- Welcome to Morocco
- A concise history of Morocco
- Moroccan food – Tajines, mint tea and more
- Ancient Berber towns and dangerous mountain passes
- Berber culture and the High Atlas
finally back on the road! After having been to Asia and the Americas, it was time to make the long awaited leap over the Mediterranean and visit the Maghreb. Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are now easily and cheaply accessible, opening the gate to a completely different world. Celia and I decided to head to Morocco and backpack up all the way through the High Atlas mountain range, the Sahara and the magical cities of Marrakech and Fes up to the Spanish enclave on the Mediterranean shore and eventually cross over to Andalusia.
Welcome to Morocco
First stop: Agadir! We decided to fly to this city in the south of Morocco in order to then backpack up towards Spain. The flight itself was absolutely breath-taking, as we secured a nice window seat on the left side of the plane, which flew directly over the High Atlas and the Djebal Toubkal, with 4167 meters of altitude the tallest mountain of North Africa.
Agadir itself is not a very worthy city, a result of its tragic past: on the 29th of February 1960 a major earthquake hit the city, leaving 15 000 people dead under the rubble and the other 45 000 homeless, as every single building of Agadir was destroyed. Today, you can still see the impact of this natural catastrophe, as every single building is new and gaps between them remind you of what happened. Nevertheless, Agadir is an important industrial city with 700k inhabitants and attracts many tourists with its beautiful 8km beach and dozens of all-inclusive hotels.
As you can imagine, we did not stay in one of these. As always, the first night I book in advance, as I just want to arrive in a city and not have to worry about finding a place. It was awesome: free pickup from the airport, very cozy atmosphere, beautiful rooms, good food, welcoming family – exactly what you need.
Unfortunately, houses were not the only thing destroyed in 1960, and the only worthy site in Agadir is what remained of the old Kasbah (a fortress used to store food and weapons during times of war in ancient times), which is on top of a hill overlooking the city. Smartly, we did forget our sun screen in the guest house and have been celebrating red nose day ever since.
A concise history of Morocco
In order to get a better understanding of Morocco, you need to study two things: its history and Islam. I will write about Islam in the next one, for now an introduction into Morocco´s history: until its independence from France in 1956, Morocco has been conquered, occupied, exploited and eventually left by far too many countries: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish and French. All of them wanted to get a share of the abundance of fertile land of the Maghreb (which simply means, “the West” in Arab).
The indigenous population are the Berbers (more about them further down), tribes who lived independently and ungoverned in the Atlas mountains and in the Sahara. Most of them were actually never conquered, given the remote location of their villages. The Arabs came with the arrival of Islam in the mid-7th century, when Mohammed the Prophet marched from Mekka to Medina. They are the only ones that settled, and Morocco today is a mélange of these two ethnicities: two languages and two cultures.
Until the Spanish invaded Morocco in 1859, the Maghreb was governed by different dynasties of sultans, some appreciated and popular, some ruthless and expansionist. The Europeans exerted heavy influence on the region, populating it with their own people and supporting the Berber tribes in their fight against the Sultan, who in turn had to ask France for more and more interventions. This culminated in the treaty of Fes in 1912, which basically gave France the right to govern Morocco. Moreover, the Spanish obtained some protectorates on the Mediterranean coast.
The occupation by the French led to many revolts and riots on small and large scale. However, none of these led to the eventual independence in 1956. Ironically, the French themselves paved the way for it: in their attempt to cultivate (that’s the word they used) the locals, they tried to educate the middle class, which they hoped would then convince the lower classes of the French cause. This backfired, as they founded the Istiqlal (“Indipendence”) instead, which turned into a mass movement after the French did not to reward the Moroccans for their contribution in WW2. In 1956, the popular pressure was too high and King Mohammed V was proclaimed head of state and a constitutional monarchy established.
Today, Morocco is probably the most stable Arab country, one of the few not hit by the Arab Spring. Although the second out of the three kings, Hassan II, ruled quite brutally for nearly 40 years (1961-1999), invading and occupying Western Sahara (an unsolved conflict, with Western Sahara still waiting for a say on their destiny as requested by the UN), the current King, Mohammed the VI, has given women the most advanced rights in the Arab world, the Berbers even more independence and finally cleaned the human rights sheet of Morocco.
Moroccan food – Tajines, mint tea and more
Ok, let´s turn to my favourite topic: food! To be honest, this is the reason why I favoured Morocco to our other choice, Turkey. Especially after our last trip in Central America, where the lack of culinary variation was awful and we lived off rice, beans and tomatoes.
Morocco, on the other side, is completely different. The coming and going of different peoples enriched the local cuisine with an astonishing variety of spices, vegetables, fruits and nuts, all of which end up in your plate. The most traditional dish is the Tajine, one of which I am digesting while writing these words. It is an earthenware dish, with a conical lid, which is placed on hot coals to slowly cook whatever is placed inside, usually meat (mutton, lamb, chicken), vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions), spices (coriander, cumin) and the occasional sweet taste (plumbs, preserved lemons). This succulent and juicy dish in then served sizzling hot in the middle of the table with some wheat/barley bread, which is used as cutlery by your right hand (left one is for the toilet). It tastes amazing and I can´t wait to eat many many more.
As Morocco is a Muslim country, alcohol is not consumed (or at least frowned upon and done in private). The national drink is mint tea, served boiling hot and with a lot of sugar, poured into little glasses from as high up as possible from silver pots. And always in the pockets of a good Moroccan: almonds, walnuts and the best dates I ever had in my life (consistency of butter with a taste of honey).
Ancient Berber towns and dangerous mountain passes
From Agadir we headed eastwards, towards the High Atlas (“High”, because there is also the “Middle” and “Anti”-Atlas). On our way, we stopped in the Berber town of Taroudannt, a very old town surrounded by ancient walls. It was a great introduction to the “real” Morocco, a pleasant, laid back town which is actually just a gigantic Souk (market). It is famous for its leather production and we did go to see the tanneries, however, considering that they are “washed” in pools of pigeon pooh/cow´s urine (true story) we did not bother staying too long.
Our aim was to take some form of transportation over the Tizi n´Test pass, one of the few directs roads into the High Atlas, bombed through the rock by the French. The guidebook describes it as 50km of nauseating, tortuous, highly exposed adventure, which buses do not dare to do anymore. Frankly, after having been to Nepal, it didn´t seem too bad at all. To get there, we had to take one of the classy, old-school Grand Taxi: 25 years old Mercedes Benz limousines, crammed with 7 people and used to cover basically every road in Morocco. So off we went, the driver arguing about god knows what with the others, nuts distributed to everyone, the engine emitting worrying sounds and Celia pressed against one of the doors, hoping that it would not open on one of the many voids along the journey.
Berber culture and the High Atlas
Instead of heading straight to the frenzy of Marrakech, we decided to stop over in a little town. I have had the very best experiences on my travels in very small, unknown towns (Dharamkot in the Himalayas, Xing Ping in China, Muang Sing in Laos or Santa Fe in Panama). The fewer tourists a town gets, the more relaxed and unconditionally nice the people are. In the guidebooks these town are either mentioned with a very short paragraphs stating the surrounding natural beauty, or not at all.
So Ouirgane it is. This town with only a few hundred Berber inhabitants lies at the foot of the Djebal Toubkal and next to a lake, created by a damn built in the early two thousands. There is nothing to do really in town, but we found a very nice accommodation, they basically gave us a little house to ourselves for 15€ per night, with a cozy little living room (with chimney and wood), a bedroom and a bathroom with a hot shower – Traum.
The first day, while Celia was sleeping, recovering from the journey, I met Ali outside the house, very funny local from the mountain villages, who (talking in sporadic English and only in the third person) offered us his guide services for the next day. So off we went with Ali, who is 46, has a 27 year old wife, 3 children, and lives in a mountain village 2 hours running distance from Ouirgane, which he runs down every morning, and back up every evening.
The tour was awesome, we basically went up the mountains through several Berber villages, most of them nearly 1000 years old, build simply with mud and stones, while Ali was telling us everything about the Berbers and how they life.
First of all, their first language is not Arabic, it´s Berber. Nowadays, they are allowed to teach and learn in Berber (Mohammed VI ruling). But they all speak Arabic (first foreign language) and French (second foreign language). Moreover, most of them learn some English too. Despite being so remote, the villages now have electricity and Mohammed VI even had proper mosques built in most villages (Berber are also all Muslim). They live off their agriculture, with a very sophisticated, ancient canal irrigation system, which enables them to plant vegetables, wheat, barley, nuts and fruit.
He told us how much he loved the current King, how good life is in the High Atlas nowadays, how the Algerians should stop claiming the “blatantly” Moroccan Sahara, how much he loves mint tea and gave us a private lesson in Berber, which will come quite handy when we go to the Sahara.
Now we just arrived in Marrakesh and we need a couple more hours to cope with the sheer magnitude of its chaos.
I will write again from the Sahara,