I make a little square by putting my thumbs and index fingers together and look out through the window. With this little bit of finger-cropping, I could swear that the view is “somewhere” in rural Canada or the American Midwest. The terrain gently undulates under a carpet of broad fields of knee-high wheat and barley. There are copses of dark leafy trees, the odd farm house here and there.
Idyllic — but it’s not Canada. It’s Morocco, and we’re on another road trip from Fes to Casablanca, the west side of the country. If you look at a world atlas, you’ll discover that the most-northern tip of Morocco, Tangiers, lies only about five degrees latitude further south than Toronto or Montreal, or just a touch more north than Chicago. In fact, all of Morocco is north of the equator, a fact that surprises many people. (In fairness, most of the country lies at about the same latitude as Arizona or Texas.) So this northwestern corner of Morocco is very much like a warm Canadian spring or fall for the better part of the year.
Without the finger-cropping, several things tell you that you’re for sure not in Canada. The neatly cultivated, but nevertheless massive, lines of prickly pear cactus that delineate the fields, for example. The crumbling ruins of abandoned mudbrick farm buildings, and the lovely creamy-white houses built from the local fieldstone. The minarets of local mosques in all but the tiniest villages. It’s very much a source of local pride for the residents to raise enough money to build a mosque of their own.
And then, the donkeys. In this area, the fields are large enough that modern farm equipment can be used to seed and harvest. But many vegetable crops are still sown and harvested by hand, and donkeys used to take things to market. Obscured by paniers loaded with greenery, they look like leafy shrubs with four legs as they trot down the road.
This area is also well-supplied with water, either from regular rainfall – especially in the winter – or from irrigation sourced from natural rivers (remember Sources de l’Oum Rhbia?) and several significant reservoirs. I often wonder that Morocco isn’t the breadbasket of Africa, given that they seem to grow absolutely every possible fruit and vegetable here, and I do mean EVERYTHING. Well, maybe not pineapples. I haven’t seen pineapples. But honestly, absolutely everything else. And in such abundance and high quality.
And that would include grapes, then, right? YE-ESSS! This is WINE country! Believe it! It’s true that Moroccans are somewhat conflicted about this because as Muslims, alcohol is forbidden to them. So there is probably an ongoing negotiation with Allah about this, because Morocco has a thriving wine industry. How could it not? Consider the depth of French, Spanish, and Portuguese influences on this part of the world: do you think any of these three wine-wizards could resist the favorable climate here? No-o… not a chance. It’s fair to say that the industry is still “developing”: you won’t necessarily find the brilliant wines that you might expect from the Europeans, perhaps reflecting some of the ambivalence about alcohol in Morocco. But on the other hand, there are certainly many very respectable offerings, and we always seek them out to have along with dinner. The concept of a wine tasting tour is not particularly well-developed in Morocco yet, but with advance reservations, you can easily spend a happy day driving between the wineries in this region, sampling their offerings.
Well. Back to the road.
In addition to its agricultural wealth, this corner of Morocco is also one of the richest in cultural history. Of the four Imperial cities (those which have in the past, or currently, serve as Morocco’s national capital), three are within one to three hours’ drive of each other. Fes, Meknes and Rabat are all in the vicinity. (Marrakech is the exception, some five hours south.)
And then there is what I like to think of as the fifth Imperial City: Volubilis. Just an hour from either Fes or Meknes, Volubilis is the ancient capital of the Roman/Berber kingdom of Mauretania. The ruins are absolutely fascinating, and you need a couple of hours here. The city was extremely prosperous, owing to its production of olives and olive oil. Many very large private houses were built for the very wealthy, many with exquisite mosaic floors that are still in excellent condition. Even the ordinary people had small but well-built houses and access to public amenities that speak to a sophisticated life and lifestyle. There are numerous public buildings, an underground sewer system, vestiges of shops along the major streets, and yes – a hammam! Ever so civilized! There’s even a brothel, and believe me, you’ll know when you’re there.
From Volubilis, you can see the village of Moulay Idriss across the valley against the slope of a mountain. The guides like to point out how it has sort of camel shape. I’ll editorialize here: it’s definitely a RECLINING camel, probably exhausted from hauling itself up the steep terrain. Let me tell you, if you’re doing this as a walk, it’s a pretty good UPHILL SLOG to reach the town’s pinnacle, but you’re rewarded with a wonderful view across the valley down to Volubilis. You can also drive up. (I SO love having a driver!) Nevetheless, Moulay Idriss makes a great stop to go for lunch or coffee after a visit to Volubilis.
We share a yummy kefta (meatball) tagine, and then we’re off again. This time, we’re going to forsake the scenery of the secondary roads and take the major highway. We’re craving the beach and the cooler coastal air.
The only major modern highway network in Morocco connects the major cities on the west side of the country. It’s a fabulous road! Morocco has taken a page from France’s transportation development playbook: the highway was built and is maintained by a private company, and is paid for, at least in part, by tolls.
The highway itself is smooth, fast, signage great, on/off ramps predictable, and rest stops are frequent and lovely. All have a gas station and a cafe or restaurant, but beyond that, the amenities vary: some have picnic areas, some have accommodations, some have facilities for group functions like weddings, and many have prayer rooms. Lest we forget what country we’re in.
Casablanca lives up to its name: against the coastal haze of sea-sky blue, it glows bright-whitely, even some 30 km away. It’s such a dramatically different sight from all of the terra cotta red or mud-brick brown towns and cities that characterize the rest of Morocco.
We’re embraced by the soft salt-sea air. It’ll be Rick’s Cafe for dinner tonight. Here’s looking at you, kids!
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