The undoubted highlight of this region is Fez, the city that has for the past ten centuries stood at the heart of Moroccan history as both an imperial capital and an intellectual as well as spiritual centre. Unique in the Arab world, Fez boasts as many monuments as Morocco’s other imperial capitals put together, while the latticework of souks, extending for over a mile, maintain the whole tradition of urban crafts.
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Neighbouring Meknes has an allure of its own, found throughout the city’s pleasant souks and the architecturally rich streets of its sprawling imperial district, a vast system of fortified walls and gates that was largely the creation of Moulay Ismail, the most tyrannical of all Moroccan sultans. Just north of Meknes, the holy mountain town of Moulay Idriss and the impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis make for a rewarding day-trip.
Though many people heading south from Fez take a bus straight to either Marrakesh or Er Rachidia, it is worth stopping off en route to explore the cedar-covered slopes and remote hinterlands of the Middle Atlas. The most popular route passes through the Berber market town of Azrou to emerge, via Beni Mellal and the dramatic Cascades d’Ouzoud, at Marrakesh. Alterntaively, you could cut southeast from Azrou towards Midelt before descending through the Ziz Gorges to Er Rachidia and the vast date-palm oases of the Tafilalt. In between Beni Mellal and Midelt, and accessible from both, lies Imilchil, home to Morocco’s most famous festival and the midway point along a tortuous route across the High Atlas to the Todra Gorge and Tinghir.
The Middle Atlas
Covered in forests of oak, cork and giant cedar, the Middle Atlas is a beautiful and relatively little-visited region. The dark brown tents of nomadic Berber encampments immediately establish a cultural shift away from the European north; the plateaux are pockmarked by dark volcanic lakes; and the towns initially feel different, too, their flat, gabled houses lending an Alpine-resort feel, particularly at the “hill station” resort of Ifrane, where the king has a summer palace. If you just want a day-trip from Fez, the Middle Atlas is most easily accessible at Sefrou, a relaxed market town 28km southeast of the city, though Azrou should be on most itineraries as well, an interesting Berber settlement with an excellent and authentic souk, and ideally located for forays into the surrounding cedar forests.
At Azrou, the road forks and you can take one of two routes. The N13 heads southeast to the former mining town of Midelt and on to Er Rachidia, a journey that traces the old Trek es Sultan, or Royal Road, an ancient trading route that once carried salt, slaves and other commodities with caravans of camels across the desert from West Africa. Heading southwest, the N8, the main route to Marrakesh, skirts well clear of the Atlas ranges, and is lined with dusty, functional market centres, though Beni Mellal is something of a transport hub along the way. From here you can cut south to Azilal, jumping-off point for the magnificent Cascades d’Ozoud and the stunning High Atlas valley of Aït Bouguemez, or strike out for Imilchil and the epic mountain roads that lie beyond.
The remote and breathtaking Aït Bouguemez is second only to Jebel Toubkal in popularity among mountain-lovers, not only for its own unique beauty but also as a base for ascending Jebel M’Goun, one of Morocco’s highest summits. Sometimes referred to as the Vallée Heureuse or Happy Valley, this flat, fertile stretch is memorably picturesque, its patchwork of cultivated barley fields spread beneath soaring peaks. Mud-brick villages cling to the lower slopes, which are barren for the best part of the year bar spring, when they are carpeted in wild flowers.
A world away from the well-trodden routes around Jebel Toubkal, the valley has until recently existed in relative isolation – the road in here was only built at the turn of the millennium. This arduous way of life has fostered a remarkable community spirit among the valley’s villages and led to the creation of a considerable number of self-help initiatives (see Helping hands in the Happy Valley).
Climbing Jebel M’Goun
Snowcapped Jebel M’Goun (4068m) is Morocco’s only summit above 4000m outside the Toubkal massif, and a popular target for trekkers, giving an easy but long ascent from the Tarkeddid plateau, directly south of Agouti. Most guides follow the piste southwest out of Tabant, tracing the Oued Arous via the village of Aït Sayd to the shepherd’s pastures around Azib Ikkis (2hr 30min). The path then climbs up over the Tizi n’Tarkeddit (a further 3hr 30min or so), before descending to the refuge at Tarkeddit (130dh), reached after another 1hr 30min. An early start the next day leads southeast to the pyramid peak of M’Goun West (3978m) before curving northeast around the ridge to Jebel M’Goun itself (8–10hr return from the refuge).
Helping hands in the Happy Valley
There are over thirty associations and cooperatives in the Aït Bouguemez, more than one for every village in the valley, and each is committed to aiding and enhancing their community, developing the right kind of tourism and maintaining the skills needed to produce traditional crafts. You can visit several of these, as well as a couple of forward-thinking schools, for an insight into valley life that is difficult to otherwise obtain, and the chance to give something directly back to the local communities.
- Assocíatíon Ighrem Agouti
Principally home to the Atelier de Sculpteur and their beautifully carved boxwood bowls, this very active association is also currently developing a women’s carpet cooperative. Past initiatives include free eye tests for the valley’s villagers. Daily 8am–6pm.
- Atelier Feminin Tissage Imelghas
Run by local teacher Fatima Ouakhoum, this workshop shed on the hillside in Imelghas is a hive of activity, with local women weaving traditional Berber rugs using natural vegetable dyes – it’s quite hard to find, so you may need to ask for directions at Dar Itrane. Mon–Sat 10am–noon & 2–6pm.
- Coopérative Tikniouine Timit
Small artisan food shop signed down the bottom of a rutted path in Timit, selling locally produced walnut oil, apple jam, honey and cheese. Daily 8am–1pm.
- École Vivante
On the road between Timit and the turning to Tabant. Since 2010, this primary school has been providing much-needed formal education for the valley’s dispersed villages; you can visit (and help out) at around 11am, or ring Stefanie in advance. Donations appreciated. Closed July & Aug.
The first real town of the Middle Atlas, AZROU makes an attractive “introduction” to the region, an important but welcoming Berber market centre enclosed by wooded slopes on three sides. The town grew at the crossroads of two major routes – north to Meknes and Fez, south to Khenifra and Midelt – and long held a strategic role in controlling the mountain Berbers. Moulay Ismail built a kasbah here, the remains of which survive, while more recently the French established the prestigious Collège Berbère – one plank in their policy to split the country’s Berbers from the urban Arabs.
South of Azrou lies some of the most remote and beautiful country of the Middle Atlas: a region of dense cedar forests, limestone plateaus and polje lakes that is home to some superb wildlife, including Barbary apes. At its heart, and an obvious focus for a trip, are the waterfalls of Oum er Rbia, the source of Morocco’s largest river.
The cedar forests around Azrou shelter several troupes of Barbary apes (singe margot), a glimpse of which is one of the wildlife highlights of a visit to Morocco. Despite the name, they are actually members of the macaque family (they picked up the “ape” moniker due to their lack of a tail) and roam the forests in troupes of up to a hundred monkeys. The Middle Atlas is home to three-quarters of the world population, though numbers are severely in decline due to a combination of habitat destruction and illegal pet trading, and in 2009 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added them to their Red List of endangered species.
Barbary apes can be found throughout the region, feeding along the forest margins, though you are virtually guaranteed to see them around the Cèdre Gouraud and at the Moudmane junction (on the N13, 8km southeast of Azrou), where they laze around the picnic area in search of food. Be warned that they are very accustomed to humans due to the unfortunate local habit of feeding them for camera-toting tourists.
El Ksiba, Imilchil and across the Atlas
Enclosed by apricot, olive and orange groves, the dusty Berber village of EL KSIBA, 4km from the N8, serves primarily as a jumping-off point for the journey to Imilchil and across the High Atlas, a dizzying trip that eventually wends its way through the Todra Gorge to Tinghir, at the heart of the great southern oases routes.
Aghbala, Ikassene and the Plateau des Lacs
South of El Kisba, the R317 (also known here as the Trans-Atlas road) twists through varied forest to cross the Tizi n’Isli pass. At the junction just beyond this, an unnamed road branches eastward to Aghbala (65km from El Ksiba), a busy market town with a Wednesday souk, before eventually connecting with the R503 Beni Mellal–Midelt road – an attractive circuit, surfaced but in a poor state. Staying on the R317, the route south to Imilchil provides a spectacular itinerary, with steep drops off the roadside and constant hairpin climbs and descents. Beyond Ikassene, something of a staging post on this route, the road improves as it hauls upwards past Tassent (periodic landslides may block it) to a high valley and a col, giving views of the the Plateau des Lacs – the twin mountain lakes of Tislit (near the road) and Isli (pristine and much larger, but a 10km walk away), named after a thwarted couple from Berber folklore, whose tears fell to form the two lakes.
Imilchil and beyond
Despite losing some of its striking old buildings, there’s still a certain beauty about IMILCHIL (115km from El Ksiba), the main draw of the central High Atlas and the destination for many trans-Atlas travellers. The village serves as the regular souk (Friday) for the whole region but is more famous for its September moussem, the so-called Marriage Market of Aït Haddidou, which attracts streams of tourist traffic up the surfaced road from Rich.
Beyond Imilchil, the R317 runs through fertile land to Bou Azmou, where it heads east to Rich on the Midelt–Er Rachidia road. To fully cross the Atlas, you’ll need to press on south to the friendly village of Agoudal, at which point the road splits: southwest for the fairly tortuous 6905 piste via the Tizi n’Ouano (2750m) to Msemrir and the Dàdes Gorge; southeast for the recently paved route via the Tizi n’ Tigherhouzine (2706m) to Aït Hani, Tamtatoucht and the Todra Gorge.
Imilchil Moussem: The Marriage market of Aït Haddidou
The world-famous Imilchil Moussem – the “Fête des Fiancés” or “Marriage Market” – is the mother of all Moroccan mountain souks, a gathering of thirty thousand or more Berbers from the Aït Haddidou, Aït Morghad, Aït Izdeg and Aït Yahia tribes. Over the three days of the September fair (Friday to Sunday), animals are traded; clothes, tools and provisions bought and sold; and distant friends and family members reunited before the first snowfalls isolate their high villages. What makes it especially highly charged, however, is that it is here the region’s youngsters come to decide whom they’re going to marry.
The tradition derives from colonial times, when the officials from the Bureau des Affaires Indigènes used to insist the Berbers assembled in Agdoul, site of a yearly transhumance fair, to register births, deaths and marriages. After independence, the custom was encouraged by the Moroccan tourist office, which the locals blame for propagating the myth that the marriages contracted here were entered into spontaneously. In fact, the matches are nearly all arranged in advance and merely formalized at the moussem. All the same, the fair provides the perfect opportunity for unmarried Berbers – particularly women trapped at altitude for most of the year – to survey their prospects. Dressed in traditional finery, with hefty jewellery and eyes rimmed with heavy black kohl, the girls parade around in groups, flirting outrageously with the boys as eagle-eyed elder relatives look on. Later, singing, dancing and drumming give both sexes further opportunities to mingle.
Unfortunately, the influx of tourism has seriously compromised the authenticity of the event, and while local life continues with its serious market and marriage elements, a pure folklore festival for tourists has been shifted up to Lac Tislit. Neither part is actually at Imilchil, of course, and the date is not always easy to discover – contact the ONMT for details. Rates for beds, food and water (which has to be brought in by lorry) tend to be greatly inflated, so fix prices in advance; it’s also advisable to bring plenty of warm clothing as the nights at this altitude (over 2000m) can get bitterly cold by the end of September.
At MIDELT, reached through a bleak plain of scrub and desert, you have essentially left behind the Middle Atlas. As you approach from the north, the greater peaks of the High Atlas appear suddenly through the haze, rising behind the town to a massive range, the Jebel Ayachi, at over 3700m. The sheer drama of the site – tremendous in the clear, cool evenings – is one of the most compelling reasons to stop over. Though the town is comprised of little more than a street with a few cafés and hotels and a small souk, it’s a pleasant place to break a journey, partly because so few people do and partly because of its easy-going (and predominantly Berber) atmosphere. Indeed, there is a hint of the frontier town about Midelt, a sense reinforced by the deserted mining settlements at Mibladene and El Ahouli, 22km to the northeast.
Midelt is so far inland that it has a microclimate of extremes: bitterly cold in winter and oppressively hot in summer. Consequently, one of the best times to visit is autumn, particularly at the start of October, when the town hosts a modest apple festival. Year-round, try to arrive for the huge Sunday souk, which spreads back along the road towards Azrou and is a fruitful hunting ground for quality carpets.
Cirque de Jaffar
The classic route around Midelt is the Cirque de Jaffar, a good piste that leaves the Midelt–Tattiouine road to edge its way through a hollow in the foothills of the Jebel Ayachi. The views of the High Atlas mountains are truly dramatic and the rugged road ensures an element of adventure – this is very different countryside to that immediately around Midelt, a place where eagles soar above the hills and mule tracks lead down to valleys dotted with the occasional kasbah. The route eventually loops back to the Midelt–Azrou road after 34km – turn right, onto the 3426, near the Maison Forestière de Mitkane.
Climbing Jebel Ayachi
Seen from a distance, the long wave crest of Jebel Ayachi (3747m), 15km southwest of Midelt, appears to curve over the horizon, such is the scale of these dramatic mountains. A guide is recommended (see Midelt), but to tackle Ayachi independently you can take a taxi to the springs 2km beyond Tattiouine, from where an easy ascent leads to the many summits of this huge range, long thought to be the highest in Morocco (at 4167m, Toubkal tops it by some 400m). The only information in English is in Des Clark’s winter-walking Mountaineering in the Moroccan High Atlas and Michael Peyron’s Grand Atlas Traverse guide, which details the whole zone between here and the Toubkal massif; EWP’s 1:160,000 Rich & Midelt map covers the region.
Al Akhawayn University
On January 16, 1995, King Hassan II inaugurated the Al Akhawayn University on the northern edge of Ifrane, its chalet-style buildings, cream walls and russet-tiled roofs the design of Michel Pinseau, the architect behind the king’s showpiece Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. The name Al Akhawayn (“Brothers” in Arabic) denotes it as the brainchild (and beneficiary) of the Moroccan king and his “brother”, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia; it has also been funded by the United States and, to a lesser extent, the British Council. The undergraduate and postgraduate curricula are modelled on the American system of higher education, and English is used for lectures.
King Hassan was keen to underpin his creation with the religious and cultural values of Christianity and Judaism as well as of Islam. The university is dedicated to “practical tolerance between faiths” and a mosque, church and synagogue are on campus to provide, as the king put it, “a meeting place for the sons of Abraham”, a concept endorsed by the Prince of Wales when he visited Ifrane in 1996.
You can arrange to visit the campus by contacting the Office of Admissions in advance; try to go on a weekday afternoon when the students are about.
Walks around Sefrou
High enough into the Middle Atlas to avoid the suffocating dry heat of summer, Sefrou is a good base for some modest walking. Dozens of springs emerge in the hills above the town and a few waterfalls are active for part of the year.
Koubba of Sidi Ali Bou Serghine
For a relatively easy target, take the road up behind the Ville Nouvelle post office on Boulevard Mohammed V (Rue Sidi Ali Bou Serghine), which divides into a fork after about a kilometre. The right-hand branch leads to a small, deserted French fort, known as the Prioux, and to the koubba of one Sidi Ali Bou Serghine. The views from around here are thrilling: in winter, the snowcapped Mischliffen; in summer, the cedars and holm oaks cresting the ridges to infinity. You can also reach the koubba (and fort) by taking the left fork in the road that splits in front of El Kelâa, a ksar (fortified settlement) that’s quite interesting in itself and reached on Rue de la Kelâa, west of the sharp bend in the main road across the Oued Aggaï.
Heading up Rue de la Kelâa from the main road and taking the right-hand fork in front of El Kelâa leads to a junction signposted “Cascades”, from where a single-lane tarmac road follows the river to a small hydroelectric power station; 250m beyond this, below imposing rocky outcrops, are the waterfalls, at their best in spring. Flash floods regularly wash away the path here, so repair work may bar your access to a pool beneath for a paddle.
The Cascades d’Ouzoud are the most spectacular in Morocco, their ampitheatre of waterfalls falling into pools in a lush valley that remains invisible till the last moment. The wide spread of cataracts at the top isn’t entirely natural – water from the river is funnelled through a variety of irrigation channels towards the rim of the falls – but the result is an image that is not too far removed from the Muslim idea of Paradise depicted on gaudy prints throughout the nation. Nor has the site been overcommercialized – despite the cascades appearing in every national tourism brochure, the atmosphere remains laidback and relaxing. That there are pleasant walks in the locale is just another reason to stay overnight: to swim in pools below the cascades by moonlight (technically forbidden) is something special, and in late afternoon, arching rainbows appear in the mist around the falls.
The path to the base of the falls starts from the top of Ouzoud, to the left of the Dar Essalam, then zigzags past cafés and souvenir stalls to the great basins below the cascades, where boatmen in rickety rafts row visitors to the main pool; the first viewpoint, halfway down the path, is the best place to see the largest rainbows and is close enough to feel the spray on your face. Before you descend, however, take a look at the lip of the falls just past the Riad Cascades d’Ouzoud at the top of the village. The little concrete huts here shelter small watermills, some still grinding wheat into flour as the river is diverted through the wheels before it plunges over the edge. Although strictly speaking it’s not permitted, you can swim in one of the lower pools – currents are dangerous in the main pool beneath the falls – and you might spot the occasional Barbary ape under the oak and pomegranate trees; your best chance is at daybreak or an hour or so before dusk, when they come to drink in the river.
Top image © Mikadun/Shutterstock