In much of Morocco, which is so different from sub-Saharan Africa, time has stood still since the middle ages. This is one of the country’s enormous attractions but the reasons for visiting Morocco are legion: ancient cities, mountains, beaches, oases, fortified villages, a quite different cuisine and culture, the edges of the great Sahara and plenty to do for all tastes. There is an excellent variation in places to stay, ranging from Berber khaimas in the desert to small and highly personal riads; from maisons d’hôte to boutique and luxury hotels.
Morocco’s history is laced with the ebb and flow of centuries of complex and subtle cultural change. Today the country is predominantly Islamic and Arab influence, steadily increasing since the 7th century, is only linked to the original – yet still very evident – Berber culture by Islam. The great cities of Marrakech and Fes are unmissable although Rabat is the capital and Casablanca the modern trading centre. Marrakech, close to the glorious High Atlas and yet only a couple of hours from the sea, is a magical mix of ancient and modern where the eye is always drawn to the central minaret of Koutoubia. The vibrant, seething, circus of the main square, Djemaa el Fna, is as much a focus as Marrakech’s vast medina.
One can stay in a riad (a converted urban house), whilst the Mamounia has to be one of the best known of the local hotels. Fes el-Bali is a complete time reversal and a total overload of the senses! Entering Fes’s medina, squeezing back to make way for donkeys and scurrying boys, the 21st century immediately succumbs to the middle ages. It is an assault: the smell of mint and the overpowering stench of the tanneries compete with the sights of the multitude of goods on sale and the press of humanity. In the middle of mayhem there will be a corner of sudden peace in this unforgettable rabbit warren of commerce and daily life. The Royal Palace and the Mellah are also well worth a visit and there is also a very interesting festival of music in Fes each June.
Morocco is a country of geographical variation. The northern, fertile, plains are punctuated by first the Rif Mountains and then the varying stages of the Atlas, which peak in the often snow covered High Atlas. The mountains separate the north from the semi-arid south east and the Sahara. The High Atlas offer superb walking and riding as well as skiing from December to March. There are quite extensive river systems, too, with the best known being the serpentine fertility of the valley of the Dades, with its fortified Kasbahs, and the stunning canyons of the Draa – the country of the dates. For “beach” El Jadida, Essaouira and Oualidia are all excellent and there is superb birding on the Atlantic coast, especially in autumn as most migratory species take the coastal route back to southern Africa. (In spring many birds fly the shorter, riskier, route over the Sahara as the breeding season beckons).
This brings us to one of the highlights of Morocco: the desert. Whilst this is only the very edge of the Sahara, it is fabulous to make a camel journey out into the sand and rock and spend a few nights in Berber tents. En route one might visit the high dunes at Merzouga but, whichever route is chosen, the immense, harsh, hissing, emptiness of the desert will add to the sensory experiences of this fascinating country of colour.