GOOD MORNING! Ready to go??
Okay. We’re getting a nice early start, so I’m scheming… How’m I going to advocate for my hidden agenda? Yes, we’re heading for Fes, and yes, we’re going to go through Azrou and Ifrane… but I’m going to try to convince my fresh and well-rested ever-faithful driver to take a back road to Sources de L’Oum Rhbia. We have been there only once before, but it’s kinda sorta (not really…) on the road to Azrou and Ifrane. We would not normally take people to Sources de L’Oum Rhbia coming from this direction: it involves driving lots of little backroads through the mountains. Scenic as anything, mind you, but this spot is really best visited as a day trip from Fes.
I succeed! HAHAHA!
This spot is truly off the beaten path. It’s mentioned in passing in most of the guidebooks, but it isn’t “on the way”; you need to be deliberate about making this visit. It’s one reason why I press people to plan longer trips to Morocco rather than shorter ones: my heart breaks when I think of people zooming down the road to hit all the “main event” attractions and destinations in Morocco, unknowingly driving past some truly cool, amazing, or otherwise lovely and memorable sites. I know, I know… you can’t do it all, but… BUT.
“Sources de L’Oum Rhbia” means “Source of the Rhbia River,” so we are visiting the source, literally, or headwaters of the substantial Rhbia River, which courses some 555 kilometres west to the Atlantic Ocean. There are beautiful waterfalls here! They are perhaps not quite as dramatic as the Cascade d’Ouzoud, a popular daytrip from Marrakech, but they are still lovely, and they have other charms. The water charges through a fairly short narrow canyon, and the canyon (and falls) are easily accessed from a parking lot just a couple hundred metres away. It’s a good path, and ordinary walking shoes will see you there easily.
But here’s what I really, really love, aside from the beauty of the falls themselves: the people who live nearby have constructed cabanas all along each side of the path and canyon. When you’ve seen all you like of the falls, you can relax in one of the cabanas, and if you like, the local ladies will make lunch for you. You see Imad and I in our profile picture? That’s us in one of the cabanas, having a tagine lunch! It’s such a seeecret place! Moroccan families come here for an outing. It’s rare to find tourists here. Seeecret!
We drive on through the Middle Atlas. It is SO beautiful, and so very different from any other place in Morocco. It’s higher and cooler, of course, but you are also more “north”, geographically, and the changes in the landscape are dramatic. You can look at the rocks, and yes, you’re still in Morocco, and then look at the trees, and… maybe not! For there are no longer any palms up here, and no olives. No, now it’s pine, oak, cedar. The air is cooler, fresher, sharper.
We spot the temporary encampment of some nomads who are grazing a flock of sheep. A little further along, we find a couple of stone houses with roofs tiled and pitched at an angle that would be completely unremarkable in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. In fact, there are no villages and few houses or farms in this area: in winter, there can be 12 metres of snow here, closing roads until spring. Really. Yes. Snow. Morocco.
We’re just a few kilometres away from Azrou – means “big rock”, so named for the significant rock that is the focal point of this small city situated at the junction of the Middle and High Atlas ranges. Whatever charms the city might have, they are completely overshadowed by the Gouraud Cedar Forest. Of course, it’s not really about the trees. No, not really. It’s about the Barbary monkeys who make their home here.
It’s true that many of the monkeys are totally shy and won’t approach people, but they are endangered, and there’s a particular picnic spot where the local monkeys are ruined. They are most certainly not shy of humans. If anything, they possibly have little regard for people except as sources of food. Yummy treats. Bananas. Dates. Peanuts. Who knows what else.
They see the cars pull in, and wait expectantly while you get out of the car. They give you a no-nonsense appraisal, and there’s no mistaking the message. “Watcha got?”
I know. I do really struggle with this. As a Canadian, I do understand the whole issue of feeding wildlife, and how destructive it is. It’s also a cool experience to feel the delicacy with which the monkeys take the tidbit from you. To feel that connection with another creature through the length of a date. And to feel hypocritical all at the same time: how is it that the same act that puts another nail in the coffin of this species is also one that so powerfully heightens your appreciation for them? They are beautiful, playful, entertaining, and even endearing, but they are still wild, and have the potential to be aggressive if they think they’re not getting their share. Be fair!
We’re making our last coffee stop in Ifrane, a bustling university town with broad streets and boulevards, avenues of shady trees, and idyllic parks. If it weren’t for the fact that street signs are in Arabic and menus in French, you would swear you were somewhere in temperate Europe, Canada, or the US. We’re at a nice little cafe, sitting on the patio in the dappled shade of some leafy chestnuts. Across the street is a well-known little park featuring the famous stone lion carved by a WW2 prisoner when Ifrane served as a POW camp. The carving commemorates the last wild Atlas lion killed in the area in the 1920’s. We watch as a Moroccan family gets organized to have a picture taken. Everybody who visits Ifrane gets a picture taken with the big old cat. We do, too.
And on to Fes. We stop for a quick look at the Belvedere Oughmari which offers sweeping views of the Middle Atlas valleys, lushly green and quilted with patches of dark forest and, olive orchards, and pastures dotted with grazing sheep. Idyllic!
We’re soon into the outskirts of Fes. At first, it’s the increase in individual houses, then hopeful new housing developments in various stages of construction, then roadside shops and cafes, and the inevitable crush of bicycles, motorcycles, donkey carts, and suddenly the cacophony of big-city traffic. We’ve arrived – time to find our riad, a quiet patio, and dinner.