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Oh the Distances We’ll Travel For A Good Market!
A Berber market in Morocco is a magical thing. If you’ve been to farmers’ markets or other weekly markets you might have some idea of what to expect; stands selling fruits and vegetables–the ripest offerings of the season. You wouldn’t be completely wrong. To be sure, there are always heaps of produce for sale, but the Berbers take it 100 steps further. On a given date of the week or month a flat barren expanse of open land is transformed from a rocky, dusty field into a sprawling open air community of sellers, buyers, gossipers, diners, friendly banter, cut-throat negotiating, bleating goats, braying donkeys, smoking grills, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that will have your mind reeling. Of course, driving north out of Marrakesh at the start of our two week driving trip through Morocco we didn’t know any of this.
Marrakesh has its great medina, of course, and there are plenty of sensory delights to be found there; but it has so many tourists that, parts of it at least, have a vague put on feel. Is this the real Morocco, or just a show for visitors? The only way to find out is to get out of the city and explore the less traveled parts. So, on our last day in that beautiful city, we were checking the map and all of our resources for the best route north. We knew we wanted to spend some time in the northern part of the country as well as getting out to the coast. We always like to choose a circular route for our road trips, trying to never backtrack.
The choice was to head out to the coast and drive north along the water and then south through the interior or the other way around. They both seemed like similar sides of the same coin with no real reason to choose one way over the other. Until we came across a one line entry in a three paragraph entry in the Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook. There was a tiny listing for a small village named Azrou along the old highway from Marrakesh to Fes describing the town as a Berber market center and indicating (in parenthesis) that the weekly souk was held on Tuesdays.
As it was Sunday night we had our solution. We left first thing in the morning taking the smaller national road through the interior and up to Azrou where we would spend the night and be up bright and early for the Berber market on Tuesday. The drive itself was calculated as a five and half hour drive through farming villages, small towns, and winding mountain roads. We knew there was no way we’d be able to do the drive in such a short amount of time. We are notorious for stopping for photos, side tracking up or down dirt roads, and succumbing to other temptations along the way. However, leaving at 8:00 A.M. in the morning should get us into Azrou by 3:00 P.M. at the latest. More than enough time to find our Riad, check out the town, and find a nice dinner.
About half way there I noticed it was getting harder and harder to shift gears in our little rental car. As I was struggling with the gears around a sweeping turn in some small town, I looked out just in time to see a police car up ahead on the side of the road. A quick check of the speedometer put a large pit in my stomach. We were doing 70 in a 60 zone. I had been driving particularly careful as I had seen many such traffic stops along the road but the distraction of the clutch and grinding gears had gotten the better of me. Sure enough, we were flagged over. I got out of the car with passports, car papers, driver’s license and a friendly smile. We chatted for a little bit, the young uniformed man speaking French and I in English. Not really communicating but getting the point across that we were tourists and Morocco was a beautiful country. But, sadly, we would have to pay a fine. Luckily I had the cash in hand and he wrote a receipt and put us back on our way. I made it to the car and got it into gear before I realized he did not give me back all of the papers. There was one card that came in the car papers that I was sure was pretty important. When I went back to try and explain that he made a mistake (of course not quite in those terms) he smiled and nodded but didn’t seem to understand. It took a little effort but he soon got the idea and found the card tucked up under another piece of paper on his clipboard. Disaster averted, we were now truly back on the road, grinding gears all the way.
After the lengthy traffic fine stop and several earlier pullouts for sweeping vistas, donkey carts, and picturesque villagers we were behind schedule–by more than a few hours. And to make matters worse, the transmission was really acting up. Down shifting was nearly impossible and when I came to a stop and pushed in the clutch the little car would keep on going, as if the gears weren’t completely disengaging. I had to hold down the brake a little to keep the vehicle stopped at all! As the sun went down in my rear view mirror I had a sinking feeling. This was going to be a beautiful sunset and of course the photographers would want to stop. I had to put my foot down firmly on the brake and the photographers, however, as they weren’t getting more than one pull off for sunset shots.
The sun was down and it was pitch black by the time we rolled into Azrou. We had a vague idea of the Riad’s location in the center but driving through the steep and narrow roads was a balancing act of clutch, brake, and gas pedals. We had to ask directions once or twice but we were soon parked and into hour hotel. As I was getting out of the driver’s seat I reached down out of frustration and yanked on the clutch pedal. To my surprise, it pulled out about 9 inches, back to its original position. I hadn’t noticed but it had been sinking into the floor slowly throughout the day. It must have been missing some spring assembly or some other little mechanical doo-dad (I believe that is the official term).
Our riad was comfortable enough and we had one of the better tangine dinners of the trip before settling in for a restful sleep. Then, with roosters crowing in the distance, we were up at dawn, excitedly eating our breakfast, and out the door in search of the souk. Our host told us to just go out to the main road and walk a little way straight down the road. It was easy enough to find the road and there was a growing stream of people walking with us so we knew we were heading in the right direction. As we got to the first vendors along the road displaying their wares, we were a little worried. If we had been looking for electrical cables and plugs, sockets, or switches, we were definitely in the right place. Although, all of the things spread out on the patched and torn blanket looked like they had been pulled or cut out of a demolished building. The next blanket held an array of plumbing supplies, then came painting tools, an assortment of brushes and brooms, and even more junk. All of it, as before, straight from dump sights or demolition zones. We were beginning to think this was going to be a complete wast of time. But the rest of the pedestrian traffic was still walking down the road so we followed along, though not as excitedly as before.
After about two kilometers of walking along these not so appealing market offerings we finally came across a seething mass of taxis, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, donkey carts, and every other type of transportation imaginable. Ah ha! The Souk! We had made it! The market was set up within the confines of a walled in four or five acre field. Textiles and carpets were tucked up into one corner and livestock (sheep, mules, goats, etc.) were on the opposite end of the sprawling field. The rest of the meadow was jam packed full of fruits, vegetables, grains, baskets, (new) tools, husbandry supplies, saddles, restaurant tents, tea tents, barber tents (Berber barbers!), and everything else you could imagine and several things you couldn’t! The Berber market was much, much more than we could have hoped for.
As we were walking back into town with our parcels of carpets and bags of tangerines, I couldn’t help but spend some time looking through the spread out collection of car parts on one of the more greasy looking blankets along the road. Did this collection of seemingly useless junk hold the missing part from my clutch pedal?
Getting to Azrou is easy by car, bus, or grand taxi; it is a crossroads town and can be reached from any direction. Fes is the nearest city but Azrou also makes a nice stop over from further away even if you won’t be going to the Tuesday market. There are a few riads in town as well as one or two small hotels all clustered around the center of the village. There aren’t many tourists here but the basic needs are more than met.