Between the Sahara Desert and the Middle Atlas Mountains lies a diverse landscape of valleys, rivers, forests and foothills. Highways lined with dogs and fields full of sheep. Villages famous for apple festivals and others known for barbecued meat.
We made this long road trip from Merzouga to Fes and it took us about 9 hours. If you’ve got plans to visit the Sahara and then head north like we did, you’ve got a long drive ahead of you. We’ll show you a few of the most beautiful and delicious places to stop along the way.
1. Rissani: home of medfouna
About 40 minutes north of Merzouga, you’ll pass through Rissani: a relatively major city that shares the same beautiful red clay as Merzouga, with the added contrast of rich green date palms.
Here, the local delicacy is medfouna, which is essentially Moroccan stuffed pizza. If you’re hungry, Rissani is the right place to stop. And don’t worry about leftovers. Medfouna wrapped in aluminum foil travels well and is still delicious, several hours later. Take our word for it.
2. Erfoud: Gate of the Sahara
Not to be confused with The Door of the Desert (Ouarzazate), Erfoud is another oasis town on the desert’s edge, thus nicknamed The Gate of the Sahara.
Erfoud is about 30 minutes north of Rissani. Stop here for a snack, and say farewell to the desert before continuing north.
3. Somewhere in the Ziz Valley
The Ziz Valley deserves to be appreciated–outside of your vehicle. Densely-packed groves of date palms and the meandering Ziz River are easy on the eyes.
Pull over to the side of the road (3 times, like we did!) or stop in one of the many small towns. The tiny village of Aoufous is said to be a hidden gem of the Ziz Valley.
4. Errachidia: the City of “Clean”
OK, we made that one up. But our impression of Errachidia was that it was truly a modern, clean-looking city. While passing through, we noticed spotless streets and flawless architecture.
Errachidia is over an hour north of Erfoud, nestled along the banks of the Ziz River.
5. This Dam on the Ziz River
This dam on the Ziz River generates at least two things that we’re aware of: 1) hydroelectricity and 2) some great photo opportunities!
6. Midelt: the City of Apples
Two hours north of Errachidia, the city of Midelt rests on the high plains at an elevation of 1 mile high (think Denver, Colorado!).
The area’s temperate climate plus nearby Moulouya River create an ideal environment for agriculture. Local harvests include walnuts, apricots, plums, pomegranates and most notably: apples! With a statue like this, Midelt has certainly earned the nickname City of Apples.
Come in October for the annual Apple Festival of Midelt. It’s about more than just eating apples: it features workshops and conferences aimed at improving apple-harvesting technology and encouraging scientific research within the local apple industry.
Although…we’re pretty sure the Apple Festival of Midelt is also about eating apples.
7. Zaida: the City of Barbecue
It’s only fitting for the City of Apples to be followed by the City of…Barbecue?!
Welcome to Zaida, where the meat hangs from hooks and the smoke billows from curbside grills in front of open-air restaurants. If you’re in the mood for meat, this is your place. Park your car, and choose a restaurant at random, based on which one smells the best!
travelhelix tip: when you’re done eating, wrap the lamb bones in a napkin and take them with you. As you drive away from the city, you’ll see dogs–LOTS OF DOGS–waiting patiently on the side of the highway. They belong to no one. But they are cared for by everyone. Feeding these dogs with the leftover food of Zaida is a well-known secret around here. As Hicham explained this to us, we saw bread fly out the passenger-side window of the car in front of us!
8. Timahdite: the City of Wool
Further north, the landscape changes dramatically. We begin to see conifers again, like we did after leaving Marrakech on Saturday. Rolling green hills surround wide fields, full of sheep.
It rained yesterday, so the ground is moist. The grass is a rich, verdant green, scattered with bright yellow dandelions, red poppies and fringed lavender.
We are now in the heart of the Middle Atlas Mountains. The climate is harsh. This… is sheep country.
Rocky hills are scattered amongst the green, and cows and horses provide a bit of diversity in what is predominantly a sheep metropolis. Every mile that goes by, we see a new flock of several hundred sheep, plus a couple of sheepdogs and a shepherd. Always somewhere close by, we notice 1 or 2 Berber tents; modest and practical dwellings that house the shepherd and his family.
An hour north of Zaida, we reach the City of Wool: Timahdite, a Middle Atlas town with its own breed of sheep named after it.
9. Ifrane: Little Switzerland
The terrain becomes even more mountainous as you approach Ifrane, known locally as the Switzerland of Morocco or Little Switzerland. At times, this area feels like Lake Tahoe.
Ifrane is city of pristine, natural beauty. Babbling brooks wind their way through gorgeous forests. Cherry orchards and apple orchards line the side of the road. If you enjoy hiking, this area was the best we saw in all of Morocco.
If you enjoy hiking AND you’re trying to figure out where to get your next post-graduate degree: Ifrane is home to a public, international university: Al Akhawayn University. Not a bad setting!
Only one more hour, and you’ll arrive in Fes…
The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are simply stunning, and we’re so glad that we had the opportunity to drive through the Middle Atlas region by car.
After two wild days in the Sahara–inventing political parties during drum circles and shredding the dunes of the Erg Chebbi–this 9-hour drive offered exactly the type of mellow & manageable excitement that we needed.
What’s next? Things are about to speed up again! Join us for 24 frantic hours in Fes, and we’ll show you the best views, sights to see & places to shop in the Mecca of the West.
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