RETURN TO CIVILIZATION!
Middle Atlas and the cities of Fez and TangierMay 14-21
We left the desert and began our climb into the High Atlas once again before dropping down into a valley around the town of Midelt. Immediately, we could feel the change in atmosphere. The dry, dusty desert air was replaced by cool mountain freshness. We kept going, this time climbing into the Middle Atlas, another large mountain range just north of the High Atlas. At the highest elevations, the scenery was much more like Switzerland or alpine Yosemite than Morocco. Goats and sheep were replaced by cows and horses and huge alpine meadows were covered in brilliant yellow flowers and bright red field poppies. The houses had steep, A-frame roofs designed to hold up to the snowfall received every winter. It was a gorgeous sight, and we were so happy to be out of the dry desert!
We decided to stay a few days in the mountain town of Azrou. Only a little over an hour away from the major cities of Meknes and Fez, the town is a million miles away from the big city in attitude. Very relaxing and not much touristed, Azrou was originally built by the French as a mountain retreat, but it´s now populated mostly by Berbers from the surrounding mountain areas. The roofs are sloped as they were in the higher elevations, and painted a bright green. Nobody hassled us here, and the people overall were quite friendly. It also gave Mike a chance to recover from his case of strep throat (thank God for modern antibiotics!).
New mosque in the quiet mountain town of Azrou
The SPECTACULAR Roman Ruins of Volubilis
Columns at Volubilis
On our third day in Azrou, we took a drive north, past the city of Meknes, to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. Built in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. as Rome´s southwestern-most outpost, the ruins are in excellent shape. Built on rolling plains long ago deforested by the Romans (they cut down all the trees to grow wheat), the site is spectacular. There are long rows of columns, the ruins of ancient Roman houses, and even tiled mosaics which survive intact to this day. We spent a couple hours roaming around. We were very happy we took the time out to make the drive here. It was quite a spectacle.
Arch of Triumph at Volubilis
We returned our rental car in Azrou and took a bus to Fez the same day. Fez is one of Morocco´s great Imperial Cities, and over the centuries has served at times as the nation´s capital. After our trials and tribulations of staying in the medina of Marrakech, we opted this time to take a hotel in the Ville Nouvelle, figuring if we were around fewer tourists, the hassle factor might be a bit lower. We were right; although we were in a very large city, we weren´t really troubled that much on the street. We spent just two nights in Fez, not doing much but relaxing and resting up. We really loved the Moroccan countryside but felt that once you´ve seen one big Moroccan city, you´ve seen them all. That is, of course, an understatement because there is plenty of interesting history and beautiful architecture in the big cities, but we were just tired of it. There are only so many monuments and palaces and mosques you can see before you start to become numb to the experience. So, we decided we would move north, toward our next country...Spain.
From Fez, we took the train to Tangier, gateway city to Europe. We arrived early in the evening after a six hour train ride. We checked in to the historic Hotel Continental, perched just inside the old medina walls over the harbor. We chose this hotel because it´s got some history behind it (many famous characters have stayed here in its 120 years), and best of all, it was right next to the harbor where we could catch our ferry to Spain the next day.
In this twisting souq lanes, Fez
Tangier has been an important city for a long time. Like Gibraltar across the strait, it has long been a strategic point of control for access to the Mediterranean. And like so many border/port cities, it´s also a rather seedy place, with plenty of hustlers and other shady characters hanging around. Still, there is a great amount of history in the place, and its location is pleasant, built along the hillsides that meet the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea here in this northwestern corner of Africa.
"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."
- Obi Wan Kenobi
We woke the next morning, put our packs on and walked down the hill, out of the city gates and to the port. Passing through customs was a breeze, despite all the stories we had heard about how tough the Spanish can be with travelers coming from Morocco. There is a tremendous amount of drug smuggling into Spain from Tangier, so people and cars are very often searched in customs. Maybe we just liked nice and innocent travelers, but nobody else was much bothered either. We settled in to a very comfortable two hour ride across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish port city of Algeciras.
As our ferry pulled away from the African coast, we were surprised by how blue the Mediterranean was, even here at the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. We were also amazed at how close Europe and Africa are here inside this tiny waterway, barely 20 miles across at its narrowest point. As we arrived in Spain, we looked back across the strait to the Moroccan coast and felt as if we could reach out and touch Africa.
Back to Morocco pg 3 Onto Spain!
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