January 19, 2008 GMT
Tourists, touts and the imperial cities.

10 to 18 Jan 08

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Our Anti Atlas adventure brought us eventually to the town of Ouarzazate, home of the Moroccan film industry and the stepping off point for our travels back to the north to Marrakech and the Imperial Cities of Fes and Meknes. The town has a large film studio and a Moroccan version of a film theme park with fancy horse and camel riding and scenes from the many major films made in the area.

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Ouarzazate itself is interesting without being spectacular. It has a partly restored palace in the old town and a modern new town with a big public square.

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To get to Marrakech we needed to cross the High Atlas Mountains through the Tizi n’Tichka pass at 2264m.

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The Tizi n’Tichka would have been a great ride except for the large amount of traffic on this major road.

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In Morocco, the mountain roads go on forever! Well, almost. We eventually descended to plains and into the big-smoke an hour later.

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The first thing we noticed about Marrakech was the number of tourists, thousands of them everywhere, and the number of touts. We gave it a day and then pushed on north towards Fes.

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Our quick dismissal of Morocco’s main tourist city may seem a little harsh and we wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone else from going. It is a wonderful place with some fantastic things to see and do.

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Henna ladies

The shopping, in particular, is simply the best. However, one of the things about being a voyager, rather than a tourist, is that you reserve the right to get lost in their medina if you want to, you don’t buy anything, ever, because you don’t have anywhere to carry it, and you really don’t want to mix with tourists.

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We met Swiss biker Daniele Bonassi on the Tiz n’Tichka and stayed at the same hotel in Marra. Daniele had enjoyed a week in this bikers’ paradise and was flying home the next day. Here we were checking the local beer for defects.

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On a road somewhere near you. .

The 300km ride north on the twisting back roads to Beni Mallal was another one of those days that left us grasping for superlatives.

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The winding roads were breathtaking with views like this every few km.

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Beni Mellal is an average prosperous try-hard Moroccan town. The policeman who pulled me over on the way in, after I failed to stop at a red signal (it was not as though you would know where it was unless you were a local), was surprised to learn that we were staying in town. He gave us directions to a hotel and sent us on our way with a smile and a welcome. There are no tourists or other terrorists in Beni Mellal.

After the hassle of Marra, no one in BM gave us a second glance. No one offered to guide us (no one cared if we got lost), no one tried to drag us into their shop, offered us tea, wanted to chat to improve their English, or really gave a stuff whether we were there or not.

Fes was next town on the list but the 350km ride north to get there was an adventure in itself. The road runs over the Middle Atlas Mountains for most of the distance and through the towns of Azrou and Ifrane which are the major ski resorts.

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Ifrane was built by the French in the 1930s to resemble a European alpine village.

This was a long, spectacular, cold ride (that white stuff is chilly) but we are now so used to riding above the snow line that we hustled the Elephant along at a good pace all the way and were into Fes and settled by late afternoon.

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Fes had fewer tourists than Marra so the touts had to work twice as hard.

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The skyline of the oldest city in Morocco gives the game away these days!

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Fes is famous for its leather and the tanneries occupy a large section of the old city. It is filthy work that leaves the river…

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There is much to recommend Fes as a better alternative for tourists than Marrakech. The old medina is just as exotic and there are fewer people to share it with. The touts, however…

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…are the most determined we have come across.

60km west of Fes the old Imperial City of Meknes is a sleepy backwater with few tourists but some great history and a busy but easy to navigate medina.

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Meknes is a centre for traditional cedar carving…

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…and a type of work with silver inlaid on iron. This gentleman had made an order of 22 kangaroos like this for a customer in Sydney.

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Meknes doesn’t have much of a tourist face, but you see plenty of Moroccan real-life. This is part of the metal workers’ souk where about 30 small jobbing shops made all manner of goods from steel.

We liked the easy pace of Meknes so decided to lay up there for a few days to do some planning for the Tunisian leg of our travels. Just north of the town the Roman ruins of Volubilis were a very pleasant day trip.

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The Romans came here to grow wheat, and when you see Volubilis sitting above a fertile plain of broad acre wheat production, you can see the point of the venture.

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The weather had warmed considerably by the time we visited so we took shelter among the ruins (some ruins among the ruins I hear you say) to ditch our riding suit liners.

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The stunning blue sky tells the story. The storks seemed to have found a use for some old Roman rocks.

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Volubilis is noted for its well preserved murals. In this one a man sits backwards on a horse holding a cup which we assume he has won for trick riding!

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There is a story here about the four seasons, but we liked the trick riding better.

At Volubilis we had the good luck to meet Daniela and Narcel riding one of the best outfits we have seen.

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Narcel is a mechanic and did all of the work on the bike himself. It has spares everywhere (it is a Guzzi after all), great protection from the elements and plenty of storage.

Meanwhile, back in Meknes…

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…a local hand-made rig was showing the right inventiveness. Although it might be better to stick to the traditional arrangement:

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As we post on 19 Jan, we have completed planning for the last leg of our Moroccan adventure and the move on to Tunisia. Our final leg will take us up and over the Rif Mountains, along the Mediterranean coast and back to Tangier. Or maybe we could ride south again and chase the sun……

Posted by Mike Hannan at January 19, 2008 08:47 PM GMT

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