After Fez, the next point in my original itinerary was to go directly by train to Marrakesh. An excursion to the Sahara wasn’t part of the plan, because, first, I felt it would deplete my budget enough to send me living on the edge for the last days of my trip; and, second, I didn’t think I had enough time to squeeze it given my tight schedule (why didn’t I just plan a full two-week trip?).
But the owner of the riad I stayed at in Chefchouan suggested I take a Fez-Merzouga-Marrakesh trip, where a tour will take me from Fez to Merzouga, a village near the Erg Chebbi, for the Sahara tour, and then take me to Marrakesh the next morning. This was also suggested by the owner of the riad I stayed at in Fez. While I was initially hesitant since I already booked a train to Marrakesh, Fez Riad Owner described the trip so vividly that I imagined what I would be missing if I didn’t go. Besides, let’s be honest, when will I have the opportunity to return to Morocco, let alone to visit the Sahara?
Story short, the next morning, I find myself in a van carrying six other tourists — four from Germany, one from Canada, one from Fez as well, and me. All of us are going to Merzouga for the excursion to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, though only me and two of the Germans are together in a specific camp since we’re taking the Fez-Merzouga-Marrakesh route. The others are placed in a separate camp, either because they’re returning to Fez afterwards or going some place else.
We have a couple of stops during the journey, the first of which is Ifrane, just about an hour south of Fez. The town is known as a skiing resort particularly in winter and is popular among vacationing Moroccans and tour groups. Built by the French in 1929 as a hill station, Ifrane feels more like Western Europe than Morocco, with its snow-covered grass and architecture that seems transplanted from an alpine village. It’s also a college town: the Al Akhawayn University is where elite Moroccan students attend.
Other than a short stroll to soak up the European winter vibe, though, there doesn’t seem much to do here. The 20 minutes we’re given to explore the place is just enough, and then we’re back on the road.
Two hours later and we arrive in Midelt for lunch. We stop by a nondescript restaurant in a lonely-looking road off the main highway, but the heater is a welcome feature in the otherwise really cold weather. I have couscous (of course), and our meal comes with the complementary lentil soup and a pastry and fruit for dessert. Midelt is the so-called Apple Capital of Morocco: the best apples in the country are grown here, according to our driver. I can’t say for sure, though, since for dessert, each of us gets a pastry and a banana.
Lunch finished, we continue our drive south. It’s here that the topography of surroundings dramatically change as we approach the High Atlas mountain range. The road passes through the scenic Gorges du Ziz, and a couple of times we stop to take pictures.
In one stop, the lookout towers above a field of palm trees and with traditional structures that seem to form a natural part of the valley. For those not in a rush, these sites would make for great points of exploration.
But time is tight, and after a couple of minutes in each stop, we press further south to Merzouga.