Morocco & Andalusia: The middle Atlas
One of Morocco’s most overlooked areas shelters one of this mostly arid land’s most surprising features: immense forests of the giant Mediterranean cedars (akin to those that once covered the hills of Lebanon), sprinkled with azure blue lakes. Within them hide two of Morocco’s last large wild mammal species: the Barbary Apes (actually macaques, of Gibraltar fame), that roam the forests in bands of dozens, and the more elusive wild boars. This is also a region of the largest Berber tribal confederations, the Zayane, Zemmour and Beni Mguild, renowned throughout the country for their pride in their culture, their generous hospitality, folklore, weavings and horsemanship. The range was the cradle of Morocco’s third Berber dynasty, the 12th–13th C. Merinids, had one of the oldest known Jewish communities in Sefrou (8th C.?), and now attracts students from around the world to Africa’s most esteemed and technologically advanced university, the Al Akhawaïne in Ifrane.
What to do
While you can see the cedar forest covering the mountains to the East most of the length of the Fes to Khenifra road, you actually cross a bit of it just South of Azrou heading toward Midelt. For a better look at the heart of this forest, unique in the world, a narrow, winding road goes from Aïn Leuh to Khenifra, passing the picturesque Wiwane and Azgza lakes, along with simple Berber hamlets. Although the indigenous macaques can occasionally be spotted along this road, better luck near workers’ camps in the Ifrane/Azrou area, where the monkeys hang out looking for food scraps. Some of Morocco’s largest and most colorful weekly outdoor bazaars are held in the northern part of the Middle Atlas, in such towns as Azrou (Tuesdays), Mrirt (Thursdays) and Khenifra (Sundays, the 2nd largest weekly souq in the country). As much marketplaces as social gatherings for villagers from remote hamlets, they present a boisterous atmosphere, with stalls for produce, dentists, tools, livestock, clothing, scribes, stereos, barbers and everything in between. With occasionally abundant snow in winter, the architecture of the larger towns is also unique in Morocco, with slanted roofs covered by red ceramic tiles. Among the most scenic towns are Sefrou and Ifrane. The first is renowned for its cherries (May/June) and formerly as one of Morocco’s most important centers of Judaism. Sefrou has the sole historic medina (old city) in the region, half of it once having been occupied by the Jewish community. Ifrane, the highest of the range’s main towns and surrounded by forests, is a favorite getaway spot for lowland city dwellers to escape the summer’s heat or enjoy winter’s snow. Its now famed Al Akhawaïne University, whose curriculum and methodology were designed by US higher education institutions, may be visited by special arrangement only.