Destination: Morocco

Jun 6th, 2013 Africa, Destinations

Awash in color, sound, fragrance and energy, Morocco is a feast for the senses. Rich landscapes of mountains, desert and coastline are threaded with mosques, souks, kasbahs and medinas woven with Berber, Arabic and European influence and intrigue. Travel along as we unearth the glimmering stones of this brilliant cultural mosaic.

Moroccan Bazaars – Exchanges of Eternal Energy

Port Louis

One of the most fascinating elements of Moroccan culture are the souks—traditional outdoor marketplaces packed with merchants, people and goods. An ancient part of Morocco’s history, they continue to thrive in every city and town. Closed to vehicle traffic, souks are made for walking so it’s easy to see all the wares on display and wander at your own pace among the hundreds of shops and stalls. Souks are grouped according to specialty—food, woodwork, metalwork, leather goods, pottery, perfume, soap, fabric, tailoring, clothing and more. Certain cities also specialize in certain crafts such as leather in Fez and silver in Tiznit and Taroudannt. You can find virtually anything in a souk, except perhaps the way out. Getting lost in the labyrinthine souks of Fez and Marrakesh (the country’s largest), is part of the adventure. Bargaining is a way of life here, so expect to haggle for anything you buy.

Riads & Kasbahs – Traditional Places to Stay

The Vanilla Islands

From desert camps to sumptuous palaces, you can live like a Berber (indigenous local) or a sultan (Islamic ruler). For a glimpse of the real Morocco, stay at a riad—a traditional Moroccan house. Marrakesh has hundreds to choose from and Fez is not far behind. Riads are usually small (six rooms or less), clean and loaded with charm. As protection from the intense heat and to ensure family privacy, riads were designed to be inward-focused with front gates, central courtyards and interior gardens. Some of the grander riads feature large opulent rooms, splendid architecture and small plunge pools that reveal the former owner’s success. Similar to B&Bs, most breakfasts are included in the cost and are communal, served on inner patios or rooftop terraces.

Adventurers can try staying in a kasbah—a walled Islamic city or fortress forged out of mud clay. In the past, the Berbers built hundreds of these fortified tribal villages to protect themselves from invaders. Ramparts, parapets, towers and ancient wall carvings create scenes from a Berber fairytale. You can stay in one like Kasbah Tebi along the former Saharan caravan route east of Marrakesh. Upheld by the Aït Ougram family for 300 years, this 11th-century renovated jewel still operates without electricity, so you’re guaranteed to have an authentic Moroccan dinner by candlelight. The family’s wizened donkey will transport your bags across the river.

Chefchaouen – Moroccan Mountain Treasure

The Vanilla Islands

Tucked in a fold against the dramatic Rif Mountain peaks south of Tangier, the quintessential town of Chefchaouen embodies Morocco’s enchanting allure. Spanish-Andalusian exiles fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest (1095–1492) founded this mountain village in 1471. Its remote location made it a perfect haven and stronghold against invasions. Chefchaouen proudly served as a bastion of tradition and Islam, prohibiting non-Muslims from entry until 1920. Fortunately, anyone can now wander freely past the attractive whitewashed Andalusian-style homes, with their large carved doors and wrought-iron balconies. Topped with red tile roofs and accented with powder blue-tinged walls, the dazzling white medina (old city quarter) sets the stage for visitors to amble narrow alleys and shop for locally made wool clothes, woven blankets, goat cheese and olives. Take a seat at a café on Place Outa al-Hammam—the tree-lined heart of town—and watch people pass as you breathe in fresh mountain air and hear prayer calls emanating from local mosques. If you want to stay over, consider renting an apartment in a fastidiously rebuilt traditional house like Dar el Moualim.

Fez – The Elegant Cultural Crown

Port Louis

Morocco’s oldest imperial city got its start in the 9th century and rose to greatness in the 13th and 14th centuries as the capital of the Marinid kingdom (1269–1420). Today, Fez still stands as the country’s cultural center. Behind this city’s marvelous tiled gates lies an exquisite medieval marvel of labyrinthine streets, hidden souks, madrassas (Koranic schools), tombs and palaces decorated with bronze works, columns and courtyards. Islamic architectural treasures like the Bou Inania Madrasa feature splendid pieces of calligraphic art, marble, alabaster, glass, wood and onyx. As the largest medieval city in the world, the massive Fez al-Bali medina (old quarter) is a pulsing beehive of intrigue and commerce, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wandering through the maze of narrow streets is part of the Fez experience. In addition to traditional carpets, yarns and precious metals, you’ll also find stockpiles of leather—the country’s main export. The ancient art of leather tanning and dyeing are a specialty in Fez. Of the city’s 58 tanneries, three are located in the old medina. Still in operation, the 1,000-year-old Chouara Tannery is the largest and is well worth a visit.

If you haven’t booked a local riad, opt for an oasis like the Palais Amani. This exquisite riad invites guests and non-guests to dine in its lovely garden-courtyard restaurant, or take in views of Fez from the rooftop bar. If time allows, seek out Kassr Annoujoum. Out of the pages of 1001 Arabian Nights, this 19th-century residential marvel was built by an aristocratic family and exquisitely renovated by the Italian Ducci Foundation, which promotes cultural exchange. It is now hosts culinary sessions, concerts, art exhibits and more. Inquire via email in advance to get a peek inside this hidden wonder.

Marrakesh – Finding Tranquil Trails in Morocco’s Vibrant Rose

Port Louis

Coined the “Red City” for its carpet of pink-hued sandstone buildings that sweep across the dry terrain, Marrakesh has bewitched legions of philosophers, scholars, holy men, artists, merchants and kings throughout the centuries. From its roots as an oasis for nomadic Berbers (indigenous locals), the city has witnessed the rise and fall of empires since the 11th century. Positioned on former caravan crossroads in the center of the country, Marrakesh proudly retains its Islamic heritage, but also showcases Berber, Andalusian and French influences. Palaces, mosques, tombs, museums, a madrassa and the rail station all display splendid architecture, while the ancient medina (old Arab quarter) and Djamaa el Fna—the city’s emblematic central square—are great spots to soak people-watch.

Port Louis

Marrakesh can easily overwhelm the senses, but there are many ways to you take respite from its exotic energy. Wander in peaceful gardens like those at the Koutoubia mosque or Jardin Majorelle, the cactus gardens that inspired Yves Saint Laurent and his design artistry (he later purchased Jardin Majorelle as a residence and studio). Have a cool drink or a spa treatment at the landmark La Mamounia hotel or Beldi Country Club. The soothing alcoves and terraces of Dar Cherifa—a literary café and art gallery in a restored riad in the northern medina—provide an aesthetically pleasing background for lunch or a late-night snack. To enjoy the open vistas, play a round on immaculate greens amongst the palms at the new Assoufid Golf Club, or have lunch under the shady pines at the lovely Royal Golf Club—both feature superb views of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.

Meknes – Imperial Beauty

Eureka Creole Mansion

As former capitals of Moroccan dynasties, the Imperial Cities (Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat) all deserve a visit. Positioned between Rabat (the new capital) and Fez (the oldest) in northern Morocco, Meknes reigns as the quieter beauty. Often called the “Versailles of Morocco,” it is the imperial masterpiece of the Alaouite dynasty (1631–present), founded by Sultan Moulay Ismail (reigned 1672–1727), one of Morocco’s most ruthless rulers. Ringed by 25 miles of defensive walls and monumental entry gates, the old city center features a Spanish-Moorish architectural style with a blend of European and Islamic culture. Less traveled than the other Imperial Cities, Meknes is also less crowded and more affordable than the others. You can shop in the souks of the medina (old Arab quarter), which issmaller and less chaotic than its counterpart in Fez. Look for iron-forged articles (a local specialty), household goods, jewelry, traditional Moroccan rugs, bilgha (pointed slippers also called babouches) and more.

From the medina, head to the city’s former royal quarters to see the vestiges of its 17th-century glory. This complex includes several mosques, the amazing Royal Stables that housed 12,000 of the sultan’s prized horses, granaries large enough to store their feed for 20 years, a perfume distillery and Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum—an opulent creation of fountains, courtyards, intricate tilework and fine adornment. To recharge from sightseeing, escape to the Meknes Royal Golf Club. Entirely surrounded by palace walls, the course blossoms with flowers and apricot, olive, mandarin, orange, palm and plum trees. Book ahead to eat on the café terrace and contemplate your next adventure. The splendid Roman ruins of Volubilis (Oualili) lie just 18 miles away. Containing 30 original mosaics, this spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list is worth the drive.

Marrakesh to M’Hamid – Where the Paved Road Ends

Hell-Bourg

The palm grove of M’Hamid is the gateway to the Erg Chegaga dunes in southeastern Morocco. Located on the edge of the Sahara desert, M’Hamid is a small, conservative settlement. Its main attraction is its proximity to the Saharan dunes, which are approx. 24 miles away. Tour companies and most hotels organize sunrise, sunset and overnight camel trips of the area, along with walking, 4-wheel drive (4×4) and quad bike excursions. Ride a camel or 4×4 to a tented desert camp, where guides will attend to meals, activities and evening Berber music under the stars. Lie in vast silence among the dunes observing immense night skies or venture out on foot to witness the incredible sunset and look for desert foxes and a variety of birds.

If you go overland to M’Hamid from Marrakesh (7–8 hours by car), plan for a minimum three-night excursion to see sights like the dramatic Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass along the way. Make a stop at the ancient kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, a remarkable group of earthen dwellings built on a hillside within a defensive wall. This fantastic fortress served as the setting for movies like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth. Nearby film studios in Ouarzazate often use the site as a stand-in for ancient Jerusalem.

Essaouira – Traditional Morocco Flavored with Sand & Sea

Port Louis

Europeans flock to Morocco for sun, sea and a dose of exotic culture. From Tangier in the north, you can easily hop over to the warmer Mediterranean waters, while the storied playgrounds of Agadir and Casablanca offer an urban-beach combination on the Atlantic side. For something more traditional, try the smaller enclave of Essaouira, just 2 1/2 hours west of Marrakesh. Although it has recently become a kite-surfing mecca, it hasn’t lost its laid-back, authentic ambience. First established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this historic town has always attracted artists, including such luminaries as Orson Welles, who filmed Othello here. Wander through Essaouira’s art galleries, shops and jewelry souks, and look for thuya wood handicrafts—a centuries-old local specialty. Stroll on the medina’s cobbled streets past synagogues, mosques and stone ramparts left over from its past as the principal port of the caravan routes. Bask in the late-afternoon glow of the ancient, whitewashed medina walls that form the backdrop of the lively fishing port, or slip through a medina passageway onto Essaouira’s sweeping beach for a glowing sunset.

Port Louis

You can stay at a riad in town or get off the beaten path in nearby Berber villages. Just 15 minutes south, the quiet coastal village of Sidi Kaouki is home to fishermen and shepherds. The temperate microclimate and a vast, unspoiled beach make this a perfect place to relax. Check into Le Douar Des Arganiers, a tranquil eco-riad crafted entirely from traditional Moroccan materials. In addition to providing excellent meals and welcoming hospitality, your hosts can direct you to local treats and organize beach horseback outings, souk explorations or a visit to the nearby women’s cooperative that makes Moroccan argan oil.


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Travel Tips: Morocco

Morocco’s exuberant energy never seems to wane, nor does our zest for this fascinating country. Here, we’ve compiled some tips to help you navigate the souks and medinas, bargain like a local, celebrate the festivals, eat all the specialties and get a good night’s sleep.

How to Dress for the Climate

Morocco’s Mediterranean climate is generally hot and dry throughout the year. You’ll find cooler temperatures and some rainfall during the winter (November to March), but unless you’re in the mountains or desert, where temperatures can fall to freezing, a sweater or light jacket will suffice. Daytime winter temperatures in Marrakesh can hover in the 70s and feel warmer in the sun. Hotter temperatures start in April and climb to triple digits in July and August in the inland and desert areas.

To respect Islamic culture, women should dress conservatively and avoid shorts, low-cut tops and bare midriffs. Shirts with three-quarter sleeves, long skirts and pants are appropriate. If you go on a desert camp overnight trip, pack a jacket for chilly nights and a flashlight. Sandals and Tevas® are great for the coast and beach, but wear closed-toe shoes in busy, cluttered Moroccan streets and medinas (to keep toes safe in crowds). Trekking shoes or sneakers are perfect for desert, mountain and kasbah (fortress) forays.

Food & Water

At the crossroads of many civilizations, Morocco boasts a delicious blend of ancient Berber cuisine and exotic international flavors. The staple food is couscous, mixed with vegetables and meat or served with tajine—a slow-cooked Berber stew of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables blended with anything from raisins and dates to an immense variety of spices. Locals often begin a meal with harira, a lentil and tomato soup seasoned with herbs and spices. Bissara refers to both a fava bean dip and a thick split pea soup—topped with olive oil, the latter is the traditional Moroccan breakfast. Fruit, herbs and spices used in Moroccan cuisine are often grown locally. While you’re there, be sure to try the Arabic coffee and Moroccan sweets. Berber mint tea is by far the most celebrated tradition. An ancient hospitality custom, it’s offered everywhere, from business transactions to the most modest households.

Avoid tap water and stick to bottled water—many hotels provide it to their guests. Be wary of ice unless you know it’s been made with purified water.

Shopping

Morocco is a shopper’s paradise. Shops and souks—the biggest are in Fez and Marrakesh—are stacked with goods of all varieties. Look for the following products if you want to bring home a piece of Morocco:

  • Argan oil: Sourced from the native Argan fruit tree, this oil comes in cooking form and in products like soap and cosmetics.
  • Birad: Classic Moroccan teapots to brew mint tea.
  • Carpets: Urban styles (made in and around Rabat and also found in Fez) feature thick weaves, fine geometric designs and intricate borders. The typically thinner Berber rugs (found throughout Morocco) that are crafted by indigenous people showcase unique tribal or regional designs.
  • Henna dye: Locals use it for elaborate designs on women’s hands and feet at wedding ceremonies. Fez has a henna souk with an incredible variety of colors.
  • Inlaid wood: You’ll find lovely carved-wood products everywhere, from souvenirs to furniture. In Essaouira it’s a specialty.
  • Leather: As Morocco’s main export, leather goods are abundant in most places, but Fez is the place to buy them. Look for leather jackets, handbags and babouche (traditional Moroccan slippers). You can also custom-order most items.
  • Pottery: The distinctive, traditional blue-and-white dishes of Fez make perfect souvenirs.
  • Silver: Tiznit in southern Morocco is known for silversmithing, and produces everything from jewelry to richly engraved sword and dagger cases. You can also find these items throughout Morocco.
  • Spices & Tea: Popular Moroccan ingredients like ginger, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cinnamon and saffron are just a few of the amazing spices you’ll find here. Buy some Berber mint tea to sip at home—it will bring back great memories.
  • Tajine: Traditional clay or ceramic cookware used to make and serve tajine stew.

Bargaining

Haggling is a way of life in Morocco. To get an idea of what things are worth, visit a fixed-price department store or official government artisan shop before you hit the souks. As a rule, don’t ask for the price of an item unless you really want to buy it. Ignore initial prices and never start bidding with the price you’re ready to pay. Never offer a price you aren’t willing or able to pay. Unless you’re given an astronomical price, start with half of it—or up to three-quarters for big-ticket items—and negotiate from there. Keep your cool and have patience to get a price you think is fair. Don’t be afraid to say “no” (“La,” in Arabic; “Non” in French—the ‘n’ is silent).

Lost in the Medinas

The ancient Arab quarter in a North African city is called a medina. Typically walled, medinas usually feature a seemingly endless labyrinth of narrow lanes, twists, turns, souks and plazas that are part of Morocco’s mystique. Getting lost in the medinas of Marrakesh and Fez is par for the course—they even confuse travelers with a great sense of direction. Some tips to help:

  • Get a business card from your hotel or riad; or ask the staff to write the address in Arabic and French.
  • Navigate by sight—identify landmarks or photograph them to use as guideposts since street signs aren’t the norm.
  • Pick a main tourist site and learn how to get to/from it from it from your hotel.
  • Hire a licensed guide to lead you to the highlights; ask your hotel for recommendations.
  • Ask one of the merchants manning the stalls for directions. Otherwise, you may find one of the locals trying to act as your guide.
  • Pay a local to lead you out (plenty will ask to do so), but do not give more than 10–20 Moroccan dirhams (approx. $1.18 to $2.35 U.S.).

Brush Up on Your Language Skills

The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber. Businesses and government use French, as do many locals. You can get by with English and Spanish in tourist centers, but locals who aren’t trying to guide you or sell you something speak limited English. Get a phrasebook and try to learn some basic phrases in French or Arabic. Numbers and prices are helpful for bargaining if you plan to shop. A firm “La, shukran” (Arabic for “no thank you”) or “Non, merci” (in French) will help with the myriad of faux guides who offer their services.

Places to Stay

There are literally thousands of great places to stay in Morocco. If you’re not interested in the standard hotels and resorts that range from top-end luxury to moderately priced chains like Ibis, you can find something more traditional:

  • Auberge: Small, rustic inns located in rural towns, sometimes built of mud, many with wood-burning fireplaces and roof terraces. These are often family-run.
  • Bedouin Tent: Shelters of the nomadic Berbers. You can stay in one when you book an overnight camel trip or 4-wheel drive trip to a desert camp in the Sahara.
  • Homestay: Spend a few nights in the home of a Berber family to fully experience the culture of the Atlas Mountains.
  • Kasbah: A traditional Berber fortress or fortified village; some have been transformed into overnight accommodations.
  • Riad: Traditional Moroccan houses that have been renovated and converted to guesthouses. These range from basic to luxury—some are former palaces and merchant homes.
  • Villas: You can rent these private, stunning places all for yourself or your own group.

The Moussems

Similar to a spiritual festival, moussems are traditionally celebrated among the Berbers to pay homage to local saints. Often accompanied by food and goods for sale, moussems may also celebrate the changing seasons, harvests, culture or tradition. Try to time your trip around one of the following mousseums to catch a piece of Morocco’s fascinating heritage.

When What Where
Jan (2014) Sidi Abdallah ibn Hassoun (wax candle & lantern procession for patron saint) Salé, Rabat
Late Feb. to March Almond Blossom Festival (almond harvest) near Tafraoute
March to April Nomad Festival (nomadic culture) M’Hamid
March to April Marathon des Sables (desert foot race) Ouarzazate
April Ben Aissa (founder of Aissoua Sufi brotherhood) Meknes
May Festival du Desert (music & dance) Merzouga, Rissani Rachidida
Late May Rose Festival (Damask rose harvest) Dadès Valley (near Ouarzazate)
June Gnaoua Music Festival Essaouira
July Marrakesh Popular Arts Festival Marrakesh
July Camel Market Goulmime
August Honey Festival Imouzzer (near Agadir)
Late September Imilchil Bridal Festival Imilchil
October Date Festival (date harvest, dance, music) Erfoud
* Exact dates will shift due to the changing Islamic lunar calendar

Ready to Go?

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