Travel consultant focused on cultural travel in the Middle East & Mediterranean
The kingdom of Morocco is a short distance from southern Europe, but the arriving traveller is immediately aware of a vastly different world. The wonderful landscapes of desert, mountain and coast; the fascinating and densely packed medieval cities; the blend of Arab and Berber cultures evident in the art and architecture; the vigour of modern Moroccan society; the pride of Moroccans in their own country; and above all the warm attitude of the locals, all conspire to make the traveller feel very welcome.
Our travels usually begin in Casablanca, the largest city and commercial centre. The main attraction there is the vast Hassan II Mosque, displaying modern religious architecture at its best. A short drive takes us to Rabat, the capital of the country and the first of four Imperial Cities we visit (the others are Meknes, Fes and Marrakech). When the French took control in 1912, they built a new city here (and elsewhere) alongside the old medina, resulting in a harmony between new and old that is entirely characteristic of the country. We see the charming old medina overlooking the Atlantic and the 12th-14th century royal necropolis; and the modern is represented by the spectacular Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the king who led the country to independence in 1956.
Next stop is Meknes, closely associated with the great Moulay Ismail, who ruled from 1672 to 1727, and who made the city his capital, leaving some outstanding monuments. We visit the grand stables and granaries, Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum (still a place of Islamic devotion), the city gate Bab el Mansour, regarded as one of the most beautiful in Morocco, and of course the medina.
On our way to Fes we stop at the ruined Roman city of Volubilis, the capital of the Roman province of Mauretania and now a haunting and beautiful reminder of the reach of the great empire.
Fes is a former Imperial capital, the artistic centre of Morocco, and still regarded as the country’s religious capital. It’s also a teeming medieval city, where the UNESCO-listed souk or market is acessible only on foot or by donkey.We see a 14th century medersa (or religious school), a Hispano-Moresque palace containing an arts museum, we visit a leather factory overlooking a huge tannery and a ceramics factory, but most of all we take in the wonderful atmosphere of the place.
From Fes we head south and east, a long drive through cedar forests, over the spectacular Middle Atlas mountains, and on to the open Sahara Desert. A 4×4 desert tour takes in the famous Erg Chebbi sand dunes, an abandoned mining community, the amazing salt lake of Sirji and the fascinating village of Khamlia, a village of musicians who are descended from Sudanese slaves. A camel ride in the desert is optional but highly recommended.
From the desert we turn back north and west, aiming for the town of Ouarzazate. En route we pass through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs whose name says it all – these fortified dwellings and villages line the fertile river valleys, as they have for many centuries. We also pass by El Kelaa de Mgouna, a centre of rose growing and perfume production.
Ouarzazate is an old town rebuilt by the French in the 1920′s as a base for the French Foreign Legion. Apart from its charming atmosphere, its main attractions are a rare restored mansion, the Kasbah Taourirt, and the large movie studios (a personal fovorite of mine!) We also visit the nearby UNESCO-listed fortified village of Ait Benhaddou, where many films (including Lawrence of Arabia) were shot.
Marrakech is the best known and most visited of Morocco’s cities, and for good reason. Imagine a provincial city of the 1930′s, vaguely French in form but unmistakably Moroccan in colour and texture, surrounding a purely Arab ancient medina, and you begin to see the city. Then add in one of the great mosques of the Islamic world, a beautifully restored princely palace, a fabled medieval souk, and the renowned square of Djemaa el Fna – Marrakech’s complexity, beauty, vigour and depth of culture seem to represent Morocco in microcosm.
After the excitement of Marrakech, we turn east to the Atlantic port city of Essaouira, a laid-back place that is home to artists and craftsmen, where Westeners such as Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie came for inspiration. We tour the sights such as the fortifications and the medina, and we soak up the atmosphere of this charming small city. And on our drive back to Casablanca, we also stop at another old Atlantic port city El Jadida with its fascinating mix of Portuguese, Arab and Jewish cultures.
One of the really attractive things about travelling in Morocco is the accommodation. Wherever possible we stay in riads - these are old mansions in the medina, built around a courtyard and restored to a very high standard to provide small boutique hotels. They are always small, so the size of our Moroccan groups is usually limited to about fifteen – but this is no bad thing, is it?