Sample the magic of Morocco

Date Posted: 15/07/2010

Jeannine Williamson visits Morocco, an ancient nation steeped in history.

Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines shaped Morocco as a geographic crossroads of history, culture and civilisation. With eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, teeming markets, beautiful mosques and landscape of desert, mountains and Atlantic coastline, Europe’s gateway to Africa offers a huge diversity of experiences in an exotic destination that’s within easy reach of the UK.

Marrakesh

The Red City, so called because of its reddish-pink buildings, has had an enduring allure since it became part of the hippy trail in the 1960s. Today it remains the single most visited destination in Morocco and, being close to the main airline gateway, it is the ideal starting point for a tour.

The old ramparts of Marrakesh stretch for 11 miles and magnificent doorways lead to the medina, which houses the largest souk, or market, in Morocco. With its maze of alleyways it’s easy to get lost, so if time is limited, it’s a good idea to get a local guide to take your group around. A spot of good-natured haggling is customary and part of the fun. Offer a third of the asking price to begin with and you’re likely to get a good bargain. After the hustle and bustle of the medina take a tour of the Majorelle Garden, a peaceful haven with 300 species of tropical plants.

The symbol of the city is the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, which looks particularly striking against the night sky. Other notable places to visit include the Dar Si Said Museum, which contains beautiful ancient Moroccan artefacts including jewellery and pottery, and the 19th century Bahia Palace, or ‘beauty’s palace’, built for a favourite wife of the sultan (he had four).

Fez

The oldest of the imperial cities, Fez is arguably the symbolic heart of Morocco. In the labyrinth of narrow streets in Old Fez, your group members will feel as if they have stepped back in time, particularly when they have to flatten themselves against the wall to make room for passing mules and donkeys, which have right of way.

The walled medina is the most complete medieval city in the Arab world and a UNESCO-listed site. Tailors, saddle makers and barbers carry out their daily business in small shops and each district has its own communal bakery, baking dough brought in by local households that do not have an oven of their own. The Fez tanneries, providing the raw material for around half the leather goods produced in Morocco, are another place where little has changed over the centuries. Your group members will be offered sprigs of mint to sniff, to take away the smell, as they watch nimble tannery workers clamber in and out of mud and brick-built vats where the leather is coloured with natural dyes.

Two ancient fortresses, Borj Nord and Borj Sud, flank Fez and they offer a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. Further afield your group can visit hot springs such as Moulay Yacoub and Sidi Harazem, which are renowned for the health-giving properties.

Casablanca

A melting pot of cultures, Casablanca is a huge, avant-garde city and romantics should be forewarned that it bears no resemblance to the French colonial backwater immortalised by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the 1942 film classic (it was not even shot in Morocco). That said, the reality of Casablanca is actually a fascinating prospect in its own right.

Modelled by the French, who landed their forces in 1907 and embarked on a massive building programme, there are grand boulevards lined with elegant buildings, parks and fountains that are across the road from the oldest part of the city, the medieval walled medina crammed with shops and stalls.

Modern architecture is dominated by the Hassan II Mosque, which leads to the fashionable and elegant Corniche stretching along the seafront. From Casablanca, your group can explore the vineyards of Boulaouane and fortified villages of Azemmour and El Jadida on the southern coast.

Meknes

Close to Fez, the UNESCO-listed city of Meknes has been dubbed the ‘Versailles of Morocco’. Meknes owes its amazing monuments and heritage to a contemporary of Louis XIV, Sultan Moulay Ismail, who made this city his crowning jewel.

Bab Mansour is one of the most beautiful harbours in Morocco and the Moulay Ismail Mausoleum, where the monarch and his family were laid to rest, is adorned with exquisite mosaics. Across from Bab Mansour, El Hedime Square and its large market come to life at night with street sellers, fire-eaters and a warm and friendly atmosphere.

Here your group can tour the Haras Regional de Meknes national stud, home to beautiful Arab and Berber horses, and visit the Dar Jamai Museum, dedicated to crafts from the region. Meknes is also renowned for its culinary tradition and local produce includes wine and olive oil.

Top three sights

1 Djemaa el Fna:
The open square in the heart of Marrakesh comes alive at night with a spectacle of acrobats, dancers, snake charmers, storytellers and food sellers.

2 Hassan II Mosque:
Dominating the Casablanca headland, Morocco’s largest mosque is the third largest in the world and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and 80,000 outside.

3 Sahara Desert:
It may be small, but Morocco’s share of the Sahara is big on classic sights such as sand dunes and oasis villages. The most evocative way to view them is on a camel trek.

Best of the rest

Agadir:
Morocco’s best-known beach resort offers groups rest and relaxation after an action-packed itinerary.

Rabat:
The elegant coastal capital of Morocco combines cultural and seaside attractions.

Tangier:
Close to the Strait of Gibraltar, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Tangier has inspired writers and artists through the ages.

Saidia:
Nicknamed the pearl of the Mediterranean, Saidia is a good resort base to discover the delights of eastern Morocco.

Moroccan Essentials

Eat: With a variety of influences, including Arab, Berber and Adalusian, Moroccan cuisine combines sweet, sour, subtle and spicy flavours. Dishes are often delicately scented with saffron, cumin and coriander and served with couscous. Not to be missed are harira, a traditional lentil and tomato soup, pastilla, a puff pastry pie usually made with shredded chicken, and tagine, which is a meat or fish stew that takes its name from the earthenware dish in which it is prepared. The sweet-toothed won’t be able to resist pastries flavoured with orange, honey and almonds.

Drink: Sweet mint tea is delicious and refreshing, particularly on hot days. Also, look out for thirst-quenching freshly squeezed orange juice flavoured with cinnamon and orangeflower water. Coffee is typically black and Turkish-style, served in small cups, so ask for a longer drink made with milk if you prefer. Whilst Morocco is an Islamic country and Muslims are forbidden from drinking alcohol, drinks are widely available in hotels and restaurants. The French introduced winemaking to Morocco and there is also a brewing industry.

Try: A trip to a Moroccan hammam, often housed in ornate and historic buildings. Men and women bathe separately and are looked after by same sex attendants, but your group members may have to shed their inhibitions, as whilst men keep on their trunks it is common for women to wear bikini bottoms or go naked. However, it’s well worth overcoming any shyness as the black olive oil soap scrub, followed by an exfoliation with a coarse glove and massage using oil from the native argan tree leaves skin feeling squeaky-clean and moisturised.

Buy: Colourful rugs, copperware, silver jewellery, leather bags, wallets, belts and pointed babouche slippers, distinctive blue earthenware from Fez, pottery, wood carvings and bright fabrics.

Go: Morocco has a temperate year-round climate and there is guaranteed sunshine most of the year. Spring and autumn are particularly pleasant times to visit with temperatures around 23C to 26C in Agadir and Marrakech. In summer it can reach 38C in the south of the country.

Factfile

Flight Time: 3hrs from London. Time Difference: GMT and GMT + 1hr during summer time.

Currency: Dirham, which cannot be exported and can only be exchanged in Morocco.

Language: Arabic with some Berber. English is widely spoken in tourist areas.

Red Tape: No visa or vaccinations required.

Useful contact:
Moroccan National Tourist Office:
020-7437 0073
www.visitmorocco.com

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