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Soigneur Travel: Morocco

Brady Lawrence Tekst Brady Lawrence Gepubliceerd 23 December 2011

Blending Arab, African, and European influences, Morocco’s diverse and vibrant culture is only outdone by its geography. Verdant plains issue forth from the Mediterranean Sea before rising through evergreen forests into the red and barren Atlas Mountains. From the 4,000-metre-tall peak of Toubkal, the range winds its way down into the Sahara Desert, while the Atlantic Ocean breaks in waves along the entire western border.

In the north, metropolises such as Rabat, Casablanca, and Tangier bustle with industry and tourism. In the south, small outposts such as Zagora and Tafraoute rely on mountains, oases, and sand dunes to draw adventurous souls in search of new experiences. In the centre sits Marrakesh, amalgamating the various cultures and regions into a melting pot scented by spices and brought to a boil by the manic energy of Jemaa el-Fnaa. 

The land has seen empires rise and fall, each leaving its unique mark on the topography. Many Moroccans can speak Arabic, Berber, English, Spanish and French. European cuisine complements Arab architecture and nomadic Berber traditions. Over centuries, the concoction has been distilled and refined into something entirely its own.

Gnarly gravel pistes zig zag through the mountains and flatlands.

The roads are a reflection of the country’s overwhelming diversity. Fleets of bleach-white French and German camper vans glide along butter-smooth pavement, while gnarly gravel pistes zig zag through the mountains and flatlands. Dirt roads weave around oases and date plantations before morphing into rutted-out sand paths. Children ride bikes and men lead donkeys on the overly wide shoulders of main thoroughfares. To handle all of Morocco’s terrain, your bike will need some wide rubber.

Always stopping to drink a mint tea or waiting for a camel to saunter by, the pace of life in Morocco’s far-flung regions lacks urgency. Residents are eager to greet visitors. Beautiful clay tagines are loaded with local meat and vegetables and make for a great post-ride meal. It’s just as easy to find a fine hotel as it is to nab a hidden camping spot up a remote gravel road. If you meet the right person, you just might get invited for home-brewed date wine.

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Ride | Over the Atlas

Criss-crossed by roads of varying condition and surface, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains separate the coastal plains of the north from the endless expanse of the Sahara Desert in the south. With peaks reaching over 4,000 metres, the range presents a unique challenge for motivated cyclists in search of rough and remote gravel roads. Starting outside of Ourazazate and terminating in the foothills of Demnate, Route 307 offers a big day out on the bike with a pass at 2,200 metres and breathtaking 360-degree views of the desert and the flatlands.

History | Hollywood in the Desert

Ouarzazate or ‘The Doorway to the Desert’ sits at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and looks down on the Sahara Desert. It’s sweeping, high-altitude vistas have a visceral cinematic quality that Hollywood has been tapping into for decades. In 1962 David Lean shot parts of Lawrence of Arabia in the surrounding landscapes and the region has been on the map ever since with movies like Gladiator and shows like Game of Thrones being filmed in the area. If you’re looking for a cinematic place to ride look no further.

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Ride | Ait Mansour Valley

Nestled in the heart of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, this hidden gorge outside of the town of Tafraoute is both actually and metaphorically an oasis. Surrounded on all sides by dry orange slopes, the river running through the Ait Mansour is bursting with palm trees, small farms, and villages. A short climb out of Tafraoute will bring you to the start of the winding valley where you can pedal along to the tiny town of Tiouada for an authentic Berber dinner at the town’s auberge.

Eat | Kefta Tagine

Loaded with meat, vegetables, and spices, and then set on the stove to cook nice and slowly, tagines are ubiquitous across Morocco. One of the more unique varieties is the Kefta Mkaouara. Lamb meatballs are loaded into the tagine along with a tomato sauce and eggs. After being covered in spices, the hardy protein mix slowly bakes together and is guaranteed to fill you up.

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Culture | Haggle at the Souk at Jemaa el-Fnaa

Marrakesh’s Souk, or covered marketplace, is a labyrinth. It’s easy—if not common—to get lost among the sea of spices, scarves, dried fruits, and tagines. Mopeds squeeze through impossible cracks in the crowds of tourists, while merchants shout back and forth, eagerly attracting shoppers to their wares. With the exception of food, all prices are up for discussion, and the sellers are always up for a serious debate. 

Drink | Mint Tea

Not a meal goes by in Morocco without the offer of mint tea. Ornate silver pots are loaded to the brim with black tea and mint leaves and left to steep. Blocks of sugar are set out for those with a sweet tooth and, once ready, the tea is poured from way above the glass to oxidise the black warm liquid and put on a bit of a show in the process.

Gear | Atlas Sport Bike Shop

Located in the centre of Marrakesh, Atlas Sport Bike Shop is an excellent resource if you have more specific bike needs. While it’s possible to find inner tubes and tyres in smaller towns, your best bet is to gear up for your trip at Atlas Sport. If you didn’t bring your bike along, they also offer rentals on quality road and mountains bikes.

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Eat | M’semen

A traditional north African flatbread, M’Semen can just as easily be procured on a small-town street corner as it can in a fancy Marrakesh brunch spot. Like a crepe but thicker, the fried, doughy square is usually served with honey and a classic mint tea, but can also be loaded with Nutella, wrapped up and eaten on the go. It’s a great thing to grab to keep bonking at bay.

Culture | Explore a Medina

The beating heart of many Moroccan cities, the narrow streets of these walled-in, ancient districts are free from cars and bursting with life. Fountains, palaces, and mosques emerge around labyrinthine corners while shops and restaurants have to be searched out down hidden alleyways. If you’re in the north go check out the Medina of Fes. It’s one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Rides | The Draa Valley

Morocco’s longest river, the Draa weaves its way 1,100km from the Atlas to the Atlantic, but it’s the 95km between Agdz and Zagora that concern you. Vibrant green oases burst forth on the banks of the river and stand in stark contrast to the sandy yellow hills that surround it. Ride along the wide shoulder of the road and enjoy views of the crumbling casbahs. Be sure to buy some roadside dates along the way.

Culture | Sleep in the Sahara

For years nomadic Berber tribes have been navigating the Sahara, and in southern Morocco you get the opportunity to experience their knowledge of the legendary desert firsthand. In the small town of Zagora, there are plenty of companies offering the chance to spend the night out in a traditional Berber tent and wander the sand dunes at the foot of the world’s largest desert.

Eat | Dates

In the markets of Marrakesh, along the sides of highways and in the palm-filled oases of the country’s sandy valleys, you have to go out of your way in Morocco not to eat fresh dates. Sweet and chewy, they make as good a roadside snack as they do an additional texture in a tagine. They can even be used to produce date wine to get past the alcohol ban for Moroccan people!

Photo: Sebastian Hofer

Brady Lawrence’s favourite rides

Brady Lawrence fell in love with the Moroccan landscape when he visited. These are some of his favourite rides in the country.

Easy | The Falls of Ouzoud  

Ride from Demnate to the spec-tacular waterfalls of Ouzoud with views of the Atlas range to your right the whole time.

Medium | The Draa Valley

Pedal through the famous oases of the Draa valley between Zagora and Agdz, catching glimpses of crumbling casbahs along the way.

Hard | Over the Atlas  

Ride from the high desert town of Ouarzazate all the way to Demnate to ride over the entire Atlas Mountain range in a single day!