Desert calling: Tangier to Merzouga, via Fes

Desert calling: Tangier to Merzouga, via Fes

We met Africa at dusk, dazed. Tangier at night, breezy. Fes in mid-day heat. Then cooled off with rain between the dunes of Sahara right after sunset.

After a day of getting ever closer to Africa, we finally crossed the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco. Once in Tangier, we wandered at night through the alleys of the medina in the footsteps of the Only Lovers Left Alive movie characters while spotting out the oddities and the familiarities in everything. We had our room we thought at the Tangier Kasbah Hostel (better avoid it!) where we booked solely for how beautifully decorated it was shown in the photos on booking.com. They overbooked the place, so they offered us the terrace for free, but it was for the better given the heat. This time!, as we agreed to have for sure a room on our last night in Tangier ten days later. So we happily fell asleep under the open sky in the sounds of faraway and nearby prayer calls.

In the morning, after watching the city wake up to life, we headed straight to the train station and boarded a six-hours ride to Fes. You know, former capital of Morocco, world’s largest urban pedestrian zone, oldest continuously functioning university in the world, the only place where the tarboosh was made until recently, smelly leather tanneries, Fes! Plus a lot of color and frenzy, even during the hot afternoons. What to do in Fes? Get lost. Really. Use that labirynth. Get lost. And if you are back on track, you are not doing it right. Get lost again. Eat ALL the sweets! Drink all the mint tea! Admire all the details in the architecture and decorations of the University of Al Quaraouiyine or the Bou Inania Madrasa or Bab Bou Jeloud (the Blue Gate). Bargain on EVERYTHING! The initial price depends mostly on the seller’s assessment of your possibilities, so it varies even because of how you dress or if you carry a camera around or not. :) . Quarter of what they usually say is about right. Also, walk with confidence, even if you don’t really know where you are going. If you look like you are lost, you’ll be easily spotted out by people wanting to show you the way in exchange for some money (this ‘detail’ is left out until later and it can get quite frustrating to deal with that). So keep a smiley ‘La shukran! with you (Arabic for No, thank you!). If you are indeed tired of being lost and faking that you are not, just walk in a bigger shop and ask for directions. Another advice: the tannery in Fes el Bali – Chouara is not as smelly early in the morning! :) But do go there, against the wishes of your nose. It is one of the few places where you can see a leather tannery process as it was since the 11th century. And one of the biggest!

We were for two nights in Fes, at the Dar Bab Guissa Riad (family house). Beautiful house, lovely breakfasts, quiet, a bit hard to find at first! Our host was very helpful then hooking us up for a trip to the desert. Usually they do Fes-Merzouga-Fes, but as we did not want to come back, but continue our circuit towards Marrakesh, they agreed to take us on our route for the equivalent distance for the same price. Formalities aside, we ventured into the deep Morocco, past Ifran, towards the Middle Atlas Mountains. In one of the Atlas cedar forests, we met one of the Barbary macaque groups populating the area.

After that, the landscape was always a visual treat, with the road meandering through mountains and vast rocky plains. Past the city of Errachidia, the waters of the Ziz River fuel the date palm plantations of Tafilalt, the biggest oasis in Morocco, before disappearing in the desert. Not all rivers reach the sea.

Once on the edge of Erg Chebbi, we continued our way on camels to the camp between the dunes. Our hosts from the Bivouac Lahmada Kasbah, Ali and Rahman – two young Amazigh men, prepared a tasty dinner.

After a bit of fooling around snowboarding, we enjoyed two spectacles that night: Ali and Rahman playing drums and singing Amazigh songs, but before that and later on, rain. Rain! Throughout the day we saw clouds loosing drops which never reached the ground. So those big fat cold drops making landfall in the dunes, the sound of it, and the sound of the sand being wooshed by the steady wind, the quietness of everything else interrupted by random growls of camels jolted from camel dreams, far far away from A LOT – all that is most of the experience I brought back to treasure. There was the farthest I have ever been. Yet it did feel home. It felt familiar. And although the rest of it to follow, with Aït Benhaddou, the High Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh and then Chefchaouen, was still impressive, I knew after that night spent in the dunes and charms of Sahara, that all of it would be just a coming back from there.

[to be continued]

There are 2 comments

  1. Kathy

    Another fantastically written piece. I have experience this same trip so knew what was coming but you still kept me interested. I loved being lost in Fes, the winding streets and tiny alleys.


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