The road from Fes to Midelt with stops in Sefrou and Bhalil – Morocco

23 Dec

The Medinas of Sefrou and Bhalil

Short DescriptionI left Fes and went to Sefrou, where I explored the old medina. Then, I headed to Bhalil, the village where troglodytes transformed caves into dwellings. At Kamal Chaoui’s Berber House, an unplanned travel writers’ meeting took place. Kamal invited me to stay in Bhalil overnight.

Long Description.

In the morning, I took a taxi with Mohamed and went to the Hertz’s headquarters in Fes. There, I picked up my car, which I had reserved for almost one month in advance. They gave me a small, economic Fiat Punto, which had a lot of scratches both in front and at the back of the car. Most of the cars in Morocco looked like that. Before saying ‘goodbye,’ Mohamed asked me to give him some money to go back to the riad. I gave him all my small change, then we parted. After I left Fes, I headed to the small Berber town of Sefrou.

Sefrou medina: Bab el-Maqam (the main gate entrance)

Sefrou medina: Bab el-Maqam (the main gate entrance)

In Sefrou, I didn’t know how to pay for parking my car, so I asked a man who seemed to guard the cars. ‘20 Dirhams,’ he said to me, and I gave him the money. Mud-brick fortification walls surrounded the medina in Sefrou. When I entered the old medina, I felt a striking contrast compared to the rest of the town. Narrow streets, crowds, shops selling everything, garbage, and walls scratched with tables from the last elections. An old man was filling a bucket with water from a public fountain. The river crossing the medina was full of garbage.

Women carried their babies wrapped up in a shawl at their back, and you could see only a peewee. Minarets had a discrete color that distinguished them in the urban layout. Peddlers displayed their goods in the street, in the shade of improvised canopies. A young boy insisted on taking a photo of him. I had to capture him so that he let me alone. Colorful graffiti enlivened the shriveled walls of the houses. The vegetables and fruit market stood right in the middle of the street, under a few layers of well-stretched canvases. Most of the buildings seemed pretty shabby – a typical oriental mess, but people were smiling.

Sefrou medina: a market everywhere

Sefrou medina: a market everywhere

The bridge over the dirty waters of the Oued Aggai River reached another area of souqs in the old medina of Sefrou. Almost all women respected the Muslim dressing code and covered their heads with a hijab. In the Jewish quarter (mellah), the houses had wooden balconies overlooking the street. This was a sign that the mentality and the religion of the initial community had changed. Sefrou once had the largest Jewish community in Morocco (8000 Jews), but most of them had left by the time of my visit. In the middle of the street, a man sold fresh mint for traditional Moroccan tea. A few meters away, men sipped their every-day mint tea at pavement cafes. Peddlers assaulted all of the entrance gates of the medina and pilled up their wares in heaps on the ground.

From Sefrou, you could easily reach Bhalil, a relatively big village with a small medina. The houses in Bhalil were first built inside caves, then gradually extended in front or above the caves. The caves seemed perfectly integrated inside the new dwellings, and you couldn’t even notice them. Houses had lively colors even though they had shriveled walls and created a joyful contrast with the cobblestone streets and the murky sky. Bhalil had become famous for the ladies who usually crocheted buttons for traditional djellabas (traditional clothing for both women and men) in the street. Unfortunately, they didn’t work in the street that day.

Bhalil: the famous djellaba buttons

Bhalil: the famous djellaba buttons

Kamal Chaoui lived on the main street in the old medina, and I had to interview him about his Berber house. He told me he was waiting for other two travel writers – Sammy, Susan with her husband, and their little adopted Moroccan boy. Kamal told me this didn’t happen so often, but it seemed the Universe had chosen that day of the year for all his planned or unplanned interviews.

Bhalil: the travel writers' unplanned meeting at Kamal Chaoui Berber guesthouse

Bhalil: the travel writers’ unplanned meeting at Kamal Chaoui Berber guesthouse

In Bhalil, Kamal guided us to a local carpenter, Abdul Latif, whose workshop was refurbished inside a cave. Kamal regularly gave him work to do and thus supported local craftsmen’s tradition in the village. Kamal did the same with uncle Basha, who made wicker baskets by hand. 

As we didn’t have a place where to eat in Bhalil, we decided to go to Sefrou and had a kefta sandwich in an eatery known by Kamal. There, we waited for our sandwiches to be well cooked and gotten rid of microbes. After our late lunch, Kamal suggested me to stay at his guest house overnight. This way, he could give me enough information for the article I would write about Dar Kamal Chaoui Berber Guesthouse.

Breakfast with troglodytes in Bhalil

Short Description. In Bhalil, Kamal arranged a breakfast with a troglodyte family in a cave. I stopped in Ifrane mountain resort, then in the medina of Azrou and in the cedar forest with macaque Barbary apes. In the afternoon, I crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains and stayed in Midelt overnight.

Long Description.

In the morning, Kamal arranged to have breakfast with troglodytes inside a cave-dwelling. They served us mint tea, the classic melted cheese, home-made bread, butter, olive oil and green olives, fig jam, and mille-feuille fancy cakes. Kamal and his French wife, Beatrice, had taught them how to make fruit jams because local people hadn’t known how to do that.

We sat gathered around a low round table and started to eat. They spoke only Arabic, whereas I chirped a few words in French from time to time. The family where we had breakfast was composed of: Fatma – the grandmother, Jamila – her daughter, Yassine – Jamila’s son, and Jaoued – another son of Fatma. Jaoued was a teacher in the village and the only man in the house.

Bhalil: a modest breakfast with troglodytes, Kamal, and his mother

Bhalil: a modest breakfast with troglodytes, Kamal, and his mother

The troglodyte family had extended the initial cave with a room. They built a new chamber in front of the cave and another floor on top of it. Simple sofas were arranged on three sides of the cave room. On the floor, you could see the mattresses and blankets where they had slept during the night. They even had a sink inside the cave, and a stairway packed with all kinds of stuff climbed to the upper floor. The upper floor had running water and a shower, a Turkish toilet, a boiler, and a washing machine. However, the family preferred to go to the hammam (public bath) once a week.

Bhalil: the interior of a troglodyte house ('the living room' is actually in a cave)

Bhalil: the interior of a troglodyte house (‘the living room’ is actually in a cave)

Bhalil featured the main mosque and the place near the river where women washed clothes and dishware. When they saw I took photos of them, all the women screamed and hid their faces. Kamal, who had walked in front of me, beckoned me to pass them faster. Little girls who went to school were more friendly though. It was Wednesday, and people came with their laden mules even from far away mountains to sell their goods at the souq in Bhalil.

Bhalil: children going to school in the morning

Bhalil: children going to school in the morning

Crossing the Middle Atlas Mountains from Bhalil to Midelt

On the way from Bhalil to Ifrane, I saw women riding mules and heading to their villages up in the mountains. On the side of the road, you could see onion crops cultivated the way Kamal had told me. Locals built two parallel, low walls of boulders and placed onions above. Onions extended their roots down to the earth. Then, a plastic sheet covered the onions during the cold season. This way, the greenhouse effect helped the onions to grow abundantly.

From Bhalil to Dayet Ifruah: onion production (this way it could be deposited for 6 months)

From Bhalil to Dayet Ifruah: onion production (this way it could be deposited for 6 months)

On the way to Ifrane, I chose to make a short detour to the Dayet Ifruah Lake. I followed an isolated and potholed road. At a crossroads, I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to continue and hadn’t activated the GPS. As I stopped in the middle of the road, another car stopped behind me. A gentleman came to my car and asked whether he could help me. I told him I wanted to go to Ifrane and that I was not sure which of the two roads to choose. I found out he owned a tourist resort by the Dayet Ifruah Lake. Eventually, he advised me to take the left road even though it seemed pretty bad.

The sinuous road descended toward the Dayet Ifruah Lake. After it passed a pine forest, an arid landscape with brown hills and little vegetation opened in front of my eyes. The Dayet Ifruah Lake was pretty small, and only a village with simple, scattered houses had developed on its shores. Children were playing in courtyards. Colored linen enlivened the monochrome of the boulders and dried land. Several concrete skeletons reminded me of the tourism resort the gentleman had talked about to me. A flock of sheep suddenly crossed the road in front of my car. Then, the road continued into a wilderness.

After the road passed the Dayet Ifruah Lake, it headed towards Dayet Hachlah and then crossed a silvery pine forest near Ifrane. Ifrane was a mountain resort built by the French colonists – the modern pearl of the country, nicknamed the ‘Chamonix of Morocco.’ It was a very touristic place, frequented by both Moroccans and foreigners (especially French people). All parking places had a barrier, and I had a hard time finding a free parking spot on a sloping street in the shade of some trees. Ifrane also became famous for the huge stone lion in the city center, where everybody took photos. I queued for my photo, too, then wandered the streets with modern villas and luxurious postmodernist hotels.

Azrou small Berber town: entrance gate to the medina

Azrou small Berber town: entrance gate to the medina

From Ifrane, you could quickly reach the nearby Berber town of Azrou (meaning the ‘Great Rock’). Before crossing the Middle Atlas mountains, I stopped near the medina of Azrou. The Ennour Mosque dominated the city center in contrast to the moderated, human scale of the old town. The medina had several beautifully decorated entrance gates and squared, brightly colored houses. The central market had a genuine local atmosphere and shops with Berber carpets for sale in the street.

The previous night, I had made a hotel reservation in Midelt, and therefore, I had to cross the Middle Atlas Mountains until the evening. From Azrou, the road crossed a mountain pass with Atlas cedar trees and dozens of Barbary macaque apes. I had to donate two bananas to the troublesome apes in exchange for some photos and movies, in which they acted almost like humans. They crunched, filled their mouth with food, and scratched themselves. Then, they carefully looked around to defend themselves from possible thieves who might steal their precious food. They never shared what they had with some of their fellows. After they got the food, they ran, teased each other, or even started to fight to mark their territory. Female macaque apes carried their infants hanged under their belly, and the small ones looked around with big, astonished eyes, and unconsciously learned survival rules.

Near Azrou: Barbary macaque apes

Near Azrou: Barbary macaque apes

The road through the Middle Atlas passed gentle, velvet hills that I gradually left behind. The dry grass growing on the side of the road disappeared progressively and a rough, unfriendly terrain replaced it. An overwhelming barrenness dominated the landscape. Coniferous forests turned into dried bushes, then into a rocky desert. After reaching a high-altitude plateau, the winding road became straight and crossed a vast, brown highland spanning to the infinite.

High, lofty mountain peaks dominated the plateau’s backdrop. As I was fascinated by the mountainous scenery, I took photos while slowly driving the car. Other cars often honked when they overtook me, but I continued to drive, admire, and take pictures. Trucks overloaded with hay bales overtook me too. The road reached Col du Zad (2000 meters altitude) and, as it went down toward Midelt, it crossed another huge, deserted highland.

Crossing the Middle Atlas Mountains

Crossing the Middle Atlas Mountains

In Midelt, I randomly drove around the dusty, sordid city center until I found Hotel Bougafer. The hotel had laced decorations, a bit too old and neglected though. It looked good in the photos on the internet, but in reality, it was an ugly place where only Moroccans seemed to stay. I had a sordid room on the last floor, with a gigantic dead cockroach in the bathroom.

I felt helpless when I saw the cockroach in the bathroom, but went downstairs to eat in the restaurant (a vegetarian tajine and fresh orange juice). All the male youth in town had come to watch an important football match on the TV. The children sat at the restaurant tables and watched the big colored screen with big, glittering eyes – something they probably didn’t have at home. A brave young boy even asked if he could sit at my table.

Midelt - football evening at Hotel Bougafer: local children come to watch a football match at the hotel (they don't even notice me)

Midelt – football evening at Hotel Bougafer: local children come to watch a football match at the hotel (they don’t even notice me)

When I went to my room, the receptionist asked me if I could give him pills against fever. He had been ill for several days and hadn’t taken any medical treatment (or maybe he hadn’t had where to ask for one). I gave him a few pills of paracetamol and explained to him how to take them the following days. In the evening, the Green Chamber knocked at my door and asked for my visa number. Later, a man advised me to go and talk with the man who would guard the parking during the night. I gave 20 Dirhams to the guard, pointed toward my car, and asked him to take good care of it.

If you want to read more about the road trip through Morocco, here are all the Travelogues from Morocco (x21).

Have you been to Morocco or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked in Morocco or what you want to see there.

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28 Responses to “The road from Fes to Midelt with stops in Sefrou and Bhalil – Morocco”

  1. Smita March 1, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

    I’ve read a lot of articles about Morocco but never one which was quite so authentic. It was fascinating to read about your experiences, varied as they were, especially about breakfast with the troglodyte family in a cave! I’d love to visit Morocco soon and see some of these for myself.

    • Iuliana March 2, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

      Thank you for your appreciation. Well, I like to travel to off the beat places, especially if this involves spending more time with the locals.

  2. Sherianne March 11, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

    I have briefly been in and out of Morocco I one day. I had a driver and a guide, I wouldn’t go solo in this country and really hadn’t felt a need to return. However, I didn’t spend time with any locals other then the driver a guide and feel I missed out after reading this. May need to return after all

    • Iuliana March 12, 2016 at 9:53 am #

      To be honest, I felt safer in Morocco than in Romania, my home country. In Morocco there are gendarmes everywhere whereas in my country I don’t have all of these. I think the difference is based on what you are used to – I am used to take care of myself because I simply don’t live in Switzerland.

  3. Lisa April 3, 2016 at 11:20 pm #

    We were in Fes a few years back, but I can’t remember visiting Sefrou or Midelt. I really enjoyed reading your adventures of your travels here. The places are so authentic, more so than the more touristy parts of the country. The house in a cave is fascinating! We saw one in Ait Benhaddou.

    • Iuliana April 4, 2016 at 4:51 pm #

      Sefrou is very close to Fes but Midelt is pretty far, so I guess you couldn’t have gone there so easy (I had a rented car btw).

  4. Jane Dempster-Smith April 9, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    What an interesting adventure you are experiencing. Visting the Sefrou Medina would be a highlight. I loved the djellaba buttons that were made by the ladies. Spending time with the troglodytes and staying with them and learning about their way of live is such a unique experience and thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Iuliana April 11, 2016 at 10:35 am #

      When you see so many dejllabas, it is inevitably and you want to have one (even though you cannot wear it in Europe – I always wear it when I travel to other Arab countries).

  5. Subhashish Roy May 12, 2016 at 10:07 am #

    Morocco has always sounded a little intriguing to me and the though of visiting has never occurred ever. But seeing your journey it looked so different a place with it’s distinct characters. With a guide in town it looks a place worth visiting. The Bhalil living room in a cave looked interesting. Loved the buttons, the mountains and your picture with your writer friends. That must have been a lovely surprise.

    • Iuliana May 13, 2016 at 11:08 am #

      Yes, Bhalil was one of the highlights of my trip and meeting other journalists was great too.

  6. Jackie S. May 20, 2016 at 7:39 am #

    I would love to stay in a troglodyte for an overnight stay. It would be a unique place to stay. Plus, it looks cozy and has modern facilites. As with the Middle Atlas Mountains, do you know if one can hike along the mountains? I’m always on the look out for new hiking trails around the world.

    • Iuliana May 22, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

      Yes, there are a lot of hiking trails but there it is better to go with a guide because that region is pretty remote and not very popular with trekkers. I remember I did the valley of Roses near Boulmane des Dades when I was in Morocco for the second time. High Atlas Mountains (the Imlil – Toubkal area) are more popular.

  7. Epepa Travel Blog October 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

    I have never been to Morocco, but one day I would like to visit this country. I would definitely go to Sefrou medina because I really enjoy trying local specialties. I would never have guessed that this is the production of onions. Awesome!

    • Iuliana October 3, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

      I would have never observed those onion production unless my host in Bhalil (Kamal Chaoui) wouldn’t have told me about them. He knows a lot about the region and you can pay attention to things that otherwise you would have ignored.

  8. Melissa November 10, 2016 at 10:25 pm #

    Very cool! The home in Bhalil is very unique-the cave as a living room. Such a unique culture! The Middle Atlas Mountains are beautiful, love the photos!

    • Iuliana November 11, 2016 at 10:36 am #

      Thank you so much for your appreciation.

  9. Arnav Mathur November 15, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    Haven’t been to Morocco yet, but its on my radar. This is one of the most authentic and realistic blog articles I have come across related to Morocco. You seem to have had some really rustic experiences, interacting with the locals. Love the photos, as they have captured the essence of Morocco aptly.

    • Iuliana November 16, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

      Thank you Arnav. I hope you will soon start to plan a trip to Morocco.

  10. Linda (LD Holland) December 9, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    What an interesting number of spots you visited on this trip. I am sure the old medina was a very different view into life in Sefrou. The cave houses of Bhalil reminded me of the ones we saw when we visited Matera in Italy. I learned a new word – troglodytes. I had always thought this word referred to people who were technically challenged. But now know the real definition refers to cave dwellers. How great to get an inside view of how they lived. Such a change in views when you arrived in the Middle Atlas mountains. Such open and beautiful spaces.

    • Iuliana December 11, 2016 at 10:33 am #

      Lonely Planet has called them troglodytes, so I guess they know what they are saying (I am not a native English speaker).

  11. Amanda March 8, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    I have never been to Morocco, but it has always intrigued me. Thank you for the honest write up of this area. I feel that I will visit one day.

  12. Justine Kimoden March 10, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

    I love your writing style. It made me feel like I was reading a novel. I especially love that you made it so personal and not just the usual travel blog post where you talk about the place and what you did but included what you observed and the people you interacted with. Keep it up!

    • Iuliana March 11, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      Thank you so much Justine. Yes, you are right, I don’t enjoy so much the standard blog posts, I resonate more with the so -called ‘old school blogging’ based on sharing experiences. But the truth is that when the internet will be saturated by information, all blogs will have articles about ‘ how to get and see in Rome’, the experience/ feeling posts will be unique, personal, and will make the difference.

  13. Ami Bhat May 23, 2017 at 3:20 am #

    Did not realize that onions were big in that part of the world. I found the whole section on cave dwelling interesting. It was good that it was not one of those commercial ones. A bedroom on the top surprised me as I did not imagine a cave having floors. Sounds like I will have to plan a long and authentic visit to Morocco keeping your posts as a cue.

    • Iuliana March 25, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      I wouldn’t have noticed the onion crops either, but Kamal (my host) had told me where to look for them.

  14. daniel October 11, 2017 at 3:17 pm #

    Great post!! A living room inside a cave?? How intriguing. I have always wanted to explore sefrou as life seems so different there. I have seen onions which are so huge and so colored magenta, pretty nice to see that, as onions over here are all white sometimes red but they are tinier too.

    • Iuliana October 12, 2017 at 9:58 am #

      This is the number one reason I headed to Bhalil – for the cave-dwellings which, indeed, are very impressive.

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