Our first bike trip in Morocco in 2012 (photos here) was fantastic so the prospect of going there again was quite attractive and it solved a problem for us: we would be out of Europe long enough not to overstay the maximum 90 days tourists are allowed in any given 180-day period.
The ferry ride from Algeciras, adjacent to British Gibraltar, took only 90 minutes and deposited us on the African continent in the Spanish exclave of Ceuta. We decided to cross the border into Morocco right away as Ceuta didn’t seem to have much to offer, other than a giant Decathlon store where I bought a new hat and a canister of butane gas for our stove.
Crossing the border was a piece of cake. They asked the same questions they always ask at borders: what are you doing here and why? Are you importing anything? Do you have a drone? Have a nice day.
With passports duly stamped we rode to the nearest town, Fnideq, where we had booked a cheap hotel for the night. We were warmly welcomed and the proprietor helped us find a secure place for our bicycles in a nearby parkade, and get a sim card for my mobile. Unlike in Europe, this was a very informal process.
He yelled at somebody from the hotel window and a minute later a man appeared in the hotel lobby. English is rare in Morocco’s small towns so we managed to communicate to him in a blend of French, Spanish and body language that we wanted a prepaid data sim with 5 GB of data.
He told us that was no problem. It would cost 70 Dirham, about 7 Euros. He took our money and left. Normally, one has to fill out forms and present a passport to get a mobile sim but not in Fnideq. A few minutes later he reappeared with a sim from Orange Mobile. I put it in my phone and it worked immediately. It was just that easy.
With the sun setting and the street market in full swing, we set out to explore the town and find a place to eat. The streets had come alive with scores of people shopping, eating and socializing. People were swimming in the Alboran Sea. Kids were playing along the wide beach-front boulevard and the sunset call to prayer from nearby mosques resonated in the hot, humid air. It’s different here than a few kilometres away in Spanish Ceuta. It has a bit rougher edge to it but in a good way. We stood out like two tall, tanned tourists in a sea of smiling brown people going about their daily lives.
Our plan was to spend two weeks in Morocco, just long enough to fulfill the 90-day Schengen visa rule, and long enough to do a loop down to Fes and back to the coast through the Rif Mountains.
The northeast coast of Morocco along the Alboran Sea looks a lot like southern European coastal towns where tourism has gone a little bit awry. Large blocks of hotels and resorts line the beaches catering mostly to wealthy locals and tourists from Europe. It’s a bit sterile and doesn’t have much to offer dirtbag cyclists.
It was pleasant enough riding along the manicured boulevards until we got into Tetouan, a sprawling city of nearly half a million people. We skirted the southern edge of the city as we tried to get away from the noise and traffic. Eventually, we made our way through the city and slowly began climbing into the hills to the south. Campsites are not that ubiquitous in Morocco so when we noticed one on the map we decided to head for it.
When we arrived in Sahtariiyn it quickly became apparent there was no campsite but people had definitely camped there, so we did as well. There were no services like toilets but it was a lovely spot along Oued Hajera, a river that was dammed creating the large reservoir Lac Barrage Martil. We were the only people there.
We climbed back out to the road in the morning and continued south toward Chefchaouen, known as the Blue Pearl of Morocco for its traditional houses painted in blue and white. It’s a beautiful town and we decided to spend a few days there, having rented an apartment on the edge of the old Medina.
Along the road we encountered a mobile coffee shop: a compact cargo van with an Italian espresso machine in the back and a lovely gentleman dispensing delicious shots of creamy espresso for 7 MAD, less than $1. A truck driver who was also stopped there for a shot of caffeine gave us each a delicious snack made of dates and walnuts.
People always ask how we deal with language differences but it’s never been a problem. It’s always been our experience that people are curious and want to be welcoming. I think that is mostly because we are travelling by bicycle. We’re visible and easily approachable whereas people travelling in a car are invisible and anonymous. These kinds of road-side exchanges are some of the best experiences.
Fuelled with a bit of caffeine, we continued as the road steadily climbed and then descended for 15 km only to steeply climb again into Chefchaouen. We found our accommodation with the help of a local gentleman who spoke very good English. Eventually, after a couple of Whatsapp messages, the apartment’s proprietor showed up to give us the keys. We were tired from the ride and the climb. A cool shower revived us and we headed out to explore the Blue Pearl in search of food.
Why is Chefchaouen blue? There is no definitive answer. Some say it keeps the mosquitoes away. Another reason is that it resembles the colour of the sky and is a reminder to lead a spiritual life. The more cynical theory among locals is that the blue wash was mandated to attract tourists. If that’s true, it definitely worked as tourism is a strong seasonal economic driver.
Regardless, Chefchaouen is a cool little city to spend a few days roaming around. It has a laid-back feel, perhaps due to the prevalence of cannabis which is widely cultivated in the Rif Mountains, making Morocco one of the world’s top suppliers of marijuana and hashish.
Like most countries, Morocco has had an uneasy relationship with cannabis. It has been illegal since Morocco gained its independence in 1956, reinforced by a complete ban on drugs in 1974 but was partially tolerated. In 2021, the parliament voted to legalize the use of medical cannabis, as well as use for cosmetic and industrial purposes. But I smell more weed at home in Vancouver than I ever did in Morocco.
There are some nice walks around Chefchaouen. The city is built on a slope below some imposing mountains on its eastern border. The Spanish Mosque sits alone atop a hill above a cemetery and has a commanding view of the city and the surrounding landscape. It’ s popular spot for watching the sunrise and sunset.
The mosque was built by the Spanish occupiers in the 1920s for the local population but was not well used and was eventually abandoned by the locals altogether. It is locked but still draws many people for the view.
The Medina and its people are the real attraction of Chefchaouen. Its steep, narrow streets and stairways prevent cars from entering making it a great place to spend hours getting lost while perusing the shops, having mint tea at one of the many cafés or a meal at one of the many restaurants.
The Kasbah is one of the oldest buildings in the Medina and was built in the Andalusian style. By the end of the 15th century the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was nearly complete, forcing Moslems and Jews from Europe back to North Africa and with it came their Andalusian style of architecture.
The square adjacent to the Kasbah is Outae Hammam, named for the public baths that were once there and formed part of the typical style also found in Spanish cities like Granada and Cordoba. The square was traditionally a crossroad with trade as its main function, Now it is a tourist hotspot with cafés and restaurants lining its edges.
After three nights in Chefchaouen it was time to move on to Fes, a three-day ride. The temperatures had been steadily rising and were now in the mid-to-high-30s. We left early and set our sights on the town of Zoumi where there was supposed to be a campsite.
It was a wonderful ride along roads lined with Oleander. We had some tough climbs on steep grades but our reward was a wonderful, 16-kilometre-long descent into Zoumi where there was no campground. As we cycled towards where the campground was supposed to be, a woman told us not to go there. Despite the language barrier, we inferred from her that the road doesn’t go anywhere and she seemed quite concerned as a group of curious kids surrounded us.
She found a policeman with whom we were able to communicate a bit in broken Spanish and French and he told us there was a small hotel in the centre where we could stay. The woman then walked us all the way back into town, about two kilometres, to the nondescript two-storey building with a tiny “Hôtel” sign above the door.
She banged on the door and yelled out the name of the proprietor: Ahmed. The banging and yelling went on for a couple of minutes until a sleepy-looking Ahmed appeared. His face lit up when he learned that we were looking for a room. We thanked the woman for her help. We would likely never have found the hotel without her.
Ahmed showed us the rooms and we paid him: 150MAD, or about $18. There was a basic and rather dirty shower but with hot water, and a grim squat for a toilet. The beds were basic metal frames with a metal spring base that had long ceased to offer any kind of support. But none of that mattered. We were tired, happy to have a place to stay and Ahmed couldn’t do enough for us.
After we had showers he took us out to find something to eat and we ended up at a little restaurant where we ordered a large chicken and vegetable tagine and a large bottle of water. As always, bread and olives were given to nibble on while the tagine was being prepared. It was a delicious meal for a mere 40MAD, or $5, and just what we needed.
We sauntered back to the hotel with Ahmed, chatting as best as we could in our broken French and Spanish. He invited us to the rooftop deck to have tea or coffee but there was no furniture to sit so he went to the café across the street, ordered our tea and coffee and had one of the servers bring a table and chairs along with the drinks. Impeccable service.
It was a surreal scene: we were sitting on the roof of a run-down hotel sipping tea and coffee while our host rolled and smoked a big, fat hash joint, all under the backdrop of a mountain on fire behind us. It was the town’s garbage dump with the fire being fanned by evening winds.
Ahmed proudly pointed to the fields of marijuana surrounding the town and explained how they provide income for many local families. We quietly sipped our drinks as the sun set and the evening bustle in the town below slowly dissipated while the sunset call to prayer from the nearby mosque reverberated in the smokey air. It was a wonderful ending to just another day on a bicycle ramble through Morocco.
We said our goodbyes and took some photos with Ahmed in the morning, promising to send him some prints once back home in Canada. Loaded up with water, we headed south out of town through the marijuana fields. The small road wound its way down through the wide valley for about 20 kilometres before it began to climb up towards Morocco’s largest lake created by the Al Wahda dam, the second largest in Africa after the High Aswan dam in Egypt.
We were a bit low on food but a roadside food stall near the dam looked like a good place to have a long overdue break in the shade and a meal of bbq chicken and vegetables. It was a big meal and hard to get back on the bikes to ride afterwards. But ride we did.
The road continued into flat, agricultural land beaten by an unrelenting sun. We looked for places to camp or any kind of accommodation we could rent but struck out every time. Eventually, we found a large culvert in a hairpin under the road that offered what we needed most: shade. We pushed our bikes down into the dusty, dry river bed and parked ourselves in the cool shade of the concrete culvert. We had cycled nearly 100 km in the hot sun and we were done, probably suffering a bit from heatstroke.
We had a simple meal of pasta with sardines as the sun slowly disappeared in the parched western hills and we prepared for bed. It was remarkably quiet during the night. No barking dogs. No traffic on the road above. No muezzin commanding the faithful to the mosque.
In the morning, we packed up quickly not wanting to linger. It was only about 35 km to Fes where a nice room in a Riad awaited us for the next few days. As we rode along a hillside looking down on the sprawling city we noticed a track that cut through the olive groves and fields below and confirmed on the map that it indeed lead into the city.
We descended the steep gravel road snaking down to the edge of the city through the garbage dump and past the cemetery to a major road that lead past the 14th century Marinid Tombs to a nondescript gate into the Medina. It was a short walk through the narrow crowded streets to our riad where we were warmly received by our host, Yusuf.
A riad, or riyad (Arabic for garden) is a traditional style of house built around an interior garden or courtyard that is common in southern Spain and North Africa. The word riad now mostly means guesthouse or hotel in Morocco. It’s an ancient form of architecture found around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.
The guest rooms were all accessed from the central courtyard on the first and second floor. Our room was on the first floor and had a lounge and full private bathroom with a sleeping loft above. It was quite luxurious accommodation but we like to splurge on these things when visiting cities. We normally camp a lot so shelling out for a hotel room once in a while is no big deal. However, this was embarrassingly affordable at $100 for three nights, including breakfast that was served every morning on the rooftop deck. I could have stayed for a week.
Fes is an old city founded in the 8th century during the Idrisid Dynasty encompassing much of modern-day Morocco and western Algeria. Fes eventually became a major political powerhouse under Marinid rule from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The Marinid Tombs ruins on the edge of the city are the most visible remnants of that era but inside the city the Marinids also built mosques and madrassas. The most significant one is the Bou Inania Madrassa. It is the only Madrassa that also served as a Friday mosque, a mosque hosting Friday noon prayers.
Parts of Bou Inania are open to the public and it is a stunning example of the Marinid architecture from that time. The intricately carved stone details in the walls and ceilings are impressive by any standard. The mosque is on one of the main streets of the city, Tala’a Kebira, and is one of the few mosques in Fes with a square minaret, signifying its status as a Friday mosque. The square minaret, topped with a smaller tower and cupola is typical of the Moroccan style.
Across the street from one of the entrances is Dar al Magana, a house with a hydraulic clock built into its facade. How the water clock worked is unknown but it is believed to have been powered by running water.
Big cities like Fes can be somewhat overwhelming. There is a lot to see that one cannot possibly begin to take in in just a few days so we usually pick a few places we want to visit and then mostly just walk to find interesting places to eat and you just never know who you might meet, like the Jewish shop owner who managed to convince us to come into his store.
He told us he’s one of only a handful of Jews left in the city and that his shop used to house a synagogue. Jews have been residents in Morocco for centuries, migrating south as they were expelled from Europe along with the Muslims during the Reconquista in the 15th century.
Many Moroccan Jews migrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s reducing the Jewish population from an estimated 350,000 to only about 5,000. The shop’s proprietor, whose name I neglected to write down, told us he is one of only 27 Jews left in Fes as he served us tea and in a very slick segue sold us a pair of silver earrings for Jan. It’s encounters like this that teach us a little about the local community that we would otherwise never know.
Back at our riad, Yusuf could not do enough for us. He works as the host and manager for the owners of the riad and his laid back style set the tone for our stay there. Anything was possible. He helped us find a secure place for our bicycles in a nearby parking lot when we arrived. I wanted a haircut so he took me to the place where he has his cut. When we asked him about nearby restaurant recommendations, he suggested a small one that was run by a group of women and we had one of our best meals there. Local knowledge is always best.
We walked many miles through the narrow streets of Fes. There are no vehicles. Just the throng of people eating and socializing, working, shopping. Living. My favourite thing to do in a city like Fes is to find a café at a crossroads with a good view of the streets and just sit there to watch life go by. We found just such a cafe a few metres inside Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate, where much of the foot traffic into Fes enters the city.
It’s not one of the original fortified gates but rather a decorative one built in 1913 by the French Colonial government. However, the name is the same as a 12th century gate to the fortified city that served as the entrance to Tala’a Kebira at the start of the souq (market) and leads directly to the al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university.
Tala’a Kebira runs through the Medina in a roughly east-west direction. In Arabic is translates as the Great Slope or Climb reflecting the hilly topography on which Fes is built. It is the heart of this city of more than a million people.
From our perch at the café, sipping yet another excellent coffee, we watched all manner of people going by. Merchandise is brought into the city on horses, donkeys and carts as motorized traffic is not possible. Everything is moved in and out of the city on foot, either two or four. The removal of garbage is a monumental task that never seems to stop but it is efficient as there is no refuse to be seen anywhere on the Medina’s streets.
From Fes, our plan was to go west and then north back to the coast, ending up in Melilla, another Spanish exclave. Our first day ended in Tahla at a hotel we booked ahead of time knowing we would not be able to camp and would need an air-conditioned room somewhere given the temperature was in the mid-to-high-30s.
When we arrived, the people had no record of our booking but we were given a room regardless after a few phone calls with the owner residing in France. The listing for the hotel said there was a restaurant but this was not the case and we were several miles from the nearest town so we had to take a taxi to find a place to eat and do some grocery shopping. We weren’t very happy with the situation but it all worked out in the end. I tried to flag the listing on the booking app without much success.
For our ride the next day we decided not to book any accommodation ahead of time but rather to wait until we arrived in Taza to find something in person. En route we saw another cyclist in full lycra on a racing bike heading the opposite direction. We waved to each other and carried on. Some time later, the same cyclist came up from behind us while we were on the side of the road on Taza’s outskirts taking a break and looking at possible accommodation on our phones.
He stopped to ask if we needed help and we told him we were looking for a place to stay. He said he knew people who ran a good hotel in town and would take us there. We chatted with Mohamed all the way into town and learned that he is a UCI ranked pro cyclist. He’s a local champion and came in fifth in the Moroccan national men’s elite road championships just 11 days earlier, as well as fifth in the time trial.
We took some pictures together and thanked Mohamed for his help and checked into our room where we had showers before going across the street to a very large and modern supermarket where we bought lunch at the food court. Afterwards we had quite a long nap. The heat on the road takes its toll and we needed to be out of the sun for a while until it cooled down. In the cool of the evening we wandered up the hill into an older part of town in search of a place to eat.
The next part of our journey would be challenging as we headed north to cross the Rif Mountains back to the coast. The ride out of Taza was on the highway running from Fes to Oujda near the Algerian border. At the crossroads where we were heading north the military was stopping vehicles and usually we’ve been waved through such check stops but not this time.
One of the officers spoke English and asked where we had come from and where we were going. It was all very relaxed but they took our passports and made some phone calls before wishing us well on our journey.
The heat was stifling as we rode on. An abandoned roadside building offered some shade so we veered off to take a break. Nearby, a man herded his goats across the road and past our shady oasis but not paying us any attention. After a while, we continued north and rode through a small town where we stopped at a small store to buy some water. We were drinking a lot to try not to get dehydrated, a losing battle in such heat.
The road slowly continue to climb and the heat threatened to overwhelm us. We also talked about what to do for the night as the road ahead did not offer much hope in finding accommodation. We had food and water so camping could be an option, although not a very attractive one.
After about a dozen more kilometres since stopping at the store we pulled into yet another abandoned building and contemplated spending the night there as it offered shade and we were not visible from the road, or so we thought. As we sat like a couple of stunned molluscs having a snack and more water, suddenly a couple of men appeared. They had driven by in their grand taxi and must have seen us.
Grand taxis are used to travel longer distances between cities and towns in Morocco, as opposed to petite taxis used in cities for local transportation. Out of curiosity, we asked how much it would cost to get a ride to the coast and they told us 80 Euros. It only took us a moment to agree to the price and a location on the coast, a distance of 130 km that would have taken us two or three days to cycle.
Within a few minutes our bags were all in the back of the car and the bikes safely strapped to the roof rack and we were on our way. They stopped a few minutes later at a shop to buy some water, offering us a couple of bottles for the ride.
They explained that we had to go to the local police to register. Because of the language barrier we didn’t quite understand why but it became apparent this was required for the grand taxis as they travelled between jurisdictions. We did this twice more and it seemed to be a mere formality for the driver and did not involve us.
The countryside rolled past our window and we had some regret about not cycling through these beautiful mountain villages but given the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. About three hours later, we arrived in Tazaghine near the coast where they dropped us off in front of a store. We paid them and thanked them for the ride. It was cooler here and we felt good about our decision to take the ride. Given the temperature and the mountainous terrain we would have had to cross, this ride had been a good call.
We bought a few supplies and 10 litres of water and then had a bite to eat at an adjacent restaurant before heading out of town to the coast in search of a place to camp. That wasn’t very easy, either but we eventually found a nice spot on the edge of a field out of sight from the road and got the tent up just as the sun was setting.
It had been quite a day that swung from a bit of desperation to a feeling of elation in the end as we watched the sun slowly sink into the sea and we realized it was Canada Day back home. We now had only an easy two-day ride to Melilla where we could take a ferry back to Spain.
In the morning we were awoken by the sound of rain on the tent. We had only had a sprinkle on the coast of Portugal since starting this journey a month earlier in Lisbon. It was so refreshing. We lounged around over breakfast bathing in the humidity and waiting for the rain to stop before breaking camp.
We were only cycling about 20 km that day to a motel so we were not in a hurry. The rain eventually stopped and we got on the road stopping at several beaches along the way. By noon we had arrived at the motel and checked in. The sun was out, allowing us to dry the tent and our laundry.
We had a lazy afternoon wandering the beach where fishing boats sat on their keels in the sand. There was not much going on. No tourists and only a few people working on their boats. Later that afternoon a small tour bus pulled up at the motel and a group of a dozen young people got out. That evening’s dinner was busy for the hotel staff.
The morning was quiet as fog had settled over the land. We rode to nearby Izzarouan and began a long, slow climb into a coastal pine forest. The views would have been great but instead we rode in an all-encompassing white bubble barely being able to see 50 metres down the road. There was no traffic but we had our lights on as a precaution.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Nador and the border with Spain at Melilla. Unfortunately, that border crossing was closed and we were told to ride around the exclave to another crossing. As we rode along the heavily guarded barbed wire fence we ran into Fred, a Dutch cyclist we had met in Spain and again in Fes. He told us he was staying in Nador for a couple of weeks to relax before taking a ferry to southern France.
The border crossing was a quick formality and just like that we were back in Spain where it was immediately noticeably different than a few metres behind us in Morocco. It was cleaner, the cars newer and more expensive, electric scooters and bikes zoomed by us on the bike paths, more shops and more modern buildings.
Our hotel was also more expensive. We were able to check in right away and headed out to check out the town and buy ferry tickets back to mainland Spain.
Melilla, like Ceuta where we entered Morocco two weeks earlier, is an old fortified town with occupation dating back to when the Phoenicians ruled these coasts. The Portuguese and Spanish took possession of Ceuta and Melilla, respectively, at the end of the 15th century with the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal ceded Ceuta to Spain in the 17th century and various treaties over many decades secured the two autonomous cities as Spanish territory in Africa.
In 1936, General Fransisco Franco seized control of the Spanish army in Africa and rebelled against the Spanish republican government. He sent his army across the Mediterranean to Spain joining other armed forces divisions in the Spanish civil war that lasted until 1939 when the Republicans surrendered their remaining control over the divided country to the Nationalists. With the deaths of other rebel generals, Franco gained control of the nationalist army and became Spain’s dictator until his resignation as Prime Minister in 1973 but he remained head of state until his death on November 20, 1975.
Franco’s regime immediately following the civil war executed or imprisoned tens of thousands of republicans and their supporters. Some estimates are as high as 50,000, with a total number of deaths including the civil war deaths adding up to 200,000.
In 1969, Franco restored the monarchy to Juan Carlos I. Following Franco’s death, Spain transitioned to a democracy with a general election in 1977 and the adoption of a constitution in 1978. An attempted coup in 1981 by a Lieutenant-Colonel and 200 armed civil guards occupied parliament, holding the deputies hostage for 18 hours, failed when the king denounced them and they surrendered.
We wandered along Melilla’s fortifications looking out over the Mediterranean before heading to the ferry terminal to buy tickets for our crossing the next day but I had misread the online timetable. Instead of the ferry to Motril sailing at 2 pm, it sailed at 2 am. Since we had already paid for our hotel, we opted for the ferry to Málaga at 2 pm the next day.
We capped off our day on a lovely terrace in the warmth of the evening, reflecting on our Moroccan journey. Palm trees rustled in the gentle breeze as the sky turned from orange to azure and we talked about the differences between our journey in Morocco’s south 10 years earlier. Camping was easier in the south and the temperatures in January had been much milder, even cold at night with freezing temperatures in the High Atlas. Cycling here in early summer had been a demanding couple of weeks but a worthwhile detour.
More stories to follow in the coming weeks.