Morocco In Focus

1. Marrakesh

Marrakech – “Morocco city”; as early foreign travelers called it – has alwaysbeen something

of a marketplace where tribesmen and Berber villagers bring their goods, spend their money

and find entertainment. At its heart is the Jamaa El Fna, and open space space in the centre

of the city, and the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting circles of onlookers

gather around comedians and fairground acts. The city’s architectural attractions are no less

compelling: the magnificent ruin of the El Badi Palace, the delicate carving of the Saadian

Tombs, and above all, the Koutoubia Minaret the most perfect Islamic monument in North

Africa.

It won’t take you long to see why Marrakech is called the Red City, The natural red ochre

pigment that bedecks its walls and buildings can at times seem dominant, but there’s no

shortage of other colours. Like all Moroccan cities, it’s a town of two halves: the ancient

walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the middle ages, and colonial Ville

Nouvelle, built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. Each has its own delights – the

Medina with its ancient palaces and mansions, labyrinthine souks and deeply traditional way

of life, and the Ville Nouvelle with its pavement cafés, trendy boutiques, gardens, boulevards

and shopping malls.

Marrakesh has Berber rather than Arab origins, having developed as the metropolis of Atlas

tribes. Once upon a time, it was the entrepot for goods, slaves, gold, ivory and even

“Morocco” leather – brought by caravan from the ancient empires of Mali and Songhay via

their great desert port of Timbuktu. These entire stands of commerce and population

shaped the city’s souks and its way of life, and even today, in the crowds and performers of

the Jamaa El Fna, the nomadic and West African influence can still seem quite distinct.

2. The north-west

At first glance, it would appear that Morocco’s North West corner has everything a traveler

could want. Berdered on one side by sweeping expanses of near deserted coastline washed

by both Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, and on the other by the wild, rugged Rif

mountain range that defines the physical boundary between Europe and Africa, this part of

the country is home to a number of ancient, walled Medinas that remain mainly non-touristy

and begging to be explored. As idyllic as it may sound, in reality the region has often been

the country’s ugly duckling and, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, was

virtually ignored by both king and state.

Tangier is the largest urban point and the main port-city in Morocco. Once seedy from its

days as a centre of international espionage and haven for gay Europeans and dodgy banks,

the city has reinvented itself over the past 15 years as a vibrant, accessible and modern

Mediterranean beach resort. South of Tangier along the Atlantic are the seaside resorts of

Asilah and Larache, both of which offer wonderful, aimless meanderings with their compact

whitewashed Medinas. Asilah is a relaxed and low-key town, well known for its international

arts festival, while Larache is similarly attractive, and close to the ancient Carthaginian-

Roman site of Lixus. A more distinctive Moroccan resort is Moulay Bousselhem, south of

Larache, with its windswept Atlantic beach and abundance of birdlife.

The Spanish enclave of Cueta was a possession too valuable for Spanish to hand back to

Morocco upon the latter’s independence in 1956, and makes a pleasant change of pace

when coming from the relatively haphazard and chaotic Moroccan side of the border. In the

shadow of the Rif Mountains, Tetouan has a proud Andalusian-Moroccan heritage and offers

up yet another fascinating, authentic Medina while its nearby beaches are popular with both

locals and visitors. South of Tetouan is the mountain town of Chefchaouen – Blue town of

Morocco ", a small-scale and enjoyable laidback place with perhaps the most photographed

Medina of them all.

3. The Mediterranean coast and the Rif mountains

Morocco’s Mediterranean coast extends for nearly 500 Kms, from the Spanish enclave of

Ceuta east to Saidia on Algerian border. Much of it lies in the shadow of the Rif Mountains,

which restrict access to the sea to a very few points. Despite a rash of stalled tourism

development dotted along the coast, such beaches as there are remain mostly low-key and

charming; for a seaside stop, head for the fishing harbor and holiday resort of Al Hoceima, or

to the lively summer resort of Saidia on the country’s border with Algeria. To the east of the

Rif is Oujda, a pleasant, relaxed city withing a day’s travel from the scenic Zegzel Gorge, and

there are further gorges cutting into the Middle Atlas, near the once-important trading

centre of Taza. Between Alhoceima and Oujda is the Spanish enclave of Melilla, an attractive

town offering an authentic slice of Spanish life; the dunes and lagoons spreading around

nearby Nador are among the richest bird watching sites in Morocco.

The Rif mountains themselves are even less on the tourist trail than the coast – and it’s easy

to see why. A vast, limestone mass, over 300 Km long, up to 2500 m in height, and with

forests of towering oak and cedar, the Rif is natural boundary between Europe and Africa.

4. Fes, Meknes and the middle Atlas mountains

The undoubted highlight of this region is Fez, the city that has for the past ten centuries

stood at the heart of Moroccan history as both an imperial capital and an intellectual as well

as spiritual centre. Unique in the Arab world, Fez boasts as many monuments as Morocco’s

other imperial capitals put together, while the latticework of souks, extending for over a

mile, maintain the whole tradition of urban crafts.

The oldest of Morocco’s four imperial capitals and the most complete medieval city of the

Arab world. Fez stimulates all the senses: a barrage of haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite

visual details and unfiltered odours. It has the French built Ville Nouvelle of other Moroccan

cities – familiar and contemporary in looks and urban life – but quarter or so of Fez’s one-

million-city of Fez el Bali which owes little to the West besides electricity and tourists. More

than any other city in Morocco, the old town seems suspended in time somewhere between

the middle Ages and the modern world.

Neighboring Meknes has an allure of its own, found throughout the city’s pleasant souks and

the architecturally rich streets of its sprawling imperial district, a vast system of fortified

walls and gates that was largely the creation of Moulay Ismail, the most tyrannical of all

Moroccan Sultans. Just north of Meknes, the holy mountain town of Moulay Idriss and

impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis make for a rewarding day-trip.

5. The Atlantic coast : from Rabat to Essaouira

This five-hundred Km stretch of Atlantic coastline takes in Morocco urban heartland and

accounts for close to a fifth of the country’s total population. It’s an astonishingly recent

growth along what was, until the French protectorate, a neglected strip of coast. The region

is dominated by the country’s elegant, orderly administrative capital, Rabat, and the

dynamic commercial capital, Casablanca. Keep heading south, and you’ll encounter some

delightful low-key coastal resorts, including El Jadida, Oualidia and Essaouira. This is the

most Europeanized part of Morocco, where you’ll see middle-class people in particular

wearing Western-style clothes and leading what appear, on the surface at least, to be quite

European lifestyle.

The fertile plains inland from Rabat have been occupied and cultivated since Paleolithic

times, with Neolithic settlements on coast to the south, notably at present-day Temara and

Skhirat, but today is its French and post-colonial influences that dominate in the main

coastal cities. Casablanca is popularly known by the great movie that holds its name

“Casablanca”; it’s a modern city that looks very much like Marseilles, the French seaport on

which it was modeled. Rabat, too which the French developed as a capital in place of the old

imperial centres of Fez, and Marrakesh, looks markedly European, with its cafes and

boulevards, though it also has some of Morocco’s finest and oldest monuments, dating from

Almohad and Merinid dynasties. If you’re on your first trip to Morocco, Rabat is an ideal

place to get grips with the country. Its Westernized streets make an easy cultural shift and

it’s an excellent transport hub, well-connected by train with Tangier, Fez and Marrakesh.

Casablanca is maybe more interesting after you’ve spent a while in the country, when you’ll

appreciate both its differences and its fundamentally Moroccan character.

Along the coast are a large number of beaches, but this being the Atlantic rather than the

Mediterranean, tides and currents can be strong. Surfing is a popular sport along the coast

and Essaouira is Morocco’s prime resort for windsurfing.

Essaouira is Morocco’s third fishing port after Agadir and Safi, and the harbor area bustles

with life for most of the day, with local wooden fishing boats being built or repaired and the

fishing fleet bringing in the day’s catch. The sea bastion by the harbor, the Skala du port, is

open to the public (daily 9am-5pm, for a fee of 10 DH) and worth popping in to climb on

ramparts and enjoy the views.

The other enchanting ramparts are those built by the Medina of Essaouira. The skala de la

ville ( free daily visits ), the great sea bastion that runs along the northern cliffs, has the

town’s main woodworks’ souk at street level, and on rampart above that, a collection of

European cannon, presented to Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah by nineteenth-century

merchants. At its north ends is the circular North Bastion, with panoramic views across the

Medina and out to sea.

6. The high Atlas mountains

The high Atlas, North Africa’s greatest mountain range, contains some of the most intriguing

and beautiful regions of Morocco. A historical and physical barrier between the northern

plains and pre-Sahara, its Berber-populated valleys feel-and indeed are- very remote from

country’s mainstream or urban life. The area is North Africa’s premier trekking destination;

casual day-hikers and serious mountaineers alike will find appealing routes in the region,

offering both staggering peaks and well-trodden passes (Tizi in Berber, or col in French). Just

a short distance from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech is Toubkal national park, home to

the impressive Jebel Toubkal (4167 m) and numerous villages that appear locked in time. IN

addition to the highest peak, other worthy crests and hamlets can be reached. Mud-

thatched Berber villages and remote pinnacles aren’t the only draw here. The landscape

varies from season to season: winter drops meters of snow that lead to gushing river valleys

in spring; summer brings an unforgiving sun, while the autumnal sunlight brings the browns

and reds of the peaks to life.

One of the benefits of trekking the region is being able to walk unencumbered: muleteers

and their mules are available for hire. Other options include rock climbing and ski

mountaineering, and mountain biking is increasingly popular on the dirt tracks (off roads)

and mule paths.

7. The route of thousands of Kasbahs

The Moroccan pre-Sahara begins as soon as you cross the Atlas to the south. It is not sand

for the most part – more wasteland of rock and scrub, which Berbers call Hammada – but it

is powerfully impressive. There is, too, an irresistible sense of wonder as you catch your first

glimpse of the great southern river valleys: the Draa, Dades, Todra and Ziz. Lush belts of

date-palm oases, scattered with the fabulous mud architecture of Kasbahs and fortified

Ksour villages, these are the old caravan routes that reached back Marrakesh and Fez and

out across the Sahara to Timbuktu, Niger and old Sudan, carrying gold, slaves, and salt well

into the nineteenth century.

Our guests’ first taste of the region is the Tizi N-Tichka, the dizzying pass up from Marrakesh,

and the iconic Kasbahs at Telouet and Ait Ben Haddou – an introduction that is hard to beat.

Ait Ben Haddou’s Kasbah is a preserved UNESCO heritage site, most famous for hosting 20 th

century and nowadays world cinema stars as their movies were shot there, including

Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, The gladiator and Game of Thrones. About 12 Kms from

Southern Ait Ben Haddou is Ouarzazate, a modern town created by the French to “pacify”

the south and once of the area’s few urban centers of any significance, buoyed in recent

years by its association with the film industry. From here, you can follow the old trading

routes: south through the Draa to Zagora and finges of the desert at M’hamid; or east

through the Dades to the towering Todra gorges and, ultimately, the dunes at Erg Chebbi

near Merzouga. These are beautiful journeys, the roads rolling through crumbling mud-brick

villages and past long ribbons of deep-green palmeries (palm groves) as they stretch out

towards the Sahara.

The southern oases were long a mainstay of the pre-colonial economy. Their wealth, and the

arrival of tribes from the desert, provided the impetus for two of the great royal dynasties:

the Saadians (1554-1669) from the Draa valley, and the current ruling family the Alaouites

(1669 – present) from Tafilalt. By the nineteenth century, however, the advance of the

Sahara and the uncertain upkeep of channels that watered the oases had reduced life to

bare subsistence, even in the most fertile strips. Under the French, with the creation of

modern industry in the north and the exploitation of Phosphates and minerals, they became

less and less significant, while the old caravan routes were dealt a final death blow by the

closure of the Algerian border in 1994.

Among the other must-see places along the road of Thaousands of Kasbahs is the Berber

town of Kalaat Mgouna, famous for the rose harvest from the rich and cool Dades valley.

Also, one must not miss to see two towns on the shore of the Ziz valley: Erfoud, capital of

fossils and archeological attraction. About 20 Kms Southern Erfoud is the town of Rissani,

home to the current Alaouite dynasty and an ancient commercial hub – which still practices

some of its traditional Souk-related for traders and caravans of the Sub-Sahara.

8. Agadir and the Souss

Few travelers to Morocco head south of Marrakech, bar the sun-seekers flying directly to-

and then, two weeks later, directly out of – Agadir, a Winter beach resort for Europeans that

counts as the area’s major tourist destination. It’s an agreeable place which makes a good

starting point for trip around the area, including a series of beaches lining the coast to north

and south, and sometimes delightful towns and villages dotted around the Anti-Atlas

mountains to the east and the desert beyond. While there are few bona fide tourist sites in

this area, the scenery is often spectacular, and perfect road-trip fodder – head down the

right roads and you’ll find Spanish Art Deco architecture, remote oases, fascinating rock

formations, ancient rock carvings and vista after superlative vista, the landscapes often

dotted by the Argan trees that the area is famed for.

Agadir beaches can be often packed, but those to its north are far less developed, including

the one at Taghazout, Morocco’s number-one surfing resort. A short way inland from here is

Paradise valley, a beautiful and exotic palm gorge, from which a mountain road trails up to

the seasonal waterfalls of Imouzzer. East of here is Taroudante, capital of the wide and

fertile of Souss valley, and boasting massive walls, animated souks and good hotels as its

calling-cards. Further south into the Anti Atlas mountains, Tafraoute, and its valley are even

more compelling – the stone-built villages and villas set amid stunning landscapes of pink

granite and fast rock formations. To the south of Agadir, the beaches are scarcely

developed, ranging from solitary campsites at Sidi Rbat – one of Morocco’s best locations for

birdwatching _ and Aglou plage, down to the old port of Sidi Ifni – only relinquished by Spain

in 1996 and full of splendid Art Deco colonial architecture.

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