22 July 2014

Morocco day 6: The Middle Atlas Mountains and Berem

We left Fes at 9am for a long day of travel, but with lots of interesting stops.

We climbed up and through the Middle Atlas mountains, covered in cedar trees – some up to 300 years old – and Holm oaks, which are native to these parts. Our first stop was at one of the many mountain lakes, a picturesque spot, with lots of water birds and dragon flies, nice reflections in the water, and enterprising locals looking to make a dirham or two by allowing visitors to pose for photos on their colourfully bedecked horses. Even though we deliberately parked a mile or more away, they quickly came galloping over.

Our next stop was for drinks and cakes at Ifrane, a little slice of Switzerland transplanted to Morocco. The town is popular with people from Fes seeking to escape the 40 degree summer heat, as well as for those wanting to trek and partake in winter sports. As it snows there in the winter, rather than the usual flat roofs, the houses are tall and peaked and look more European, especially with the huge stork nests propped against roof peaks and chimney stacks. The town also sports a large statue of a lion, a Barbary lion – yes, they did once have lions roaming these mountains and, though now extinct in the wild, some still survive in captivity. The Barbary Lion Project aims, eventually, to breed enough lions to release back into the wild.

As well as the Barbary Lion, there is also a Barbary Ape or Macaque, and we saw lots of these little critters by the roadside as we continued our journey. People feed them so, naturally, they come to the roads to scavenge and beg for food. As you can imagine, we all took lots of photographs, as they were very cute.

The Middle Atlas are big mountains and the countryside is quite rugged and barren. Still, in places we saw donkeys standing by the roadside. Their owners had caught passing taxis and buses to the weekly market in their nearest local town and would return later in the day to load their purchases on to the donkeys for the journey home – not much in the way of local roads here. And this is also an area where nomads roam, grazing their flocks of sheep and goats in one place for a few days before moving themselves, their tents and their animals on to the next plain or valley. It’s a way of life that has continued for centuries in these parts.

We descended through a dramatic gorge at 2000 metres absl and continued across a high plateau at 1600 metres absl where we stopped at a local town for lunch. Both the goat and the sheep tagines were delicious – parts of the goat, including its head, were still hanging up in the butcher’s stall just outside the restaurant so we were reassured that the meat was fresh that morning!

Our last stop of the day was at Atelier Kasbah Myriem, adjoining the Monastery of Notre Dame in the Atlas. Franciscan nuns established a convent in this place in 1926 and, in an enlightened example of inter-faith cooperation, began teaching the local girls and women how to embroider. Though only two nuns now remain – and they are too old to teach, and the convent has become a monastery for Trappist monks, the embroidery and weaving workshop continues, allowing local women to pass their skills on to the next generation and to earn some money from their exquisite work. Shopping!

It was a short drive from there to our overnight accommodation, in a Kasbah just outside Berem, a small town about 6kms west of Midelt. We got settled, then Issam led us on a walk to see the dramatic river gorge where the old part of the town sits. The younger Intrepid travellers were scampering along the edge like mountain goats but not me … it was steep and the rock crumbly … better to be safe than sorry. 

As we walked through the ancient town of mud-brick houses, we met a local grandfather who Issam knew and were immediately invited into his family’s home to share mint tea and bread. He, his daughter and grandson were very welcoming and it was wonderful to hear him speak (with Issam translating) of his life as a nomad sheep herder. He had only recently bought the house, for his family and his old age, but still missed the nomadic lifestyle. It was a wonderful way to bring another great Moroccan day to a close.

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