I seem to return again and again to Pic du Midi de Bigorre, a pole around which some of my memories rotate, collect, and coalesce like the dust of a primordial solar system or galaxy, perhaps to come to life again.
Just recently, an article in The Guardian with readers’ recommendations for out-of-the-way European travel spots suggested visiting the Pyrenees and highlighted the mountain range’s clean air. The Pyrenees have been somewhat ignored by foreigners, except for eccentric Englishmen like Count Henry Russell.
The fact that for a third of the twentieth century the mountains were a land frontier with a country under a dictatorship did not encourage drop-in visitors and was a factor, though in the south many British pensioners stretched their incomes by moving to the Costa del Sol.
As for mountain scenery, the Alps are much higher, have big glaciers, are closer to large population centers, have more snow and longer lasting snow, and were an early center for climbing for the French and the English.
The Pyrenees are much more wild, and far less developed, particularly in the eastern part of the range, where French government and European environmental groups have been trying to reestablish a self-sustainable bear population. That effort has met vocal and vigorous opposition from pastoralists who must deal with occasional depredations on livestock. Transhumance in the Pyrenees has been an important part of the local economy from at least the Middle Ages.
Hitchhiking through the Pyrenees in the mid-sixties, I seldom encountered cars with foreign license plates, and all the rides that I received were with French drivers.
More recently, however, British writers have produced some excellent guide books in the Ciceron series of mountaineering and climbing guides.
Recently, French newspapers have reported on the discovery of micro plastics in the thin air of that Pic du Midi. This should come as no surprise since plastic particles have been found from pole to pole. Plastics have contaminated the food that we eat, and through food, our bodies. A huge mass of plastics floats in the Pacific, while I, myself, cannot go down to the shingle beach behind my house without seeing all varieties of plastic items, the flotsam and jetsam of life in our modern age.
What did come as a surprise to some scientists studying the plastic nanoparticules on the summit of Pic du Midi was their origin: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, suggesting vast transport mechanisms.
Plastics are ubiquitous on earth, to the extent that some have suggested that a new geological age be created and named the Plastocene. We don’t have to search for irony in the scene from the movie, The Graduate, where an adult friend of the protagonist’s father approaches young Benjamin, and shares his important life secret: the future is in plastics.
The Graduate was released in 1967, the same year I trained for the Peace Corps. At that time in Morocco, grocers used old newspapers and bags made of cheap and coarse blue paper to wrap beans, rice, and other bulk items. In Tangier, an expatriate Englishman, who offered fish and chips from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the medina, served up his take-out food wrapped in newsprint as was the custom in Britain. Still, change was on the horizon. In the short four years of my first stay in Morocco, thin plastic bags slowly replaced the old paper ones and newspaper wrappings became ever less common.
In those days, municipal dump sites consisted largely of organic waste materials. Tin cans, glass, and plastic bottles were picked out of the waste sites by scavengers. Rather than a mound, waste sites in Morocco were often flat empty places, picked clean by people and animals. As in the account of life in a Mumbai slum, All the Beautiful Forevers, where some of the book’s characters earned their living by scavenging trash, so did some Moroccans. I have a photo somewhere of the municipal dump site of Chauen, from the mid-nineteen seventies, that shows a strikingly flat and barren place, picked clean of everything.
In the States and Canada, the term waste management is somewhat of an oxymoron, and now manifests itself as an industry with a few very giant players. Recycling is common, encouraged by environmental interests as well as governments hoping to preserve landfill space and perhaps make a bit of money. Much waste is shipped abroad where it ends up burned or otherwise inappropriately disposed of. Better waste management would include reducing the amount generated in addition to recycling and various disposal solutions.
Not too long ago, a U.S. forest services employee, who had tested the Colorado air for years for certain predetermined substances, decided out of curiosity to look at his samples under a microscope one day, and, to his surprise, saw tiny black particles. Need I tell you what they were?
Today Morocco has joined other nations of the world in the fight to reduce and manage waste and keep it out of the environment. The effort is expensive and Morocco’s progress has been slow. Perhaps, if Peace Corps returns to the country after the pandemic, it will bring young waste management experts. More likely is that giant waste management firms will eventfully find the Moroccan market profitable and move in with their own people.
The chemical giant DuPont used to have an advertising slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” While there is no doubt that the modern world is dependent on plastics, there is also little doubt that non-recyclable plastics, used indiscriminately and disposed of improperly, are ruining the planet. Yes, a Moroccan farmer in Taounate can produce cheaper tomatoes using drip irrigation from plastic tubes, but there always remains the question of where the plastic goes after it is used, not to mention the environmental cost of producing it.
Modern life is unimaginable without plastics, but we might all be better served by their more judicious and less frivolous use.
In the nineteen sixties, there was no paved road to the foot of Bouiblane. Today there may be one, at least part way, and perhaps the slopes have been developed for skiing. I believe that the French, during the Protectorate, skied there. In 1968, the way in, whether you came from Sefrou or Taza, was by mountain tracks. Streams flooded the pistes, rockfalls blocked them, and in the cold months, snow on them increased the danger of slipping off the road, and potentially down some very steep slopes.
Travelling from Oujda to Taza, Bouiblane is visible from the plains of the lower Moulouya, and, of course, from the air.
Bouiblane also is visible from the region of Fes. The mountain was visible from my rooftop in Sefrou. It was my Kanchenjunga, and Sefrou, perhaps, my Darjeeling. Not the ominous looming presence of Kanchenjunga of the nuns of Black Narcissus, but a friendly, steady presence. The mountain beckoned. It was impossible to resist the temptation to see it up close. Ahermoumou offered a belvedere and a grand view, but at the price of a drive.
Climbing the stairs to the roof of my house was far easier. In the twilight on clear winter days, Bouiblane slopes slowly turned pink, as the kestrels living in the city wall did a few more acrobatics before disappearing into their holes for the night.
Strictly speaking I was not supposed to use it for tourism. And I was very good about that generally speaking. I used buses and taxis to go back and forth to my job in the Ministry of Agriculture in Fes, for example. The jeep would have made the commute much shorter and more convenient, but most of the time I read and enjoyed the commute. In restrospect, though, I wish I had used the jeep much more for touring my corner of Morocco. I never went to Erfoud and Merzouga to see the dunes, though I saw plenty crossing the Algerian Sahara after leaving the Peace Corps.
Gaylord and I set off with no good plan in mind. I think we knew that there was a forestry station or an old ski chalet at Taffert. It was probably mentioned in the Guide Bleu. We took some food and sleeping bags in any case, and made pretty good progress until the last 15 or 20 kilometers, where we began to encounter snow on the road. The jeep had off the road tires. They were not much good on snow. Coming around a long, deep curve, the jeep began to slide toward the edge of the road where there was nothing but a steep slope. Luckily I recovered control. From that point, we slowed down considerably. We also began to wonder how we would get back if it snowed overnight. We didn’t have a weather forecast, but the skies were clear, and, foolishly optimistic, we continued. It certainly would have been embarrassing to get stuck there.
Not long after the slipping and sliding incident, the road leveled out and paralleled the mountain crest. We picked up a local man and he rode all the way to Taffert, where, after thanking us, he wrapped his sandaled feet in rags, and made straight up the mountain toward the pass at the western end of Bouiblane, referred to as Tizi Bouzabel. A dirt road goes through it, and I imagine that once he was over the pass there was less snow and the going got easier. The sun was setting and it was getting colder, so we wished him well and he wasted no time. He was up and over before the sun set.
There was a guardian at Taffert, but the building, though substantial, was dilapidated, and there was no fire to temper the cold. I reckon it wasn’t used much at the time. I don’t recall electricity either.
So we ate and went to sleep in our sleeping bags.
The next morning was grey and overcast, and the mountain, covered with snow, looked a bit menacing. We were still worried about the road conditions, so we left early and returned home. There were no problems but we drove cautiously.
The next trip was with Louden and his wife, Ginny, and their dog, Pigpen. We didn’t get very far past Ahermoumou.
The track was muddy and snowy, and the streams, with enough water to flow over the crossings, had to be forded. I think we gave up when faced by more serious snow. Pigpen loved the trip, a real change of pace from his yard in Rabat.
That trip set the stage for the next. Don Brown, then an administrator, and formerly a Peace Corps volunteer in Oujda, had always wanted to climb Bouiblane, which he had frequently seen on trips back and forth to Oujda. Now we had a newer Jeep. Louden was there, along with a volunteer, John Paulas. Gaylord and I filled out the roster. It was spring and we started out very early.
There was no problem getting to Taffert aside from some fallen rocks.
I don’t remember whether we went on our hikes immediately.
I think Don, Louden, Gaylord, and John were set on getting to the summit of Moussa ou Salah. For whatever reason, I think it was weather, I decided that a shorter hike made more sense. I think I suspected that there wasn’t enough time. I climbed the little pinnacle to the left of the Tizi Bouzabel, directly above the refuge at Taffert, and was rewarded with some great views.
The others soon found out the obvious, that the crest of Bouiblane was a very long slog, and only took them to the saddle between Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah.
From that point, they could see clearly that the summit of Moussa ou Salah was higher, but it was very late and they were tired, so they returned defeated. The next day it was foggy at Taffert so we returned home via the Sefrou track.
This set the stage for two more attempts, both via the Taza track. Louden and John returned. Maybe Louden will elaborate if he reads this post, but I think he or John told me that that they went up in moonlight. It is only about a three or four hour climb, so perhaps they witnessed a sunrise, which would have been awesome. It’s always great to be on a big mountain at sunrise and sunset. In the Alps, this is often the plan as you want to be down and out of range of the rocks that hurdle down the snowfields in the warming sun of the afternoon. If you ever experience the sound that these projectiles make, you will never forget it.
Maine people await the first sunrise in the Lower 48 from Cadillac Mountain or, much more rarely, Mount Katahdin. I witnessed a sunset from Toubkal, but paid for it, descending through a damp and cold mist.
I also saw a sunset descending the west ridge of Angour, and another from the summit of Tichoukt. One of my favorite sunsets, though, was from the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, which resulted in a long, long moonlit walk down to a ski place in La Mongie. My companion and I were lucky it was a warm night, and the receptionist was surprised that we arrived at the nearly deserted ski resort without a car! We tried hitching, but very few cars were crossing the Col du Tourmalet that night, and none of them was interested in picking up hitchhikers in the dark.
In May of 1970 I finally got my chance at Moussa ou Salah, when a group of staff and volunteers took a couple of jeeps in from Taza.
The views from the drive to the base of the mountain were often beautiful.
We camped overnight and climbed the next morning. The views from the summit of Moussa ou Salah were nothing special. There was a cairn on the summit. Was it a burial spot for a local holy man?
I think John Paulas and some Peace Corps trainees later climbed Bou Naceur, visible from the summit of Moussa ou Salah, probably in the summer. That must have been a long, hot and dry ascent. There is not a lot of water on any of Morocco’s mountains in the summer.
Here in America, Netflix has just premiered a Spanish series, Love in Times of War, which takes place in Morocco in the nineteen twenties, during the Rif uprising by Abdelkrim. Filmed in Morocco, much of the series is situated in the Spanish enclave of Melilla.
Not well known outside of Morocco, except in Spain, the Rif rebellion was an unmitigated military disaster for the Spanish, and an episode of Moroccan history that showcases Berber resistance in the North, never a popular subject with the Makhzen, the Moroccan government. The Rif remains a region where the government is unpopular and its rule is heavy-handed.
The Rif War was marked with corruption and incompetence, and fought with conscripts so poor they sometimes sold their weapons for food and clothing. Against common sense, the Spanish set up a series of forts extending west from Melilla, through the dry hills and rugged mountains of the Rif. Many were located in spots without permanent water sources. In the hot summer of 1921, the Riffians, after warning the Spanish not to advance deeper into their territory, struck simultaneously along the line and cut off each fort from resupply. The rout in the battle of Annual is immortalized in the Spanish novel by Arturo Barea, The Track (La Ruta), part of his larger work, The Forging of a Rebel. Over 13,000 Spanish soldiers died, and for a long time afterwards the Spanish army was confined to Melilla. Barea sought asylum in Britain after the civil war, and his wife and friends helped him translate his autobiographical novel into English. An interesting footnote to this story, Barea lost the Spanish copy after the translation. The Spanish version of his book, La forja de un rebelle, is a translation of its English translation.
In only two battles of the war, the Spanish suffered casualties of roughly 30,000 men. The next disaster was Chauen.
In the retreat from Chauen in 1924, with the weather turning bad and fear that the army would be trapped in the mountains without supplies for the winter, the Spanish attempted withdraw to Tetuan through narrow mountain valleys with poor roads.
The weather was rainy and the road turned into mud. The Riffians waited until the Spanish column was strung out, then attacked along its whole length.
It was a slaughter for the Spanish and a major victory for Abdelkrim. Franco was an officer involved in the debacle. Indeed, Spanish Morocco might be seen as the incubator for the Spanish Civil War.
Abdelkrim’s succes was also his downfall. The French, deciding that he had become a threat to their interests, intervened massively, put down the rebellion, and sent Abdelkrim into exile.
My first encounter with the Rif was early in my Peace Corps service. My job often took me to the pre-Rif as Fes Province extended north.
By the winter of 1968, I was sharing a house in the Sefrou medina (old city) with another volunteer, Gaylord Barr. He had decided that he needed a 35 mm SLR. He had brought over an 8 mm movie camera from home, but found it insufficient. I had been taking color slides, and he wanted to do the same. We decided to hitchhike to Ceuta from Fes. Ceuta was a free port: no taxes. The route was straightforward, north of Fes, along the western edge of the Rif Mountains. It went through the hilly country of the pre-Rif, where I occasionally worked, and by Chauen to Tetuan.
We did it in one harrowing ride. It really was a dark and stormy night. There were rockfalls along the route from the recent earthquake and all the usual mudslides from the winter rains, and the driver had been drinking!
The ride was scary, but we arrived safely in Tetuan and Gaylord got his new camera in Ceuta. Sadly, it got lost on the train crossing Algeria in 1971. Gaylord was a good photographer, but most of his Moroccan slides seem to have been lost.
If you decide to watch Love in Times of War, perhaps you may reflect on the drama playing outside of Melilla today. NPR just feature the story of an African migrant trying to get past the fences and barriers, hoping for refugee status.
In the This American Life program, look for this reportage:
There are two tiny Spanish towns on the African continent protected by multiple layers of razor wire, cameras and guards. A man from Cameroon tells producer David Kestenbaum about his attempt to get through the obstacle course and onto European soil. (19 minutes)
Morocco might be called an outlier. Until modern times, it has always been a place on the marches. It has always existed on the edge of large empires, but it was never part of them. Arabic historians traditionally referred to Morocco as the place of the Farthest Sunset (المغرب الأقصى), where the sun set in the Atlantic, an immense, unknown ocean.
The Phoenicians set up trading posts in Morocco. They were more traders than colonists or empire builders, though in Carthage, in the middle of the Mediterranean, they produced an empire that rivaled and threatened Rome.
The Romans had client states in the north of Morocco, where Rome eventually took full control during the Empire, but it left most of Atlantic Morocco untouched. The Byzantines had only nominal control, and the Ottomans never got past Algeria.
Some Moroccan dynasties reached across North Africa and into Spain, but none were long lived. The Mediterranean world was focused on the basin of its sea, and had its own dynamics. Morocco had an inhospitable Mediterranean coast with mountains crowding the shore. Most of the country, and its richest agricultural lands, faced the Atlantic. Morocco was barely part of the Mediterranean, the world of the “sea between the lands.” Mare Nostrum, our sea, the Romans called it, because it indeed was theirs at the height of Rome’s power.
The natural continuation of Morocco is Spain, not the Sahara or the rest of Africa. Only 15 kilometers wide, the Strait of Gibraltar can be crossed in one-half hour by car ferry. The Strait of Gibraltar posed few difficulties for the Vandals, who invaded Morocco in Byzantine times or for the Arabs and Berbers who invaded the Iberian peninsula a bit later. Today it poses few problems for migrants swarming into Europe.
After the Spanish Reconquista, the Strait took on a new role as a moat, protecting from invasions, much like the English Channel protected England. It separated Christian Europe from Muslim Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese tried to establish toeholds on the African continent, but ultimately were repulsed except at Ceuta and Melilla.
Barbary pirates harassed European ships, but technology favored the Europeans. Now technology enables migrants, desperate for work and a better life, to cross cheaply and relatively easily into Europe.
As European sea power grew, the Mediterranean Sea became even more inhospitable. Morocco’s connections to the east were more and more by land, and there were no longer roads as in Roman times, but only horse and camel tracks until the advent of steam ships and cheap air travel put the Hajj within the reach of those with better means.
Trade continued via new routes. The British brought tea, and Queen Anne style teapots. But despite trade connections, Morocco became more and more landlocked until the twentieth century, when the French seized control and established a protectorate, a system under which the Moroccan sultan was relegated to a ceremonial role, while the French ran the colonial government as their own interests dictated. With independence and modern technology, the isolation is broken forever, for better and for worse.
When I lived in Morocco, I always thought of it as a backwater, and I suspect many Moroccans, proud as they were of their country, may have felt some inferiority. Important events in the Arab world took place in the east. Important history in Maghreb had taken place in Al-Andalus. The greatest monuments of western Islamic Art are in Al-Andalus.
None of this is said to disparage Morocco, which is a place I love dearly, but simply a recognition that Morocco is an outlier, and has been for a very long time. Yet another example: Morocco was one of the first, if not the first, countries to recognize the new United States.
If someone asked me where to see the ruins of a Roman city in North Africa, I would say, without hesitation, Timgad in Algeria or Leptis Magna in Libya. Perhaps I would suggest that they go to El Djem in Tunisia, and visit the largest arena outside of Rome. If western Islamic architecture were their interest, I would suggest going to Córdoba to walk under the superimposed, multicolored arches and through the marble columns of the Mezquita, and then go to Granada, to wander through the rooms of the Alhambra and the gardens of the Generalife. I once did that at night. The palace was dimly lit, and virtually empty. It was as close as I could ever get to Washington Irving’s vision. You would be fortunate, indeed, to have that experience today.
Still, there are virtues that arise from being off the beaten track. Morocco’s most important Roman site is Volubilis, a short drive from Fes, north of the Massif of Zerhoun, just a short distance from the town of Moulay Idriss. The Arab leader, Moulay Idriss established the first dynasty in Morocco at Volubilis, before building his capital a short distance away, partly from stones quarried from the Roman city. After the fall of Rome, it was common practice to reuse stone from the abandoned Roman cities.
Today there is a large shrine devoted to him.
When I visited Volubilis in the late sixties and mid-seventies it was virtually without tourists, even on weekends.
One could wander through the ruins, step into and out of Roman houses, climb the forum stairs, and do it all in complete freedom, with no crowds to distract from the quiet of the place.
Tourist facilities were limited to a tiny cafe that served simple, but delicious, food.
It may be different today when Morocco has twice as many inhabitants and the tourism industry has grown substantially, but then it was a place lost in time and space. The city of Volubilis, wrecked by earthquakes, quarried for building materials, seemed to float over the rich agricultural lands that surrounded it, a stone oasis.
One could wander through it, dreaming of the life and people of that ancient place, reflect on history and the passage of time, and do it alone, in the quiet of the countryside.
There were no guards to remind you to keep to the path. There were no tourists to jostle you. You were really alone.
Volubilis was not a big or important center. It was an outlier. It grew to prominence just before the Empire entered its long decline. Still, to a young person, new to North Africa, it was a truly magical spot.
There are many other places to see larger and better preserved triumphal arches.
There are larger, better preserved, and much finer mosaics elsewhere.
There are spectacular aqueducts, great temples, immense baths, and fantastic amphitheaters scattered all over the Mediterranean. Volubilis lacks all that, but at Volubilis you felt and heard the wind, and you breathed the scent of the fields around you, while the only footsteps that echoed from the 2,000-year old stones were your own.
In the early autumn of 1965, I was in a junior year abroad program in Montpellier, France, that is to say, the third year of a typical American college four-year undergraduate education. I had been been living at the cité universitaire, but the French regular school year was beginning and my program, coordinated by the Experiment in International Living, was about to place me with a French family in Castelnau-le-Lez.
I never clicked with my host family. I hope that they haven’t judged all Americans by my behavior. I’m sure that they were happy to get rid of me by late December. They were kind to take me in and care for me for almost three months.
There was a week or two between the two very different living arrangements, and the students in my program, eager to explore Europe, all went off traveling here and there. My initial goal was to visit a friend in Finland and my method of travel was hitchhiking. I had done a fair amount of hitchhiking in the U.S. and Canada with no bad experiences, so it did not seem unreasonable. I also had an interest in visiting college friends in Freiburg, Germany, who were participating in a similar program in Germany.
The day I left Montpellier, I hitched up the Rhône valley, and took a train to Freiburg.
I did not speak German, and was greeted with a huffy “Speak German!”at the Goethe Institute, while I tried to explain that I was simply looking for friends, and knew little German. After I found them, I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the cathedral and walking about. It was autumn and the weather was gorgeous.
That evening I ate with the German family hosting my friends. Their little blond daughter Kiki conveniently found a photo of Hitler decorating her father, who had been a fighter pilot, and after the war became a newspaper publisher. I suppose that you have to be good and lucky to survive the war as a fighter pilot. I remember the poignant scene in The Ginger Tree when the protagonist has shipped out of Japan as WW II begins, and, at a port somewhere, maybe Singapore, she finally meets her son, the son taken away from her because he was illegitimate and her lover was a nobleman. She utters the hope that they might meet again after the war, and he replies simply, with soft regret, that he is a fighter pilot. Nevertheless, I have always wondered about that photo, and why pride would overrule good taste in showing it to foreigners.
My friends and their host were all going to Austria, so the next morning I had to decide what I would do. I decided that Finland was simply too far, so I grabbed a train to Basel, then went on to spend a couple of days in the Berner Oberland.
I stayed in Interlochen in a nearly empty hostel with two British kids from Rhodesia, who made efforts to explain to me how no one knew the real story of what was happening in their country. Their story was that of the colonists who supported PM Ian Smith’s government’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. Smith was a fighter pilot, too.
It was 1965, the centenary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
From there I hitched to Zermatt, over the Grimsel Pass. It was late in the fall and I was probably lucky to get over.
I spent a day in Zermatt, admiring the Matterhorn. It was October. The larches had turned color, and the forests were beautiful.
After Zermatt, I followed the Rhône down the Valais through Martigny, crossed into France and stayed in Chamonix, where I took the cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi.
I strongly recommend that ride, which I got to do again a few years later, but in October, under early morning, clear skies, I was lucky not to get frostbite at the 12,605 ft summit. The view would have been worth it.
Continuing south and west in France, I passed Grenoble and got as far as Romans. At that point, it was dark and I had about $1.50. Luckily my last ride left me at a kind of youth hostel, where I ate and slept for the equivalent of $1.20. The next morning, I bought a loaf of bread at the local bakery, and got back on the road. I still had more than a hundred miles to go to get back to Montpellier. I was a little worried, but confident I could do it that day.
The start was rough. The morning was clear and very cold. It was October after all. It took a couple of hours to get from Romans to Valence, only a few kilometers distant from each other. At Valence, I reckoned that I could look for rides on the old Route Nationale 7, which handled most of the north-south traffic in France, and once there, my luck immediately improved. The first car that picked me up had two Frenchmen going to Montpellier. The driver had never been there before. His sister had given him directions that referenced “l’œuf”, the egg, and he couldn’t find it on the map he had. Well, the egg referred to the big, marble egg-shaped square in Montpellier, which even I knew since it was the site of the municipal theater, a big department store, and a number of cafés, one of which I had frequented for coffee and games of pinball (“flipper”). I was elated to be able to help him.
As we drew closer, I mentioned that we weren’t far from Pont du Gard, a remnant of the ancient Roman aqueduct that brought water to Nîmes. This is a national treasure and the French guys were interested enough to detour so we could visit it. I was in heaven. I hadn’t seen it, and it was far enough out of Nîmes, which is very close to Montpellier, to be difficult to visit without a car or a tour group.
In the sixties, one could still drive across the bridge that was added to the aqueduct in modern times, and, in fact, we did drive across it.
I have been back to Pont du Gard a couple of times since then. In 2000, I took my wife there at the end of a very long day. We started in Carcassonne, visited Maguelone and Palavas, had a great lunch of mussels in Aiguës Mortes, where we walked along the entire length of the city wall, and finally visited the Roman amphitheater in Nîmes.
Nîmes and Arles both have arenas, which are still in use, and the region is full of Roman ruins. David Macaulay used Nîmes as his inspiration for his kids book, City, which illustrates in pictures how a Roman city might have been built.
The arenas are still in use. I saw a bullfight in Nîmes, but that was years ago.
It was nearly sunset when we got to Pont du Gard. I thought Liz would have been exhausted by then, but she found the site so interesting that we didn’t leave until after sunset. Pont du Gard is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There was a downside. It was the day after Easter. I might have been smart enough to know what the “oeuf” was when I was twenty, but years later I still didn’t know that the Monday after Easter is a holiday in France. We had no reservations and drove for miles, late into the night, before we could find a hotel that had accommodations, and it turned out to be one of the worst I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world!
I should have learned a lesson about hitchhiking without money, but it was only a couple of years later that I found myself hitching back from Mexico where some friends had taken me to Ensenada.
On an access ramp to the freeway in San Diego, a California State trouper stopped and gave me a ticket. It was Christmas Day, and I surely felt like saying “Thank you for the present, and Merry Christmas to you, too, Officer,” but I only had a nickel in my pocket, and could have landed in jail charged with vagrancy. A bit later, a car entering the freeway did pick me up, and I got back to Hemet, over a hundred miles away, safe and sound, the nickel still in my pocket.
Hitchhiking was a mode of travel that I relied upon for a while when I was young and poor. A childhood friend and I crossed Canada and went down the Pacific coast in the summer of 1964. In 1971, I crossed the Algerian Sahara, though that wasn’t strictly speaking hitchhiking, and traveled around West Africa.
At that time hitchhiking wasn’t easy in West Africa, but it made for some memorable experiences. Heading to Lomé in Togo, we got picked up by an American. When I asked him why he did, he said he worked for Cadillac. I asked him increduolusly, if many people in Togo could afford Cadillacs, and he laughed and replied that he sold armored troop carriers made by the General Motors Cadillac division, not the cars.
More on those trips later. My last serious hitchhiking trip involved traveling with an archaeology group to southern Utah, then hitchhiking north to Salt Lake City, then west to Reno and north along the eastern edge of the Sierras to Susanville, then across California to Eureka on the coast. That was in 1972, and I haven’t hitchhiked since. The eastern edge of the Sierras was remote and beautiful, and reminded me of the Middle Atlas mountains near Azrou.
If you’re a movie fan, and, in particular, a Brit, you may be thinking Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but this blog post is more mundane and less amusing, and it also lacks the sadder, darker undercurrents of their comedies.
In a Walk above the woods I mentioned that Peace Corps vacation policy for Morocco volunteers was basically travel within Morocco, or anywhere in Africa, or Spain. Most of us had numerous opportunities to travel within Morocco, and, much as we loved Morocco, many of us wanted a change of scenery, and, perhaps, a bit more freedom. Algeria was officially considered a hostile country, so a visit there was out. That was unfortunate, because the Algerian people were friendly and happy to meet Americans, and Algeria is full of interesting places to visit. Airfare to the rest of Africa, or, to Europe for that matter, was limited and expensive. Spain ended up the place of choice by default. According to the Peace Corps, the cultural affinities and mutual histories made Spain a perfect visit. Some volunteers discovered even quieter and cheaper vacations in Portugal, but many of us went to Spain.
What you did in Spain depended a lot on your personality. Did you want to see historical sites, major cities, Islamic monuments? Lounge on the beaches, eat tapas in the bars, look for romance? Ski or hike the mountains? Appreciate art? Catch a recent movie? Spain already had an enviable tourist infrastructure, and the south coast had become an important destination for British pensioners. Spaniards were friendly and accommodating, and the food and wine was great.
And what you could do depended on where you went. Ceuta or Melilla were for duty-free shopping and a visit could be as short as an afternoon or an overnight.
If you lived near these enclaves, they were only a bus ride away! The peseta was cheap, and the hotels were inexpensive.
Once in Spain, the possibilities were unlimited. If you were going to peninsular Spain, you could take ferries from Tangier to Algeciras or Malaga. You could also go to Gibraltar, but during much of my stay in Morocco, Gibraltar, because of Spanish territorial claims, was blockaded, and you could not get into Spain from the Rock. The shortest, cheapest route was Ceuta to Algeciras on the passenger/car ferry. It only took an hour and a half. Once in Algeciras, the train would take you north to any big city.
One summer I took my vacation in Chamonix.
This was, of course, against the rules, but I didn’t care. It was 1970. Perhaps the rules had even changed by then. The downside of making stupid rules is that no one pays much attention to them. Most organizations, even the most benevolent, have a penchant for making stupid rules.
The French had a special program for kids and young adults under the auspices of the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air. You could spend a couple of weeks learning and participating in just about any summer sport imaginable. The French government subsidized it heavily. During the previous year, I had been corresponding with a member from a Club Alpin Français section in the Pyrenees, and he suggested that I try it. I love the Pyrenees, and hope to return while I can still walk, but I chose Chamonix over the Pyrenees (and other Alps sites), because, frankly, Chamonix was more historical (the place where French climbing was born) and more spectacular (the highest mountain in Western Europe, and lots of high, vertical granite rising amid glaciers). I spent a month there, something I could never have done on my very limited Peace Corps budget if I hadn’t been subsidized by the French Government. Remerciements à l’UNCP!
I will be forever grateful, too, and I am happy to learn that the UNCPA still exists after all these years. Thus I spent a month living with a group of fifty or so French kids, roughly my age, and I had a ball. It was co-ed, and we were housed in comfortable chalets. In the mountain refuges, when the weather was bad, we ate, told jokes, and played cards
The food was fine, as you might imagine, certainly far better than French cité universitaire cuisine. This was a holiday in France! Would anyone tolerate bad food? Bon dieu!
Now if you are wondering what this has to do with Spain, remember that I was living poor and had few resources. I figured I could save and scrape up enough for the train trip, but fortune shined. Jean, a young French kid from Brive-la-Gaillarde, had been touring North Africa in his Peugeot 404, and was passing through Fes just about the time I was about to leave. He was hoping to find someone to share expenses and driving as he returned home. How he found me, I don’t recall, but there weren’t that many foreigners in Fes, and I worked there. He met someone who knew me and knew that I needed to get to France.
We drove up to Ceuta or Tangier and crossed to Algeciras. It was late, and we were tired and we spread our sleeping bags out on the beach facing refineries in La Linéa.
I would not try this today when crime in the region is a problem. Even then, though it was summer, it was damp and uncomfortable and the lights of the towers and burning gas lit up the beach with an unappealing industrial glow. The next day we drove up the coast, taking time to swim in the Mediterranean before turning inland.
There were fewer roads, then, and even the main north-south routes were not very good. We skirted Madrid, and, after dark, pulled off the road into the stubble of a wheat field somewhere in Castile.
The following day we continued north, stopping briefly in Burgos to admire the Gothic cathedral.
We crossed the French border at Irun and Hendaye. I had been there once before, when I lived in Pau.
The Mediterranean weather gave way to that of the Atlantic, and, entering the pine forests of the Landes, it began raining. It was now dark and wet, and we were exhausted, so we found a small, inexpensive roadside hotel that had one room left, but with only a double bed. Sharing a bed with a stranger was odd, but not a problem: we were beat, and neither of us had slept in a bed for two days. Outside it was raining.
When we got back on the road the next morning, we were fresh. For Jean it was the homestretch. Brive-la-Gaillarde was only a few hours away.
That day began with some excitement. The Peugeot was beat up, made a lot of noise, and needed brake work. About midmorning, we drew the attention of a gendarme, who directed us off route to a police station. The police, finding that we were returning from Morocco, were interested in whether we were carrying drugs, which we were not, and, after a short interrogation, they released us to continue on our way. The route continued through the Dordogne. I would have liked to stop, but Jean was tired and eager to be home. He had done his sightseeing in Africa. Once in Brive-la-Gaillarde, I caught a train to Chamonix.
I can never think of Brive-la-Gaillarde without hearing the Brassens song, Hécatombe, in my head. Its anarchist message resonated with my younger self, though I am happy that Brassens eventually made his peace with the police in a later song, L’épave. If you can understand French, you may, depending on your sensibilities, find the songs hilarious or offensive. According to Wikipedia, Hécatombe is now associated with Brive-la-Gaillarde throughout France! And, of course, every place in France has something named after Georges Brassens. Rightly so!
So that was another Peace Corps volunteer experience with Spain. The following summer I got a postcard from Jean, who was then touring the Middle East in his car, but we never stayed in touch, which I regret because I enjoyed his good company, and he really had done me a big favor. The train ride home to Sefrou was far less interesting and totally uneventful. But Sefrou was home, then, and it felt good to be back.
Some people have a fear of heights, some of water, others of confinement, and so on. Luckily, I do not seem to have any of them. What I do have is a love of the outdoors and also of novelty. Therefore, as I discovered the mountain scenery of Morocco, I also looked to some of its underground sights. Caves are common where there is limestone, since they are generally formed when acidic ground water slowly dissolves the rock. Morocco has plenty of limestone, as well as the water to dissolve it.
Some parts of the Middle Atlas look much like the causes of southern France, just north of Montpelier, where scrub vegetation, la garrigue, covers the limestone uplands. A variety of erosional features are found there, including collapsed surfaces and caverns.
In Morocco, the karst topography of the area between Azrou and Sefrou is plainly evident in the several small lakes, without inlets or outlets, fed by underground streams.
Springs are common, and sometimes they can be spectacular. The Ain Sebou, a large artesian spring which surfaces beside the Oued Sebou, is a good example. Diving into the cold, upswelling waters is an interesting experience.
The clear spring water tumbles over a small ledge into the waters of the Oued Sebou, which are usually colored by sediment from runoff, and the contrast, before they mix, is striking.
For anyone not familiar with Morocco, the word oued is dialectical Arabic for a stream. In the Middle East, the word is wadi, and is used for dry valleys as well as rivers. In Spain, you might note that some of the large rivers bear toponymes beginning with Guad-, a prefix that was derived from Arabic, such as Guadalquivir (oued el-kebir) or “big river”. Even spoken in different languages, the name sounds virtually the same.
In other places such as parts of the Rif Mountains, erosional remains such as natural bridges or even true caves give further evidence of water working on the limestone.
Morocco has not made much of the tourist potential of its natural caves, and most guide books only mention them in passing, if at all. Some of this scenery is just a bit too far off the tourist track or simply not grandiose enough. Nevertheless, living in northern Morocco, it provided plenty of interest to me and did not demand long or difficult travel.
The city of Taza sits in a place where the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains come together, about 70 miles east of Fes. More to the east are the plains of the Lower Moulouya River, and even farther, the Oujda and the Algerian border.
Just south of Taza, is Tazekka National Park. Originally created in 1950 to protect the isolated cedar forest on Jbel Tazekka, the park was later expanded significantly. Within it are two sets of caverns, Friouato and Chikker. The latter are considered to be spectacular, but require specialized equipment and spelunking experience. The former cave, first expored by the famous French caver, Norbert Casteret, was developed by the French for tourism, but by 1969 had pretty much fallen into disrepair. It extends several kilometers.
The terrain between Sefrou and the highlands south of Taza, is relatively low. One June evening as I sat on my roof in Sefrou the flashes of lightning from a big storm over Taza repeatedly lit up the mountain skyline. It was much too far to hear the thunder, and there was no rain in Sefrou, but the light show was spectacular.
One Saturday I set off with a couple of PCV architects from Fes to visit the Friouato Caverns. I don’t recall that the drive from Taza was very long, and you exit it on a high plateau surrounded by hills.
Once at the entrance of the Friouato Caves, we found some rather plain and worn concrete steps leading down to a balcony looking into the first chamber which was about 400 feet deep.
The room was illuminated by a huge aven about 100 feet wide. The view was impressive, but we had to ask ourselves: Should we go further?
Descent into this deep pit was by iron steps that the French had secured to the wall. We tested them, and took a chance, slowly descending. The only life we saw was an owl that we flushed from a crevice in the mossy wall. Finally at the bottom, the aven was now just a small light, far above us.
We searched for a passage, and found one. With our headlights now on, we descended through a hole down dilapidated wooden ladders through rooms with seemingly bottomless pools. There was no noise, except for dripping water. There were few stalactites and stalagmites, but the rooms were mysterious and interesting. We only stopped when it was clear that our headlamps were dimming. We had no exact idea of how far we had gone, but as we had no extra batteries, we hurried out. We had no map with us, and didn’t have any clue as to how huge the cave system was.
The other cave I visited was Kef el-Ghar, which was in hilly land north of Taza, on the edge of the Rif mountains. From the distance, Kef el-Ghar is a dark elongated indentation in a mountain side. Entering it, we followed a rising, sandy path. At some point, we could feel bats flapping about, and, shortly after, I was disturbed to see a footprint of an animal, probably a dog or jackal. What was it doing, hundreds of feet into this cave, without any light to guide it? Despite the paw print, we saw no animals. The cave floor climbed and eventually we could feel the flow of air. After a narrow, winding passage, we emerged on the opposite side of the mountain. The cave pierced it!
On a dumber note, on the trip to Friouato described above, a dashboard light indicated an electrical problem. I ignored it. So driving in the dark, mostly empty road between Taza and Fes, the old Willis Jeep abruptly stopped, and could not be started. The battery was dead. The problem was the alternator, and, without a charged battery, there was nothing to do. One of us had to hitch to Fes, about 45 miles away, find a tow truck, and have us towed back to Fes. It must have been 5 am when we got to Fes. That jeep was incredibly rugged and dependable, but when it needed an alternator, I didn’t listen, and paid the price. In 1968, it cost about $20 dollars to get towed all the way to Fes!
About 50 miles from Marrakech, about 8,500 feet up in a small, shallow High Atlas valley, sits the ski resort of Oukaimeden.
Developed by the French when France exercised political and economic control of Morocco, Oukaimeden appears to have languished despite a dramatic setting and special assets.
Part of the problem may be that it is a little too far from the major population centers, and its trails too challenging.
Only an hour from Fes and Meknes, and only about four hours from Rabat, the Middle Atlas resort of Michliffen and Jbel Henri offer convenience as well as easy trails in a stately, old-growth cedar forest populated year-round by monkeys.
The Middle Atlas is the popular choice for Moroccan skiers. Only in Casablanca, about midway between the two resorts, might the question arise which way oneshould go.
Bouiblane, also in the Middle Atlas, offers more downhill possibilities and snow, but hasn’t really been developed.
Access to Bouiblane, whether through Sefrou or Taza, remains difficult, however.
In fact, much of the foreign interest in skiing centers on touring in the high mountains, a sport for those who are very fit and know what they are doing.
I don’t know the exact state of Oukaimeden today. An internet site reported that a Gulf company had proposed a major renovation, with better accommodations, better trails and snow-making equipment, and more lifts. That would certainly improve it, but the question remains: from where would the skiers come?
When I visited Oukaimeden for the first time in 1973, it was early spring. I was traveling with a Binghamton University professor, Dick Moench, who was a skier, and he did not hesitate to take the chair lift to the 10,500-foot-high summit. He made his way down on old, rented equipment, which was a tribute to his athletic ability. It was late in the season, and the trails were rocky.
At that time, the main lodging there was the 160-room Club Alpin Français facility which had been built by the Casablanca section of CAF during the Protectorate. Oukaimeden offers challenging skiing. The 10,500-foot-high chair lift was and still is, I believe, the highest in Africa.
A few years later I came back a few times to hike. Directly facing the resort rises Jbel Angour. Angour is a walk up, and the easy descent via the west ridge offers great views. The standard route, when there is not too much snow, uses a diagonally ascending ledge as opposed to one of the gullies.
After viewing the Islamic Architecture post in Bravo, the other side of the mountains, I thought I would put up a few pictures of my own. I have pictures of mosques and madrasas from many places in Spain, the Maghreb, Turkey, Iran, and even some sub-Saharan places.
I thought at first of a single post, but I have too many pictures, so I have chosen to start with some monuments in Fes. I worked in Fes, and lived close by in Sefrou, so I had ample opportunity to visit the medina. My first visit to Fes was in the winter of 1968, nearly 50 years ago. Please forgive all the underexposed Kodachrome. This was long before digital photography, and the film had an ISO of 50, so the darker places of the medina were difficult to photograph.
Fes is a bit overwhelming at first. The medina seems to be a maze or labyrinth, but if you stay on a main street and follow it down, you will eventually reach the center, no matter where you start. Getting back out can be more of a problem. On the side of the city, outside the walls, are the Merinid Tombs.
Tourists often start at the Bab Boujloud.
The madrasas of Fes are small gems of local architecture. As with most Islamic Architecture, it is a geometric and highly stylized decoration.
Atlas cedar is the only strong wood widely available in Morocco, and its use, because of its structural properties, requires heavy beams. The madrasas feature it, both in framing and in details such as windows and screens.
Courtyards were marble. Walls were made of carved plaster and tiles.
The madrasas both date from the age of the Merinids, a dynasty that gave its name to the famous Spanish sheep. They made Fes their capital and the 14th century was a golden age for Fes. But the dynasty did not last long.
Ibn Khaldun was a contemporary of Abu Inan, and lived at intervals in Fes. His work, the Muqaddimah is often considered the first true historical or sociological treatise. In it he asks why dynasties rise and fall in an age when contemporary historians contented themselves with lists of rulers and events.
Should you like to know more about the city of Fes, read Fes in the Age of the Marinids, by Roger LeTourneau. Sjoberg used it as an archetypical medieval city in his book, The Preindustrial City. While Fes’s madrasas date from the 14th century, Fes’s two great mosques date from earlier times, but are not nearly as interesting, though the Qarawiyyin boasts one of the oldest universities in the world.
The Bou Inania is the larger of the madrasas, and was one of only a very few religious buildings in use that nonbelievers were allowed to enter, though that general rule does not always apply to sanctuaries of saints.
Saints in Morocco were a class of people, usually men, who during their lives were known for piety, and who accumulated baraka, a holiness that could be transmitted and carry beneficial effects. The king, whose dynasty claims descent from the family of the prophet Muhammed, also is thought by many to have baraka. Saint worship is everywhere. I plan a post about it as I attended many moussems in northern Morocco.
More sophisticated and conservative religious scholars do not think saint worship has a place in true Islam. In Saudi Arabia, among the people I met, there were two views of Moroccans. One was that they practiced black magic, and two, they were so French that they could not speak Arabic correctly. Of course, the Moroccans have their own sometimes pejorative views of the Saudis, and many deplore the folk religion of their own country. On the other hand, superstitions die hard and it is always better to be careful than to be sorry. I am not a Muslim, but I learned not to pour hot water into a drain, lest the jinn who lived there be offended, and still am careful about this at home in America!
The Bou Inania was a religious school, and the rooms around the courtyard on the first floor were sleeping quarters for students. They are no longer used for this, but the madrasa has a mosque that is in use. You may think of a mosque as simply a place of prayer, but the mosque also serves as a quiet refuge from the noise and bustle of the city, a place to rest one’s feet, talk with friends, or even catch a nap in the sun on cold winter days. I tried to capture this in my photography.
Both madrasas were in need of repair and rehabilitation and hopefully they are in better shape today.
The Attarine madrasa is named, I think, because of its location near the perfume suq. It is the smaller of Fes’s madrasas, but shares the same architectural features as the Bou Inania.
There is no prayer hall, as the madrasa is located close to the Qarawiyyin Mosque so perhaps one was not needed.
If you would like to know more about Fes in the medieval period, you may also want to read the historical novel, Leo Africanus. Written in French by the Lebanese novelist, Amin Maalouf, there is a good English language translation. Our local book club read it a few years back.
Leo Africanus was a Muslim captured by Spanish pirates and enslaved. He was presented as a gift to the Pope, converted to Christianity, and while in Rome wrote an important work of geography, Description of Africa. The fictional rendition of his life takes him from his native Granada to Fes, and describes his everyday life there as well as his adventures elsewhere. It takes place late in Merinid times.
As I write, the wind is howling. The weather forecast for the night is three to six inches of snow and a wind chill of -15 to -30F° (roughly -20 to -30° C). There is shore ice on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is rapidly freezing over. Temperature is -20° C.
Sitting indoors, the weather outside invites us to reflect on sunnier climes, both here and abroad. I have been thinking about Jbel Toubkal.
As it is the highest mountain in North Africa, and, one of the most easily accessible high mountains on the entire continent, hikers and climbers flock to Jbel Toubkal. A short bus or taxi ride takes one to Imlil, a large village in the valley below the mountain.
Since I first visited Toubkal about 50 years ago, a serious tourism industry has grown up in this area. In my time, other than a stone dormitory building that the Club Alpin Français (CAF) left, there was just a village there, with villagers willing to sell you food, and muleteers offering their services to take you to the CAF huts of Neltner, De Lépiney, and Tachdirt. Today I see that a second hut exists next to the renamed Neltner, that businesses have grown up around Sidi Chamharouch, and that Imlil itself has holiday lets and lodging for tourists.
Bemoaning commercialization would be mean and selfish. There is no begrudging the living that the locals can make off of tourism. Life in the mountains is always difficult, and tourism is a great addition to the local economy.
There is no pretending that Toubkal is remote. In the seventies, a motorcycle group surprised us at Neltner, getting all the way up to the hut with their large bikes. On the other hand, the hut was never crowded in those days, and, once out of the hut, one hardly saw other hikers or climbers in the mountains.
My first visit to Neltner was in the summer of 1969, with other Peace Corps friends. Mules took our baggage up, while we walked, a good way to acclimatize.
We climbed the mountain by the gulley opposite the hut, an easy walk via a steep scree slope.
John Paulas and I had fun taking giant, gliding steps in the scree, and made it down from the summit in no time.
This is the standard walk up route, and not much of a problem for a reasonably fit person in dry weather. There are good views from the summit.
The real dangers on Toubkal are snow, ice, and bad weather. In 1970 an ill-prepared group of embassy people had a bad accident, with a member of the Turkish embassy slipping and sliding a long way down the standard route, and suffering serious injuries. Skiers can face avalanches in the winter, too.
The classic climbing route is up the west ridge, which starts at Tizi Ouanoums. I found it easy, and did it once alone, and, another time, with an Englishman whom I met at Neltner.
I do remember meeting a couple of young French climbers in Imlil on one of my visits, who complained in disappointment that the rock was rotten and that the route was not very challenging. I can understand that. The climbing is straightforward, not very exposed, and the rock could be better. With my limited skills, however, I found it enjoyable, and it is more scenic than the gulley route.
Neltner, at 3,200 meters, also served as a base for other trips: Tadat, Akioud, and hikes to the Lac d’Ifni. Tadat is a rock spur or isolated tower on Tizi n Tadat. Akioud is a ridge between Ouanoukrim and Afella that offers an easy traverse. The Lac d’Ifni is a tarn lake in the Massif of Toubkal, and is said to contain native trout. One simply follows the main valley above the hut over Tizi n Ouanoums, and down to the lake. Of course, if you don’t know where you are going you may have problems. I once stood on Tizi Ouanoums shouting at the top of my lungs to my friends Maya and Dan, who wanted to go to the Lac d’Ifni, but were heading toward Tizi n Ouagane! At least a thousand feet above them, they simply could not hear me, and there were no others on the route to set them straight. They only discovered their mistake when they found no lake at the bottom of the valley! Still they had a great time.
I ended up summiting most of the highest peaks around Neltner, all of which are easy walk ups. If you are thinking about doing it, go when there is snow on the mountains. They are parched and bleak in the summer.
I always wanted to climb Tadat, but never managed to do it, though my friend Jean-Michel Vrinat, and some other French friends with whom I climbed did it. Jean-Michel was a coopérant, who arrived in Morocco with a carload of sporting equipment (fencing foils, shotgun, etc.) which included climbing gear. I did lead this group, with friends Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne on a traverse of Akioud, which I had done by myself before, and I think that they really enjoyed it.
Akioud is an easy walk from the Neltner Hut, and, done from south to north, requires no rappelling. A rope for belaying and security is useful, but not needed for good climbers.
Finally, a trail leads to the third CAF Hut, Tachdirt, near the village and below the pass of the same name. I visited Tachdirt twice. In the spring, there was too much snow, and I think that we spent a couple of cold days in the hut before going back down.
A second time, we thought we could walk the ridges between Tizi n Tachdirt and connect to the trail to Neltner. We totally underestimated our physical condition and the difficulty involved. Having climbed from the pass to the ridge of Jbel Anrhemer, we camped out just below the ridge. I awoke sick the next morning. Climbing along the ridge, I became increasingly dehydrated, and needed water, which necessitated descending to the nearest snow patch (of which there were precious few—this was summer.) We ended up returning to Imlil, then walking the trail to Neltner, arriving in the middle of the night, in my case with the assistance of a mule for the last kilometer. What a day!
Living in the eastern Middle Atlas, the High Atlas beckoned from afar. Marrakech required a long bus ride through Kenitra and Beni Mellal or a trip to Rabat and then south to Marrakech. I never got to the Toubkal Massif as much as I wanted, and envied volunteers who lived closer. I did climb many of the peaks there, accompanied by friends, and even family. Perhaps as I digitize more of my old Kodachrome slides, I will get into specifics, but this post is a compendium of a number of trips and a tribute to a spot of the world that was important to me, the mountain named Tazaghart.
Today the High Atlas mountains are served well by climbing and hiking guides, but the main sources in my day were the Club Alpin Français’s long out-of-print guide to the Toubkal Massif, the curious guide book, Villes et Montagnes (a guide to cities and mountains, but nothing else), and topo maps. Today there are any number of tourist organizations that will take you on long walks and climbs. And there are good English language guides to the High Atlas by Hamish Brown and Des Clark. In my day, the heritage of the French Protectorate was a number of huts and a larger dormitory at Oukaïmeden, primarily for skiers. That may not have changed much, but I suspect all are used more intensively today. The route up to Toubkal is much more developed.
I have also noticed more young Moroccans climbing Toubkal, and it is nice to see they take that much interest in the natural beauty of their own country. Nature is always under pressure in the Mediterranean world. Morocco has more than twice as many people today as it had when I lived there 50 years ago.
One of the great charms of the place was that the mountains were empty. One seldom saw another human in the high mountains, and, except at Neltner, below Toubkal, the huts were generally empty. I was there at a time when few Moroccans climbed mountains and the French were still leaving Morocco.
Rather than try to assemble all my memories into a single post, I am limiting this one to Tazaghart, in the Toubkal Massif. Future posts will cover Toubkal, Angour, and some day excursions around Toubkal. As I find more of my old slides, I may add to this collection. I realize that they are of uneven quality, but in my day film was expensive and Kodachrome was beautiful, but slow. Exposure was often a problem. I do envy modern photographers who can shoot without running out of film.
When I re-upped, I went home to the States by way of Paris, where I spent a few days. I went to Chartres to visit its Cathedral, I discovered that I could speak Arabic to Parisian waiters, mostly Algerians, who were delighted to hear their dialect from an American, and I missed an opportunity to hear Georges Brassens perform, for which I will ever experience a sense of loss.
But, in the cold and drizzle, I discovered Au Vieux Campeur, an outlet for camping, climbing, and other outdoors pursuits, on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne. I invested in an ice axe, ropes, down clothes, and other paraphernalia which I thought I would need to climb more mountains. The memories of crossing the Pyrenees were fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t going anywhere unprepared again. The items that I bought got their first use on Tazaghart, my favorite place in the Toubkal Massif, and, later, more extensively in the French and Swiss Alps.
Louden Kiracofe and I had climbed Toubkal by the standard walk-up route in the summer of 1969, as part of a large group of volunteers. Now we would go to Tazaghart, and climb it via the Couloir de Neige, a steep gully filled with snow. We knew it had a bit of real climbing, and some steep snow, but we were up to it. Or so we thought.
Tazaghart caught my attention the first time I read its classic description: “Le plateau est un désert de pierres, plat, nu, vide, si haut perché qu’on n’aperçoit rien sous le ciel.”
A loose translation might be: “The summit is a rocky desert, flat, bare, empty, perched so high there is nothing but sky.” The name tazaghart is Berber and means “little plain or plateau.” What is remarkable is how high it is: over 13,000 feet. Most of the mountains in the area are lower than this. No others have a summit big enough for a football game!
One has a good view of the Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden and Jbel Angour. At Oukaïmeden, the French put up a tableau d’orientation, which identifies most of the mountains in the massif. I have a better picture of it that shows Tazaghart, but I haven’t found it yet.
You find these tableaus, usually installed by the Touring Club of France, now defunct, all over France and in many parts of its former empire. There is one in Fes, for example, that points to Sefrou and Bouiblane, among other places. Though you can see Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden, the most spectacular views of the mountain are from the valley below it and from Jbel Ouanoukrim.
We traveled with Louden’s wife, Ginny, and an old school chum of hers, and stayed at Le Sanglier qui fume, a restaurant-hostellerie run by an elderly Frenchman, at the beginning of the road up Tizi n Test.
Louden and Ginny had stayed there before, after an exhausting winter drive over Tizi n Test, and had been charmed by the warm welcome, decent food, and the fire burning in their room. The owner was Paul Thenevin. Today the hotel is still there, but managed by his son. There was a boar’s head in the dining room, with a pipe in its mouth that puffed smoke.
It was June, I think, when I first went there. The weather was fine, and we drove to Imlil in Louden’s VW station wagon, and found some porters to take us to the de Lépiney refuge owned by the Casablanca section of the Club Alpin Français. As it happened, they only took us to an aluminum shelter much lower in the valley. I think the spot was Azib Mzik. The place was basic, hot, and stuffy.
The women must have stayed there, as Louden and I hiked up to the de Lépiney Refuge, which sits in a beautiful spot that offers views down the valley, and across it to the face of Tazaghart. We wanted to see Tazaghart. The walk up the valley was beautiful.
I think that we came back again to do the Couloir de Neige, I can’t say. It’s hard to imagine leaving the women by themselves below. So it was probably yet another trip. De Lépiney was an early French climber, and instrumental in making climbing a sport for all. He spent much of his life in Morocco, and, sadly, died there in a freak accident at Oued Yquem, a spot where climbers from Rabat still rock climb.
From the azib, the foot of Tazaghart is reached by proceeding directly up valley on a good mule trail. It follows a small stream through some ancient junipers, past a small falls, and eventually emerges above the tree line, in sight of the de Lépiney hut.
The de Lépiney Hut was comfortable. It was not heated, which was no problem in the summer. We left the windows open.
Situated at about 10,000 feet, it was cold during the other seasons, but certainly preferable to camping in the snow.
In any case, late that day, we climbed out of the valley, up behind the refuge, for a good view of the Tazaghart face and the Clochetons de Ouanoukrim.
Most of the Couloir de Neige can be seen. The only serious obstacle is a chimney, which, when the snow is melting, can become a shower.
It was late, and Louden had stumbled and cut himself on a sharp rock so we descended.
Early the next day we entered the Couloir de Neige.
Once we entered it, we found that the snow turned to ice, and our crampons hardly gripped it. Louden had an ice screw, but neither of us had experience cutting steps, so we gave up. I really think it might have been too soon. I think we could have negotiated the chimney, and, once above it where the snow would have been softened by the sun, we could have continued. We had ropes so setting up belays was not a problem. I wish now that we had tried that, but I always remember St. Loup’s La montagne n’a pas voulu. Better to be safe and sound. You cannot count on being lucky. We left the couloir, and continued up the main valley to Tizi Melloul.
Five years later, I was back in Sefrou studying, and Gaylord Barr, my former Peace Corps housemate, showed up for a visit. He brought me a new pair of Reichle boots which I had ordered from R.E.I., and we went down to Marrakech to climb Tazaghart.
It was July or August. Marrakech was hot. In the USA, John Dean had just given testimony to the Senate Watergate committee, and President Nixon’s days were numbered.
We stayed overnight, picking up some supplies, and took a bus to Asni, I think, from which we got a taxi to Imlil.
Gaylord had been to Marrakech several times, and crossed Tizi n Tichka on the way south, but he had never hiked in the Toubkal Area. We hired a mule for the baggage, and left Imlil in the middle of a moonlit night, passing through sleeping villages on the way to Tizi Mzik. The only noise was the clipclop of hooves and an occasional watchdog bark. The full moon provided great views of the valleys and peaks. We reached Tizi Mzik by dawn.
We had good weather. In the summer, bad weather is rare. Just don’t count on finding water along the mountain crests. We stayed a couple of days. The view from the De Lépiney Hut is grand, with a waterfall, an expansive view of the face, as well as pretty views down the valley. I think one can also see the lights of Marrakech far off on the plains below.
Everyone wants to climb Toubkal, but Tazaghart is much more scenic. If one has the time, it isn’t difficult to visit both areas in the same trip, and be rewarded with great scenery.
The easiest route up Tazaghart is up one of the several gullies that furrow the face. We chose one on the right, either Tsoukine or the one to its left. Or maybe the Diagonal. It’s a bit hazy now.
It was easy enough for a local dog, which we had been feeding, to follow us up to the summit, though the dog had to be resourceful to get around a few steep bits. Maybe we did do the Diagonal.
At the summit there were clouds rolling in, and thunder in the distance, so after a brief rest, we descended by way of Tizi Melloul fearing rain and lightning. We got a bit of rain, but no lightning.
The next time, and last time, I visited Tazaghart was in the late spring or early fall of 1977.
The weather was cold and wet, and I don’t remember climbing anything, but I did witness a spectacular landslide that involved some house-size boulders rolling down one of the couloirs, a good reminder that even easy routes may have unsuspected dangers.
On that trip we captured a dormouse and took it back to Chauen. When I left Morocco in 1978, a Peace Corps couple in Tetuan took the creature and continued keeping it as a pet. It was cute, but dormice are most active at night. We rarely saw it, but we always heard it scurrying in its enclosure after sunset. It was part of a menagerie of cats and tortoises.
Jbel Ayachi is the highest mountain of the eastern High Atlas. It appears from much of the eastern Middle Atlas as a long, snow-covered ridge that looms, all winter long, above the halfa covered plains of the Upper Moulouya River.
Until precise geodetic measurements were made, some considered it the highest point of the Atlas, but Jbel Toubkal is over 400 meters higher, and many other High Atlas peaks exceed its height. Ayachi’s prominence arises from its proximity to the plain that borders it.
When I worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fes Province extended south to Missour, but most of my work was in the Saïs and the pre-Rif. I most often saw Ayachi as part of the faraway, snow-covered High Atlas crest when I traveled across the Middle Atlas plateaus.
In the spring of 1969, however, I convinced my buddy, Gaylord Barr, who shared the Sefrou house with me, to drive down to a place known as the Cirque de Jaffar, which is a good starting point for climbing the mountain. We had no intention of doing that. We were just playing tourists for a day. We were able to do this because I had an old Willys Jeep for my job in Fes, and though I was not supposed to use it to sightsee, I did so once in a while.
The French use the word cirque loosely. When connected to mountain terrain, it is technically a term for a bowl carved out of a mountain valley by a glacier. The Atlas show little signs of glaciation. Even among the highest peaks in the Toubkal area, little snow survives the hot, dry summers, and glacial features are lacking. The Cirque de Jaffar is not glacier made, just a deep indentation in the edge of the mountains made by a stream. In this sense, it is a bit akin to the Cirque de Navacelle, a river-formed depression on the edge of the Massif Central, north of Montpellier.
However the Cirque de Jaffar was formed, the natural scenery around it is spectacular. Some tourists pass through it en route to the Todra Gorges, but the piste is rough and this route probably should only be considered by those with solid four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped to operate off the road. The piste from Midelt to the Cirque, though unpaved, wasn’t bad at all when I was on it for the first time in the spring of 1969.
May is a wonderful month in Morocco. The weather is warm and sunny, and the wheat fields are green or turning to gold. Wildflowers are everywhere, and the rivers and streams are brimming with water from the melting snows of the Atlas. The frigid cold is gone, but the land has not yet been baked dry by the unrelenting summer sun.
The drive from Sefrou to Midelt follows the old treq es-Sultan. The King’s Road connects Fes to Rissani and the Tafilalt, the birthplace of the Alouite dynasty that governs Morocco today. The road climbs over successive Middle Atlas plateaus, passes through Boulemane, under the shadow of Jbel Tichoukt, and then descends to the Upper Moulouya plains. It is an easy drive, though winter snows can make it difficult for truckers. After a storm it is not unusual to see trucks that have slid off the slick highway.
The Upper Moulouya is covered with halfa, Stipa tenacissima, a grass that is woven into ropes and mats, and also used in the mattresses of those not wealthy enough to stuff with wool, a manner of banking wealth as well as creating a soft mattress. All my banquette mattresses were stuffed with halfa, as was the mattress of my bed, and though not as comfortable as wool, the scent of the grass was sweet and pleasant.
Halfa is also known as Esparto grass, and grows over wide areas of the Maghreb and Spain, and everywhere it is used for artisanal purposes. In the rain shadow of the Middle Atlas, agriculture in the Upper Moulouya requires irrigation, and herding is common.
In the past, when Morocco was divided between the Bled es-Siba and the Bled el-Makhzen, the powerful Berber tribes of the Middle Atlas moved their flocks between the Moulouya and the plains surrounding Meknes and Fes, practicing a transhumance involving summer pasturage in the Middle Atlas mountains and winter in the lowlands.
At Midelt, the itinerary leaves the paved highway, and becomes a dirt and gravel track, which Moroccans often denote by the French word, piste. Climbing along the edge of the mountains, the piste reaches an altitude at the Cirque, where it is high enough for cedars to grow. From that point, there are great views of Ayachi. All along the way, the fields were full of wild flowers which we stopped to photograph. In the cirque itself, the cedar forest was open with isolated and gnarled trees.
Alas, on one of many photography stops, I did not use the parking break. It was only by chance that I notice the jeep rolling back down the mountain road. I shouted to Gaylord, and he caught up with it and jumped in, but sadly he was too late. The jeep slipped off the road. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt.
Our jeep ended in the drainage ditch on the mountain side of the road, and was not traveling fast enough to be damaged badly. The windshield had cracked, but did not shatter. On the other hand, the ditch was deep, and the undercarriage was caught up in such a way that even the jeep’s four-wheel drive couldn’t get any traction. As we wondered what we could do to get out, a forestry officer rode up on his mule, but the jeep was too heavy and too stuck for the three of us to lift it up and out. Then an elderly French couple, touring in their Peugeot 404, happened by. They kindly lent us their little emergency shovel, and we dug out enough of the jeep to get back on the road. We thanked them, they continued on their way, and we, thoroughly chastened, returned to Sefrou without further incident.
A Moroccan rule of thumb is whenever you are stuck along a road, someone happens by to help you! Another time, later in my life, I was driving from Chauen to Tangier in a winter rain storm. The battery of my little Simca 1000 wasn’t charging. I think the problem was corrosion on the battery terminals, but rather than clean them, I decided to chance not stopping on the trip and fix things in Tangier. I could easily roll the car fast enough to start it. To compound my stupidity, I chose to take the coastal road, not the main Tetuan to Tangier highway. About halfway between Tetuan and Tangier I came over a rise and descended into a valley where there was mud on the road and water running over it. The car became mired and stopped dead. The water was high enough to lap at the door sills. Rain was pouring. It was pitch black. I opened the car door to see how high the water was, and my glasses fell into the running water. At that point I began to wonder how much worse things could get.
I did not have another pair of glasses with me, and I am very nearsighted. I began to take off my shoes and socks in preparation for a search, but luck was with me and blind groping in the mud without leaving the Simca proved sufficient. I found them! Better yet, a group of men from a local douar appeared out of the darkness, and they were able to push the car out of the mud. I suspect that I was not the first motorist to get stuck there, but there were no other cars on the road. Maybe the local residents knew better than to drive that stretch on rainy winter nights.
Out of the mud and water, they gave me enough of a push to start the car. I thanked them and rewarded them, and, though I secretly wondered if they just hung around waiting for cars to get stuck in that spot, I was very, very grateful. In a later post, I will write of yet another personal stupidity involving cars and batteries that left me stuck halfway between Taza and Fes.
The encounter with Ayachi in May 1969 whetted my appetite for a real exploration of the mountain. I knew it was an easy ascent. I got my friend and climbing buddy, Louden, the Peace Corps doctor, to drive down to Ayachi in August. The director of the CT in Sefrou, Si Kammir, knew the supercaïd in Midelt, and arranged to get a local man to guide us.
We drove directly to the cirque, where we camped that night. After the dry and hot on plains, the air in the cirque was refreshing. The guide showed up on his mule the next morning.
He had been waiting at a location closer to Midelt, where another trail led to the summit. He must have been dead tired, riding much of the night after he figured out where we probably were.
The cirque trail follows a stream that goes through a narrow defile to pass through the lower hills, then just climbs up through relatively wide valleys. There really is no trail once one starts up.
The mule went most of the way up the mountain, only stopping just under the summit.
The presence of numerous goat trails showed that shepherds took their flocks almost to the summit. We had no map, and decided that the more prominent western summit was the high point.
When we got there it was clear that it wasn’t. By then it was late in the day, so we descended, tired and disappointed, not only that we hadn’t reached the main summit, but also that the scenery, dry and parched, was so uninteresting. There was no water, a regular problem on the high peaks of the Atlas, but we found some snow and melted it.
The best views were to a huge anticline to the west and downward into a valley.
The southern view was mountain after mountain with no vegetation. Beyond the far ridges lay the pre-Sahara.
The eastern view was blocked by the main ridge of Ayachi. We decided that we would return and do a spring climb. And so we did.
In March of 1970, Louden, Don Brown, and myself, equipped with down parkas, ice axes, and crampons camped at the Cirque, along with some Berber shepherds, who had their flocks there. We got there late in the afternoon, and set up camp.
I arose in the night, probably to relieve myself, and looked up. The air was brisk, and the sky dark, clear, and full of stars. There were no lights visible anywhere, except for a spotlight shining from the top of a mountain on the left side of the cirque. This puzzled me until I figured out that I was looking at a comet, the first that I had ever seen! It was in a position that made the tail appear to extend off the top of the mountain, and the lack of light in the sky enhanced its brightness. I have seen several comets since, but none have been as striking as the first.
We got off to an early start and followed the same route that Louden and I had used the previous summer. Don petered out at a lower altitude than the mule had climbed to on the previous trip, but Louden and I continued up to the highest point on the mountain.
This time the vistas had snow and greenery. It was cold and we only stayed long enough for some pictures. The descent was uneventful.
The trip was eventful for other reasons. Gaylord had gone to Aïn Kerma, south of Oujda, to visit the father of one of his lycée students at Sidi Lahcen Lyoussi. Marc Miller, a Morocco X volunteer who was by then in Casablanca working in fisheries, went along with them, but only stayed a week before returning to Casablanca. Shortly thereafter our paths crossed at the Hotel Royal, a Peace Corps haunt, clean and affordable, in a rooftop single that cost even less because it was unheated.
I was on my way to what was then the U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón outside Madrid on a flight from the U.S. Navy base at Kenitra. Marc was on his way home to the U.S., though he did not tell me. When I returned to Morocco, and found out he had left the Peace Corps, I was shocked and bewildered. When I saw him again in the U.S. he explained everything. Marc had contracted meningitis the previous year, and was hospitalized at the base hospital at Kenitra, where Gaylord and I went to see him not long after he regained consciousness. Marc looks well in the photo below, but he was still working to regain his memory.
Marc was one of the volunteers with whom I had developed a friendship in Morocco. In the Morocco X program, he was stationed at a CT in Azrou. I was at a Centre des Travaux Agricoles about 13 kilometers south of Meknes, off the main road to El Hajeb and Azrou. Marc was open and friendly, and always willing to lend a hand. When I had trouble with the hens laying eggs under the nesting boxes, Marc came up to Sefrou and helped fix up chicken-wire barriers to keep them out. Marc was handy and I was pretty hopeless.
In the months of service, I spent a lot of time traveling on weekends. I went up to Azrou early on. Marc was living with a group of guys that worked at the CT. His living conditions were no Posh Corps. The apartment was small, cold, and dark. Azrou is high enough to get seriously cold. I, at the CT, had my own room in a small house, and a heated shower. I was impressed by his adaptability to what I thought were harsh accommodations.
I will never forget the bus ride home from that trip. It was early morning. As the bus followed what the French called the belvedere, there was a view to the west over the Pays d’Ito. The valley was in clouds. Dozens of little volcanic peaks poked through them, appearing as an archipelago of islands. Sadly, my camera was not handy and I have only my memories.
Nothing is easy when you make it difficult. On that trip down to Rabat, when I was on my way to Spain and Marc was making preparations to leave Morocco, I planned to take a CTM bus from Fes. I bought a ticket to reserve my seat and checked my bag. Carelessly I had placed my passport in my old beat-up and unlocked suitcase. I had a couple of hours to kill, and went to see one of my friends who lived in the Ville Nouvelle. I ended up killing just a little too much time, and I missed the bus. Desperate, I decided that if I were lucky I might hitch a ride to somewhere along the route and catch up with the bus. I soon got a ride. The car was a new Peugeot 504, I think, and the young driver spoke French until I realized that he was an American, who had graduated from the same college as myself. Stationed in the military at the “secret base” at Sidi Yahia in the Gharb, he agreed to drive me to Rabat. Even stopping at the base, we beat the bus and I retrieved my bag and passport. My savior’s parents had served in the U.S diplomatic corps, and he acquired his French, which was excellent, growing up. When you are stuck in Morocco, someone always comes along to help you out.
I flew out of Kenitra on a routine Navy flight. Seated next to me was a civilian contractor, probably an ex-military. He worked for Lockheed, I think, training Moroccans to fly F-5 fighters. He was interested in the Peace Corps, quite impressed with my Arabic and French and knowledge of the country. As we flew into the Navy base at Rota, he remarked that he could use a few Peace Corps volunteers in his program. I just let the comment stand. In 1971, F-5 pilots were part of a coup attempt that involved shooting down the Royal Air Maroc passenger jet carrying the King. Embassy scuttlebut has it that Hassan II never really trusted Americans completely after that attempt on his life, believing that the Americans must have had advance knowledge of the plot and could have warned him.
The medical exam at Torrejón completed, I was asked if I wanted to go back to Morocco on the next flight. Of course I said no, so I was put on a later flight to Kenitra, and got to spend some time in and around Madrid. Madrid has been the capital of Spain for a long time, and many interesting places surround it that are easily reached by train or bus. I had studied Spanish as my first foreign language, and I could use what I remembered to get around comfortably. It is alway so much better to know a little of the local language. My travels in Iran were immensely enhanced by the fact that I could speak a smattering of Farsi, but that, too, is another story for the blog.
At Torrejón I learned that my GS-4 status only got me a crappy, shared accommodation on base, so I stayed in a modern hotel near a subway stop in Madrid for about five bucks a night. The airforce wanted as much for the GS-4 accommodations. In Toledo, I stayed in a pension for a dollar or two.
I had been to Toledo before (and would return again), but this time I had some leisure to see the sights, and it was not tourist season. Close to Madrid, home to great art and architecture, historic from Arab times to the Spanish Civil War, Toledo is overrun by tourists in the summer.
I also visited Ávila and the birthplace of Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares.
March is still very cold in Madrid and I do not remember being dressed very warmly. The proverb about Mardrid’s weather, “Nine months of winter, and three of Hell,” has a basis in fact.
Interestingly, a year and a half later, as I was leaving Morocco, Gaylord Barr was being airlifted on the same Kenitra to Torrejón flight, with a severe case of typhoid, and he spent a much longer time there than I did! Another story, which I may try to tell in his stead, since he tragically passed away five years ago.
Peace Corps volunteers who taught English as a foreign language were tied to their schools during the academic year, but had long summer vacations. A few undertook special projects, but many took the opportunity to travel. Outside of what was then called TEFL, volunteers had to take time when they could, though many had jobs that gave them a lot of freedom. The Moroccans often described our jobs using the French word stage, essentially meaning training, and didn’t always expect much from us.
As Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco, travel to Europe, except for Spain, violated the Peace Corps country rules that were in place in the sixties. Many volunteers simply ignored them as they did other rules that they thought were unreasonable such as owning motorcycles. Volunteers seldom got caught and there was no real punishment. Staff probably found the rules restrictive, too, and often looked the other way. Without examining your passport, how would Peace Corps know what you did last summer?
There was a problem for volunteers, however, and that was Morocco’s location. Where could one go? It is not without reason that Morocco is known as the land of the farthest sunset. With an ocean to the west and a desert to the south, Morocco was a cul-de-sac.
Algeria was off limits as a hostile country in the sixties, sadly as my experience in Algeria suggested that Algerians were friendly and eager to meet Americans. Anywhere else required expensive airfare or a daunting trip across the Sahara. If you follow this blog, you can read about my Saharan adventure later. A few of us actually did the trip, crossing the Algerian desert by truck, but it was not a casual affair.
I think that these rules may have loosened up over the years. Some volunteers had families with the means to provide funds for European trips. In the sixties, the Peace Corps was definitely elitist, just as the foreign service has always been, with many members coming from the Ivys. In any case, given the historical connections with Morocco, the Peace Corps judged Spain to be acceptable, but put the rest of Europe off limits.
By July, the heat had settled into Sefrou. The grain fields around the city had been harvested, and the country had taken on the thatch and earth colors that it would keep until the winter rains.
Bouiblane disappeared into the haze at the horizon, and the streets became dusty. Melons were on sale in the market, and life slowed down a bit.
Gaylord Barr, the volunteer with whom I shared the house in Seti Messaouda, and myself had persuaded one of the Peace Corps administrators, Don Brown, to come to Sefrou. Don had served in Oujda. He had never learned much Arabic, and wanted to improve his command of the language. We had a woman, Khadija, who cooked and cleaned for us. I fixed Don up with a tutor, my friend Hammad Hsein, and Don moved to Sefrou for a couple of weeks, where he had a chance to immerse himself in dialectical Arabic. Khadija would take care of Don and the pets. Off we went. I don’t know how much Arabic Don learned, but I know he enjoyed his time there that summer. Old Sefrou was lovely with its gardens and country walks.
It always gave me a lot of pleasure to see women taking strolls past the old Jewish Cemetery or students walking together, studying for their exams.
Hammad was an elementary school teacher. He lived in Seti Messaouda, as did his extended family, just outside the city wall and down the street from me. I had gone to his and his brother, Hassan’s wedding, and I often ate at his house on feast days. I was told that he emigrated to France, as many other people I knew have done.
In early July, the mesetas of central Spain bake in the sun, just like much of Morocco. Oleanders flower in the dry water courses, but the only green is where farmers can irrigate. The early Arab invaders surely felt at home there. For them, Spain might have been Syria. And when the Abbasids wiped out the Umayyads in the East, the Umayyad kingdom in Spain survived and continued as the caliphate of Córdoba until overrun by successive waves of Berbers from the Atlas.
The previous summer Gaylord and I went off individually and traveled in Spain, making short forays into southern France and visiting Carcassonne, Albi, and Pau. By coincidence or by the nature of things we traveled much the same routes though we were not traveling together. In retrospect, I think I might have suggested the French sites as I was interested in visiting them myself.
Carcassonne needs the least introduction. The fabled walled city, heavily restored by Viollet-le-Duc, justly deserves its reputation as an icon of medieval military architecture, though if you would like to see a more authentic walled town, you might visit Aiguës Mortes instead.
I had wanted to visit Carcassonne, when I lived in France in 1965, but never made the time. In December 1965, I was living in Castelnau-le-Lez, and a neighbor and host to another foreign exchange student took us along with his daughter and dog, Blackie, to see the sun set on the walls of the city. I have returned a couple of times since. The last time my wife, Liz, and I walked the entire circuit of the wall, then dined on mussels at a little restaurant just outside the main gate.
Aiguës Mortes was built as a port for the Crusades, in a very short period of time, but it was never used as the French soon acquired more territory on the Mediterranean gaining better ports. It soon silted in, and lost all importance, for which we have to thank for its extraordinary authenticity and preservation.
Albi is probably known to most Americans as the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the place that gave its name to the Albigensian heresy, though it was never controlled by Cathars.
The center of Albi is occupied by a fortified, red brick gothic cathedral, and the adjacent bishop’s palace is a museum for Toulouse-Lautrec art. The buildings in Albi are distinctively red brick, and strech along the banks of the Tarn.
Pau would be the least known for most Americans. It sits on a hill that gives it an expansive view south to the Pyrenees.
Henri IV was born in the Renaissance château in Pau, and cradled in a giant turtle shell. A statue of him stands outside the château, with the inscription, «Lou nostre Henrico », and the locals remain rightly proud of their native son. To ascend to the throne of France, he converted to Catholicism, and is known for the apocryphal quote, « Paris is well worth a Mass. » This cynical comment belies his success in putting an end to the religious wars that were tearing France apart, as well as for a public works program that helped modernize his kingdom.
Unfortunately, Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, and the regency of Louis XIII began, which, you may remember, was the setting for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Its protagonist was the hotheaded D’Artagnan, a Gascon. Pau is in Béarn, a part of Gascony, a traditional term that applies to the lands south and east of Bordeaux. In Pau people appreciate armagnac as opposed to cognac, and local cuisine is shared with the Basque provinces next door.
Pau was a nineteenth-century watering spot for the British and a few Americans. The climate is mild and the atmosphere is calm. So much so that France trains paratroopers there. Today it is a regional administrative center with a university. I studied there in the summer of 1965, and my reason for returning was to see my former landlady, Madame Pinaud, who fed me a nice dinner, set me up with a date, and put me up over night. She was a widow, and the boarders she took in were an important source of her income.
Pau was the setting for a movie with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and a young Omar Sharif. Behold a Pale Horse is worth a watch. Banned in Spain during the Franco years, it dealt with a bitter Catalan anarchist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War (Peck), and a corrupt officer of the Guardia Civil who is out to catch him (Quinn).
It never gained any popularity as Peck’s character is dour and bitter, the movie was in black and white, there was no love interest other than Quinn’s mistress, and the setting is obscure. Peck usually played a hero and nice guy, and his fans expected roles with those attributes. In his final trip to Spain, Peck enters Spain through the Brèche de Roland, of which more later.
The château of Pau also served briefly as a prison for Abdelkader, the Algerian patriot, known for military acumen as well as his chivalry. At the height of his power, Abdelkader controled much of western Algeria and even some of eastern Morocco.
From Pau, the easiest route back to Spain was by rail through Canfranc. The second largest railroad station in Europe, Canfranc is perched high in the mountains. Trains had to switch from one gauge of track to another, as the gauges differed between France and Spain. Trains do not pass there any longer. The station was shuttered in the early nineteen seventies, and today is just a curiosity, rusting away in the wilds.
I think that the idea of crossing the Pyrenees through the Brèche had been in my mind for a while. I knew that the site was spectacular as I had visited Gavarnie, and I had watched Behold a Pale Horse, probably one of the late night movies CBC Toronto used to show after the 11:00 p.m. news. It is said that the Spanish government blocked its showing on American TV networks. Over the winter of 1968-1969, I began a correspondence with a member of the French Alpine Club in Tarbes. I had wanted to get some serious climbing experience, and he counseled me to enroll in the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air, a summer sports program for French kids. I asked him about crossing the the Pyrenees from Torla to Gavarnie, and he recommended the hike, saying that it was not difficult. If you research it on the Internet, you may find it described as one of the finest treks in the world.
I cajoled Gaylord into going with me. He did not share my passion for wandering about high mountains, but he loved nature and appreciated Spain.
We set off in early July 1969, taking the train from Fes to Tangier. Crossing from Tangier to Algeciras, we took a night train to Córdoba, where we spent the next day looking at the medieval center and the Mezquita. I had been there before, and have gone back since. The Mosque is a gem. The previous summer I got off a night train from Algeciras and wandered at 4:00 a.m. through the twisting and turning streets of the old quarter. Here and there were lights of a bar or hotel, but most was shadow and dark and quiet. It felt very much as if I were at home in Sefrou.
Spain did not have many fast trains in those days, and second class ticket holders were crammed six or eight to a compartment. The weather was sweltering, but we were used to it and it didn’t bother us. I remember Águila beer was eight pesetas a bottle. With roughly seventy-five pesetas to a dollar, it was easy to quench our thirst. Águila was a pale lager, and, on the train, at least, it came in small bottles, cheap to buy and easy to drink. It has sadly disappeared, swallowed up by big European breweries.
The long rides afforded some time to read and I think I read Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, still one of the best books on the subject sixty years later. The previous year I reread The Lord of the Rings. I remember riding a bus through the Catalonian Pyrenees on the way to Andorra. It had piped music, and the driver was playing the Concerto de Aranjuez. It was a grey day, a bit misty, and the forests appeared in various shades of green. As the bus climbed toward Andorra, the peaks moved in and out of the clouds. It was a magical way to take in the spectacular scenery.
Arriving at the Atocha Station, we got a room at the Hotel Atocha. I had stayed there before. The rooms were threadbare and ratty, but it was conveniently located near the center of Madrid, across from the station, and the staff were friendly and used to dealing with budget travelers. I had come down with something, and had a fever. I remember going to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which I had never seen, in a big theater with chilling air conditioning. I ended up spending a day in bed while Gaylord saw sights in the city. I made a quick recovery, though, and we soon left for northern Spain by rail.
Torla was a little mountain village and not on any rail line. I think we got off in Jaca, and had to hitch hike through Sabiñánigo to get there. It sits in a small valley, between the National Park of Ordesa and the town of Broto in the valley below.
At the time, Torla wasn’t as developed as it is today. Near the entrance of the National Park of Ordesa, if you were wealthy, you could stay in the Parador in the valley of the park. That was something like staying at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and just as expensive. We stayed in a pension in Torla, paying five dollars per day for room and board. At the time, you were able to drive to the park, and we hitchhiked. Today there is a shuttle bus, and the park is closed to automobile traffic.
The food in Torla was local, fresh, and tasty, and was served with plenty of local wine. Gaylord remembered it, a few years before he passed away, as some of the best food in his life! There was a bar which had a TV, and one could sit and watch the Tour de France while drinking cheap Spanish brandy and expresso. There wasn’t much night life in Torla. With the windows open, you could hear the Río Ara.
We hiked around the valley for a few days before continuing.
We climbed the canyon walls to the clavijas of Cotatuero one day, but we had no harnesses or ropes so we couldn’t proceed.
Unfortunately, I had left my boots in Madrid. I desperately looked for replacements, but the choice was limited to either ski boots or canvas shoes with rope soled interiors, a cheap and popular choice in Spain.
My French correspondent had not factored in difficient footwear nor large amounts of snow, and, though the canvas shoes were comfortable, neither they, nor the heavier work boots that Gaylord wore, were really suitable to the task. Most of the way from Góriz to Gavarnie I walked in the equivalent of wet tennis shoes! We should have suspected a lot of snow as we found the Río Ara with an ice bridge over it in the lower part of the canyon. Ice axes would have been handy. The previous winter had been a snowy one.
The National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido has been designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and certainly merits the distinction. A steep glaciated canyon, with hanging waterfalls, lush beech and pine forests, and snowy uplands, the Park may not be huge, but it is breathtaking. It reminds me of Yosemite, with its waterfalls and vertical cliffs, but the rock is limestone and just above the canyon walls are snow-covered peaks.
Our plan, and a very reasonable one we thought, was to climb to the Góriz Hut, above the end of the valley, stay overnight, then to cross through the Brèche de Roland and descend to the town of Gavarnie, which I knew from a visit in 1965. We had no reservations at Góriz, but if you were to plan this trek today, you would probably need them. All we had to guide us was a rough trail map handed out by the park people. Today there are excellent maps. Góriz to Gavarnie is a long day’s hike.
The hike up the valley was easy, and we soon left the forest of beeches and pines behind.
At the Góriz Hut, there was a group of young Aragonese kids, dressed in local colors, who played flutes, sang, and danced after dinner.
I think they climbed Monte Perdido the next day, and I remember looking wistfully in that direction the next morning, before setting off for the Brèche. We would have been totally unprepared for that ascent.
We had left most of our clothes in Torla, to be retrieved on the way home, so that we could travel light. The proprietor of our pension packed a copious lunch and dinner of roasted chicken and sandwiches and, of course, wine. That was our food for the hike, and we didn’t buy food again until we reached Gavarnie.
We had sleeping bags, but I don’t remember real outdoor wear of any sort. We just had jeans and shirts with sweaters and light jackets in our packs. I had an old wool Pendleton shirt that my uncle Bill had handed down.
Luckily, the weather cooperated. The sun was brillant until we crossed through the Brèche. The French slope had damp clouds rising out of the valley, but no real precipitation.
We didn’t think finding that route would be difficult.
Had the weather turned, it might have been a problem, but the Spanish slopes are sunnier than those of France, and we had luck with us.
From Góriz we headed to the Grotte de Casteret, named after Norbert Casteret, the famous French caver.
There was a group of hikers there, and, at that time, you could easily enter the cave. At about 9,000 feet, the cave has a frozen lake and waterfall. That itinerary took us out of the way.
We decided that we would descend to the basin under the Brèche and climb back up. This turned out to be trickier than we had reckoned. It was around noon, and the snow on the Spanish slope had melted and become slippery. We plodded up to the Brèche, slowly and carefully.
The Brèche is a imposing natural feature, a gap in a knife-thin rock face, about 120 feet wide and 330 feet high. It sits at 9,100 feet, above and to the left side of the Cirque de Gavarnie. It cannot be seen from Gavarnie, but it is clearly visible from many high points of land. From the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, it appears as a tiny notch on the horizon.
The Spanish call it La Brecha de Rolando, and the locals attributed it to the times of Charlemagne. Roland was Charlemagne’s best knight, who accompanied the king to Spain to fight the Moors. Roland was mortally wounded, and fearing that his magic sword, Durandal, would fall into enemy hands, he tried to break it against the rock. The rock was split, but the sword did not break.
With some trepidation, we arrived at the Breche. Looking back was Spain.
Looking down into France, we saw a steep snow slope.
A couple of hikers were on their way up to the Brèche. They had ice axes, and we wished that we had had them, too.
The view to the east, into the cirque was spectacular.
To the right, clouds floated in the cirque. With no ice axes, we zigzagged back and forth, carefully traversing the slope, until we reached the hut.
I did not expect all the snow, and was relieved when we finally reached the hut, and got off the slope. A fall would have meant a long slide, and possibly an injury.
My canvas shoes had been soaked all morning, and my feet were wet and cold. We needed a break and ate some of our provisions while the clouds rolled up from the cirque. I was able to switch to a dry pair of socks.
There was a French couple with children at the Sarradets. I think that they were surprised to find foreigners, who did not seem very well prepared for what they were doing, and they eyed us suspiciously. Maybe they thought we’d walk off with their ice axes?
Having rested, we began the trip down to Gavarnie. The snow, which had caused so much consternation, soon disappeared, replaced by a broad stone trail. We met a young Frenchman coming up the trail to Sarradets, and said hello. He asked where we hailed from and was visibly surprised to find that we were Americans. The day turned darker as we continued down, and when we finally trudged into Gavarnie, it was almost night. We found a place to stay, showered, and went to bed. I think we were too tired to eat, and very sore to boot. I wanted out of those soggy canvas shoes much more than food.
The next morning we arose late to find the clouds parting. Sitting on a cafe terrace, we enjoyed café au lait, croissants, and a magnificent view of the cirque.
A rock wall rising thousands of feet, with a myriad of small waterfalls, the cirque has the highest waterfall in Europe. Victor Hugo described it as a coliseum, and, enclosed on three sides, it resembles an amphitheater. During the last ice ages, huge mountain glaciers occupied the cirque and hollowed it out. Layered strata form ledges and collect snow, and the snow provides horizontal banding that contrasts with the vertical walls adding contrast to the overall effect.
Since it was cloudy and dark, I took no pictures on the way down, but I have a couple from 1965 that give an idea of the trail and show the cirque from a different angle.
If I were to do this trip today, I think I would return to Torla on foot via Bujaruelo, or a more scenic route. I’d also be dressed for the trip. But that summer we were just happy to have arrived, and still tired. After eating we hitched down the valley. We wanted to get to Pau, but hitchhiking wasn’t easy and we only got as far as Lourdes. With nothing else to do and stuck for the night, we poked around the souvenir shops and went to a Truffeau movie, Mississippi Mermaid. The next day we bussed to Pau to catch the train to Spain. Picking up our belongings, we traveled back to Morocco, stopping in Madrid to get my boots at the Atocha Hotel. My big adventures were over till the next Peace Corps summer, the subject of yet another blog post.
We went up to the summit of Tichoukt three times. The first climb was memorable, because the soles on my boots fell apart. I had given them to Jim Humphrey, living in Rabat at the time, to have them resoled. The shoemaker put the soles on perfectly, but the rubber was so soft that the limestone tore it to shreds. I had hardly any soles left when we returned!
Louden Kiracofe was with me. We were disappointed by the views, which were limited by haze and clouds. We just went up the west side of the mountain, which is separated from the true summit by a little saddle.
Gaylord Barr and Karin Carter and I climbed Tichoukt in the late fall, but the best ascent was with Louden in the winter. We approached from the south side of the mountain, climbed to the saddle, and just followed the ridge to the top where there was a geodesic marker.
The mountain had snow, and the view at sunset was memorable. The snow-covered summits of Bouiblane and Bou Naceur were sandwiched between the setting sun and the clouds, in a terrific vista.