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9,000 STREETS 40,000 DEAD ENDS

From the labyrinthine Medina of Fez, and the sparkling blue city of Chefchaouen to the mysterious holy town of Moulay Idriss — if you want to get to know Morocco, take a road trip in low season, and get talking to the locals


I’m pinned to the floor of a centuriesold hammam in the foothills of Mount Zerhoun. A bald and bearded attendant in shorts is holding me down like a toddler, scrubbing my skin with a bristly kessa (exfoliating glove) and rinsing the soap off with sloshing buckets of hot water. Just when I think we’re done, he starts stretching me into positions that would make an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter blush. At one point, my spine pops, chiropractor-style. A steaming group of local men and boys, washing themselves in the small chamber, observe with glee.

If I’d asked for Morocco like a local, this would’ve been the moment I got it. The hammam lies underground in the holy town of Moulay Idriss, northern Morocco. Its chambers are heated by burning thick chunks of aromatic olive wood. The scrubdown peels away embarrassing amounts of dead skin, leaving me the colour of smoked salmon. Steam continues to rise from my head as I return through the medina alleyways to my homestay. It feels like a hazing ritual is complete; that momentarily, this bruising baptism has made me part of the village.

Forget camels and carpets. I’ve come to Morocco in the off-season, seeking to dive deeper than sand dunes and sun resorts. I’d flown into Marrakech, but didn’t stay long. The following morning, I rose early and struck out with a guide and driver towards the Atlas Mountains, starting an itinerary that would also include the hive-like Medina of Fez and the blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen. It’s winter, and tourism is barely a trickle.

“If you want fresh news in Morocco, you need to talk to two people,” says Majid Rouijel, my guide in Moulay Idriss. “The baker and the barber.”

Majid is a honey-voiced local man, born and bred in the tangled-twine alleyways of this hill town (“I spent five years working in insurance in Casablanca,” he tells me. “I didn’t like it. I did an about-turn.”) Majid wears a creamy djellaba (the long, hooded cloak traditionally worn by Moroccans) and seems to know every single soul we pass. When we find the baker, he’s sitting watching a tiny TV perched among shelves loaded with bread. Many families make their own mix in the morning and bring it here for baking, Majid explains. “If a person who usually brings two loaves comes in with four, then something is going on,” he winks.

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About National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Walk this way: Lofty passes through volcanic lunar landscapes; ancient pilgrim pathways strewn with churches and ruins; sumptuous forested trails opening out onto vineyards. a rambler’s reward is culture, ambience and wild scenery on the walking routes through Italy, France and Spain