Southern Morocco is a great winter cycling destination with its varied landscapes, friendly people and cheap accommodation.
It’s also more accessible than ever. Several ferries run between Europe and Morocco (mostly from the Spanish ports of Tarifa, Algeciras and Malaga) and low-cost airlines also fly to cities such as Marrakech and Casablanca.
Photographer Paul Jeurissen and his wife Grace cycled there in 2009, and hope to return soon. In this edition of 10 Questions, Grace tells about their experience bike touring from Marrakech towards the Sahara desert.
1. What do you love so much about Morocco for bike touring?
It has a beautiful and varied landscape, cheap food, inexpensive hotels, friendly people, and a lot of back roads with very little traffic. Personally I would choose to go back cycling in Morocco above even France. (Or is that heresy to say?)
2. Was language ever a problem? Do you know any French or Arabic?
Well, both Paul and I know a little bit of French (with emphasis on little!), so it wasn’t a problem for ordering food, checking into a hotel, etc. For more in depth conversations with Moroccans, we just didn’t know enough French and we don’t speak any Arabic. A couple of times we had a more “in depth conversation” Which consisted of passing around a French-English dictionary for a couple of hours. We found that even more tiring than cycling.
3. When is the ideal time to ride this route in terms of weather?
From October until May is the best time. In the summer months it’s just too hot.
4. What didn’t you like about Morocco?
Paul is a photographer and during this trip we came across a number of people with beautiful faces. Unfortunately most of them did not want to be photographed. Even the kids had instructions from their parents that they shouldn’t let their picture be taken. That was a bit frustrating.
5. Is it possible to ride through Morocco without a tent?
Our route took us from Marrakech, over the Atlas Mountain, and towards the Sahara desert. From there we also cycled up the Dades valley. I read a number of travelogues beforehand wherein cyclists travelling this route weren’t carrying a tent so we took the risk and didn’t carry one. For us, it turned out okay. There was only one time that we reached a guesthouse just as it turned dark. If we go back to Morocco, we will carry a tent since there are a number of stunning back roads with no hotels or guesthouse accommodation and we’d like to explore those.
6. Morocco sometimes is described as a country with a reputation for hassling tourists. What was your experience?
The reason that we didn’t go to Morocco before was because of this reputation. We had read Frank van Rijn’s books wherein he was continuously harassed by “guides”; kids were throwing stones at him, etc while cycling through Morocco. Then, a couple of years ago, we came across very positive reports on cycling through Southern Morocco. It turns out that the Moroccan government has clamped down on people who “hassle” tourists and that has really had an effect in Southern Morocco, especially in the city of Marrakech. (Note: we didn’t cycle in Northern Morocco and we haven’t read any positive reports about cycling there. This might have to do with the fact that Northern Morocco is also the center for growing hashish.)
7. Tell us about your favorite parts of Morocco and why it was so special for you.
The people are really friendly – definitely special. They always made us feel like welcome guests. The architecture and the oasis’s are also our favorites. All the buildings are painted pink or built from local stones, so they appear to grow out of the landscape. As for the oasis’s – they are such a lush green and filled with palm trees – a complete contrast to the stark brown desert and mountains that surround them.
8. What’s the one thing every cyclist going to Morocco should take with them?
If you are planning on cycling towards the Sahara where of course it’s extremely hot, bring trousers and a long sleeved shirt. Wearing them is a lot cooler than just wearing shorts, a t-shirt and applying sun screen.
9. Tell us about the food. What’s to eat and is there enough of it that you don’t need to bring cooking equipment?
Well, besides not bringing a tent, we also didn’t bring any cooking equipment. Most of the towns had restaurants / cafes where we could order tagines or grilled meat with flat bread. The only thing we did have to watch out for is that we had enough water with us. We carried a Steripen (water filtering device) but we didn’t end up using it. Most of the cafes sold bottled water direct from the refrigerator for a very cheap price. Because of the heat, we would buy up to four bottles of water at a time.
10. Any last comments about Morocco?
What’s unique about Morocco is the feeling of time travel. During the day, you can cycle on back roads through Kasbahs (towns/fortresses) full of medieval architecture and past people travelling on mules. Then as evening approaches, you only have to head back to the main road where you can find restaurants and hotels full of twentieth century amenities such as air conditioning, television and even swimming pools.
Thanks to Paul & Grace for answering the questions and providing the photos.
Paul & Grace are now on a multi-year bicycle trip/project titled; “Bicycling around the world in search of inspiring cycle images”. They are photographing the different bicycle cultures around the world, and also the feeling of travelling by bicycle. The results can be seen on their blog: Bicycling Around The World.