Morocco’s Mediterranean coast extends for nearly 500km, from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta east to Saïdia on the Algerian border. Much of it lies in the shadow of the Rif mountains, which restrict access to the sea to a very few points. Despite a rash of stalled tourism developments dotted along the coast, such beaches as there are here remain mostly low-key and charming; for a seaside stop head for the fishing harbour and holiday resort of Al Hoceima, or to the lively summer resort of Saïdia on the country‘s (closed) border with Algeria. To the east of the Rif is Oujda, a pleasant, relaxed city within a day‘s travel from the scenic Zegzel Gorge, and there are further gorges cutting into the Middle Atlas, near the once important trading centre of Taza. Between Al Hoceima and Oujda is the Spanish enclave of Melilla, an attractive town offering an authentic slice of Spanish life; the dunes and lagoons spreading around nearby Nador are among the richest birdwatching sites in Morocco.
The Rif mountains themselves are even less on the tourist trail than the coast – and with some reason. A vast, limestone mass, over 300km long, up to 2500m in height, and with forests of towering oak and cedar, the Rif is the natural boundary between Europe and Africa. Traditionally isolated from central government and the authorities, and with an infamous economy based almost solely on the cultivation of cannabis, or kif, the Rif is also considered the most wild and remote of Morocco‘s mountain ranges. For some dramatic Riffian scenery, travel between Chefchaouen and Fez, via Issaguen (Ketama) or between Al Hoceima/Nador and Taza, via Aknoul.
One of Morocco’s most memorable journeys is the 210-kilometre mountain road from Chefchaouen to Al Hoceima which weaves along high on the crests of the Rif mountains. Snow may occasionally block the road in winter but snowploughs soon restore the flow of traffic. The views for most of the year, however, are spectacular. Paul Bowles describes the route well in “The Rif, to Music” chapter of Their Heads Are Green – “mountains covered with olive trees, with oak trees, with bushes, and finally with giant cedars”.
The road from Chefchaouen sweeps steadily upwards through attractive countryside with olive farms, cork oaks and flowery hedgerows to reach the village of Bab Taza, where, suddenly, the feeling of being at altitude kicks in. Beyond Khamis Medik, the road runs through woods of various oak species with the richest cultivation in the Rif on the impressively deep slopes below, dotted with farms and the expensive and isolated villas that are testimony to the wealth generated by the cannabis trade. The road reaches its highest level at Bab Besen (1600m) where the landscape is covered in magnificent cedar forests.
Until the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate in 1912, the tribes of the Rif existed outside government control. They were subdued temporarily by harkas, the burning raids with which sultans asserted their authority, and for a longer period under Moulay Ismail; but for the most part, bore out their own name of Imazighen, or “Free Ones”.
Closed to outside influence, the tribes developed an isolated and self-contained way of life. The Riffian soil, stony and infertile, produced constant problems with food supplies, and it was only through a complex system of alliances (liffs) that outright wars were avoided. Unique in Morocco, the Riffian villages are scattered communities, their houses hedged and set apart, and where each family maintained a pillbox tower to spy on and fight off enemies. They were different, too, in their religion: the salat, the prayers said five times daily – one of the central tenets of Islam – was not observed. Djinns, supernatural fire spirits, were widely accredited, and great reliance was placed on the intercession of local marabouts.
It was an unlikely ground for significant and organized rebellion, yet for over five years (1921–27) the tribes forced the Spanish to withdraw from the mountains. Several times they defeated whole Spanish armies; first and most memorably at Annoual in 1921. It was only through the intervention of France, and the joint commitment of nearly half a million troops, that the Europeans won eventual victory.
In the intervening years, Abd el Krim el Khattabi, the leader of the revolt, was able to declare a Republic of the Rif and to establish much of the apparatus of a modern state. Well educated, and confident of the Rif’s mineral reserves, he and his brother, Mohammed, manipulated the liff system to forge an extraordinary unity among the tribes. Impressively, the brothers managed to impose a series of social reforms – including the destruction of family pillboxes and the banning of kif – which allowed the operation of a fairly broad administrative system. It was the first nationalist movement in colonial North Africa, and although the Spanish were ready to quit the zone in 1925, it was politically impossible for the French to allow that. Defeat for the Riffians – and the capture of Abd el Krim at Targuist – brought a virtual halt to social progress and reform. The Spanish took over the administration en bloc but there was no road-building programme nor any of the other “civilizing benefits” introduced in the French zone. Many of the Riffian warriors were recruited into Spain’s own armies, allowing General Franco to build up a power base in Morocco. It was with Riffian troops that he invaded Andalusia in 1936, and it was probably their contribution that ensured the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War.
When, in April 1957, the Spanish finally surrendered their protectorate, the Berbers of the former Spanish zone found themselves largely excluded from government. Administrators were imposed on them from Fez and Casablanca, and in October 1958, the Rif’s most important tribe, the Beni Urriaguel, rose in open rebellion. The mutiny was soon put down, but necessitated the landing at Al Hoceima of then Crown Prince Hassan and some two-thirds of the Moroccan army.
The Rif is still perhaps the most unstable part of Morocco, remaining conscious of its under-representation in government and its historical underdevelopment. However, King Mohammed VI seems sympathetic to this situation and over the past decade the region has witnessed substantial school-building programmes, improved road, air and ferry accessibility, large agricultural projects in the plains south of Nador and Al Hoceima, and continues to see an increase in tourism development along its coast.
Although many of the Riffian tribes in the mountains had always smoked kif, it was the Spanish who really encouraged its cultivation – probably as an effort to keep the peace. This situation was apparently accepted when Mohammed V came to power, though the reasons for his acceptance of the status quo aren‘t obvious. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that when he visited Ketama in 1957, he accepted a bouquet of cannabis as a symbolic gift.
In the early 1970s the Rif became the centre of a significant drug industry, exporting to Europe and America. This sudden growth was accounted for by the introduction, by an American dealer, of techniques for producing hash resin. Overnight, the Riffians had access to a compact and easily exportable product, as well as a burgeoning world market for dope. Inevitably, big business was quick to follow and to this day Morocco is reckoned to be the world’s leading producer of cannabis, supplying the vast majority of Europe’s demand, and with well over a million people said to depend on the crop for their existence, providing the economic base for much of the country‘s north. The government, with help from EU and US grants, has tried to reduce cultivation – a project near Rafsaï has replaced cannabis with 600,000 olive trees, for example – and the authorities claim that cultivation has decreased by almost thirty percent over the past decade. However, these figures are estimations gleaned from satellite photographs and are reckoned by European experts to be highly dubious. While the government’s stated aim to eradicate cannabis cultivation by 2008 clearly failed, there has recently been a steady increase in the number of police-supervised clearing of crops, many of them well publicized to no doubt please Morocco’s European neighbours. The bare fact remains, however, that farmers earn immeasurably more from cannabis than they would from growing legal crops.
Some (non-government) experts are saying that the eradication cause is a lost one, and believe it’s better to encourage farmers to rotate cannabis with other crops to avoid ruining their land with overuse of chemical fertilizers – whatever European hippies might like to think, cannabis grown in the Rif is anything but “organic” – rather than waste resources on trying to stop the industry altogether.
It’s worth noting here that Moroccan law forbids the sale, purchase and possession of cannabis. These laws are enforced on occasion with some vigour, so don’t be seduced by the locals: police roadblocks are frequent, informers common. Cannabis in the Rif is obviously big business and potentially dangerous for casual visitors to get mixed up in.
Coming from the Rif, Al Hoceima can be a bit of a shock. It may not be quite the “exclusive international resort” the tourist board claims, but it is truly Mediterranean and has developed enough to have little in common with the farming hamlets and tribal markets of the surrounding mountains. Relaxed and friendly throughout the year, Al Hoceima is at its best in late spring or September, when the beaches are quiet and not so crowded under the midsummer weight of Moroccan families and French and German tourists.
Al Hoceima was developed by the Spanish after their counteroffensive in the Rif in 1925, and was known by them as Villa Sanjuro. The name commemorated the Spanish general José Sanjuro, who landed in the bay, under the cover of Spanish and French warships, with an expeditionary force. Coincidentally, it was at Al Hoceima, too, that then Crown Prince Hassan led Moroccan forces to quell the Riffians’ revolt in 1958, following independence.
Al Hoceima’s compact size is one of its charms. Until the 1950s, it consisted of just a small fishing port to the north of the bay, and a fringe of white houses atop the barren cliffs to the south. At the heart of this older quarter is the atmospheric Place du Rif, enclosed by café-restaurants and pensions.
The Al Hoceima National Park, the entrance to which is on the N16 about 20km east of Al Hoceima, is a fantastic spot for walking and mountain biking. Covering 285 square kilometres, the park’s majestic rocky canyons and pine forests harbour several rare species of birds and reptiles as well as jackals and wild boar. As well as three accessible bird hides, 30km of well-marked tracks crisscross the park, most negotiable by a tourist vehicle, and you can also scramble down to a few isolated beaches where you may be lucky enough to spot dolphins. A few Berber settlements are dotted around the park, where you can see traditional crafts such as pottery and basket weaving in action. Accommodation is offered in four attractive gîtes (houses), sleeping between two and twelve people and with a kitchen and hot water (200–400dh), which can be organized by the very helpful Anissa el Khattabi who can also arrange guides and suggest itineraries. Without your own transport, you’ll have to take a grand taxi from Al Hoceima (about 150dh).
The route east from Nador to Oujda along the N2 is well served by buses and grands taxis. It holds little of interest along the way, but if you’ve got the time (and ideally a car), there’s a pleasant detour around Berkane into the Zegzel Gorge, a dark limestone fault in the Beni Snassen mountains – the last outcrops of the Rif.
Berkane is a handy transport hub for the far east of the country. Drivers should be wary of buying plastic bottles of cheap petrol from roadside stalls; it’s often watered down.
Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s Algeria was effectively off-limits to all foreign visitors. During the civil war between 1992 and 1998, over 150,000 people were killed in attacks and reprisals by Islamic fundamentalists and the army; foreigners, as well as Algerian intellectuals, journalists and musicians, were particular targets. After elections in 1999 the situation improved somewhat, although there were still occasional skirmishes with militant Islamic extremists. 2007 saw a worrying resurgence of violence, with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) implicated in attacks in Algeria and Morocco that left many dead. The kidnapping of Westerners in southern Algeria, again said to be the work of AQIM, is also on the increase. Three aid workers (two Spaniards and one Italian) were abducted in 2011, from a refugee camp near the border with Morocco‘s disputed Western Sahara region. A year later, the two Spaniards were still being held captive.
Algeria and Morocco have disputed their borders since Algerian independence in 1963. The border was closed in 1975 following Morocco’s “Green March” into Spain’s former colony of Western Sahara – the Algerians supported Polisario, the Saharan independence movement. The border reopened some years later but was closed again in 1994 when Morocco imposed strict visa restrictions on Algerians following a terrorist attack in Marrakesh.
In 2004, in an attempt to improve relations, Morocco lifted all visa entry requirements for Algerians, a move the Algerians then reciprocated, but the borders remained closed. In 2008, Morocco, citing their “common past and shared destiny”, called on Algeria to normalize relations and reopen the border – it is estimated that the border closure costs Morocco $1bn a year in lost trade and tourist revenues. There was then a brief breakthrough in the impasse in February 2009 when the border was opened to allow the passage of an aid convoy heading for the Gaza Strip, and in 2012 both countries’ foreign ministers stated a desire to open the border amid a greater post-Arab Spring plan to revitalize the Arab Maghreb Union (comprising Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia). However, most political commentators believe that the Western Sahara issue will need to be resolved to Algeria’s satisfaction before the border gates open again. It’s possible for non-Moroccans to obtain entry visas for Algeria at the embassy in Rabat, but as the situation currently stands, entry to Algeria from Morocco is still only possible by air, flying out of Casablanca.
The Zegzel Gorge is actually a series of gorges 10km long, that dramatically define the eastern edge of the Rif mountain range. The gorges offer wonderful hiking following the seasonal riverbed of the Oued Zegzel, terraced and cultivated at its wider points with citrus and fruit trees. 3km south from the Grotte du Chameau, a rough track branches off the main dirt road, only suitable for hiking and sturdy 4WD vehicles and perennially subject to rock avalanches and flash-floods. As the track crisscrosses the riverbed, the gorges progressively narrow, drawing your eye to the cedars and dwarf oaks at the summit, until you eventually emerge (22km from Taforalt) onto the Berkane plain.
A loop of some 123km around Taza, the Cirque du Jebel Tazzeka is a scenic, serpentine circuit through forests of cork, oak and cedar, with sweeping vistas over both the Rif and Middle Atlas ranges. Along the way is the immense Gouffre du Friouato (Friouato Caves) and the whole route is fertile ground for birdwatching and other wildlife (see Wildlife in the Jebel Tazzeka). If you don’t have transport, grand taxi circuits can be arranged from most accommodation in Taza, starting at 250dh for the day.
Heading in an east–west direction from Taza, the road starts out curling around below the Medina before climbing to a narrow valley of almond and cherry orchards. Twelve kilometres out of Taza, the Café Ras el Ma is worth a pit stop for the aerial views of the village afforded by its shaded terrace. Beyond here, the road, prone to rock avalanches but generally in good condition, loops towards the first pass (at 1198m), passing some great picnic spots and eventually emerging onto the Chiker Plateau. Here, in exceptionally wet years, the Dayat Chiker appears as a broad, shallow lake. More often than not, though, it is just a fertile saucer, planted with cereals; geographers will recognize its formation as a classic limestone polje.
The Jebel Tazzeka National Park is one of northern Morocco’s most rewarding wildlife sites, positioned, as it is, at the point where the Rif merges with the Middle Atlas. The range’s lower slopes are covered in cork oak, the prime commercial crop of this area, and interspersed with areas of mixed woodland containing holm oak, the pink-flowered cistus and the more familiar bracken.
These woodland glades are frequented by a myriad of butterflies from late May onwards; common varieties include knapweed, ark green fritillaries and Barbary skippers. The forest floor also provides an ideal habitat for birds such as the multicoloured hoopoe, with its identifying crest, and the trees abound with the calls of wood pigeon, nuthatch, short-toed treecreeper and various titmice. The roadside telegraph lines also provide attractive hunting perches for such brightly coloured inhabitants as rollers and shrikes, both woodchat and great grey, who swoop on passing insects and lizards with almost gluttonous frequency.
The Mediterranean coastline stretches east from Nador all the way to the Algerian border. Until recently it was relatively undisturbed, with just a few small villages that burst at the seams in summer but counted more birds than people for the rest of the year. Change has come, however, and the wave of development that continues to wash over much of Morocco has found its way to these shores. Beachfront promenades have been laid, and concrete apartment blocks are inevitably following. Just west of the pleasant seaside resort of Saïdia is perhaps the country’s most ambitious tourism development of all Saïdia Mediterrania, a designated tourist zone complete with mega-resorts, an 18-hole golf course, 700-berth marina and even a faux Medina. The atmosphere along this coast during summer is infectious and it’s a great time to experience modern Morocco, where families play in the shallows and Arabic pop music blares out from mobile phones. Unfortunately, this development comes at an inevitable cost, and the coastline’s remarkable ecosystem appears to be under siege from the increase in development and the resultant waste issues.
The coast east of Nador offers compelling sites for birdwatching – and plant wildlife – with a series of highly frequented freshwater and saline sites.
At Kariet Arekmane a path leads out, opposite the village mosque, past salt pans and a pumping station (right-hand side) to an extensive area of salt marsh. This is covered by the fleshy-stemmed marsh glasswort or salicornia: a characteristic “salt plant” or halophyte, it can survive the saline conditions through the use of glands which excrete the salt. The insect life of the salt marsh is abundant, including damselflies, brightly coloured grasshoppers and various ants and sand spiders. The birds are even more impressive, with black-winged stilt, greater flamingo, coot, great-crested grebe, and various gulls and terns wheeling overhead.
Further along the coast, a walk east of the resort of Ras el Ma demonstrates the means by which plants invade sand dunes: a sequential colonization is known as “succession”, where one plant community gradually cedes to the next as a result of its own alteration of the environment. Typical early colonizers are marram grass and sea couch, which are eventually ousted by sea holly and sea spurge and finally by large, “woodier” species such as pistacihu, juniper and cistus species. Whole sequences can be seen occurring over time along the beach. The area attracts a variety of interesting sea birds as well, including the internationally rare slender-billed curlew and Audouin’s gull (thought to breed on the adjacent offshore Chafarinas Islands). Other more familiar birds include dunlin, Kentish plover and oystercatcher.
Even further along the coast is the freshwater lagoon system that marks the mouth of the Oued Moulouya. The lagoons here are separated from the sea by a remarkable series of sand spits, no more than fifty metres across, and the birdlife is outstanding. Secluded among the reedbeds, it is possible to locate grey heron, white stork and little egret while the water’s surface is constantly patrolled by the ever-alert black terns and kingfishers. Other varieties that you should manage to spot, wading in the shallows, are redshank, spotted redshank (in summer) and black-tailed godwit. The mouth and adjacent wetlands are, however, under serious threat from tourism development. In response to local and international pressure, a small parcel of wetland encompassing the mouth has been declared a protected area funded by, among others, the Global Environmental Fund and UNDP. Bird hides and information signboards have been erected along a marked walking path.
The Spanish-owned Islas Chafarinas, incidentally, are another important wildlife site, which has been declared a nature reserve. The three small islets support the Mediterranean’s largest sea-bird colonies; sadly, the endangered monk seals disappeared from the islands in the 1990s and haven’t been seen since.
Only a few years ago, Saïdia was a low-key holiday town, rambling back from the sea in the shadow of a still-occupied nineteenth-century kasbah, and fronted by one of the best beaches on the Mediterranean. Recent years, however, have seen massive development along the coast to the west of town. Officially named “Saïdia Mediterrania” though signposted along the coast simply as Station Balnéaire (“seaside resort”), the new development functions as a separate resort from Saïdia itself, even though the two almost meet. The growth has been enormous to say the least, with hundreds of apartment blocks, many of them half-finished and already looking tired, stretching along the beach and for a few hundred metres inland. In addition, the resort is home to one of the country’s largest marinas, an adjacent outdoor shopping complex, four sprawling five-star resorts, and an eighteen-hole golf course (with another two in the pipeline).
If you prefer birds to beaches, there are rewarding birdwatching sites in the marshes and woodland stretching behind the beach towards the Oued Moulouya, although in high season you’ll have to pick your way through the rubbish. Each year, Saïdia hosts the annual two-week Festival Saïdia Raggada (May). It’s a great opportunity to listen to some indigenous chaabi, raï and amazigh music, and see raggada and laäoui folk-dancing ensembles.
Spanish-occupied MELILLA (Mlilya) is a friendly little place, with a pride in its mix of cultures and an interesting selection of early twentieth-century modernist architecture. Pleasures are to be found, too, in an exploration of the walled old town, Medina Sidonia, with its stunning views out across the Mediterranean. It’s a popular weekend destination for those living in Morocco, and if you’re here in August, there’s the marvellous, if misleadingly titled Semana Naútica, when the port fills with sailing boats from mainland Spain and further afield for a fortnight (semana means one week) of maritime extravaganzas and regattas.
Melilla centres on Plaza de España, overlooking the port, and Avenida Juan Carlos I Rey, leading inland off it. This is the most animated part of town, especially during the evening paseo, when everyone promenades up and down, or strolls through the neighbouring Parque Hernandez. To the northeast, Medina Sidonia rises up from a promontory, to watch over the town centre and marina.
Together with Ceuta, Melilla is the last of Spain’s Moroccan enclaves – a former penal colony that saw its most prosperous days under the Protectorate until 1956, when it was the main port for the Riffian mining industry. Between1956 and 2000, the city’s population halved to a little over 65,000, split roughly two to one between Christians and Muslims (mostly Berber), along with minor populations of Jews and Indian Hindus. Since 2000, however, immigration from the European mainland has risen, due largely to attractive tax laws and the city’s duty-free status. The enclave’s various religious and ethnic communities get along reasonably well, despite an episode of rioting in 1986, after the enactment of Spain’s first real “Aliens Law” threatened to deprive certain Muslim families of their residence rights. There were further riots in 1996, when four hundred Spanish Foreign Legionnaires, a tough bunch posted here by the Madrid authorities out of harm’s way, went on the rampage after one of their number had been killed in a bar brawl.
Along with Ceuta, Melilla achieved autonomous status in 1995 after years of shilly shallying on the issue by Madrid for fear of offending Morocco. The enclave is still staunchly Spanish, however, highlighted by a 2007 visit by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia – the first royal visit in 80 years – seen by some to be almost an act of defiance towards persistent Moroccan calls for re-integration.
The village of MSOUN, 29km east of Taza, just north of the N6 highway sits within a kasbah that dates to the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727). Inhabited by a hundred or so members of the semi-nomadic Haoura tribe, the kasbah is still turreted and complete on three sides. You can view its original rainwater cistern and grain silos, alongside the settlement’s shop, post office and mosque.
Upon independence in 1956, Nador was just an ordinary Riffian village, given work and some impetus by the port of the nearby Spanish enclave of Melilla. Its later designation as a provincial capital led to extensive growth based on the cement industry and the legal and illegal traffic passing through its own busy port at Beni Nsar. It has steadily grown into an ugly, sprawling town and until recently the future looked grim. However, swept up in the country’s ambitious tourism vision, there are lofty plans (endorsed by King Mohammed VI himself) in the pipeline to develop Mar Chica Lagoon, beside which the city lies, and its outerlying spit into one of the world’s cutting-edge environmental, residential and tourism developments. For the time being, Nador is primarily a transport hub with little to offer other than a pleasant lagoon-side promenade and some birdwatching in the marshes and dunes east of the town.
Open and easy-going, with a large and active university, Oujda has that rare quality in Moroccan cities – nobody makes demands on your instinct for self-preservation. Coming from the Rif, it is a surprise to see women in public again, and to re-enter a Gallic atmosphere, as you move out of what used to be Spanish Morocco into the old French Protectorate zone. Morocco’s easternmost town, Oujda was the capital of French Maroc Orient and an important trading centre.
With its strategic location at the crossroads of eastern and southern routes across Morocco and Algeria, Oujda, like Taza, was always vulnerable to invasion and has frequently been the focus of territorial claims. Founded in the tenth century by Berber chieftain Ziri Ben Attia, it was occupied for parts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the Ziyanids, whose capital at Tlemcen is today just across the Algerian border. From 1727 until the early nineteenth century Oujda was under Turkish rule – the only town in present-day Morocco to have been part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the French defeat of the Ottomans in Algeria, France twice occupied the town prior to its incorporation within the Moroccan Protectorate in 1912, an early and prolonged association that remains tangible in the city’s streets and the locals’ attitudes.
In more recent years, Oujda’s proximity to the Algerian border and distance from the government in Rabat led to a reputation for dissidence and unrest. This was particularly evident during the Algerian border war in the early 1960s, and again, in the 1980s, in a series of student strikes. Following the restoration of Moroccan–Algerian relations in 1988 the city became truly pan-Maghrebi, with Algerians coming in to shop, and Moroccans sharing in some of the cultural dynamism of western Algeria, particularly Oran, the home of raï music. Alas, this is all in the past since the closure of the border in 1994 (see A note on Algeria), after which Oujda lost most of its passing trade, including a steady flow of tourists. However, Oujda still holds a big raï festival each July and this is the time to see the city at its best.
In past years, before the eruption of civil war in Algeria, there was a well-established travel route from Oujda, south to the ancient date palm oasis of Figuig, and across from there into the Algerian Sahara. While the latter is no longer a possibility, those into isolated journeys might still want to consider the route from Oujda to Figuig – and on from here to the southern Moroccan oasis town of Er Rachidia.
If you’re up for the trip, be warned it’s a long, hot haul: 369km from Oujda to Figuig, and a further 393km to Er Rachidia. You can travel by bus or, if you have transport, you can drive: the road is sealed all the way. Whichever way you travel, expect to explain yourself at a number of military checkpoints: this is a sensitive border area.
Taourirt, the largest town between Taza and Oujda, was the crossroads between the old north–south caravan route linking Melilla and the ancient kingdom of Sijilmassa, and the Taza corridor between Morocco and Algeria. Taourirt itself is of little interest, save for its large Sunday souk, but the peaceful Za Gorges, through which the usually running Oued Za meanders, make a good side trip. Situated about 6km southeast of Taorirt, the road to the gorges unfortunately isn’t signposted – it’s best to ask for directions at the Café Sabrin located on the town’s main roundabout.
TAZA was once a place of great importance: the capital of Morocco for periods of the Almohad, Merenid and Alaouite dynasties, and controlling the Taza Gap, the only practicable pass from the east. It forms a wide passage between the Rif and Middle Atlas and was the route to central power taken by Moulay Idriss and the first Moroccan Arabs, as well as the Almohads and Merenids, both of whom successfully invaded Fez from Taza. However, the local Zenatta tribe were always willing to join an attack by outsiders and in the nineteenth century, managed to overrun Taza completely, with centralized control returning only with the French occupation of 1914. Following occupation, Taza was an important centre of the resistance movement; troops fought long and hard in the Rif mountains in skirmishes which occurred sporadically right up to independence.
Modern Taza seems little haunted by this past, its monuments sparse and mostly inaccessible to non-Muslims. The town splits into two parts, the Medina and the French-built Ville Nouvelle, distinct quarters separated by 2km of road. The Ville Nouvelle is of little interest, though it has the usual facilities, but the Medina, with its magnificent hilltop site, is steeped in history and has a quiet charm.
Aside from offering a pleasant day or two exploring the Medina, Taza is also a good base from which to explore the national park of Jebel Tazzeka, a treat for drivers and hikers alike.
At the end of the Spanish Protectorate in 1957, there was no north-south route across the Rif, a marked symbol both of its isolation and of the separateness of the old French and Spanish zones. The Route de l’Unité, a road cutting right across the range from Ketama to Fez, was planned to provide working contact between the Riffian tribes and the French-colonized Moroccans.
The Route (more prosaically known as the R509), completed in 1963, was built with volunteer labour from all over the country – Hassan II himself worked on it at the outset. It was the brainchild of Mehdi Ben Barka, first president of the National Assembly and the most outstanding figure of the nationalist Left before his exile and subsequent “disappearance” in Paris in 1965. Ben Barka’s volunteers, fifteen-thousand-strong for much of the project, formed a kind of labour university, working through the mornings and attending lectures in the afternoons.
Today the Route de l’Unité sees relatively little traffic – travelling from Fez to Al Hoceima, it’s quicker to go via Taza and the R505; from Fez to Tetouan, via Ouezzane. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive and very beautiful road, certainly as dramatic an approach to Fez as you could hope for. However, see the warning about driving through here.
Top image: Melilla © Viliam.M/Shutterstock