>Take the Tizi-n-Test road from Marrakesh

Posted on February 2, 2011


>To Agadir, you can drive the coastal road and be stuck in traffic – or take the hair-raising road over the Atlas

Guidebooks describe it as “spectacularly scary”, “unbelievably impressive” and “not for the faint-hearted”. A quick glance at the map, at its sheer drops and serpentine twists and turns, confirms that this is no hype.

The Tizi-n-Test has a reputation as one of the most challenging roads in a region that isn’t short of hairy drives. So why do it? Because it makes sense, and this is why.

If, as I did, you want to drive from Marrakesh to Agadir, there are only two roads you can take.

The lowland route used to be the obvious choice. A relatively flat and fast two-lane road, it allowed you to cover the 150 miles between Marrakesh and Agadir in less than three hours.

Progress, however, in the shape of a multimillion-pound plan to widen the road — an attempt to boost traffic, trade and tourism between the cities — has turned it into a nightmare.

I drove it recently and, stuck in the middle of a convoy of a dozen trucks, unable to overtake for miles at a time, I ended up spending more than five hours behind the wheel. I was not a happy person when I got out. This option is only for people who need more fumes and frustration in their lives.

If, on the other hand, you want the open road, the big views, the odd adrenaline burst — and, above all, if you want to get to Agadir on time — you’ll want to take the slightly longer high road that snakes right up into the Atlas Mountains. Strapped in? Right, follow me.

Nothing about the departure from Marrakesh suggests what lies ahead. A simple avenue of eucalyptus trees cuts through olive groves and fields of stubble. The Atlas Mountains were a mere shadow in the blue haze beyond. An hour or so up the road, apple and almond orchards announced the village of Asni.

Long before the Kasbah du Toubkal and Richard Branson’s Tamadot opened in the nearby Imlil valley, this was the main crossroads in this part of the High Atlas. Its no longer Grand Hotel has closed, but Asni still hosts a lively weekly market and remains the sort of place where, on other days, villagers in jellabas have time to watch the world go by.

Beyond Asni, fast-growing Berber villages cling to the mountain slopes as the road winds through pine-clad valleys. Jebel Toubkal, at more than 13,000ft the highest peak in North Africa, looms off to the left, but my road curves away from it, towards the village of Ouirgane, and lunch.

Here, I found the Roseraie hotel. Its name is appropriate: in the flowering season, its chalet-style rooms are set in sprawling gardens of rose, bougainvillea and palm. I stopped for lunch on a terrace overlooking the hotel’s inviting pool, then continued up the winding road into the red-earth mountains.

Next, it’s into Goundafi land and a broad upland valley, cut through by the N’Fis river. It is a blessed place, high above the world, its river full of fish, the orchards lush, the valley floor littered with flowers in spring. At its heart is a village called Tin Mal.

For a while, in the 12th century, it served as home to a reformist cult, the Almohads. They eventually took control of the Moroccan empire, which stretched as far as Libya in the east, and included Andalusia. They lost power as quickly as they gained it: all that is left to remind us of them in their heartland is the roofless shell of a beautiful mosque.

You can see the mosque from the road, and it is tempting just to slow as you pass. But that would be missing another highlight. If you drive across the river and up to the village, you come to a perfect observation platform — there are kasbahs, or fortified granaries, at either end of the valley. The mosque itself repays the effort of hunting down the guardian in one of the nearby houses, for it is the building on which Marrakesh’s Koutoubia and, subsequently, almost all mosques in Morocco, as well as many in Andalusia, were based — including the Giralda in Seville.

The road becomes ever more winding as it climbs up beyond Tin Mal towards the Tizi-n-Test pass. A plaque at the top, at 6,800ft, commemorates the French engineers who completed the project. Like them, and their Moroccan workforce, you are advised to take a break at the cafe-restaurant just beyond the pass and admire the view — and the drop. From here the only way is down, and it is steep, in places practically vertical, ridiculously sinuous and, most alarming for passengers, who will be looking over sheer drops, without a crash barrier. By the time I reached the bottom, my arms were aching and I longed for a straight stretch of road.

Taroudant, 50 miles or so from the pass, has earned the dubious privilege of being known as “little Marrakesh”, but apart from encircling mud-brick walls, the two places don’t have much in common. Taroudant is a sleepy agricultural town, with nothing more taxing to fill your day than a small souk. You could, as many do, use Taroudant as a base to visit the mountains and the coast. Or you can do what I did and carry on to Agadir.

The seaside resort was little more than an easy hour across the flat, fertile plain. Near Agadir, the Taroudant road merged with the highway from Marrakesh, giving me the great pleasure of knowing that drivers on the direct lowland route had been stuck for hours behind convoys of trucks. I, on the other hand, had had all the memorable joys of passing the twisting, turning, beautiful Tizi-n-Test.

by Anthony Sattin for The Sunday Times