It was October 1920 in Paris and my grandfather, a young Swiss engineer named Louis Schwob, couldn’t contain his excitement. After just a few months on the job, his boss was sending him on a fact-finding mission to build a dam on the Oum er Rbia, one of Morocco’s largest rivers.
“I was a kid again, ready to embark on a fabulous and scientific Jules Verne adventure,” he wrote under the pen name Louis Dautheuil.
Technology, travel and poetry would remain Schwob’s lifelong passions. Some of his poems appeared in technical journals and local newspapers but after his death, my mother compiled his writings into a book she published as “The Engineer’s Repose.” In the text she used as an introduction, he urged writers to recognize the beauty hiding behind the power of water and even behind the industrial process itself.
“Take your lute, O poet,” he wrote in the 1950s, “leave the literary chapels and smoky taverns behind, seek the higher elevations where energy emerges, and the valleys where it blooms.”
I was in my teens when he died and had been more into my boyfriend than my grandfather. Still, could he have been the inspiration behind my choice of occupation as a travel writer?
I had read his poems, but only recently discovered these lines. I picked up “On the Banks of the Oum-er-Rbia,” his fabulous essay about the 1920 Morocco trip and literally started packing my bags. Almost a century after he did, I embarked on my own odyssey along the Oum er Rbia.
It wasn’t clear exactly where he had gone — my mother had only found the beginning of the essay — but he mentioned the delta and several towns along the way to the source in the Middle Atlas mountains. I decided to follow the river, from the ocean to the source.
Oum er Rbia means “Mother of Spring” in Arabic. Fittingly, I landed in Casablanca under pouring rain last month. My grandfather rode a rickety train from Casablanca, but on the recommendation of a friend, I enlisted the services of a wiry tour-company driver named Hassan Affaf.
After an easy two-hour drive south on the highway, we chose to stay in the only hotel within the 16th-century walls of Mazagan, the historic name my grandfather used for the town of El Jadida on the Atlantic Ocean. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the fortifications and the town built by Portuguese explorers made for a magical playground as children ran up and down the alleyways. The eerie Portuguese cistern hidden under the town’s main thoroughfare still held rainwater, defying the centuries.
The next morning, we drove to nearby Azemmour and its ancient Arab quarter suspended on a cliff over the left bank of the Oum er Rbia. I couldn’t wait. As soon as I saw the water, I jumped out of the car and made my way through reeds and stones. Then I stood still, watching a lone white heron wander in the ripples.
On the other side, palm trees and lush farmland lined the water. I tried to imagine what my grandfather had seen, the sandy estuary about a mile away, the red and green fishermen’s boats. I looked down. There were footsteps in the reddish earth.
“You want to see Aicha’s grave?” Hassan asked.
As it turned out, in the 16th century, a beauty named Lalla Aicha Bahria, with tresses so long that they painted landscapes on the sand behind her, according to local folklore, was buried nearby.
“Her vain search for her lover brought her here to her death,” he said. “Women come from everywhere to pray to get pregnant or married.”
I didn’t need either, but was intrigued. Near the white mausoleum, live chickens could be purchased for sacrifices. In a small room covered with inscriptions in Arabic, women of all ages, some veiled, some wearing denim jackets, chatted loudly. I peeked inside, and someone asked if I wanted some magic water, then sprinkled drops onto my head from her bottle.
The next morning, we left for Sidi Said Maachou, Morocco’s oldest dam, which was completed in 1929. There was no way to know for sure whether my grandfather participated in its construction but it was my best guess that he had.
Hassan devised a shortcut and we soon left the busy road and found ourselves on a dirt path. Mimosa trees in full bloom lined our route and as far as I could see, rolling meadows sparkled with poppies and purple wildflowers. Led by small boys or men in djellabas, herds of sheep gobbled up the rich grass.
In the distance though, high-voltage power lines reminded us of civilization and the impact of electricity.
“Standing over the horizon, a gigantic skeleton resembling Don Quixote, the steel pylon raises its tall profile,” my grandfather had written.
The landscape was getting rockier and all of a sudden, as if someone had scissored the red cliffs, a red canyon opened up with water flowing at the bottom. I got out of the car and walked the redbrick bridge over the dam. On one side sat a tamed lake, on the other, the Oum er Rbia meandered bravely through the rocks. And there, well hidden among the phragmites, was the clear silhouette of another heron. Was I being watched?
It took several hours to drive to the town of Beni Mellal along a stony plateau. There, at sunset, accompanied by the call of the muezzin, we joined a jolly crowd strolling around the formal gardens that surround several springs.
“And to the song of the Muezzin, the night curtain falls slowly on the magical spectacle,” he had written.
We got our first taste of the mighty Middle Atlas mountain range the next day, on our way to the large dam of Bin el Ouidane, as we negotiated twists and turns while whiffs of thyme and mint billowed in the spring breeze and young children sold fresh herbs by the road. This was not my river and the construction dated to 1953, but I wanted to see the geographical impact of a massive dam.
“An anonymous worker laboring with dynamite, I strove to inscribe onto the slopes, a poem of stone,” my grandfather wrote.
In the middle of the scrubby mountains, a steel blue lake appeared and with it a new world with stunning homes and resorts. This was the resort town of Bin el Ouidane. Vacationers lined up by the rental boats. Rumor had it that the king of Morocco came here to ride a Jet Ski.
After another hour of driving, we crossed into a wintry tundra. Then forests of cedars covered in snow started appearing along the icy road. We were proceeding slowly and, perhaps to remind me I was in Africa and not in my native Switzerland, a group of monkeys appeared in a clearing. Morocco kept surprising me. Meanwhile, as always, people appeared out of nowhere, on foot or riding donkeys, going their own steady pace.
As we drove farther down toward the valley, the landscape turned rocky again. We followed the road toward the cliffs until we reached a parking area. Hassan pointed up at the cliffs where the Oum er Rbia gushed out of the rocks.
“Come to the source,” said a young boy as if he had been waiting for me. Along the path, crouching women tended to flatbreads as they swelled in stone hearths. Others offered me pastries, shiny with honey, but I wasn’t interested. I followed the boy. The higher we got, the louder the river. And finally, there it was, the Oum er Rbia. Had my grandfather stood here almost 100 years ago? I pointed my phone at it. The screen went blank.
“Oh, come on!” I yelled. But then I stopped, stricken, remembering that my grandfather had become blind in the last years of his life.
I closed my eyes, listened to the roar above and cried.
More from Travel:
Eglise Espagnole, Cite Portugaise,
Two buildings — a church and an old American consulate — make up this gorgeous boutique hotel inside the ancient town. Large bedrooms and cozy public spaces hold a tasteful assortment of stylish furniture and objects. Be sure to grab a drink on the terrace for sweeping views of the ocean and the medina. Rooms from about $143.
Hotel Jnane Ain Asserdoune
Km 4, 5 Route de Fes N8,
Beyond the formal, marble entrance are several one-story buildings with simple rooms arranged around the immense outdoor pool. A perfect family halt on the way to the Atlas Mountains. Rooms from about $48.
Hotel Michlifen Ifrane
Suite & Spa
Avenue Hassan II, Ifrane
Expect top of the line amenities, bedding and decor at this luxury hotel that somehow keeps the Swiss-chalet theme alive. Even the elevators are lined with carved wood planks. Don’t miss the incredible indoor-outdoor pool and the serious spa. Rooms from about $122.
Eglise Espagnole, Cite Portugaise,
You can eat in the courtyard, surrounded by 16th century walls, or inside the stylish dining room. Pick from a mix of contemporary and traditional specialties, such as tomato carpaccio or fish tajine, prepared with fruity olive oil. A prix fixe dinner menu starts at about $68.
Hotel Chems du Lac
Bin El Ouidane
BP No. 4 Barrage Bin el Ouidane
There are several restaurants to choose from in this large resort. Enjoy a fresh salad by the pool or one of several terraces on the lake, or more formal dining in a seated restaurant. Dinner entrees start at about $15.
Avenue Hassan II, Ifrane
The salads and couscous at the hotel’s Moroccan restaurant are worth every penny — and the formal French restaurant holds its own against any Parisian eatery. Dinner entrees start at about $16.
El Jadida fortifications
The ramparts encircle most of the old town and it’s possible to walk up the inclined ramps at several points. It’s not necessary, but hiring an official guide through the city’s tourism bureau or your hotel will help you to understand the historical and geopolitical context of this stunning fortress. (The one I hired through the Hotel Iglesia charged about $55 for the day.) Free.
Rue Mohammed Hachmi Bahbah, El Jadida
This ancient armory was transformed into a cistern around 1541 and can contain 714,000 gallons of water. Its walls are almost 10 feet thick, but most striking is the daylight coming from an overture in the ceiling. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Admission costs about $7.
Sidi Said Maachou Dam
Route R303, Doukkala-Abda
The oldest dam in Morocco was completed in 1929 and was originally built to provide water to Casablanca, and later electricity. There is no official tour and visitors may walk along the bi-level red brick construction. Free.