Planning a holiday to Morocco

Spices, (photo by Ming Tang-Evans)
Spices

Morocco is one of the world’s most exotic destinations, yet it lies right at Europe’s doorstep, a mere 14km south of Spain. It is a country of extravagant architecture and labyrinthine walled cities; of markets filled with dazzling tribal crafts and works of delicate beauty; of windsurfers on the wild beaches of the Atlantic coast; and hikers amid the almond blossom and waterfalls of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.

When to go to Morocco

September is one of the best months of the year to visit the coastal resorts and the north, characterised by warm, dry days. The inland cities such as Marrakech, Fez and Meknes are starting to cool down after the ferocious summer heat, though bear in mind it can still be very hot. If you’re planning ahead, winter is the time to explore the deep south – Marrakech, Ouarzazate and the oases and desert beyond.

September is also the time of some fantastic festivals in Morocco, from the world-famous Imilchil Marriage Festival (more on that later in the month) to the National Fantasia Festival in Meknes, a breathtaking display of horsemanship.

Where to go in Morocco

Intricate medinas, unspoiled natural beauty, mysterious desert kasbahs, and endlessly fascinating souks – Morocco needs to be enjoyed at a slow pace. It would be impossible to see all that the country has to offer in a single trip, so it pays to be selective.

Topping the list for most first-time visitors are the four magnificent imperial cities – Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Marrakech. The independent traveller can reach them all by train or bus, but if you plan to explore south of Marrakech, a hire car is useful.

The most northern point of arrival, and the port of entry for people taking the ferry from Spain or Gibraltar, is Tangier.

For a frenetic taste of Africa-meets-Arabia, try Marrakech

Marrakech is the gateway to the desert, the capital of the Great South, the meeting and market­place of African, Berber and Arab Morocco and a city of throbbing intensity. The city’s red pisé (dried mud) walls rise from the red earth, glowing in the late afternoon sun (giving Marrakech its epithet, ‘the Red City’); the vast souks are filled with exotic wares; the drums of the Jemaa el Fna, the central square, summon crowds to a daily circus of performers. Yet visitors can also find peaceful gardens and olive groves stretching to the snow-capped Atlas Mountain peaks in the distance.

Don’t miss the Jemaa el Fna

Jemaa el Fna (the Assembly of the Dead) is one of the world’s most exciting city squares. This name hardly seems appropriate for the endless pageant of activity that unfolds here. Activity starts early, around 9am, when orange juice vendors set up their stalls. Soon after appear colourful water sellers, along with snake charmers, dancing monkeys and potion sellers. In the late afternoon the arena in front of the juice stalls becomes busy with storytellers reciting old Arab tales, Gnaoua musicians singing their trance-like songs and acrobats building human pyramids. After the sun goes down, the atmosphere becomes ever more frenzied, with more performers, larger crowds, a cacophony of noises and music, transvestite belly dancers, passionate storytellers and comic acts; all caught up in the swirling smoke and scents of hundreds of stalls selling excellent street food that ranges from kebabs to a soup of snails.

For a treasure trove of Islamic architecture, head to Fez

For the casual visitor, Fez – Morocco’s second-largest city – is mysterious, exotic and, for all the warmth of the people, a hidden place. For many years, the future of the medina hung in the balance – the once-great palaces crumbled and fell and the medina became tattered and worn. In 1981 Unesco named it a World Heritage Site, and in recent years both money and tourists have come flooding in. Much as in Marrakech, there has also been a boom in foreigners buying old riads and restoring them to their former glory; but, as the soul of spiritual, intellectual and cultural Morocco for over 1,000 years, it also is more serious and aloof than Marrakech.

Don’t miss the Madrassa Bou Inania

One of the most famous sights in Fez is the much-photographed Madrassa Bou Inania, an exuberant example of a Merinid monument, restored in the 20th century. Madrassas used to play an important role in Morocco, and some of the most beautiful are in Fez. Essentially urban, these buildings were used as lodging houses for students who were strangers to the town, the idea being that segregation from the wider community would help them concentrate on their religious studies.

The building follows the usual layout, but the quality and intricacy of the decoration are unmissable. The courtyard facade is decorated with carved stucco, above which majestic cedar-wood arches support a frieze and corbelled porch. The examples of cedar-wood carving, stucco work, Kufic script writing and zellige work are outstanding. It is one of Morocco’s few buildings in religious use that can be entered by non-Muslims.

 

Find out more about Morocco 

 


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