphalt road that had seen better times, Mahmend drove the bus carefully, but expertly, through the forest to park at Geert’s command in a wide open plain, the most logical place to start a walk in the forest.

At a brisk pace, Geert headed across the rock-covered plain towards a hillside that lead into the forest. The hillside too turned out to be covered in rocks and stones, and as we clambered up like a flock of mountain goats and promised ourselves never again to believe Geert in footwear-related matters, we ascended into the cedar forest. After Geert instructed us on the amount of goats that this area could handle, how many there actually were (about twice as many) and the ecological consequences of that state of affairs, Harrie took over for a guest lecture. Harrie is a professional geologist and professional chatterbox, who in short order briefed us on volcanoes and the geology of the area. The climb continued after that, towards a high cliffside, from where we had a stunning view of the Azaghar plain, on which Azrou is located. From there, the route led back down (again across the rocks) and back to the bus.

The king turns out not to be home and the palace is guarded: that makes it difficult to ring and run.

We then left for Morocco’s most popular ski resort, Michlifen. Yes, Morocco apparently has actual ski resorts: during winter, snow can reach several metres of thickness in the Atlas mountains. We did make a quick stop before leaving the forest because we spotted monkeys (cue the necessary jokes about reflections in the bus windows). Along the side of the road were indeed a number of berber monkeys, who seemed remarkably unimpressed with the approaching horde of camera-wielding tourists, and calmly continued tending to their monkey business (doing nothing, chewing on a plastic Danone cup, that kind of thing). After receiving a treatment normally reserved for celebrities on a red carpet, the monkeys remained behind and the bus toured on. The Michlifen ski resort turned out to be located in the caldera (the crater) of a once explosively erupted volcano, but it made a somewhat poor impression in spring with a few grassy slopes, a dilapidated hotel and equally maintained ski lifts.

On to Ifrane then, the nearby unofficial royal city, where king Mohamed VI has a palace. Unfortunately he turns out not to be home, and even then the palace is well-guarded; two reasons that make it difficult to ring and run at a foreign head of state. We therefore walk to the city square instead to get an ice cream, a reasonable plan B. It is very clear, however, that this city contains a royal dwelling, for the city center is well-laid out, clean and immaculate. Noticeable is that the architecture of the city is very European; standing on the square, you might as well be in a village in say, Switzerland.

After a short visit to Ifrane, we returned by bus to Hotel Panorama for the last meal and night in Azrou: the High Atlas and desert were awaiting us!

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