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Moulay - Idriss

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ATA Flashback


by Habeeb Salloum


Thanks to the Africa Travel Association's 6th Cultural and Ecotourism Symposium in Fez, Morocco during the International Year of Ecotourism, our ATA web site is receiving a flood of e-mail requests for information on the historic host city. The following article by Habeeb Salloum captures the magic of Fez and its surrounding area thanks to the writer's professional style. The index in the left hand column will lead you to more stories by Mr. Salloum and other writers on Africa Travel Magazine's team, plus information about ATA membership and events. For two days we had explored Fez, Morocco's historic city, glorifying in its ancient section which remains enclosed within its ancient ramparts. Inside no auto is allowed. Only donkeys contest with humans the few feet wide medieval streets. Seemingly, we had traveled back a thousand years in time. It was a fabulous beginning for the trip we intended to take across the Atlas Mountains to the land of kasbahs (mud castles) and deserts.

Fez, with its air of the Arabian Nights, was still on my mind as our tour group of five, along with Abdelatif, our guide, traveled through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains towards the desert frontier town of Erfoud, some 480 km ( 298 mi) away. I was still dreaming of the city's enchanting medieval palaces and skilled craftsmen when suddenly, the voice of Abdelatif, magnified by our small auto bus's microphone, boomed, "During this journey, we will see some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. It will be a journey of make-believe".

A lady next to me snickered, "He's like all the other guides, always exaggerating." "We will see!", I thought to myself as we drove through a green fertile valley, covered with olive trees, many newly planted, set in the midst of sprouting wheat fields.

After about a 40 km (24 mi) drive, we turned and began to travel upward on a road edged by stately maple trees, into the Middle Atlas Mountains. Further away, small apple orchards and patches of pine trees, increasing as we moved along, dotted the slope of the hills. Past the 1,220 m (4,000 ft) high red-roofed resort town of Imeuzzer der Kandar, we passed through an oak forest, then barren land until we entered the attractive 1,650 m (5,412 ft) high skiing town of Ifrane with its red-sloped roofs.

A modern and prosperous resort town, it is labeled by travelers as the 'Switzerland of Morocco'. Located 60 km (37 mi) from Fez, this European-looking town is snow-bound in winter and ideal for skiing. It is the playground of the rich - the place where affluent Moroccans build their second home. Ifrane is also noted for the privately built Al-Akhawayn University , specializing in foreign language training.

Downward, we drove through oak forests until, on the outskirts of Azrou, we turned upward. A short drive and the oak forests were soon inter-mixed with the majestic cedar. However, this all-encompassing greenery was followed by a barren countryside - the home of shepherds and their flocks. We drove through this arid Middle Atlas landscape, in the shadows of the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains, until we stopped at Midelt - a town of 70,000, located at the entrance to the Berber region in Morocco - 200 km (124 mi) southeast of Fez.

Situated between the Middle and High Atlas Mountains, 1,525 m (5,000 ft) above sea level, this windswept town, an important center for local carpets, defuses a calm and friendly atmosphere. Besides being a rest stopover, travelers come to this town to visit the nearby convent of Kasbah Myriem - a nunnery staffed by a handful of European nuns who make their living selling carpets.

We stopped to refresh ourselves at the Kasbah Hotel Restaurant Asmaa - a traditional kasbah-style building whose interior is beautified by fountains and tiles in traditional Moroccan fashion. Soon thereafter, we were driving in the barren High Atlas until we passed a spot 1,907 m (6,255 ft) above sea level - the highest point we were to reach during our journey. From this high pass, the road wound its way downward through an arid landscape until we reached the Ziz River - a thin line of greenery in an otherwise barren countryside.

At places, the road wound its way high above the river, then suddenly it would descend to the water's edge where vegetables thrive under olive, palm and many other type of trees. The scene brought to mind the words of the poet-astronomer Omar Khayam, "Between the desert and the sown."

After passing a dam on the Ziz River, which supplies the nearby city of Errachida with drinking water, we entered that town - some 400 km (248 mi) from Fez. Once known as Kasr es Souk, its name was changed in 1979 to honor Moulay Rachid, father of Morocco's ruling Alaouite dynasty. Built at the crossroads of the main caravan routes to the Dadés Valley and the Tafilalet area, Errachida us by the beauty of its kasbak-like structures, seemingly all newly built. A city of some 200,000, with agriculture the main source of revenue, it appeared attractive and had an air of prosperity.

From Errachida, the highway continued to hug the Ziz River, forming the largest valley oasis in Morocco. The whole valley is covered with aspin trees and date palm. This shimmering field of green stayed with us until we reached the desert town of Erfoud, saturated with modern buildings, built in replicas of the ancient kasbahs - huge fortress structures, once castle-homes of emirs, tribal chiefs and government officials.

Some 350 million years ago the region around Erfoud was a huge ocean and sea creatures from that era are found in abundance, fossilized in the local rock formations. A thriving tourist industry has been established by the fashioning into works of art these fossilized creatures of the sea and the manufacture of black marble found in the area

The last town in Morocco to be occupied by the French who thereafter made it into a military outpost, Erfoud is a typical tourist destination. A bustling place of some 40,000, its dusty streets, all year round, are usually filled with travelers from the four corners of the world, coming to examine its fossils and exploring it's sand dunes. This is especially true when the annual Date Festival is held in October.

October had long gone when we landed in Erfoud, but there was still much to do in and around that desert town. After resting that night in our kasbah-like hotel, the next day we set out for nearby Rissani where the Ziz River disappears into the desert.

Just before entering that town, we stopped at the spot where the now almost disappeared historic city of Sijilmassa once stood. Erected in 757 A.D., it was the first true Muslim city in North Africa. Subsequently, it became a major staging post on the trans-Saharan caravan route, especially in the trading of salt. It once had a population of 100,000 and was the capital of the Tafilalt region. Today, only the desert wind and blowing sand swirl around the little of what remains of Sijilmassa.

In a few minutes we passed the town's gate and entered Rissani, a town of 30,000. Strangely, the setting of the town and its environs along the Ziz River with heavily populated villages, seemingly living in the past, its canals, building styles and the nature of its inhabitants, have often reminded travelers of the villages edging the Nile in Egypt.

Just inside the city gates, we stopped at a tiny museum where we examined artifacts found in Sijilmassa. We then moved on to visit the Mausoleum of Moulay Ali Chérif, ancestor of Moulay el Rachid, the founder of the present ruling Alaouite dynasty. A colorful authentic Berber market was our next stop after which we drove to the Kasbah of Moulay Ismail - a tiny town inside the city walls. Here, we spent some time examining beautiful rugs for sale in converted old homes.

Back in Erfoud, while my traveling companions left to view the spectacular sunset over some of the highest sand dunes in the world, I explored the town. Tired, I sat down on a bench by a well-dressed young man and introduced myself. Soon my new found companion, Muhammad, and myself were talking together in a friendly fashion.

When he found out that I would be writing an article about the Erfoud region, Muhammad asked, "Did you know that Hilary Clinton is from here?" Taken aback, I looked at him in astonishment, "Hilary Clinton from here! You must be kidding!" He smiled, "Haven't you heard about her Moroccan origin?'

Muhammad went on to explain that Hilary's grandfather, a Moroccan Jew living in Rissani, married an American woman, then immigrated to the U.S.A. He went on, "You know that Hilary visited her grandfather's home in Rissani and along with our king's sister Lalla Myriem visited the Mausoleum of Moulay Ali Chérif - forbidden to non-Muslims." He continued, "At the same time, she also visited her sister's daughter who is married to a Berber tourist guide and lives in the Atlas Mountains." I looked at Muhammad in disbelief. Was he telling the truth? I had no idea! But it was an interesting story which capped our thrilling mountain journey to the land of kasbahs and desert.



Facts About Morocco:

1) Nationals of most countries do not need visas to enter Morocco- only valid passports.

2) If you know French, its is easy to get around in Morocco. Everyone speaks French, but many also know English.

3) Unit of currency in Morocco is the dirham which fluctuates at around 10 to 12 to a dollar. Exchange money at banks or hotels - rates are all the same with no commission.

4) When traveling in Morocco, trains are the most comfortable. Buses are inexpensive - CTM the best. Small autos, with unlimited mileage and fully insured, rent for about $50. a day, fully insured.

5) The mass of hustlers which once infested the tourist spots in Morocco have been greatly diminished by the strong arm of the law.

6) Tips are expected for every service - always carry small change.

7) Bargain for all tourist items - never shop with a guide - his commission is usually about 30%.

8) At night, avoid dark alleyways. Morocco is safer than many other countries, but muggers still stalk the lonely streets.

9) When in Erfoud, for a breath-taking taste of the desert, one should make a trip to Merzouga, an oasis near the Algerian border surrounded by sand dunes - some more than 50 m 164 ft) high. The oasis's lake is a favorite spot for migrating birds, especially in February and March, when the Dayet Srji flamingos appear. On the other hand, if traveling the desert is on one's mind, trips to the desert can be arranged by tour companies in Erfoud.

10) Two good places to stay in Erfoud: Hotel Salem - a 4 star abode - from $56. To $80. A room; Hotel Ziz, an excellent 3 star abode located in the heart of town - $34. a room.

Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.

For Further information, Contact: Moroccan National Tourist Office: Suite 1460, 2001 rue Université, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2A6. Tel: +1 514 842 8111/2. Fax: +1 514 842 5316.


Moroccan Tourist Office: 20 East 46th St., Suite 1201, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A. Tel.: 212-557-2520. Fax: 212-949-8148. Web Site: http://www.tourism-in-morocco.com/

Habeeb Salloum