Volubilis and Chefchaouen

Day 10 – 4th January – Moulay Idriss to Chefchaouen (181km)

The short days of winter meant that we were spending most hours of daylight riding with little or no time to visit things once we had reached our next destination, so since Marrakech we had started to make shorter journeys and do some sightseeing along the way.

Today we had a particularly short day, and planned to visit two things. The first were the ruins of Volubilis, an important Roman settlement two kilometres out of Moulay Idris, capital of the Kingdom of Mauretaina and the actual place where Moulay Idriss I arrived in the 8th century and started Islam in Morocco, the present-day city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun not being built until two centuries later.

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A lot of materials to build the new city were taken from Volubilis, and today the biggest remains are those of the basilica and the Capitoline temple, as well as the Triumphal arch.

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The city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and at this time in the morning was deserted, which meant no other tourists and no locals trying to make some money as guides. We spend over an hour walking among the ruins, taking in the size of the city, appreciating the perfect location at the foot of the hills, between two small rivers or wadis, with a vast expanse of fertile land beyond its walls.

The sun was rising and with all our riding clothes on we soon decided that it was getting too hot to be sightseeing, so it was time to hit the road to get to our next destination with plenty of daylight left – Chefchaouen, the blue city.

For the next hour or so the road was rather monotonous, but past Ouazzane we entered the Riff and it became much better – green valleys, winding roads, great landscape… it all made for a more entertaining journey to Chefchaouen.

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Once we got there, realising that it was only one o’clock and that Ceuta, where we were supposed to go the following day to spend the night before taking the ferry back home, was only a further 100km away, there was a short debate whether to stick to the plan and stay overnight in Chefchaouen or visit it fast and go on to Ceuta. Gerard and Esteve were tired of so many days on the bike and the prospect of getting home a day earlier was tempting for them, but I wanted to visit Chefchaouen without hurry and rest a bit. And in any case, moving things up a day meant cancelling a night’s booking in Chefchaouen, advancing the booking in Ceuta and modifying the date of the ferry’s tickets, with no guarantee that we would get our money back in any of the cases. That argument seemed to be enough to convince them to go on with the planned schedule, and we rode into the city to find our house.

This time we had booked space in a place called Villa Rita, a guesthouse 15 minutes on foot away from the medina. It took us a while to find it, as there was no clear address and the GPS location was approximate, and when we knocked on the door, there seemed to be nobody there. Fortunately, after a phone call, the manager appeared and things changed for the better very fast – we had space to park the bikes inside the house, instead of just rooms we had a whole floor, a complete apartment for us, there was heating in the rooms, a fireplace in the living room, working wifi signal in all the rooms and hot water in the bath. This was by far the best place where we had stayed.

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With some hours of daylight left, we went to visit the famous blue city – called so because most of its houses are painted in blue and some white, making for a spectacularly colourful medina. Locals told us that the reason is that the blue colour is supposed to keep the mosquitoes away, and the white colour has the better-known function of keeping the houses cool in the summer heat.

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The medina was a lot bigger than we expected and, despite being one of the biggest tourist attractions in this part of the country there were not too many people in the streets, so strolled around taking pictures until it got dark.

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Chefchaouen is also known for being at the heart of the one of the main cannabis production regions in Morocco, and the tourists are openly offered to buy the product everywhere in the medina, as well as visits to the plantations.

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Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is not easy to find outside this region, and it is not legal to grow it or sell it in the country. However, centuries ago, a few families in the Rif valley were granted special permission by the King, and it still stands today.

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As part of our Moroccan experience, we decided to buy… Oooops, wait. This is a family friendly blog. OK, as a little homage to How I Met Your Mother, let’s say that we decided to buy sandwiches from one of the guys in the main square.

He went to fetch his friend, who told us to follow him to a less crowded place and immediately started talking. He told us that he was somewhat of a local celebrity, as he had appeared in a famous Spanish film in the 80s. In the film, called ‘Bajarse al moro’, two girls from a group of friends from Madrid who make some extra money selling sandwiches travel to Morocco to get some ingredients. The guy played a kid who offers to take one of the girls into the mountains to see the plantations and buy ingredients. Because he spoke Spanish, the film director also tasked him with finding all the extras for the crowd scene, and ever since, to Spanish tourists he has become a face associated with sandwiches so, according to him ‘life gave him no alternative but to go into the sandwich industry’.

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We didn’t want to buy stuff to make too many sandwiches, as we were on the way back and crossing the border the following day, so in the end we convinced him to sell us only a little and back in the apartment we found that the ingredients were so good that after just one sandwich we had had enough and went to bed.

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The Holy City

Day 9 – 3rd January – Kasba Tadla to Moulay Idriss (308km)

We had a short day ahead of us today, so armed with the recommendations from our host we departed early and soon left the main road to ride into the Middle Atlas region through some very nice small roads. Not that the national road had been boring like the previous day, mind you – this time it went through nice green fields, it had more corners and better landscape, making the start of the day a rather nice affair.

When we reached the city of Kenifra we turned right off the national road and started gaining altitude through narrow roads again in the search of our first stop – a lake called Aguelmame Azigza. The open spaces of the green fields turned into cedar forests and there were patches of snow here and there, and even some ice when we stopped at a crossroads to check which way to go.

img_1974 I stopped on the unpaved ground where the road split in two without realizing that there was a sheet of ice right under me, and when I put my right foot down I felt it slip and almost lost balance and dropped the bike. Fortunately, I caught it on time and moved forward a bit out of the frozen ground.

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We found the lake a few kilometres further down a smaller road that turned into a dirt track for the last few hundred metres before the water. It was at the bottom of a shallow valley with a few nomad huts here and there where we heard the sound of sheep. We left the bikes on the road by the forest and walked down to the shore, quickly realising that it had been a good idea not to try to ride the bikes all the way down to the water’s edge, as what looked like dry terrain was in fact very slippery grey clay, so much so that we almost lost footing and fell several times.

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When we came back to the bikes we saw that we had a visitor. A monkey had come out of the trees and was walking around the bikes, probably looking for food. Gerard gave him some dates he had bought in Ouarzazate and when we got back on the bikes we realised that it had sat on all three of them, smearing mud all over the seats. It was a good thing that we had not left gloves, neck warmers or other stuff laying around, or he would have probably stolen it.

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Past the lake, the road became worse, still paved but with a surface so broken and with so many potholes that we had to ride slowly. On one of the worst potholes the front suspension on Gerard’s bike compressed all the way and the front mudguard caught in the crossbar that connects both sides of the crash bars, preventing the suspension from extending again. For a moment of sheer panic, he felt that he had no steering but luckily, he was going very slowly and was able to stop safely. When he was about to get off the bike, the mudguard lip broke free and the suspension extended suddenly, making him lose his balance and almost throwing him and Raluca on the ground.

A few months ago, he had had a crash with that motorbike. It had not been a serious one, but after the bike was repaired he felt some vibrations through the handlebars and had taken it to two different mechanics who had checked the front wheel and found nothing wrong. On the way down to Morocco, however, riding alongside him on long straight stretches of road while was recording some videos, I could clearly see with my naked eye that there was something wrong with the way the wheel turned. When fixing the problem with his headlamp in Errachidia I had looked down the suspension bars from above and I would swear they were slightly bent back. The incident with the mudguard confirmed my suspicions, as it should not touch some crash bars that have been specifically designed for this bike. It was clear that the suspension had bent back slightly but far enough for the mudguard to come dangerously close to the crash bars.

We were only a few kilometres away from our next visit, the Sources de l’Oum-er-Rbia, so we decided to ride on carefully and deal with the problem there.

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The sources are located in a rocky gorge and are actually 47 different sources of water that spring abundantly out of the mountain. 40 of them are fresh water, while the remaining 7 are salty due to minerals in that part of the mountains.

img_2008There was some infrastructure in place for tourists, with small stalls made of straw, but most of them were empty – the place was well away from the main routes and it seemed that it was not the high season to visit. There were a couple of women selling bread and some places that offered a Tajin meal that smelled delicious, but we had had a hearty breakfast and were not going to eat again until reaching our final destination for the day, so we politely refused the insistent offers from our guide, a guy who had insisted on showing us around from the moment we had parked the bikes.

Back where we had parked the bikes we took out our toolkits and set about dismantling Gerard’s mudguard. You are supposed to remove the front wheel to do so in a V-Strom, but with some pushing and pulling it came out easily enough, and he strapped it on top of a pannier for the rest of the trip, furious that neither of his mechanics had realised the problem with his suspension. I was also surprised, as it was a major problem, potentially dangerous and one of the obvious things to check after a front crash… Either both mechanics were grossly incompetent, or together with the insurance expert had decided that the damage was not bad enough to repair and left it that way, which is even worse.

Having checked that the tire was safely clear from the crashbars we rode on through more amazing roads, coming into the Forêt de Cèdres again, this time a bit further to the west than the first time we had crossed it on our way down to Errachidia. At Azrou we turned northwest, rode past Meknes and with the last light of the day reached Moulay Idriss, where we had booked a hotel for the night.

Moulay Idriss is a very important city for Moroccan people, as is considered the place where Islam started in Morocco. It is here where Moulay Idriss I, after whom the city is named, arrived bringing the religion of Islam. As it is considered a holy place, tourists were not allowed to stay after sunset until 2005. In practice this means that there is little offer in terms of accommodation, and the place is totally free of the usual tourist traps that one can find in the medinas in Fez or Marrakech. We had made a reservation in a small hotel and contacted them to ask about parking for the bikes, and when we reached the square where the hotel was supposed to be located there was a man already waiting for us to help us park the bikes. The hotel was in fact on a side street and was accessible by going down a narrow alley with steps, so we were told that the bikes would have to spend the night in the square, which also doubled as the city’s bus and taxi depot. It was a busy place, and there was a guy who would keep watch over the bikes during the night for 50 dirhams, so we were not particularly worried about leaving them there, especially as the place looked a lot safer than Marrakech.

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At this point on our journey it had become obvious that the country is not prepared for the winter. The houses are designed for a climate that is very hot most of the year, so the windows don’t adjust, there are big open spaces, curtains instead of doors in many places, no heating and barely adequate hot water facilities. At least this hotel had a functioning heat pump in the rooms, but the shower was the same cold affair as in most places so far.

It was already dark, but we still had time to visit the market and the medina before having dinner and, like the day before in Kasba Tadla, found them to be authentic and enjoyable, with no other foreigners around, no souvenir shops and nobody harassing us to buy things.