Stumbling on a winter scene in a country that includes a big chunk of the Sahara Desert is the sort of thing I get the biggest travel kicks out of
Skiing: Michlifen Station is about 10km from Ifrane. You can drive, or get a seat in a shared cab for about $3.50. You can rent skis there for as little as $6 and as much as $24 for the day. Ski lifts cost 35 cents.
I went to Ifrane because I had never heard of Ifrane. I was in Morocco for something else – a music and surfing festival several hours’ flight south in the Sahara in Dakhla, concocted by the king in order, I suspect, to put his brand on the otherwise disputed area sometimes known as Western Sahara — but since I was going to be in the neighbourhood, I figured I should look around a bit.
In Casablanca, I watched Casablanca on a loop for hours in a bar called Rick’s American Café, stayed in the Royal Mansour hotel in Marrakech where my room came with a 19-year-old butler named Mohammed who kept asking, with the most Benny Hillish overtones, whether there wasn’t something else he might do for me, anything at all, while positioning himself well within my personal space. And I spent an afternoon in the medina in Fes, where I learned that the fee you pay a guide to lead you through the most labyrinthine ancient market anywhere in the world is actually just a down payment on a purchase he will suggest, with a contempt veiled imperfectly in a niqab of self-abasement and Sidney Greenstreet-style ingratiation, that you buy something from his cousin’s carpet/spice/leather/wooden-box store.
It was all more than enough to make a Moroccophile of me. But none of it matched Ifrane, a town of about 15,000 in the Middle Atlas mountains, for the sheer force of what I’ve come to call juxtapositional irony. Like finding one of my favourite cocktail bars in San Antonio, or having my most epiphanic art gallery moment in Doha, stumbling on one of the most transcendent winter scenes of my life in a country that includes a big chunk of the Sahara Desert is precisely the sort of thing I get the biggest travel kicks out of.
The architecture of the Michlifen Ifrane hotel, where I stayed, is redolent of a Banff- or Jasper-style CP hotel, all big but finely hewn hunks of wood crafted into charming bars and surprising spas. I’d been told it sometime snowed up here, which is why I came, but also that there was really no telling when it would. It was the middle of February, and I’d been there for two days. I was leaving the next day, and had just turned off the light to go to bed around midnight when I looked out the window, where I saw my first, and quite possibly last, Moroccan blizzard.
I saw my first, and quite possibly last, Moroccan blizzard
The mountain-side vista — 1,665 metres (5,500 feet) above sea level — that I’d been enjoying on my balcony on previous evenings disappeared behind sheets of snow, covering gazebos, the pool-side bar and carpets festooned with those perforce non-representational Muslim patterns in what very quickly became a thick blanket, remaking a formerly typical Moroccan scene into something that looked like Disney’s Aladdin re-imagined by Rankin/Bass. The closest I’d come to this was spending a late December in Valetta once, where the streets ere lined with Christmas greetings and blessings in Arabic script. But there was no snow. And I love snow.
I’ve been corrupted by a Montreal upbringing into believing snow to be winter’s great justification. Sure it’s cold, and your boots get digested by salt and a not insignificant number of people die each year in voracious urban snow banks as if our cities are auditioning for space in Stephen King’s imagination. But look how pretty. Snow angels, Christmas gooses, Magic Carpets, presents under trees and abominable snowmen brought back from the brink of damnation with tough love and a little amateur dentistry. In the pagan pastiche that my childhood Catholic faith has mutated into over the years, snow has become a sort of meteorological Jesus, swooshing away our sins each year with his purifying superhero cape of pure crystallized love moisture.
I got dressed and ran downstairs and outside to play.
After throwing some snowballs I meandered down the short road into town. Narnian streetlights illuminated the suddenly Swiss-looking town and the few other folks who were walking around, bundled up in coats that looked positively Canadian. I wandered around for an hour or so, meditating on global similarity and difference, climatic cultural determination, and possible sharia punishments for pee-writing.
It was all still there when I woke up the next morning, and according to the concierge, probably would be for a few more days yet. I’d heard there were ski hills up here, so though I was leaving that afternoon, I got some information for you, gentle readers, which you can find at the bottom of this story. Truth be told, I don’t like skiing. Though they do offer a variation of it here, at Michlifen Station and nearby Oukaïmeden, known as mule skiing, where a mule takes you up the hill and you ski down that sounds half interesting.
The hills are not steep, and if you’re a veteran skiier who sniffs at blue hills, you may not enjoy the Moroccan pistes. But if you see wintersports the way golfers see their sport, as an active way of seeing the world, crossing off increasingly outlandish courses they’ve done as they expand their global horizons and tote up stories and memories, skiing in Morocco is, in degree of exoticism and on the hierarchy of bragging rights the rough equivalent of heli-golfing.
Though I knew nothing about it, Ifrane is a popular year-round weekend getaway for Moroccans. In the summer, they drive up from Fes (66km away), Meknès (ditto) or the seaside capital of Rabat (200km) to get a 10-to-15-degree break from the heat. And in the winter, it’s their Banff, their Mont-Ste-Anne, their Blue Mountain. Like boating on China’s West Lake or tobogganing in Switzerland’s Valais, wintering in Ifrane is a mostly domestic experience that’s practically unknown to foreigners, and as such offers a healthy helping of tourist-tailored service without the usual side order of kitsch.
You could go to the Swiss Alps this year, or the Chilean Andes, or Vale, but the stories you tell when you get back will sound pretty familiar. For what it’s worth, I recommend building a snowman in Africa.