Today’s guest post comes from Nicole and Gary Winchester of CultureAddict/HistoryNerd a most awesome blog from the Toronto couple. You can also find them on Twitter @addict_nerd. They are sharing about their trip to Ifrane in northern Morocco. Thanks so much for sharing this with my readers Nicole and Gary!
Even after being in Morocco for less than 10 hours, we could tell Ifrane was different. Our first clue was the peaceful stretch of the otherwise mildly terrifying hour-and-a-half ‘grand-taxi’ drive that took us through the National Reserve just east of town. It was cool, leafy green, rocky and reminded me of Highway 7 on the way to Ottawa, on a section just before the turnoff to my old cottage in Marmora. I miss it, so when we weren’t cursing the lack of seatbelts and holding on to the ‘holy s**t’ handles made of nylon straps, I was just taking in the scenery.
Ifrane is generally unexpectedly leafy and green; in summer, refreshingly cool compared to the rest of Morocco; in winter, there’s sometimes snow and there’s skiing just outside of town. That’s what might have inspired its French architects to make it look rather like a village in the Alps – or if you’ve never been to one, what you imagine one might look like.
Back to School
It’s also a college town, home to Al-Akhawayn University (http://www.aui.ma/), founded by King Hassan II and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Our friend – the reason we were in Morocco, and frankly, the only reason we’d come to Ifrane in the first place – is a professor at the school, one of many foreigners from around the world hired to teach the best and brightest of the country. Obviously, a tour of the school was on the list. From the rather upscale cars of the students to the pseudo-Swiss-style buildings neatly laid our with tiled walkways between, Al-Akhawayn gives the impression of a small, prestigious, and pricey private university with a student body that fits accordingly – and that’s pretty much what it is.
Given that travelers rarely have the time or the excuse to access places of learning, it was pretty excellent that we were able to visit. Staff and students welcomed us warmly, and we got a tour of Volubilis from a professor with over 30 years experience in the region – not bad! We were also fortunate enough to be welcomed into the university’s mosque, which is a replica of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. The assistant Imam was happy to show us around the spacious, peaceful rooms with intricate carvings. Some people used the tranquility of the space to study, which made sense to me – besides, I’ve had a few exams that only divine intervention might have helped me pass. Anyway, we were grateful to get an idea of what the larger mosque might be like. Al-Akhawayn also helped Gary out when he got heat stroke – even in the mountains, that sun is no joke, you guys – and we’re also eternally grateful for that!
Stone Lion, Swampy Pond
Pretty much every Moroccan that’s been to Ifrane has a picture with this lion, so you should definitely stop by and get yours. A prisoner carved the statue when Ifrane was used as a POW camp in World War II, commemorating the last wild Atlas lion, shot in the 1920s. Kind of a sad story all around. I wonder if someone’s made a movie of it.
Just a short walk from the lion and the main town square area, there’s a man-made pond called ‘Lac du Ifrane’, with walking paths around it – but there’s some issues with drainage, so the view is nice, but the smell is a little swampy. You’ve been warned.
Food and Drink
As we were staying with our friend and his wife, we were treated to excellent Berber hospitality while at home, and generally good service when out in the restaurants. Our friend Connell’s favorite place was Cafe la Paix (Av. de la Marché Verte, Ifrane), a large cafe with well-dressed waiters and a varied menu of soups, salads, pizzas, pastas and tagines. We went there for a few lunches and had the pizzas and salads, finding both the service and food good for such a small town.
We also went out the Hotel des Perce Neige (Rue des Asphodeles, Ifrane) for a dinner with friends, and though the company was good and the restaurant was well-recommended, we had some difficulties and weren’t impressed. Being vegetarian, I particularly had issues with getting something without meat or fish on it – even a salad. If you’re heading there and have dietary needs, it would be ideal for you to speak French or Arabic to do the explaining yourself. We did, however, try some of the excellent wines grown in the region. Morocco does produce wine, and it’s not bad! I suggest checking some out.
While we were in Ifrane, there were only a few souvenir shops, convenience stores, a pharmacy, a few other restaurants in the main town square area. However, there’s also now a very well-reviewed luxury spa resort near the university – Hotel Michlifen Ifrane Suites & Spa. That’s certain to appeal to wealthy day-trippers and parents off to visit their son or daughter for the weekend. From the photos and the reviews, we’d love to visit ourselves – but the $230+ CDN/per night pricetag puts it a little beyond our reach.
A side trip we weren’t able to take was the short drive to Azrou to visit a local Berber carpet market about 1.5 km outside of town, held on Tuesdays. We’d hoped to go carpet shopping in the hills and will make a point of doing so next time.
Ifrane is definitely quiet and off the beaten track, but doesn’t come more cheaply for all of that. It’s worth seeing how Moroccans spend their vacations – if you can afford the time and money from yours to do so.
Grand Taxi from Meknes to Ifrane: $50 Dirham
Accommodations: Stayed w/friends
Average meal: $20-30 Dirhams per person
Have you been to Ifrane? Would you like to visit?