This week, our first in Morocco, has really felt like we are on an adventure. We travelled 500 miles south to Midelt on a route that took us up to 7,500 feet through the Middle Atlas mountains
And (voice chokes with pride), Molly was fined for speeding. What a contrast to those tales of woe about whether our poor old van could actually make it up another mountain!
And the highlights of Morocco so far:
Actually getting here:
Following the trail and advice of other campervanners, we went to this travel agency tucked away on an industrial estate in Algeciras and handed over 200 euro for an open return ferry ticket from Spain to Morocco.
We spent the night before our departure wild camping in a massive car park around the corner from the Algeciras branch of Lidl. There were a handful of other motorhomes already there (none from the UK) so it felt safe.
Next morning we made our way through Algeciras commuter traffic to the port.
To get to Morocco from Spain, the choice is to travel from Algeciras to either Tanger or Ceuta. We opted for Ceuta because the crossing is shorter – just 35 minutes – and we thought that it might be an easier introduction to Africa than the hustle and bustle of a big city like Tanger.
We weren’t long driving on port territory when we met our first challenge. Two men stepped out on to the road in front of us and gestured vigorously to pull into the lay-by.
Stuart weighed it up and kept on driving, Neither of the men were in uniform. There was no official looking car in the lay-by. Presumably these were the guys referred to in the notice we’d seen at the agency warning about fraudsters who hang around the port, preying on vulnerable travellers. So what was their game if we had pulled over? A payment to be allowed move off or worse?
Then it was time to board and here was the next challenge. We were directed to reverse backwards onto the catamaran. Under pressure to keep moving, this was, of course, the perfect time to stall, at the top of the ramp with a battalion of Spanish police, also travelling to Ceuta, as our amused audience.
After a smooth crossing by comfortable catamaran we had arrived…in Spain. Ceuta is Spain’s Gibraltar and this small corner at the top of Africa is still Spanish territory.
We followed the signposts to the border with Morocco.
…and within 20 minutes had joined the queue of cars and stream of people waiting at customs to be let through the border.
As we edged slowly towards the passport control booth, Mohammed and his mate popped their heads through the van window. Had we filled in all the right forms? Could they check for us please?
First we were unsure whether they were working for customs and this was a triage operation to speed up movement over the border. They certainly seemed matey with the customs guys. But we had been warned to be on our guard for touts hanging around the frontier offering to help travellers with paperwork which was apparently quite straightforward.
Whatever, we decided we liked Mohammed and his mate. They were chatty and friendly and it was worth the handful of euros we paid them to help us navigate the green and white forms to get us and van painlessly over the border.
We were finally in Morocco, greeted at first by sunshine…
then the rain started…and didn’t stop for our first week.
And straightaway, it felt different. No longer were we driving through quiet villages like we’d seen in Spain and Portugal where we kept asking each other ‘where is everybody?’
Everywhere we passed was teeming.
On the roads which are generally good, bar the occasional surprise pot hole, there’s a continual stream of Mercedes trucks carrying improbable loads…the new ships of the desert we decided.
…and donkeys everywhere..
and plenty of sheep, always with their shepherd close by….
…and everywhere people walking along the roadsides…
…no matter how isolated the place like this road through the Middle Atlas mountains. There was always someone on the move.
And it was here making our way through the mountains that we were done for speeding. We had just passed through the snow barrier – lucky as it happened because we heard it closed a few hours later.
And rattling along the roads at 46 mph, we met the speed police. Turns out the limit was 38 mph so that was a 150 dirham fine for us (about 15 sterling).
And here are some of the places we visited in our first week:
The blue town of Chefchaouen:
We read that the old town of Chefchaouen was first painted blue back in the 15th century. The Jewish refugees who settled there after fleeing from the Spanish inquisition chose it to mirror the colour of the sky and remind them of the power of God.
The tradition lives on and as we drove towards the town, we could see the splashes of blue in the distance.
Up close, it is was pretty photogenic, even in the pouring rain.
But we were just minutes into the medina when I was persuaded by a friendly local that we should come see ‘his’ factory carpet shop outside the old town walls. I could feel Stuart’s eyes boring holes into my back as we followed our new friend away from the medina. How could I fall for this again?
The thing is we’d been through it all in Marrakesh a few years back. Then we had been engaged in conversation by an elderly teacher of Islam – as he told us – who led us to meet Tuareg tribesmen from the desert. They were in town ‘just that day’ to sell their wares, our new friend told us, but these so-called ‘blue men’ (because of their coloured robes) were too shy to go where the tourists went and stayed at the edge of town. He would bring us to them.
Of course, we jumped at this unique opportunity and could scarcely hide the smug expressions on our faces as we passed fellow tourists. Unlike them, we were off to see the ‘real’ Marrakesh.
Actually, no we weren’t. Our ‘blue man’ turned out to be the affluent owner of a very large carpet shop and the only link to Tuareg was the brand on his 4×4 jeep. ‘Stitched up like a kipper’, Stuart breathed to me as we were led in for the ritual mint tea and a very lengthy sales pitch where there was only one certain conclusion. We would be leaving with some hefty purchases – two enormous bedspreads in that instance.
And despite this experience, just minutes into our walk round Chefcheouan, I had unaccountably found myself agreeing to accompany our new friend to a carpet shop.
‘Relax Max’ the salesman said to Stuart who was looking seriously unamused at the prospect of sitting through a sales pitch. We’d no space in the van for any more stuff and at this early stage of our trip no appetite for accumulating souvenirs.
‘Don’t worry..sale or no sale, we will keep smiling’, the salesman reassured us as he poured out the mint tea.
And he was true to his word…Stuart stuck steadfastly to the line ‘we’ve no space, maybe next time’ and when we eventually left empty-handed, they were still smiling.
Back in the medina, we stocked up on bread and cakes…
…and vegetables, though we couldn’t work out what the yellow ones on the left are. (Suggestions anyone?)
But first we had lunch…tagine with chicken piled high with caramelised onions.
The Medina in Meknes:
Idriss engaged us in conversation as soon as we ventured into the medina in the city of Meknes- a city of 350,000 people. But battle-scarred from our experience in Chefchaeoun, we made it clear from the off we didn’t have long in the town and all we wanted was lunch.
Idriss promised us he would bring us somewhere good. He led us through the narrow winding streets of the medina…
..here, to this cafe where we watched our lunch being prepared. It was lamb minced up with herbs, barbecued and sprinkled with cumin, paprika and chilli.
It was delicious.
And of course, after such a good meal, we felt honour-bound to accompany Idriss to ‘his family business’ – this silversmith’s shop where I did some Christmas shopping.
On the road to Meknes, we had stopped off to visit the Roman ruins at Volubilis. Only relatively recently excavated, it was once a Roman city the size of 80 football pitches.
We went to the town built by the French in the 1930’s as a hill-station for the colonial families living in Morocco during their protectorate from 1912-1955.
Curiously, while the French are long gone, the Moroccans have maintained the town’s ski resort style architecture. It was quite a bizarre place..
But it was where our bird of the week was spotted…perched on top of the restaurant chimney pot.
And the pastry shops were good.
And in our first week, we’ve seen dramatic changes in landscape:
We went to the cedar forests of Giroud near Azrou.
This is the oldest tree there – 700 years apparently.
The cedar forest is a popular place for Moroccan families (and us tourists) as it is the home for hundreds of macaque monkeys who all gather at the roadways in waiting to be fed.
And after leaving the cedar forests and Ifrane, we headed south. We drove past pastures…
and acres and acres of tilled fields…
up into the Middle Atlas mountains where at nearly 7,000 feet, the scenery was Alpine.
And once over the mountains, it wasn’t long before we were in desert landscape…
with the High Atlas mountains in the distance. That’s next week’s challenge.