Morocco & Andalusia: Taroudant & the Anti Atlas
While the greener pastures of the first settlers who moved into Morocco’s deep South slowly turned to desert over the last 3 millennia, the Anti Atlas, the country’s southernmost mass of mountains, continued to provide water and shelter. It is thus thought to be the South’s oldest continuously inhabited region, offering us samples of prehistoric rock art, original Berber defensive architecture and traditions that transcend time. The Illalen Berbers who still inhabit the region were so adept at the management of water, their most precious resource, that for centuries oasis communities throughout northern Africa would seek their arbitration and counsel on how to equitably distribute what water was available to all of the oases’ inhabitants (the distribution system the Illalen proposed in the 13th C. to Tunisia‘s immense Nefta oasis is still in practice today!).
Between the Anti Atlas and the High Atlas to the North lies the wide Souss valley, one of Morocco’s prime agricultural centers. For well over a millennium the main market center of this fertile region has been Taroudant. Yet, beyond the tall ramparts encircling the city and a 19th-C. pasha’s palace now converted to a hotel, don’t look for any historical monuments or museums. The city’s attraction lies in its relaxed ways, its proud, hospitable people, its balmy weather and its rich, exotic markets empty of tourism masses. And it is a good base for exploring the Anti Atlas and western High Atlas.
What to do
Taroudant is primarily a good spot to relax. On a walk through its compact yet very varied markets you may observe the hand manufacture of all kinds of everyday goods, everything from sumptuous kaftans to wrought nails! While the reed-shaded craft bazaars may pale next to Marrakech’s size and quantity, they offer good variety and a much more relaxed shopping atmosphere, without having to fight through crowds. The Hotel Palais Salam still has the lovely courtyards with gurgling fountains and lush garden kept from the days it was an actual palace. A half-hour South of town, Tiout village, with its ruined hilltop citadel and its pristine oasis, is one of the country’s most photogenic spots. En route there you pass stands of the indigenous argan trees, renowned for the aromatic oil from their nuts, on which you may spot the area’s infamous tree-climbing goats.
A drive into the Anti Atlas, through Aït Baha, takes you past numerous hilltop hamlets of the Illalen Berbers, though you have to have a sharp eye as many were built for camouflage from the same scree that covers the slopes. The drive also offers an interesting palette of plant life, from more typically Mediterranean on the northern side to the Sahara’s ubiquitous acacias in the South. At the heart of the range lies the Tafraout oasis, flanked by pink granite cliffs, filled with dense date palm groves and odd rock formations with names such as Napoleon’s Hat. A pleasant spot for a short hike to witness life in an oasis. Less than a mile from the town of Tafraout is a minor yet possibly the country’s most easily accessible rock art site, two gazelles and a bovine creature carved into the cliff face below a hamlet. Still West you come to the Kerdous pass, which affords spectacular views on the mountains as far as the Atlantic Ocean and, at dawn or dusk, you may be lucky to spot a family of wild boars roaming the slopes below.
And at the western edge of the range the town of Tiznit is the country’s most renowned enclave of silversmiths; good haggling skills and a keen eye for what is genuine are useful! An hour North is the Oued Massa National Park, an internationally recognized bird sanctuary on the main migratory route between Europe and Africa.