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Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I co own and manage Sun Trails.

Website URL: http://www.sun-trails.com

Dar Infiane

Dar Infiane - 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 votes

1Tucked away in the south of Morocco, lies the unassuming town of Tata. Those more intrepid travellers on a tour of the southern Morocco, spending the night in Erg Chigaga dunes, pass close by. At a first view,Tata seems a middle- of- nowhere ghost- town built by the French at the beginning of 20th century, part of the colonisation of Morocco. But, there is more than meets the eye. And perhaps the best way to find out is booking a stay at Dar Infiane. Perched on top of a hamlet across the palm grove, the century- old dwelling appears from the outside more like an undefeatable citadel rather than the warm and hospitable guest house it trully is. I had my reservations on my first visit, as the reviews on the internet were mixed. But I still recall the feeling I had when I first stepped in, on a late afternoon in January, years ago. It was as if I had stumbled upon a house that defied all logic, like the ones in Disney animated pictures (which secretly you hope it exists). Its hidden corners, nannies and crooks, rooms with ceilings shoulder- level, the labyrinth of passages, the roof terrace, the secret plunge pool, the miniature windows, the views, the dining salon - I immediately fell in love with it.

As I'm writing these lines, some 500 kilometers away, I imagine it at night, when the neigbours come out on their roof terraces below to chat late at night or at breakfast, the roof terrace overhanging the green vast serpent that is the palm grove beneath. And yes, there are a lot of stairs, the bed linen and towels could certainly get an update and the staff speak no English. But the staff are most warm and obliging, dinners served by Latifa are abundant and delicious, you get hot showers, reversible A/C, and Patrick, the owner, is most willing to share his passion and tips about the region, having lived in Morocco for the last 40 years or so. But the main reason you book here is the magic that the house transpires, a place you'll remember long after you concluded your bespoke tour of Morocco. Patrick agreed to share the story behind it. 

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Sun Trails: I do not know of any other guest house like yours in Morocco. Its age, its charm, its location, its rooms, render it quite special - how did you come across it the first time and how did you think of acquiring it ? Tell us a bit about its history and its location on the top of the village.

Patrick Simon: It’s a long story that starts with my experience at the time as a GCMA expert (Great crossing of the Moroccan Atlas) which used to label rural lodgings in the High and Middle Atlas. One day I travelled to Tata, to gather information about two airport strips and I fell "en amour", as the Canadians say, with this douar ( hamlet) perched above Tata’s palm grove. In fact it was a half-ruined building. My experience of rehabilitation enabled me to see what it could become if given the proper care. 

The hamlet has a few centuries of existence and is a perfect example of the typical oasis and rural buildings of foregone times. Then, men took their time to build homes in a community, in the right season, with local materials: clay, stones and palm beams to support the roofing. They also had great knowledge of best exposures and ‘passive ventilation’, that kept them safe from hot summers and cold winters. I learned that, in fact, originally this douar consisted of 7 hamlets inhabited by fractions of the same tribe, spread over the crests of surrounding valleys. A positioning that favored them to regulate the various commercial passages and camel caravans.

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ST: Given its location and structure, isn't it difficult to keep the guest house in actual state ? How do you manage ? Hot water, toilets, supplies, plumbing ?

PS: It is true that this structure requires annual maintenance, but it is also true that using local materials offers sound and temperature insulation. My previous experience enabled me and Francine, my wife, to decide from the beginning the best solutions fitted for the management of water, electricity, sanitation, thus avoiding us all subsequent head-aches in terms of repairs or modifications. Our efforts were then rewarded with the Green Key label.

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ST: Which countries do most of your guests come from? Since the majority of visitors to Morocco come to see Fez, Marrakech and the desert, not many travel further than Taroudant or Zagora. It isn't a hotel so we can't find you on booking engines either. How do you reach out to them ? Word of mouth, internet, travel agencies ?

PS: To be honest, they come from all over the world. We started the rehabilitation work of the house in 2001. To be successful, we had to devise our own marketing strategy. Very early we decided for the choice of communicating via the internet and later, social networks. The word of mouth did the rest.

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ST: With its hidden corners, rooms with low ceilings, miniature windows, nooks and crannies, the house resembles a small scale Chefchaouen and must be a heaven for children. I for one, spent an afternoon playing hide-and-seek with my 5 year old daughter last time I stayed... Do you have many families with children staying there?

PS: You are absolutely right ! This, together with our small plunge pool on the terrace makes it the ideal spot for them ! We do have families with children staying and children appreciate most these corners, nooks and crannies that in themselves constitute the most charming aspect of their stay.

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ST: Do you think the guest house is meant for everyone ? If not, what is the profile of the visitor you are looking for ? What is that you are offering above the hotels in the area?

PS: It is true that our house being perched on the top of the hill, which greatly amplifies the beauty of the overhangs and sunsets over the palm grove admired from our terrace, one must climb quite a few stairs, and in this aspect, Dar Infiane well, you have to earn it ! ;) We always tell our guests before booking about the many stairs to be climbed.

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ST: What is there to do in the vicinity of Tata that is specific to this region? How many days do you advise to spend in the region, depending on the season? What is the best season of the year to get there?

PS: The region of Tata is rich with the dramatic landscapes of the Anti Atlas, its diverse heritage of igoudars (granaries), sand waterfalls and natural grottoes, its mellahs, house of Charles de Foucald and of course its verdant oases and their traditional khetarras, water clocks and all the micro- communities this creates. I particularly recommend having a walk in the palm grove with a local guide to get a glimpse into this traditional way of living. The region is equally rich with history from the Almohad- era tower to Agadir Ouzrou and the numerous sites of prehistoric rock engravings. One could easily spend 3- 4 days around it. 

For me, the routes are part of the journey hence January and February when the almond trees are in flower are perhaps the best time of year to book. That being said, all year round we have guests coming and enjoying the region and the guest house.

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ST: Tell us about your projects for the region, knowing that you are also vice president of the Regional Council of Tourism.

PS: We are currently working on Jbel Bani Geopark, a regional project of local development linking tourism and development of material and immaterial resources of the region. The aim is to create jobs and income for the local population (of which 40% are young people). We believe that eco-tourism projects such as ours can be an example in creating integrated and sustainable forms of development without ignoring the impact of climate change on this region, where water shortage is already a reality.

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ST: Recently you contributed to our article on security in Morocco. Local authorities are doing their utmost to guarantee tourists this security. However, the number of visitors in Morocco has declined lately. What can be done more to attract more tourists, especially those interested in cultural and adventure travel ?

PS: It is undisputable that Morocco has been able to take the necessary initiatives to avoid any security breaches. I think we should all communicate more to promote the diverse cultural aspects of Morocco. The world has changed much these last few years, indeed. But Morocco ranks among the safest countries! It is no longer a question of reassuring the travel agencies or tour operators but rather the end- user, the traveler, via the social media and all other modern- day platforms.

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Dar Infiane is currently offered on our private tours of Morocco as part of our Dreamers range of accommodation.

© Sun Trails 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Is Morocco Safe ?

Is Morocco Safe ? - 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 votes

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Less people travel to Morocco in 2016. These are the official figures from the Moroccan Tourism Observatory. But why? Why are travelers avoiding a land rich in cultural diversity, stunning landscapes and natural- born hospitality? We cannot help but wonder if the kingdom’s location in Middle East North Africa ( MENA) region may have something to do with it. After all, the region is no stranger to terrorist attacks, civil unrest and political instability in recent years. Whenever a new attack is carried out, many potential travellers stay away from Morocco too, simply because it’s in the ‘same’ part of the world. But is it really the ‘same’ ?

Vanessa Bonnin is the manager of Dar Roumana, a stunning riad in the medina of Fes and has lived in Morocco for the last 7 years. Fes, although one of the most fascinating medinas in the Arab world, has seen its numbers drop by 25 % compared to last year. ‘Morocco is unfairly tarred with the same brush as being part of a troubled region, however for me, this type of thinking is like choosing not to visit Germany because of troubles in France.’

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The chief editor of a Moroccan newspaper agrees : ‘Morocco is a victim of its location. Many tourists mistakenly think that the terrorist threat is more important in a Muslim country in the MENA region (Middle East and Maghreb). But despite all this, foreign tourists have no reason to worry, given that since the emergence of ISIS and its supporters around the world, there was no attack in Morocco.’ And it is the terrorist attacks and political instability that have made other countries in the region see a drop in tourism by up to 40 % compared to previous year.

PRAISE FROM FOREIGN MEDIA AND INSTITUTIONS:

There is little talk in foreign media about Morocco and its security measures. Yet the information is there, if one scratches the surface. ‘"People's perception of how Morocco fits into the region needs to change. I would ask potential visitors to see Morocco as its own country and people, and to make choices based on facts not fear’, adds Vanessa. Speaking of facts:

# The UK based Independent magazine has compiled in July 2016 a map of the most dangerous countries in the world by collating the foreign office travel advice for all countries in the world. On that map, Morocco is as dangerous as say Denmark or Canada.

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# The Global Terrorism Index measures the impact of terrorism in 162 countries. To account for the lasting effects of terrorism, each country is given a score that represents a five year weighted average. On this index, Syria ranks #5, United States ranks # 35 and Morocco ranks 92 out of 163 countries. 

# According to the Global Terrorism Database, published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, terrorist attacks in the Maghreb region multiplied by 47 times between 2011 and 2014, increasing from 15 to 1,105. Of these attacks, only one targeted Morocco.

# According to the French Ministry’s “Travel Advice,” which was recently updated following the suicide bombing that shook Istanbul, Morocco is the only recommended country for French nationals to visit in the MENA region.

# In 2015, the popular Trip Advisor travel website’s users have chosen Marrakech as the top destination in the world. Furthermore, in the 2016 Travelers Choice, Marrakech was Africa’s top destination.

# The US State Department lauded Morocco’s “comprehensive” counter-terrorism strategy, underlining the country’s adherence to human rights standards and the increased transparency of law enforcement procedures. Among other things, the report states that: “in the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam"

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KING MOHAMED 6

It is without a doubt that Morocco owes largely its political stability and social security to its king. Having taken on the throne from its father King Hassan 2 in 1999, Mohamed 6 enacted social reforms, including important steps towards gender equality and migrant integration.

In August 2016, the King Mohamed 6 took publicly a stark stand on terrorism and was one of the few, if not the only, chief of state from outside the Western world, to publicly condemn the murdering of innocent people and outcast those who perpetrate these in the name of Islam. "Is it conceivable that God could order someone to blow himself up or kill innocent people? Islam, as a matter of fact, does not permit any kind of suicide - whatever the reasons or circumstances."

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Mandy Sinclair, owner of Tasting Marrakech (food and cultural tours of Jemaa el Fna) has been living in Marrakech for 6 years. While she agrees that the world in 2016 is a less safe place to travel, she feels safer in Morocco than in Europe or the US, although she prefers the less- than- obvious locations: ‘The initiatives the government is taking to ensure the safety of its people and travelers is second to none. As a single woman living in Marrakech, I feel safer here than in most major European and North American cities. I travel frequently around Morocco and always feel at ease, especially in smaller villages in the Atlas Mountains, Moulay Idriss and Essaouira’.

At the same time, countries such as Spain and Portugal have seen almost record number of tourists these past 2 years. Does that mean that you should feel safer in Spain or Portugal than you would feel in Morocco ? Travel writer Alice Morrison agrees: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think it is 100% safe anywhere in 2016. What I can say is that I feel as safe living here in Marrakech as I would in the UK. I was actually more worried going to London a couple of weeks ago and getting on the underground, than I am going down to the Medina here.’ Alice Morrison is an adventurer who has lived in Marrakech since January 2014. She, of all people, has some insight into Africa, since she crossed the continent on a bike, a race of 8000 km and has written a book about it.

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Personally, I could say that the seeds for this article were planted during conversations with our guests at the end of their private tour of Morocco. In the shade of their riad in Marrakech, most of them would relate the same experience. ‘Cristian, I know we asked a lot of questions before travelling to Morocco as we were a little worried about the safety here. But we want you to know that we hardly felt any safer and more welcomed anywhere else we travelled before’. That raised a question: how many other travelers like them felt that initial apprehension and never venture? When the grim statistics were published in July 2016, I decided it was about time to publish the long- due article and get people involved. And I thought the best is to start by researching how thorough the Moroccan authorities have made Morocco safer, on the ground.

MOROCCO’S FBI AND OTHER TECHNICAL DATA

If you journeyed to Morocco in the last two years, you may have noticed police and military patrol the streets in groups of 3. Scanning devices have been installed at hotels, restaurants and malls entrances. Thorough checks are in place at airports across Morocco. In the local media, many terrorist cells have been dismantled in the past 18 months. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

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The Moroccan government has treated counterterrorism as a top policy priority since 2003. In June 2015, the Government of Morocco enacted significant amendments to the criminal code to address the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. To further show that Morocco is serious about combatting terrorism, it has created a law enforcement agency that deals specifically with terrorism threat: The Morocco Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ), nicknamed ‘the Moroccan FBI’. As about its efficiency, the BCIJ has dismantled quite a few terrorist cells since its creation.

Law enforcement officials and private carriers work regularly with the United States to detect and deter individuals attempting to transit illegally. At the end of 2014, the parliament voted to support the Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism.

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On the other hand, one of the most important measures taken by Morocco in recent years was the creation of the new security mechanism “Hadar”, which incorporates elements of the Royal Armed Forces, Royal Gendarmerie, the Police, and Auxiliary Force. 

In the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam, and strengthening the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The MEIA is educating Morocco’s nearly 50,000 imams in a version of relatively moderate Sunni Islam. 

FIGHTING POVERTY

Besides the security measures and the counter radicalization of the mosques, the Moroccan authorities understood that the radicalization of some youth stems from lack of opportunities and unemployment. The Moroccan government engaged in a policy of heavy public investments in infrastructure and the social sector with the ultimate goal of fighting poverty. According to a study published on the Carnegie Middle East Center in 2010, Morocco succeeded to lift 1.7 million people out of poverty during the period 2000-2010. The same study shows that poverty rates in the country decreased by more than 40 per cent during the same period.

Azalai Desert Camp Zagora dinner with a view

SO WHERE DOES THE CONFUSION COME FROM ?

Morocco's association with the turmoil of the neighbouring countries is the external and main cause of its drop in tourists. The internal and lesser cause may be the transparency and overzeal of the local media to relate about the dismantling of the terrorist cells. As the editor in chief sums it: ‘The kingdom is also a victim of the effectiveness of its anti-terrorism strategy. Indeed, every other month the authorities announced that a terrorist cell was dismantled.’

Patrick Simon is vice president of Regional Tourism Council of Guelmin – Semara region in the south of Morocco and owner of Dar Infiane guesthouse. Of French origin, he has lived in Morocco for 41 years. He agrees: ‘I’d like to point out that the regular press releases claiming good results in the dismantling of terrorist cells was a choice of the government and especially the Ministry of the Interior, thus insisting to show nationals and tourists that all means were used to ensure maximum security’. So it seems that the security forces are very good at doing their job and like to convey it to the press. In the long term, it's still to be seen whether the transparency is the best policy in this case. 

Did you visit Morocco in the last 5 years ? Did you feel safe ? Did you fear for your safety ? We've created a special platform for you to vote and/ or leave your feeback here. 

The river at a turn

© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Northern Morocco

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This private Morocco tour will take you through Casablanca, Asilah, Tangier, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Volubilis and Rabat. Listen to a local university teacher relate tales of pirates capturing European nobility in Sale. Discover the colorful  medina  of Tangier with a view on the Atlantic, praised by Delacroix, Matisse and the ‘beat generation’. Become a child again in the fairy- tale azure streets of Chefchaouen. Stroll among Phoenician and Roman ruins at Chellah and Volubilis. Unwind in the dreamy fishing village of Asilah with its prize- winning architecture and unspoiled beaches. We recommend this itinerary all year round but ideally so during summer, to keep you away from the high temperatures further south. Additionally, you may also be interested in our Marrakech, Atlas and the coast tour. Below you will find the detailed itinerary. As with all our tours, this itinerary is a mere example and will be customized to suit your taste and schedule. To enquire about availability and rates, please send us an enquiry

DAY 1: CASABLANCA / RABAT – ASSILAH ( 4 – 5 hour drive). We will collect you at the airport or your hotel in Casablanca or Rabat. On our way to Rabat, along the Atlantic coast, we can stop and visit the exotic gardens of Sidi Bouknadel or the bird reserve in Mehdya. There is hardly a better place for lunch than the village of Moulay Bousselham, right on the Atlantic coast where your driver will arrange for freshly caught sea food or fish to be grilled right in front of you and have an impromptu meal along the locals. Follow that with a boat ride into the lagoon. Time allowing, stop in Lixus and visit the Roman ruins or in Msoura to admire the Megalithic stone circle, a sort of Moroccan Stonehenge. Arrive in Asilah in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 2: ASILAH. After breakfast on the roof terrace, have a stroll around one of the most beautiful and well- kept medinas of Morocco, dating back to 10th century that owes its present shape to the Portuguese who occupied it for a few decades back in the 15th century. More recently, in 1989 it was awarded the Aga Khan prize for architecture. Much of Asilah’s transformation can be traced to 1978, when two local friends invited artists to paint murals on the medina’s peeling walls. That creative impulse soon gave birth to the International Cultural Moussem of Asilah, a summer festival with concerts, design lectures, poetry readings, and artists who arrived from all over the world to cover the whitewashed city with colorful, elaborate graffiti. The festival takes place every summer ( dates change due to Ramadan) and now draws a crowd of 100,000 people, turning the town into a vibrant open-air museum and creating a street scene that’s picturesque enough to rival Morocco’s famously blue city of Chefchaouen. In the mornings, the sound of waves drifts over the restored  ramparts, mixing with the rhythmic tones of streets being swept and the scent of freshly baked bread. We recommend you to enter the numerous art galleries and then spend some time by the unspoiled beach south of Asilah or try your hand at Arabic calligraphy with a local maalem. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 3: ASILAH – TANGIER ( 1 hour drive). Our tour of northern Morocco leaves Asilah and follows the Atlantic coast as you soon enter the urban area of Tangier. Penetrate the intricate medina of Tangier and before long, pass the gate of the Kasbah. Drop the luggage in your Riad's room and go out to explore the medina with a local guide. Start perhaps with the Marshan district and its Roman tombs. Before entering the old town, stop for a refreshing break and admire the Moresque interiors of St Andrews church. Follow up with a visit to a local artisan cooperative where the maalems are busy working the looms. Cross the fish market where fresh fish is sold at auction to arrive to the Jewish cemetery, dominating the sea front. Next stop, the American legation, the first American property to ever open outside the United States. Descend onto Petit Socco and have a mint tea at Cafe Tingis, a favorite with the Beat Generation. A few streets further away push the door of the local synagogue ( closed on Saturdays). Make your way up the intricate streets and step back into the Kasbah district. There is no better end to the day then having a drink on a roof terrace dominating the whole medina, at the time when the sun drowns into the Atlantic. Dinner and accommodation in Tangier.

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DAY 4: TANGIER – TETOUAN – CHEFCHAOUEN ( 2 hour drive). On our way to Chefchaouen, we can linger for a while in Tetouan and awe at the Mauresque heritage present in its patios and palaces. Erected on an ancient Roman site, Tetouan was completely destroyed during the 15th century by the Portuguese. The fall of the kingdom of Granada in southern Spain in 1492 marked the renaissance of Tetouan. More than its architecture, the cuisine, the music, the jewelry or the embroidery speak of their Andalusian origin. And where the Moresque heritage can be admired in all its glory is the Ethnographical museum. But perhaps you want to head straight to Chefchaouen so you can spend more time there. Still, you’d be a fool to miss the dramatic gorges of Oued Laou, connecting the Mediterranean beaches to the azure town.

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Quite likely the most charming village in Morocco can’t leave anyone indifferent. We could tell you that the kasbah built in the 15th century is worth a detour or that you should try to track down the still- working watermill or the district farnatchi oven, but Chefchaouen is about loosing yourselves in its streets without any precise goal. Inside the ancient gated medina nearly every building is painted an arresting shade of cerulean or azure, the sky blues juxtaposed with white trim and terra-cotta rooftops. Twisting cobblestone paths lead up and up, around the ocher-colored casbah to a landscape of green hills and mountaintops, uninterrupted sky extending beyond. Great trekking opportunities are also present in the nearby Rif Mountains, for a few hours or a whole day, along the river and up to the waterfalls, or further on, to the Bridge of God. Dinner and accommodation in Chefchaouen.

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DAY 5: CHEFCHAOUEN – MEKNES – RABAT ( 6 hour drive). Our northern Morocco itinerary leaves Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains behind to then descend onto Moulay Idriss, the holiest village in Morocco, where Moulay Idriss, a 5th generation descendant of Ali, son in law to Prophet Muhamed, arrived in the 8th century escaping the fight for power between the Omeyades and the Abbasydes at the court of Damascus. He was warmly welcomed by the Berber tribes and set out to establish the first Moroccan dynasty. The tomb of Idriss the 1st is still nowadays the object of a massive pilgrimage from all over Morocco. Only 3 miles from there, lays the Roman town of Volubilis, the best preserved Roman site in Morocco, capital of King Juba the Second, who came to marry the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Then, we continue onwards to Meknes, one of Morocco’s 4 Imperial Cities. Meknes became the capital of Morocco with the Sultan Moulay Ismail, who in the 17th century decided to change the capital from Marrakech to Meknes. To this task, he employed 55000 men, workers but also Christian slaves and dismantled the splendid Badi’ Palace in Marrakech to then carry most of it to Meknes on the back of camels. From this age, we were left with the imposing Bab Al Mansour, one of the most original gates in Morocco, the grain silos that, according to a chronicler of the age, could hold enough grains to feed the whole of Morocco, the House of the 10 Norias or the large open air basin where water was stocked so it could supply the whole town and was sometimes used for the army to train. Arrive in Rabat in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 6: RABAT. Despite its appearance as a quiet administrative town, Rabat hides quite a few gems, having been included on the UNESCO world site list just a few years back. You should perhaps start your day with the visit of the 12th century Kasbah des Oudayas and its Andalusian Gardens, an important outpost of the Almohad dynasty, back in the 12th century. We can dwell further into the past and visit the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, where Phoenician, Roman and Merinid heritages blend. Sale, the town over the bridge, has a more intriguing story and was known for centuries as a pirates' nest. Canals used to run inside its gates and its pirates were famous for rapidly attacking European ships and taking illustrious nobility as prisoners. Once inside the city, the massive doors would close and the European powers had no other choice than to offer most generous prices for ransom. Some say that it is outside its shores that it inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Our local guide will tell you all about the fearsome pirates and the relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians inside a traditional medina.Downtown in Rabat, opened in 2015, Mohamed 6 museum offers a great insight into the Moroccan modern arts and holds international exhibitions to rival those of European museums. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 7: RABAT or RABAT – CASABLANCA ( 1h30 drive).
Depending on your flight location and schedule, we will arrange for the drop off accordingly. If flying out from Casablanca, you should seize the opportunity and visit Hassan 2 mosque, the third largest in the world.

We can always take away or add 1 or 2 days to this Moroccan itinerary to suit your schedule. Book or enquire about your private customized tour of Morocco here

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© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher. 

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The rise of a pasha

The rise of a pasha - 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

Many of our private tours of Morocco include a detour by the Pasha Glaoui’s ruined palace in Telouet, up in the High Atlas mountains and the nearby salt mines. But not many know that from this desolate group of ruins in the High Atlas, so far from the seat of government at Fez or Rabat, arose by a strange chain of coincidence a generation of kingmakers...

The castle stands at an altitude of more than 8000 feet and its scattered rookery of crumbling predecessors occupy the corner of a desert plateau, circled by giant peaks, all of them rising to more than 10000 feet. The kasbah is a tower of tragedy that leaves no room for laughter. Not too far away are the days when a giant Black slave used to open the lock with a foot- long key, one among the 67 he was carrying, and set his shoulder to the iron- bossed twenty- feet high doors. The reception rooms had taken 3 years and three hundred men to work on, plaster workers, carvers and one painter. The owner of the castle had intended that is should become the most fabulous palace in Morocco. But deep invading cracks cut crudely through the intricate elaboration of years of work, for the kasbah is empty now and slowly returning to the soil it was molded from. If these crumbling walls could talk...

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The year is 1893 and the Sultan Moulay Hassan has decided to visit the desert regions of Morocco including far – off Tafilalet, the great oasis form which his dynasty has originally sprung.
Leaving Fez in the summer, the Sultan proceeded south, crossing the Atlas and descended to the upper waters of Ouez Ziz. Food was lacking , the desert regions could provide little. The water was bad, the heat unbearable. Every kind of delay, including rebellion and the consequent punishment of the tribes, hampered the Sultan’s movements and it was only towards winter that he arrived in Tafilalet with a fever- stricken army and greatly diminished transport.

He did not try to return to Fez, but instead made for the southern capital of Marrakech, separated from Tafilalet by the mighty High Atlas mountains. By the time his army had reached the foothills of the Atlas, the winter snow had begun; as they climbed higher into the main massif more and more of the camels, mules and horses, weak with starvation , stumbled into deep snowdrifts and died.

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Men too weak to carry their weapons any further dropped them and struggled on unarmed. The main arsenal, however, which included a Krupp assault cannon and a quantity of its weighty ammunition, was never abandoned. The Sultan was still many days march from Marrakech, and he was far from certain of his reception by the mountain tribes through whose territory he was passing.

Reading from left to right as the Sultan’s army now looked up at the mountains, these tribes were the M’tougga, the Goundafa and the Glaoua, the latter dominating the pass then called Tizi n’ Telouet. The chief of each of these tribes was officially a Caid, or representative of the Sultan, responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing recognition of the central government. These were the principal three caids of the High Atlas and they were constantly at war with one another and constantly changing alliance. They exacted heavy tribute from the caravans of dates, olives , argan oil and walnuts, whose trade routes led from south through the passes they commanded.

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Caid Madani El Glaoui, controlling Tizi N Telouet was of different caliber from either of the other rival war lords. He was a young man of great intelligence and limitless ambition, an outstandingly brave warrior who possessed at the same time something more than a flair for intrigue. The Glaoua were almost unique among the Atlas Caids in that they did not owe their comparative affluence entirely to piracy and violence for they owned an extremely profitable salt mine. The old pass snaked upwards through the desolate, lunar valley of the Oued Mellah – the river of salt. To these salt mines of Telouet came camel caravans from the Sahara, from the Sudan, from Mauritania, from inner Morocco and from the great oases of the desert. The family was by now on its way to comparative wealth but not to power, for it could command, at the most, between two and three thousand mounted warriors.

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In that autumn of 1893 when what little remained of the Sultan’s army was struggling upward through the snows under a canopy of ravens and vultures and with a rearguard of jackals and hyenas, the Caid Madani El Glaoui was twenty seven years old , and his brother Thami , was fifteen. The Glaoua pass at Telouet lay on the Sultan’s direct route to Marrakech. Madani and Thami heard of the approach of the defeated Sultan’s army while it was still many miles away. The sum of their knowledge added up to the desire of giving the Sultan the greatest welcome he had ever received from a mountain Caid. Having taken this decision, Madani put the greatest pressure upon all the tribespeople owing allegiance to him , and in 48 hours they had collected a vast number of mules and horses, an uncountable number of sheep and goats for slaughter, and special dues poured in from every corner of their kingdom in cash and kind until, when the Sultan’s harka was still twenty miles away, Madani El Glaoui was prepared to entertain the Sultan and his army for as long as they cared to stay.

With his younger brother, he rode out to meet the harka, accompanied by a bodyguard of five hundred mounted warriors and behind him trailed the infinite army of mules and horses that he had requisitioned. Madani observed every detail of protocol, prostrating himself before the sultan in the snow and touching his forehead to the ground. The Sultan had no choice but to accept his offer. After all, he knew that without prolonged rest and food he and his army would never reach Marrakech. He therefore graciously accepted and within five hours he and his army were installed at Telouet. The diffa , an endless banquet at which course succeeds course, spiced chickens and pigeons, couscous, and whole roast sheep and kebab and almond pastries and sweet mint tea – long after the guest can eat no more, lasted all through the night.

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By some unguessable means, Madani found the resources to prolong this situation for several days, while the sultan recovered his strength and his army munched its way through a few more thousand sheep. The day before their departure, the Sultan made Madani his personal khalifa , or representative in the region, giving him nominal command of all the tribes between the High Atlas and the Sahara. Of infinitely greater significance, he made him a present of a considerable amount of modern arms and ammunition. This included the 77 mm bronze Krupp cannon, the only single heavy weapon in all Morocco outside the Imperial Cherifian Army. From then on the surrounding tribes regarded Telouet as a veritable arsenal of modern warfare.

To be continued...

© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. This article is based on excerpts from the book 'Lords of the Atlas' by Gavin Maxwell. 

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