The Medinas of Sefrou and Bhalil
Short Description. I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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