Moulay Idriss and Meknes

Tuesday 4th October 2011, Azrou, Morocco
It has been another day of sensory overload. Indeed this evening we both feel we have taken in so much we need to shut Morocco out for a while to enable us to sort out our thoughts. There are only so many overburdened donkeys, stray kittens, idle men lounging around on cafe terraces and veiled women scurrying home with bags of vegetables that we can take. Everything we see is so very alien to our western way of living and our sense of equality that it takes time to come to terms with it.

For much of the day we have been harassed and pestered by self appointed and extremely persistent tour guides determined to ruin our time as we attempt to explore places on our own. We have also been followed for much of the time by groups of young boys who should be in school but are hopeful of earning a few dirhams showing us to places we are perfectly capable of finding on our own. What has really riled me though is the perception I have received today of the role of women in Moroccan society. To my eyes it's little more than one step up from the overburdened donkeys. It's certainly rather different from Turkey. There, although there were always far more men in evidence in public than women, at least women were able to dress as they wished, hold down professional jobs, sit where they liked unaccompanied on public transport and speak to strangers. Here the way of life appears to be dominated by the men. We have spoken to many people since we arrived and they have all been men. Women pass us on the street and rarely catch even my eye. They are usually in small groups with other women, occupied with young children or domestic shopping. They never meet a friend for a coffee or dine out alone. Their place is in the home. So, cafes are a male domain even though they drink nothing harder than fruit juice. These men seem to have little else to do. Personally I find the thought of being stared at if we go into a cafe for a coffee intimidating.

Even the children are separated according to their sex. Boys can play in the streets, pester tourists and skip school. Girls are never out alone, kept indoors and help their mothers from a very young age. Many obviously do go to school but during the day we've seen them on shopping errands. One young girl of about eleven was buying fish from a man at the public fountain where he gutted and cleaned them at the drinking water supply for the local residents.

But I must dismount from my hobby horse and return to the activities of the day.

This morning we spent in Moulay Idriss, considered to be the most holy town in Morocco. It is here that the 8th century tomb of Moulay Idriss, great grandson of the prophet Mohammed and founder of the Idrissid dynasty, is buried. It is considered to be a site of holy pilgrimage. Formerly non-Muslims were not even allowed into the town, on pain of death! Even today we were stopped from going too close to the mosque that holds his tomb.

Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss

Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss

Instead we were directed to a viewing platform right at the top of the town from where we could look down on to the top of the mosque. The way up is steep and winding, passing through the narrow streets where the people live and work. Donkeys, overloaded with sacks of cement and sand struggle up the steep stepped alley ways in small teams accompanied by their drover. There is an all pervading smell of donkey urine around these narrow streets. They are practical though in such a setting where a vehicle could never go.

Donkey carrying bales of straw through the steep streets of Moulay Idriss

Panorama of Moulay Idriss

Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss

As we climbed the winding stairway we stopped to explore interesting side alleys but always young boys insisted we were going the wrong way and crowded around us trying to follow their particular route. In vain we said we would make our own way and demanded to know why they were not in school.

One persistent guide was eventually flummoxed when Ian asked him to move slightly so he could photograph the manhole cover from Casablanca beneath his feet! Completely nonplussed the guide stopped dead before changing tack completely – "very old that, very old indeed." We actually felt rather sorry for him.

Entrance to the medina, Moulay Idriss

Moulay Idriss is a town that does not seem to have attracted the tourists and most of the residents simply ignored our existence, going about their highly colourful everyday lives. For the women this revolves entirely around the covered market. They collect together all the fruit and vegetables they want. They are weighed together and a price given for the lot regardless of whether they are potatoes or pomegranates. Meat does not stay fresh for long and attracts lots of flies. It also smells. So it is slaughtered on demand. Veiled ladies were selecting their live chickens and queuing with them under their arms to have them killed, plucked and quartered. Huge white turkeys peered out at us from wooden crates as they waited to be killed. We did not see how the meat was prepared but presumably it is all halal.

There are no supermarkets in most towns and all goods are purchased in small hanuts where one man serves from the doorway. Bread is sold in almost all of these and trays of round flat bread are carried through the streets covered by a cloth to protect from flies. In similar small shops craftsmen also carry on their businesses. Musical instruments are made, furniture is carved, shoes are made or repaired, silk and wool are spun, hand looms are operated, barbers shave their clients the old fashioned way and men work busily at sewing machines producing loose robes for both men and women.

And amidst all this the uncomplaining donkeys struggle patiently up and down the steps and cobbled streets carrying massive bundles of logs, cardboard boxes, bags of grain and sacks of builder's rubble.

We moved on to Meknes, the fifth largest city in Morocco with a population in excess of 550,000. It was once an imperial city but the King moved his court to Marrakesh in the 18th century and Meknes has slowly fallen into a decline. It was here that my patience has been so very tried by pushing men determined to act as guides to the city. Few of them speak much English and assume we are French. It has definitely coloured my impression of this otherwise rather impressive city with its twenty-four kilometres of walls surrounding the imperial city entered through the magnificent Bab-el-Mansour gateway.

Bab-el-Mansour gateway, Meknes

Bab-el-Mansour gateway, Meknes

Bab-bou-Ameir gateway, Meknes

Place le Hadim, Meknes

Gateway to the Imperial City, Meknes

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismael

Temperatures have been silly which has not helped. Trying to cross the wide military parade ground in 47 degrees of heat while being pestered for the 20th time to take a ride in a cal├Ęche or be shown the sights of the city really tries one's patience when all we really wanted was a cafe not occupied exclusively by idle men where we could enjoy a cold drink.

At one point, as we clambered over rubble along what, according to our map was part of the Royal palace complex, we were asked by an elderly lady with tattoos on her face whether we were lost. She was tiny, bent double by age her head and body completely covered up. She explained our route and smiled up at me patting away at my arm in such a companionable way. It's been my first contact with a woman here and it was very pleasurable.

At lunch time we were forced on to the Place le Hadim outside the Bab-el-Mansour gateway. It was the only area where women seemed to be able to sit for a meal. All the restaurants are lined up next to each other against the walls of the medina. They all compete for custom with young men thrusting menus into our hands and almost dragging us to the tables. We selected the one offering the deepest shade and were not particularly interested in the identical and overpriced meals each provided though the chilled water was appreciated. They all served tajine, couscous, pizza and paninis and didn't provide toilets or anywhere to wash our sticky, sweaty hands before we ate.

Before long we spotted the British camping contingent arriving as a large group for lunch! The tour is advertised as taking participants to the real Morocco, not seen by most visitors. Well we seem to be managing rather well on our own and it's saving us over £2,500 according to what the campers say they are paying to be shepherded around while they are in Morocco.

All the museums and the palace complex close between noon and 3pm. It was too hot to be interested in walking around the streets for a couple of hours and in any case, non-Muslims are not allowed to visit some of the sites, so we gave up on Meknes. Personally I didn't like it much anyway.

We drove cautiously out of the city – there were some mad drivers – and gradually up into the Atlas Mountains towards Azrou. Only very gradually did the accumulation of unsightly litter along the roadside and across the neighbouring landscape diminish. I suppose Third World countries have other priorities than a sense of aesthetic appreciation of the environment. Even up at the viewpoint offering stunning, wide views of the countryside and the mountain summits for miles around there was decomposing rubbish in the wayside ditches. It's something guidebooks do not mention of course. Seen in the large, this is an awesomely beautiful country. Seen up close it is hideously polluted with rubbish, rubble, stubble-burning and neglect.

Rif mountains, rubbish covering the hillside near a village

The Atlas mountains provide pasture for domestic animals – sheep, cattle, horses and ponies. They wander freely, held back from the road by drystone walls - except for the horses who are obliged to hop along as their front feet are often tied closely together. The donkeys meanwhile still have their heavy padded saddles on and stand forlornly on the bleached hillside without protection from the sun.

Ito Panorama of the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

Sheep and drystone walls, Ito

Descending into Azrou we found it to be a pleasant enough town but with little that is considered worthy of a special visit. We'd also seen enough medinas and markets to satisfy us for quite a long while and it was still oppressively hot. So we found this campsite which seems clean and pleasant. We are camped beneath cherry trees and have been eating figs we gathered from the trees here. The facilities are clean and they actually work! We've even got electricity! The clouds were black as we arrived but apart from a few drops, the rain has passed us by. It has however caused temperatures to plummet from 47 degrees down to an incredible 16 tonight! Such an extreme has left us shivering!

Wednesday 4th October 2011, Fez, Morocco
Last night's campsite at Azrou was very pleasant in its way. Being so high in the hills it meant we had a very comfortable night's sleep and by 7am we were up and ready to face the day. It was also the cleanest site we have found so far and we were able to pick fresh, ripe figs from the tree for breakfast.

Our onward route took us through Ifrane which was a truly amazing place to find in the heart of Morocco. At 1650 metres altitude it was established by the French in the early 1930s as a winter ski resort cum chic holiday town and is full of residential accommodation with names like Hotel du Lac, Hotel Chamonix and Hotel Perce Neige, even the King has a palace up here. It also has significantly more patisseries selling croissants than would be the norm in any Moroccan town. The houses are smart, red-tiled buildings with a Swiss feel to them with their steeply pitched roofs and wooden balconies surrounded by residential gardens. The streets are shaded by leafy plane trees and horse chestnuts, the pavements clean and neat with smart benches overlooking the main square and the central boulevard. There is a lake, public park and beautiful roadside borders bright with summer flowers. The town also boasts an exclusive and expensive university which has strong links with the US, many of the staff being American. The streets are immaculately clean and the grass an emerald green. An entire team of Moroccan staff raked away at gravel paths and dead headed the flowers. In the centre of the town a large rock has been carved in the shape of a lion in memory of the last wild lion shot in this part of Africa back in the 1920s.

One of Ifrane's smart hotels

Lake in the public park, Ifrane

Residential street, Ifrane

Carved lion, the symbol of the town, Ifrane

Feeling like Alice through the Looking Glass we entered Le Croustillant coffee shop to select our croissants and excellent coffee. Meanwhile the terraces were filling with wealthy Moroccans wearing their usual traditional dress as they enjoyed soft drinks with university colleagues in western attire. It was only when we attempted to use the toilet facilities however that we were truly aware of just how like France the town really was!

Le Croustillant, Ifrane

The contrast with the last few days was exactly what we needed, being a touch of something familiar in a world that is so very different from Europe. This restful vein continued as we turned off the main road to follow a bumpy, minor route down beside a series of lakes at Dayet Aoua. They can be followed for sixty kilometres out into the wilderness of the Atlas mountains. We were content however to stop after a few kilometres beneath the shady trees beside the lake for a picnic lunch as we watched the egrets and moorhens fishing in the reedy waters overlooked by the arid brown hillside of this karstic landscape. While Europeans flock to Morocco's Atlantic coast, Ifrane and the lakes are the favoured resort for the Moroccans taking their holidays, either for winter sports or summer rambles and picnics.

Modestine stops for a doze, Dayet Aoua

With temperatures down into the 20s and a soft breeze from the water we relaxed for a doze in Modestine, her open door overlooking the lake. When we woke we found four men beside us in their long robes, each wearing a crocheted white skull cap, laying out a large rug on which to face east and pray to Allah!

Leaving them to their prayers we continued around the lake where a woman was lying with her child fast asleep on the grass while her flock of sheep and one cow were guarded by her three dogs. We'd passed her earlier in the day.

Shepherd lady, Dayet Aoua

Out on the hillsides we have frequently been waved to by lone shepherd boys striding across the landscape accompanying their free roaming sheep. Wild dogs also exist here along isolated stretches of the road. They are nowhere near so frequent as in Greece and Romania, nor do they seem to be vicious or starving.

Part of our route today has been across a very arid karstic landscape covered with huge boulders and rocky outcrops of weathered limestone. What rain falls here disappears underground leaving the surface much like a desert. In this area people still struggled to scratch a living of sorts from the soil though the roadside stands outside their farmsteads had little to offer for sale but assorted lumps of rock containing fossils.

Ploughing the inhospitable soil, Middle Atlas

Isolated farmstead, Middle Atlas

Following a tarmac road leading off into the wild we soon encountered a busy village where all the children were on their way home from school, vans and lorries were parked every which way and the road was up for pipe laying. Giving up we reversed back out, turned and made our way back to the main road. With a good surface and very little traffic it was the easy option and led us through deep oak woods, orchards and olive plantations. Beside the road were bottles and jars of oil and olives left every few hundred metres. Most were unattended but the idea seemed to be that if you wanted them you helped yourself and left some money. It was all based on trust. This seems to be a very, very, honest country. We've left Modestine with no qualms on the streets of many small towns as we go off to explore. When we return there is often evidence of people looking inside her, manifest by sticky, dusty fingerprints on the windows, but I'm sure if the doors had been unlocked they would not have been opened.

We later passed many tiny roadside stalls selling apples or pomegranates while the countryside became ever more green and fertile. Teams of boys worked together crating up apples by the roadside, either for export or sale in the cities.

Selling pomegranates by the roadside, Middle Atlas

We are due tomorrow at Ribat el Kheir to join Karen and Doug. So tonight we headed for the attractive town of Sefrou where our book lists a campsite. From there it is an easy hop across to REK. Our route was steadily downhill with a corresponding rise in temperature. On the way we stopped at the tiny town of Bhalil which is supposed to have some troglodyte dwellings cut out from the limestone hillside. We never found the dwellings, instead we chanced upon the open air fruit and vegetable market. It was an amazing sight with literally thousands of people milling around and mingling amongst the donkeys. Few traders had tables, produce being simply poured out in heaps on the ground for customers to scrabble through. They each had a bowl which they filled with onions, peppers, cauliflowers, aubergine, tomatoes and potatoes in any combination they chose. They were weighed and tipped into recycled plastic bags brought with them by the customer. Even milk is sold from a large container into the customer's plastic bag which is then tied at the neck and carried home! Egg boxes don't exist here. We in Western Europe could learn a great deal about recycling from the country people of Morocco. Indeed, all the unsightly rubbish to be found in the countryside is materials that have already been recycled until there is absolutely nothing more that can be done with them.

Taking photos of individuals would have been insensitive and intrusive. We contented ourselves with a few general pictures of the market.

Open market, Bhalil

Open market, Bhalil

Open market, Bhalil

Even here, far inland, there was a busy – and smelly – fish market. Again the customers provided their own bags and the fish was weighed and tipped in. The meat we didn't investigate too closely as it meant wading – literally, through the fish laid on the ground and stepping over the bloody fleeces of the sheep, tossed onto the ground, while their carcasses were chopped and hung from a beam where only flies, rather than dogs, could reach them.

The hardware stalls were good, selling wooden sieves and useful basic kitchen implements as well as second-hand saucepans and pressure cookers. Other stalls sold bits of recycled cars and bicycles while women rummaged through huge heaps of old clothing. As I said, nothing is ever wasted.

All around the edge of the market the tiny donkeys waited patiently to carry home the shopping and usually their owner as well. I was saddened to see the scars around their legs where they have obviously spent long periods of their unhappy lives with their legs bound together as a form of tethering. I was also angry to see one poor creature carrying home its owner and his teenage son while the man's wife walked beside them carrying the bags of vegetables. I accept that I may have become over sensitive and am on the lookout for such things, but they are definitely there.

Leaving Bhalil we continued to Sefrou through an ever more verdant landscape with lovely pink and purple views of the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains.

Hillsides around Sefrou

Approaching Sefrou

As with several other towns we have seen, the approach to Sefrou was immaculate with a green, grassy strip down the centre of a spotless avenue that swept up past the crenelated adobe walls of the medina.

Walls of the medina, Sefrou

The campsite was high above the town with lovely views but as we turned off the main boulevard it became increasingly rubbish strewn and filthy. Right at the top a young man welcomed us to the campsite with delight. We were the only visitors, and probably the only ones for a very long time. No, he was sorry, there was no electricity. Nor was there any water, except from the source. No, even the toilets had no water and the showers didn't work but water could be got from the source. When we asked where that was he vaguely indicated the woodland lying below the campsite across a gully with no obvious way of access!

We thanked him for his help – he'd been so eager for us to stay – and set off towards Fez, some twenty kilometres away where two campsites were listed. We missed the one on the outskirts and were soon embroiled with the various ring roads and traffic lights. A young man on a motor bike directed us to this site. When we arrived we discovered he works here, luring in campers and then offering guided tours of Fez. He was upset when we said we'd be moving on tomorrow as he'd been hoping for commission on guiding us round. He seems very friendly though with excellent English. He told me he'd studied British history at university, specialising in the reign of Henry VII! What earthly use can that be to him? The only job he can find now is on a campsite working as a tour guide.

Yesterday we accidentally bumped into the British campers again in Meknes. Today, to our dismay, we found them all installed at this campsite! Jokingly I commented to the organiser that they really shouldn't keep following us around. He didn't see it that way and accused us of copying their itinerary so we could discover the best places to visit!! We assured him the only reason we'd wanted to know their route was to avoid clashing and that we'd had no intention of using this campsite tonight. I can understand he must feel uncomfortable as his tour is marketed as off the tourist trails but that's the way it goes with few campsites able to cope with a rally of 17 vehicles. Followers of our blogs will appreciate that copying other people's ideas rather than working out our own plans is not what Maxted Travels does. He seemed to understand but said his customers were complaining about us!!! Huh! We are two people, they are at least thirty. If anyone feels the need to complain I think it should be us! Anyway, there has been a slightly unpleasant atmosphere this evening with them ignoring us in the showers whereas they'd been perfectly friendly when we first met. We've parked as far from them as we can and they are all having a happy party through the trees.