I met Karem promptly at 10:00 a.m. and expected to hit the road right away. However, Karem suggested a change in the program recommending a side trip to Rissani a few kilometers south of Erfoud. The town apparently had a wonderful ksar that I could visit along with some other local sites. Fine by me.
We drove into the sleepy town and met “Ali”, a charismatic young man who was going to act as my tour guide. Ali was dressed in a blue robe and a turban like head dress. Ali immediately informed me he was a Touareg or “blue man of the desert. Touaregs are a tribal group and inhabit Mali, Niger, southern Algeria, southern Libya and southern Morocco.
Karem drove Ali and me to our starting point, and Ali immediately proved to be a wealth of knowledge about the area and the various cultures and style of dress. I quickly learned that women wearing the black abaya (cloak like covering) are bedouins (people of the desert), while women wearing black abayas with colours on the back are from the Amazigh tribe of Berbers. Women wearing floral designs are Saharian ro Touaregs and women wearing colourful flowing dresses with sequins and sparkles are usually Berbers who inhabit the Atlas Mountains.
Now I found this information extremely helpful because as we passed through mountain villages the previous day I had wondered what was with all the different colours of dress. Now I knew.
So armed with this new knowledge and a variety of other little tidbits, including the fact that global warming is causing the desert to encroach on Rissani, (more winds blowing sand into the town), Ali and I set off to first visit the Zouia of Moulay Ali Shereef, the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. (A zouia is a monastery like building for the Sufi brotherhood, which is a form of the Muslim religion where members often “twirl” themselves into a hypnotic trance. This is commonly known as a whirling dervish).
Anyway, the courtyard of the zouia was filled with trees and flowers while the walls surrounding the courtyard were covered in gorgeous mosaic tiles. Unfortunately, like the other Muslim buildings in Morocco, I was not permitted into the mausoleum or into the mosque, but I was able to peer into the mosque through an open door and it was filled with light and soft white colours and dark wood.
After the visit to the zouia, we moved on to the Ksar Akbar, which dates to the nineteenth century. The ksar was a solid mud building made by using wood frames and filling the frame with mud. Water would be poured on the top of the brick and left to dry. If the water remained after the brick was dry it was a good brick and if the water was gone, the brick was filled with air pockets and was no good. The good mud bricks were then used to construct a building and once completed were covered with a “stucco” of mud and straw and left to dry in the sun. Unfortunately, the mud does not last forever, and the many inhabitants of Kissani who live in the ksar, are constantly repairing their home.
We wandered through the ksar, which consisted of a series of twisting, turning alleys with doors every few yards on both sides of the alley marking the entrance to the homes in the ksar. Animals and people coexisted in the residences and periodically we would run into both. The ksar had minimal decorations carved into the walls, but occasionally we would see a marking called a Nomad’s compass (similar to a cross and a sign of a travel), a butterfly (which is a sign of good luck), a freedom sign and a series of steps known as the stairway to heaven.
We eventually left the ksar and walked around the back of the zouia where there was a beautiful 17th century ksar with a rather elaborate exterior wall. We did not enter, but it did provide a good photo op.
We then walked back to the car, dropped Ali back in the town square, bid him adieu and drove back to Erfoud for the trip towards Todra Gorge, but not before we made a quick stop at the date souk in Erfoud. I learned that Erfoud is actually the date capital of Morocco and the host of the annual date festival, which I was going to miss by four days. (Damn. I love a good local festival.)
Anyway, I bought a box of dates (way too many, but the fellow did not seem to understand how to only sell me a few). We wandered around the souk for a bit, passing the requisite goat heads (a favorite in Morocco) and the accompanying odor from sitting in the hot sun, before getting back in the car and heading down the road.
But wait … there’s more. We had to do one pass by the King’s Palace In Erfoud (yep another one), which has apparently never been visited by the big guy. This one was as enormous as the others, with gorgeous grounds and a multitude of guards and groundskeepers. I guess all these palaces help keep the locals employed.
So with all of that behind us, we finally hit the road. But no … we had yet another stop. Karem wanted me to see the famous Manre Mabre, which produces incredible marble and stone works containing hundreds of little fossils from the Erfoud region. I quickly agreed as it seemed to be something rather different. So I met one of the stone cutters at the door who gave me a tour of the facility and showed me how they use enormous electric saws to cut the large blocks of stone into smaller pieces and then take the smaller pieces and using hand tools and cleaners to slowly reveal the fossils inside the stone. Once the cutting and chiseling is complete, the designers create magnificent table tops, sinks, and furniture.
It was actually very interesting and as I wandered around the enormous warehouse, a marble coffee table that was being worked on caught my eye. It was spectacular. I had been looking for a new coffee table at home without success so I asked the fellow if it was for sale (uh yep) and whether they had a matching piece for an end table. Twenty minutes later they located an uncut piece of marble that matched. I asked them if they could cut the piece to match the coffee table, received an affirmative and bought both pieces on the spot after some serious haggling. A bit of an impulse buy, but I was absolutely thrilled to find something unique that would fit perfectly into my living room. (And they agreed to pay the shipping to the U.S.)
By now it was 2:30 and we had barely left Erfoud (and I thought I was going to escape this dreaded town quickly). Anyway, this time we really did leave Erfoud behind, and before I knew it we were in the middle of desert and scrub grass.
For the next hour or so, the drive was pretty boring. The only interesting site was seeing a number of solar powered street lights. What a brilliant idea! Karem advised me that southern Morocco was using solar and wind power for a variety of projects. Morocco may not have oil, but they certainly have a lot of wind in the mountains and sun throughout the country so they should have their energy needs covered for the duration.
Anyway, the boring terrain eventually changed as we started to climb once again into the High Atlas Mountains. The high desert also gave way to numerous abandoned and rebuilt kasbahs. As we were now in southern Morocco, the kasbahs were exclusively fortified residences as opposed to fortified residential areas. Quite frankly, I had a hard time telling the difference between a kasbah and a ksar since many of the kasabahs were built so close together they started to look like a ksar. Again, ksours – plural of ksar – are fortified villages in the south while kasbahs are fortifed villages in the north. Both were made out of mud bricks and covered in mud and straw. I have no idea why they just don’t use the same name in the north and the south, but they don’t so when in Rome ….
We finally hit the Todra Gorge turnoff around 4:00 p.m. The road leading to the gorge passes through a number of villages and the desert begins to give way to fantastic red cliffs that you first see as you wind your way up the hillside.
About 20 minutes after we turned, we reached a bend in the road where I got my first look at the enormous cliffs in front of me that make up the Todra Gorge, and it really did take my breath away. The cliffs are three hundred meters high on each side in a multitude of red hughed colours. And with the afternoon sun hitting only parts of the cliffs, the contrast was spectacular.
I jumped out of the car and wandered down the road looking back and forth looking at both sides of the gorge. It was incredible. And because it was around 4:30 in the afternoon, I was there long after the tourists had left the area so I had the gorge virtually to myself. Uh make that me and a couple tourists … who were half way up the rock face. I watched as these obvious professionals used a series of ropes and the deep crevices of the stone to slowly, slowly move up the side of the gorge. Yikes! Not for me.
I hung around for about a half hour taking in the scenery and watching the climbers before Karem suggested we get back on the road. We traced our way back through the little villages onto the main highway destined for Skoura and Kasbah Ait Ben Moro, the 17th century kasbah I would be staying in for the night.
After what seemed like hours in the car, we finally reached Skoura shortly before 8:00 p.m., a little desert oasis town in the middle of nowhere. We located, Ksabah Ait Ben Moro and as we entered we found it had been renovated and decorated it traditional Moroccan style and was in one word – spectacular. Karem told me that he had never even heard of this place, but once inside the enormous doors, it was apparent that he would be telling his superiors about the place. Beautiful carved doors and high ceilings everywhere. Candles lit many of the foyers and courtyards, and because we were in the middle of nowhere, you could see a million stars. Off in the distance I could hear the call to prayer and donkeys braying.
I was led up a very narrow staircase to a locked door on the second floor and once opened I walked into a gorgeous series of rooms that were all mine for the night. At this point, I was wishing I was staying longer. It was authentic and beautiful. My kind of place.
I changed and went downstairs to a patio where dinner was being served to four other guests. One couple from Germany invited me to join them, which I happily did. Lovely folks who used to live in Milan and were in the fashion industry.
Anyway, after a fabulous meal of bread, salad (Moroccan salad consists of small dishes of vegetables such as olives, cut up tomatoes, cut up cauliflower and grilled eggplant), rice and beef tangine (a Moroccan dish cooked in a clay pot with a sauce and potatoes) it was time to call it a night. I would have one more day of driving through the Atlas Mountains before we reached Marrakesh.