Imagine Sand Dunes at Sunset, the aroma of freshly-brewed Moroccan Coffee carried on Desert Winds, permeating through A City on Fire with lights at Night…These are just some of the amazing memories I have from my trip to Morocco. An ageless place that oozes character. There’s a story down every winding street, the bizarre in the Bazaars, and all are stories you will never forget.
Morocco is the first African country I visited and I admit: I was surprised… Firstly, by its strong multicultural character and rich history, and second by its unique natural beauty. It is a fascinating blend of Oriental, Saharan and European influences, with striking city contrasts. A variety of Souks, Mosques and Kasbahs, spread over vast coastal, mountainous and deserted areas. And in each of these mysterious natural landscapes, colourful heritage and historical sites of remarkable Beauty.
Being part of the Arabian League, Muslim Culture is the central platform that all else is built upon, as you would expect… From ladies in elegant kaftans, hijab (headscarf) wearing women, old men carrying jellabas (long robes with a hood) or even just water sellers, they will all be sporting their traditional costumes, crafted many, many years ago…Thousands, in fact. The same time the old medinas (markets) were founded, where you’ll feel as if you are thrown back in Time, by simply strolling through rattling Souks.
Colourful Cosmopolitan cities rising from isolated Sand dunes of the Desert near Zagora and still within range of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, dotted with Berber villages (the indigenous people of North Africa) and the countries’ beautiful beaches: In Morocco, you can experience the full Spectrum of Geography, Climate, People and Customs.
To get a sense of why Morocco is such an inspiring melting pot, all u need to do is watch the everyday lives of its people, what they’re all about, and what they have created over the Ages.
TOP THINGS TO SEE IN MOROCCO
1. THE PEOPLE
Moroccans are an ethnic mix of Berber, Arab and African people, well known for their generosity and hospitality. They are friendly, happy and amazing hosts. You can count on every step of your Journey to feature Souk sellers, guides who will proudly offer to show you their cultural heritage. Most of these meetings will include their famous mint tea as it is deeply steeped in Moroccan tradition.
The Berbers are indigenous North-Saharan people, native to the Atlas Mountains, many of whom still live exactly as they did centuries ago, successfully carrying through the Generations their distinct cultural traditions of weaving, ceramics and pottery. They are the Majority, either by blood or numbers….Two out of every three Moroccans are in cultural and linguistic terms, Berber, and as such, are renowned for their trading practices and familial and tribal Blood ties.
If you’re lucky, you might nearby Zagora also meet the real Tuareg people, known as “the blue men”. They are the nomadic descendants of the North African Berber groups, easy to recognise by their indigo-dye coloured clothing. The Tuaregs have been instrumental in spreading the legacy of Islam in the trans-Saharan region, which in turn, created some of the most famous trade routes within the area.
2. ARTS & CRAFTS
Diverse is the only word that can describe the explosion of Arts and Crafts in Morocco… Moroccan woven rugs are exquisite in design, while also being tough and durable, adorned with rich colours, symbols and motifs. Each tribe has its own characteristics and design, much like the Scottish Clans, so similar, intricate patterns can also be found in ceramics, tiles, wood carvings and even tattoos worn by Berber women. Science would marvel at the geometric patterns and symmetric intricacies, but the rest are simply inspired by the quality and workmanship of the local tribes, the Moorish colonisers and the influence of Islam.
Within this magical maze of Souks, lie artisanal Ateliers of master craftsmen, tinkering away at beautiful pieces of Art, be it carved wood, hand-painted ceramic tiles or pierced brass lanterns, these are proudly shown to the public, next to bright colourful textiles, high-quality pottery and camel leather bags.
3. THE FOOD
Moroccan cuisine is a mix of Mediterranean, Arabic and Berber cuisine. Expect to taste mint, olives, almonds, dates, Argan oils and couscous, all specific, and made to compliment the region’s climate. If you do go…Don’t leave Morocco without trying the quintessential Tagine, a staple Moroccan slow-cooked stew, with vegetables and meat. Other world famous local dishes are the soups, traditional pastry sweets and the Pigeon pie.
4. THE IMPERIAL CITIES
There are 3 great imperial cities in Morocco, and in Ages past, these 3 Citadels were the Centre of all Power in the Region. Fes, Casablanca and Marrakesh …each has its own story to tell, all are full of interesting medinas and squares, featuring Bazaars, which themselves are filled with snake charmers, water sellers and storytellers. All 3 Worth a Visit, if you want to capture the full Moroccan City Atmosphere… Here are a few notes on All 3, as I saw them.
The Largest City in Morocco has over the years become a massive commercial hub, and even if its medina is much smaller when compared to Fes or Marrakesh, it still has its Cultural spots…such as the grand splendour of the Hassan II Mosque, the Boulevard Mohammed V or the Jewish Quartier.
The Hassan II Mosque was built on the seafront and is regarded as a State Monument of Moroccan architectural virtuosity and craftsmanship, known to be the second-largest mosque after Mecca.
Place Mohammed V, also known as ‘Place des Nations Unites’, is the square right in the heart of Casablanca and is a classic example of French Colonial Architecture. This Moorish architecture was heavily inspired and influenced by the Art Deco movement.
Casablanca is also the transport hub of the country, so you shouldn’t have any problems getting there and around: If you plan on going to the Capital Rabat, Marrakech, Fes or Meknes – Take the train… Moroccan trains are reliable, clean and fast, (for a time−table check ONCF).
Casablanca might be the Largest, but Fes is the Oldest city in Morocco and like the others, it has two old and historical parts, the ‘Medinas’ and one ‘Ville Nouvelle’, the new town. The walled old city is the crowd-puller in Fes, and is an official UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fes is the most traditional imperial city in Morocco. The main sight here is Fes El Bali, (the Old Medina), and is the closest you can get to a Labyrinthine City. Each part of it offers plenty of highlights, that you will notice, should you walk through. Wandering around its Souks is a must! Winding streets, beautiful doors with hidden worlds behind them, a myriad of Riads and absolutely exquisite Madrasas, along with the Best Artisanal Ateliers of weaving, ceramics and wood carvings Morocco has to offer.
A visit to the Tanners’ Quarter is also fascinating and well worth the Trip… Here you can see leather dyed using traditional techniques. This is where animal skins are preserved in dye, cleaned and ultimately turned into leather products.
Marrakech… the red-walled city with stunning ochre stucco buildings that gave Morocco its name, is set on a plain between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert, surrounded by rugged mountainous peaks. Originally built as a stop on an important caravan route, the bustle of its Souks has always reflected the commercial soul of the city. Marrakesh is intense as it is deep and needs several days to explore to the fullest.
Many talk of the Djma−el−Fna, and it is an unbelievable experience: an Arabian Market scene that unrolls like a Desert Scroll…with snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, performing monkeys and Henna painters …it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a special one… It changes with the day, juices and nuts sold for the Residents in the morning, to a more tourist-oriented offering entertaining shows in the afternoon. In the evening food stalls join the fray, open all through the night. I heard about it…and tried some, and yes…the freshly squeezed orange juice was one of the best I’ve ever tasted! It’s a great place for walking around, seeing people work on their handicrafts or just haggling with souk sellers, for the pure fun of it!
Beyond the Souks, the medina is an ideal place to explore private Palaces or Riad mansions, all decorated and created to be exquisite luxurious destinations.
THE MAJORELLE GARDENS
The artistic bold colours of the Jacques Majorelle’s Moorish villa, surrounded by its luxuriant garden should be on your ‘to-do’ list. It was actually restored and donated later by Yves St. Laurent, housing an emblematic museum of Moroccan crafts, and is a refreshing Green Oasis in the heart of the new city. Majorelle Gardens are home to over 400 varieties of palm trees and 1,800 species of Cactus.
Like Casablanca, Marrakesh is also the southern transport hub of Morocco, so again use the Trains, as they are the best option to get in and out of the city. There are frequent trains to Rabat, Casablanca, Fes and Tangier. To reach Zagora from here, the gateway to the Sahara Desert itself, you can opt for a bus or a shared taxi (grand taxi). Marrakesh is also an ideal starting point if you are looking for a day trip to the Atlas Mountains.
5. ATLAS MOUNTAINS
The Mountain Range itself runs like a spine from south-east to northeast, and up again to the Algerian border, separating the Urban centres from the Desert and rising to an average elevation of 3,353 m. The highest peak of North Africa is Jbel Toubkal at 4,167m. The landscape is one of the mountainous Massifs, dropping into steep valleys, desolate rocky areas and deep narrow canyons. Since the earliest days, these Mountains have provided a place of refuge for Moroccans, if they needed to flee or evade Invaders, it was this exact geographical isolation, that bore the Berber culture and its identity flourished, ever since.
How many People do you know, that have been to an actual Oasis? Palm oases are the Berber way of life, and if you have a week, you should check them out… one of the many oases of the pre-Sahara desert – Ouarzazate, which is only a two-hour drive from Marrakesh (a drive almost as stunning as the destination, I should add), cutting through some of the most amazing landscapes of the High Atlas area). Ouarzazate and the Oases which border the Sahara desert are also the birthplaces of the great Moroccan dynasties of the Past.
Ouarzazate and its surroundings are incredibly scenic, and the town is a great stop from which you can explore the Kasbahs of Âït-Benhaddou… During the 1980s, the Moroccan government had big plans for this town, as the first stop on the “Saharan Adventure” so it has become known as “Morocco’s Hollywood”. As such it was used as a base for many films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Mummy’, and more recently ‘Game of Thrones’.
Âït-Benhaddou is another fantastic sight of the Atlas, as the kasbahs are possibly the most elaborately decorated and best preserved of all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Tours itineraries and camping treks into the Desert start from Ouarzazate, after passing the High Atlas Mountains.
The Dades Valley is another lush valley oasis town, this time set on a river bed, and surrounded by immense fields of Date palms. This area is surreal in its ancient charm with its thousands’ of kasbahs, each town wearing its own distinctive traits. Many of the Dades kasbahs are in ruin, which brings with it a mysterious atmosphere. However, there are a few that remain in perfect condition, where Berber families continue to live.
Cascade Ouzoud could be classified as one of the “natural wonders” of Morocco. Towering at 300 meters high, the cascade is a sight to behold and can be found around 150km northeast of Marrakech.
7. BERBER TOURS IN THE SAHARA
You should probably get on a Camel and Ride if you haven’t before… Camel camping treks into the Sahara Desert are organised by Berber tours. Usually starting out from Zagora you can explore camel treks and the Berber desert lifestyle, sleep in Nomad tents overnight or even stay up to a few days in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. Watching the sun rise or set over the sand dunes of Merzouga may be the most spectacular experience you have during your trip to Morocco, so seriously consider doing this, if you have the Time and the Resources. If you go in Spring, you also get the view of the Lake that forms nearby which attracts pink flamingos and other rare birds that stop here during spring migration.
In Fes & Marrakesh you are spoiled for choice. Three small streets in the old Medina Marrakesh are filled with inexpensive and decent hotels. For those who have a bit of cash to splash, head for the Maimounia one of the most famous and expensive hotels in the City. Even of you don’t stay there, maybe get a drink there instead, just to appreciate its interior beauty.
As I said – there are literally hundreds, but here are a few names that fit the bill for me, maybe they can do the same for yours.
BEST HOTELS IN FES Ryad Dyor , Riad Magellan, Riad Chergui, Riad Origines, Riad Dar Les Cigognes by Sanssouci Collection, Riad Anyssates, Riad La Terrasse des Oliviers, Palais Sebban, Riad Goloboy, Riad Anya, Riad Davia, Riad Aya
BEST HOTELS IN MARRAKECH: Riad Al Massarah, Riyad El Cadi, Palais Namaskar, Kasbah Bab Ourika, Mamounia, Riad Infinity Sea, Le Pavillon Oriental, La Villa Nomade, Dar el Souk Guesthouse, Ibis Hotel, Hotel Islane, L’Hotel Marrakesh
EATING ESTABLISHMENTS: Gastro MK, Amal, Libzar, Roti D’or, Dar Cherifa, Atay Cafe, La Maison Arabe, I Limoni, Les Jardins de la Medina.