Fascinating cities, diverse architecture and cool coastal resorts
If the physical environment of Morocco has more than its fair share of beauty and drama, the built environment is equally entrancing and diverse. Some towns have a local colour: Marrakech is known as the red city (well, it’s more ochre, really); Chefchaouen is blue. The past is written on the peaks and valleys of the Atlas Mountains in the form of abandoned earth-coloured kasbahs or fortified palaces; it’s very much present in the green-tiled roofs and intricate multicoloured mosaic tiling of medieval Fès.
The restoration drive, now spreading throughout the country, is responsible for some of Morocco’s loveliest hotels, combining traditional aesthetics, artisanship and materials with modern comforts, as well as ensuring the future of historical monuments. Visiting the country and don’t know where to start? Try these…
Almeln Valley and Tafroute
Trekkers in the Anti Atlas have known for decades about the relaxed, high-altitude rural idyll of Tafroute, as well as the landscape that surrounds the town (cloud-capped peaks, deep valleys and gorges). The Almeln Valley is dotted with tiny, thriving villages, but Tafroute is something special, with its spectacular surroundings making it seem cosier and more welcoming than your average Moroccan town. The region is renowned for its almond harvests, which find their way into delicious couscous and tagine dishes.
Today one of Morocco’s cosiest and charming coastal resorts, Asilah nonetheless possesses a swashbuckling history of Barbary pirates, Riffian rebels and battles on its 15th-century ramparts. The smart and busy Zallaka in the Ville Nouvelle is a hub of decent restaurants and seafront avenues, but you can still get a taste of the romantic past by walking through the Bab Bhar gate into the town’s incredibly well-preserved Medina.
Preconceptions of the coastal city of Casablanca are often wrong. Glamorous visions of Humphrey Bogart and intrigue in the kasbah bear little relation to this thoroughly modern metropolis. In many ways Casa, as everyone calls it, is more Marseille than Maghreb. This is the country’s economic powerhouse; the principal port, centre of finance, industry, commerce, media and manufacturing. Detailed town planning and other large infrastructure projects by the French in the early 20th century have shaped the modern city. The resulting economic and property boom left a legacy of myriad 20th-century architectural styles, particularly art deco and its colonial spin-off, Mauresque. There are deco gems everywhere, not all of them well preserved. In Casablanca today, residential boulevards that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills, along with chic French restaurants and beach clubs, play host to Morocco’s wealthiest and most Westernised people. And while the city’s seafront is dominated by the immensity of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is also home to North Africa’s largest Jewish population, consisting mainly of well-off, middle-class Moroccans.
Folded high in the inaccessible crags of the Rif Mountains, this remote hideaway has a bewitching, storybook atmosphere to match its fairytale history as a retreat for rebels and European adventurers. Its ancient crafts and diverse heritage have been perfectly preserved, along with its stone-walled streets and impressive Spanish mosque and Kasbah.
The Dadés Valley runs between the High Atlas mountains to the north and the Jebel Sarho to the south. Sometimes called ‘the Valley of the Kasbahs’, dozens of fortress-cities litter the route as a reminder of the civilisation that once flourished here. It’s the most barren of the southern valleys, which makes palm-strewn oases like Skoura all the more beautiful, and dramatic, twisting gorges like Dadés and Todra all the more spectacular.
For many travellers, the city of Fès still represents the ‘real Morocco’: a medieval, labyrinthine Medina, distinctive Arabesque architecture, providing a total assault on the senses. Developed from the ninth century, the city became a major centre of religion, culture and learning at a time when the Islamic world led intellectually. Its monuments reflect this status, with numerous merdersas (religious schools) alongside historic mosques. Fès may be an extraordinary monument to the past, but it’s also a living and working city. About 200,000 Fassi still live within the walls of the medieval Medina area of Fès El-Bali. Many of them work here too, in commerce or trades eschewing modern production methods, producing outstanding decorative arts. To explore this warren of narrow passages, teeming souks, huddled housing, archaic industry and venerable mosques is to find oneself in a space where elements of the Middle Ages never came to an end.
Founded at the confluence of ancient trade routes, Marrakech has always been rooted in the twin activities of hospitality and trade. In its booming 21st-century incarnation, that means two things: chilling out and shopping. Head to the fantastical central square, Jemaa El Fna, for a nightly carnival of local life; the north medina for a thriving network of souks and hagglers; and the south medina for the Jewish quarter and the glittering remains of the sultan’s palaces.
This desert town is primarily known for its on-screen exploits; Lawrence of Arabia, the Asterix movie and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were all filmed here. The town is inhabited mainly by Berbers, who built many of the kasbahs characteristic of the area. Venture out of the town into the biblical landscape of the Draa Valley, however, and you find Morocco in the raw, just a hop, skip and a sand buggy away from the Sahara Desert.
Rabat & Salé
When it comes to the successful rebranding of a city, look no further than Morocco’s capital, Rabat, and Salé, its sister city across the river. Once a breakaway republic, nest of piracy and hub of the trade in white slaves, today the twin cities are models of law and order – host to foreign embassies, the Moroccan monarchy and the machinery of government.
Rabat was once a medieval imperial city, and vestiges of this illustrious past remain in the form of city walls and imposing gates built by Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour in the late 12th century. Today, while Rabat is the seat of government, in national life it takes a back seat to the economic powerhouse of Casablanca. The city’s focus on government and away from tourism means visitors to the area can enjoy the sights in a pleasantly low-key fashion: the picturesque kasbah overlooking the Atlantic, the core of the medieval city, and the peaceful beauty of the walled Chellah. In 2009 the city gained the country’s first tram system, linking Rabat and Salé.
This city has changed hands more times than it cares to remember, and African and European sensibilities battle with each other in its jumble of architecture, ancient alleyways and mixture of coastline and Kasbah. The Grande Mosquée and little cafés in the Petit Socco sedately remain, much as they did at the early part of the last century, but a visit to the terrace of the port-side Gran Café de Paris on Place de France, and one coffee and pastry’s worth of people-watching, leaves you in no doubt that this is a city still very much at the hub of human movement.
Need to know
Getting there Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca from Dhs3,700 return (www.emirates.com). From there, it’s a 40-minute flight to Menara Airport in Marrakech on Royal Air Maroc, with prices from Dhs400 (www.royalairmaroc.com).
Where to stay Hotel Les Amandiers Located in Almeln Valley and Tafroute, this cosy guesthouse, with traditional European decor and full tea sets at breakfast, offers 25 rooms from Dhs311 per night. www.hotel-lesamandiers.com (+212 28 80 00 08) Hôtel Transatlantique In the Casablanca area, this magnificent corner building offers basic, clean self-catering accommodation with high ceilings, a garden and nightclub. Rooms start at Dhs200 a night. (+212 22 29 45 51)
Les Jardins de Skoura In the heart of Dadés Valley, out in the wilderness, this beautiful guesthouse with pool has hammocks in the garden and a wonderful view from the roof across the valley. Rooms start from Dhs336 a night. www.lesjardinsdeskoura.com (+212 24 85 23 24)
Where to eat Try to book a table at Casa Aladin in Chefchaouen, which offers a well-executed traditional Moroccan dish of rich, sticky tagine and couscous. Enjoy it in a highly romantic atmosphere. 26 rue Targui, Chefchaouen (+212 39 98 90 17)
Casa Garcia, on the coast in Asilah, is a small, genuinely beguiling, family-friendly restaurant with a large outdoor terrace that knows a lot about the town’s speciality food: fish. The stuffed fish with potatoes and seafood sauce is divine. 51 Avenue Moulay Hassan ben Mehdi, Asilah (+212 39 41 74 65)
Travel facts • Morocco has more than 33 million inhabitants. • Humans have lived in the country for more than 8,000 years. • The indigenous people are called Berbers. • Spanish, French, Arabic and Darja are all commonly spoken in the region. • Morocco regained its independence from France and Spain in 1956.