The Slower Marrakesh Express
Words/images: Paolo Ciaberta
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The Berber village of Agoudal is one of the highest villages in Morocco, located in the High Atlas Mountains at the junction of the dramatic canyons of the Dadès and Todgha Rivers, and perched at 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level. This was our starting point. On our first night in Agoudal, the temperature in our bedroom dropped to just 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). There was no heating, except in the dining room, where we’d spent the whole evening eating chicken tagine, drinking hot tea and talking with the owners about football and music. To face our room’s frigidity we slept under all the available blankets and thought about this new country to discover. Fortunately, after that chilly start, we had better conditions for the rest of our time in Morocco.
Our goal was to ride the 550 kilometers to Marrakesh in five days, with some 6,300 meters (21,000 feet) of climbing and 40 percent on gravel roads. The average of 110 kilometers a day allowed us time to stop in the more interesting places. By night, we slept in a town’s casbah, a covered marketplace, or found other local accommodations. The differences in day and night temperatures were so extreme that we preferred to avoid using tents, which allowed us to travel lighter.
We’d studied our route for months but, as often happens, everything you imagine on paper suddenly becomes real and different from what you expect. After we’d decided on the map what to see, what roads to use and how far to ride each day, we realized on the journey how much this attempt to make everything “comfortable” had no connection with reality. In the saddle, we immediately realized the difference between the two-dimensionality of the map and the three-dimensionality of Morocco’s terrain—but, in the end, these were discoveries that made our journey so fascinating.
In Europe, the Alps soar steep and you get accustomed to severe, majestic landscapes. Instead, here in North Africa, the landscapes were soft, dominated by one color that divided into a thousand shades; so the whole trip was relaxing and soothing. Crossing this little-known country was a form of meditative movement, where our thoughts slipped silently over the roads and the pastel colors didn’t distract, but just focused us on what lay ahead. The endless landscapes were only broken by small, sandy villages, flocks of sheep and shepherds who always looked at us with great curiosity.
Slow travel allows cyclists to appreciate their silent movement and discreet presence, perhaps because it’s a universal mode of transportation that involves everyone from children to the elderly; but also because their efforts and commitments are appreciated. Many Moroccans complain about the “hit and run” of international tourism, including a waiter in the Gorges du Dadès who told us: “They come by bus, stay one hour and then they go without having learned anything and left nothing.”
There are those who travel to ride, and those who ride to travel. We are firmly in the second category, preferring to enjoy a slower pace that allows us to discover, explore, deviate from the beaten path and allow our senses to take in all that we pass through. This was my third visit to Morocco, but I’ve never appreciated its beauty, landscapes and colors like this before. It’s true—slowing down does help you to truly explore.
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