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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Morocco.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Morocco.
Dawn is tinting the Atlas Mountains rust-red as the rose-pickers of Hdida set out for work. Dressed in flip-flops and jellabas, they follow a dusty path down to the fields, and before too long are lost in foliage. Fruit trees teeter over the trail, laden with figs, dates and oranges. Barley and alfalfa sprout from the orange earth, watered by channels beside the path. Pomegranates dangle from overhanging branches. But the women aren’t here to pick fruit; they’re here to harvest something more fragrant.
“Can you smell them?” asks Ait Khouya Aicha, as she pads into a meadow fringed by walnut trees, and heads for a tangle of shrubs. She pulls down a branch: it’s covered by flowers from trunk to tip, shocking pink against the deep-green leaves.
“These are the roses of the Asif M’Goun River,” she says, cradling a blossom in her hand. “They are famous around the world. But to understand why, you must smell them.” Pulling on thick gloves, she snips off the flower and breathes in the scent. The perfume is heady and sweet, with notes of honey and treacle.
“The fragrance is best in the morning, but we must work quickly,” she says, dropping the flower into a robe gathered around her waist known as a tachtate. “The sun will burn the petals, and then the perfume will be ruined.”
Within half an hour, Aicha and her companions have stripped the bushes of blossoms and four sacks have been filled to the brim. They head back to the village, sharing round a bag of dates and nuts for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they arrive at a backstreet garage that doubles as the village’s rose co-operative, where owner Ahmid Mansouri inspects the blossoms, weighs them on battered scales, and adds them to a heap covering the concrete floor. “These are good roses,” he says, puffing on a crooked roll-up. “But last week we were harvesting twice as many. Next week they will be gone. And that means one thing. It is time for the Festival of the Roses to begin.” No-one is sure how roses first came to this remote corner of Morocco, high in the Atlas Mountains, six hours’ drive southeast of Marrakesh.
According to legend, they were carried here centuries ago by a Berber merchant from Damascus; the species that grows here is Rosa damascene, the Damask rose, which originates from ancient Syria and has been celebrated for centuries for its intense perfume. However they arrived, the M’Goun Valley — or the Vallee des Roses, as it’s known in Morocco — has become famous for its flowers. Every year during the main growing season between April and mid-May, the valley produces between 3,000 and 4,000 tonnes of wild roses. They’re everywhere: sprouting up from the hedgerows, blooming along stone walls, tangling the borders between farmers’ fields. Each day before dawn, women gather the roses by hand, and sell them to co-operatives dotted along the valley. Some are bought by local distilleries to make rose water, soaps and pot-pourri, but the majority are bought by big French perfume houses, for whom the M’Goun roses command a special cachet. It’s an intensive – and expensive — business: around four tonnes of fresh petals, or 1.6 million flowers, are required to make a single litre of rose oil, and with each litre fetching around 12,000 euros, the rewards are obvious. But with intense competition from other rose-growing areas, especially in Turkey and Bulgaria, the M’Goun. Valley needs to find ways to catch the noses of overseas buyers — and that’s where the Festival des Roses comes in.
Just when the British winter seems to be dragging on, late February and early March in Morocco see the Atlas Mountains surrounding Marrakesh thaw, and almond and cherry trees burst into blossom. With a flight time from the UK of less than four hours and a jacket-shedding temperature of around 22°C, Marrakesh makes the perfect shorthaul break in which to grab a blast of sunshine and a glimmer of the exotic.
The riad-style hotel is hidden down a winding derb (alleyway) in the un-touristy neighbourhood of the Kasbah, where the former royal stables once stood. Just a 15-minute walk from the action-packed main square, Djemaa El-Fna, from its rooftop there are sublime views of the High Atlas Mountains, the peaks pastel blue and mauve in the distance.
To exhale deeply in quiet surrounds. The riad’s design was inspired by Baudelaire’s love poem L’Invitation au Voyage, where he dreams of an exotic escape. Its closing line, “luxury, calm and pleasure” is certainly a theme here, and after a day haggling in the kaleidoscopic souqs, Almaha’s white arcaded courtyard, turquoise pool and sense of space and solitude are the perfect antidote.
The 12 individually styled rooms and suites are so big they’d match the footprint of many London flats. King-sized beds are backed by intricate stucco feature walls, and star-cut lanterns create dancing shadows over draped curtains. The grandeur continues in the bathrooms, where there are marble his and hers sinks, deep soaking tubs and rain showers, the air infused with the scent of orange blossom and jasmine.
All meals can be taken on the roof terrace, which is the perfect place to plot the day’s adventures. Breakfast is a treat, with homemade pancakes, fresh orange juice, fruit and yoghurt. Just a short walk away, you’ll find Kosybar on the edge of the Jewish quarter. Head to the roof for sundowners and sushi while looking over the red walls of 16th-century El Badi Palace.
The hotel staff don’t speak very good English, so it will help if you can speak French. Though polite and friendly they are somewhat reserved; if you need something don’t hesitate to ask.
Doubles start at £270 per night including breakfast, afternoon tea and pastries, and return transfers from the airport.
With a prayer hall that can accommodate 25,000 people, the Mosque of Hassan II is the second-largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca. The complex covers 96,840 sq ft (9,000 sq m), with two-thirds of it built over the sea. The minaret, the lighthouse of Islam, is 656 ft (200 m) high, and two laser beams reaching over a distance of 18.5 miles (30 km) shine in the direction of Mecca. The building was designed by Michel Pinseau and it took 35,000 craftsmen to build it. With carved stucco, zellij tile work, a painted cedarwood ceiling and marble, onyx, and travertine cladding, the mosque is a monument to Moroccan architectural virtuosity.
Moulay Hassan succeeded to the throne of Morocco on the death of his father in 1961. A skillful politician, he alternated liberalizing policies with repression. He introduced the country’s first constitution in 1962 and parliamentary elections in 1963, but the road to reform was rocky. When Spain withdrew from the mineral-rich Western Sahara in 1975, Hassan initiated the Green March, in which 350,000 civilians crossed the border to assert Morocco’s claim to the region. Spain agreed to the transfer of power, but Algerian-backed Polisario Front guerrillas began a violent campaign for independence. A ceasefire was agreed to in 1991 Hassan II died in 1999.
The waterfront Mosque of Hassan II is the crowning glory of the king’s reign. Built for his 60th birthday, the mosque was mainly financed by donations from the Moroccan people. Inside, the massive marble-floored prayer hall sparkles in the glow of Venetian chandeliers. Cedarwood from Morocco’s Middle Atlas range has been shaped and carved to form doors and screens and the paneling of 70 cupolas. Even the sliding roof is painted and gilded. The hammam (traditional bathhouse) is below the prayer hall.
Muslims believe in one God (Allah), and their holy book, the Koran, shares many stories and prophets with the Bible. However, Muslims hold that Jesus was just one in a line of prophets, the last being Mohammed, who brought the final revelation of God’s truth to mankind. Muslims believe that Allah communicated the texts of the Koran to Mohammed through the Archangel Gabriel. Muslims pray five times a day, wherever they may be, and the calls to prayer are broadcast from the mosque. Those who visit a mosque to pray remove their shoes and wash their feet, head, and hands outside before entering. Inside, women and men pray in separate areas. When praying, Muslims face Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
In a prayer hall, the direction is indicated by the mihrab (a niche in the wall). Kneeling and lowering the head to the ground are gestures of humility and respect for Allah.
Used throughout the building – on the columns of the prayer hall, doorways, fountains, and stairs – marble is everywhere. It is also sometimes combined with granite and onyx.
The minbar, or pulpit, located at the western end of the prayer hall, is particularly ornate. It is decorated with verses from the Koran.
The vast prayer hall measures 656 ft (200m) by 328 ft (100m). The central part of the roof can be opened to the sky.
Above two mezzanines, and hidden from view, this gallery extends over 57,000 sq ft (5,300 sq m) and can hold up to 5,000 women.
Seen from the exterior, these are double doors in the shape of pointed arches framed by column s. Many are clad in incised bronze.
Its vast size – it is thetall est minaret in the world – and exquisite decoration make this an exceptional building.
These are decorated with zellij tile work and framed with marble arches and columns.
Wooden latticework mashrabiya screenwork at tile windows protects those within from prying eyes.
Stairway to tile Women’s Gallery
The stairway features decorative woodcarving, multiple arches, and marble, granite, and onyx columns, arranged in a harmonious ensemble.
This is decorated with traditional motifs engraved on brass and titanium.
The cedarwood-paneled interior of the dome, over the prayer hall, glistens with carved and painted decoration.
Unusually in Morocco, the Mosque of Hassan II is open to non- Muslims on guided tours. It is Important for both sexes to dress modestly when visiting the mosque. Shoes should be removed, and shoulders and knees covered . Men must take off their hats and women are asked to cover their hair with a headscarf.
1980: King Hassan II declares his intention to build a landmark mosque.
1986: Construction begins on the Mosque of Hassan II.
1993: The mosque is finished, four years after the king’s 60th aniversary.
It is said that in order for a nation to develop a great cuisine, it must have four prerequisites: a rich land from which to draw upon an abundant range of ingredients; a variety of foreign cultural influences; a great civilization; and lastly, a refined palace with royal kitchens to inspire the nation’s cooks. Morocco has it all, and is home to some of the most tantalizing food imaginable. From robust roasts to rich aromatic stews, spiced or sweetened salads to savoury pastries and fragrant mounds of couscous, there is such a wide variety to choose from. One great example of the country’s cuisine is bastilla, an exquisite blend of shredded pigeon and spiced onion sauce with saffron and herbs encased in a flaky, filo-like pastry, topped with cinnamon and sugar – an intricate dish that epitomises everything that is grand and extravagant in Moroccan cooking.
One of the most interesting ways to absorb the delights and diversity of the country’s cuisine is to visit the souks (markets) and where better than Fés, often regarded as Morocco’s culinary capital. To wander through the myriad of laneways that make up the medina of Fés el Bali (old Fés) sampling the food on offer, is to take a gastronomic journey through Morocco itself.
Early morning is a wonderful time to be out and about and I set off to get thoroughly lost. Sunlight streams in slanted rays through the woven bamboo shades covering the narrow alleyways, catching the steam rising from the many cookers. Street vendors are preparing for the day’s trade and already the air is awash with all manner of exotic- aromas, the hustle and bustle as stalls are set up and neighbours greet one another.
Great crusty rounds of warm khboz (bread) are on display at the feet of an old man crouching behind his produce. Munching on this doughy aniseed-flavoured bread is perfect for strolling the medina. In most Moroccan homes bread is prepared every morning, kneaded in unglazed red clay pans and sent to the community bakery on the heads of children on their way to school.
Close to the city gate of Bab Bou Jaloud one stallholder is already busy at trade cooking and selling one the most common forms of Moroccan breakfasts, miklee. With deft handwork he pinches small balls of dough and presses them into a paper-thin squares covered with oil. Folded, then folded again he slips them onto a skillet sizzling with oil where they materialise into flaky pancakes and are served to eagerly waiting customers with butter and honey.
In a fruit and vegetable souk, produce of every kind lines the street. There are juicy oranges, lemons and grapefruits from the sun-drenched groves of Agadir, golden melons, vine-ripened tomatoes, clementines, crisp celery and plump mounds of grapes, preserved fruits and nuts. Entire shops are jam-packed with nothing but olives – of every flavour, size, quality and colour or bunch of fresh mint displayed in baskets and hanging from ceilings.
The ruggedly charming seaside town has fortified walls, crumbling ramparts and a unique quality of light that has long attracted artists. Its labyrinthine medina is home to souqs, art galleries and wood-carving workshops.
Why Le Jardin Des Douars?
Set just inland from the wind-battered coast, amid hills of gnarly argan trees (the oil from the nuts is prized), Le Jardin des Douars is a true retreat. The villas’ sun-baked domes peek out above palms and bougainvillea alive with butterflies. There are two outdoor pools and a resident peacock who struts about the grounds.
Essaouira enjoys year-round sunshine but is at its loveliest in the autumn when the heat is less intense. The annual Atlantic Andalucía festival, a celebration of the fusion of cultures in Morocco, with live music and dance performances, and exhibitions of Judeo-Moroccan art, runs from 27-30 October.
What Can I Expect?
To relax. With no televisions, telephones or mini bars in the rooms, you’ll spend days reading on your terrace or by the pool (books can be borrowed from the library), wandering the botanical gardens and being pummelled in the onsite spa and hammam. Cocktails are served on the terrace at sunset.
What’s My Room Like?
What Am I Eating?
The seasonal menu is a mix of traditional Moroccan dishes, such as tajines and couscous, and French cuisine, all which you can see being prepared in the open kitchen. A weekly highlight is the Sunday barbecue, where fish, lamb chops and ribs of beef are grilled, and platters of salads and rice are brought to the tables.
Good to Know
Le Jardin des Douars is a 20-minute drive from Essaouira, so you have to book a taxi into town or the hotel’s shuttle bus service.
Beyond the Front Door
Head to Essaouira to walk the ramparts and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the souqs, before heading down to browse the jewellery, art and woodwork for sale, and to watch the fishermen haul in the day’s catch. The hotel also offers guided hikes i n the countryside.
BEST FOR… Atlantic rollers, red rocks, super sunsets
WHY GO? While Agadir caters to those wanting package-hol Morocco, Legzira (160km south) caters to no one. The sea rules here, smashing the sand, daring you to take a dip, and carving the cliffs into dramatic arches. Pack the camera before thecossie.
WHAT TO DO: Take a walk along the sand, making sure you take note of tides first so you don’t get marooned beneath an archway. Make sure you position yourself for that perfect sunset shot, when the red rocks glow.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Hang out in faded art-deco-feel Sidi Ifni. Take a surf lesson.
GET THERE: Legzira is 10km north of Sidi Ifni.
The best things in life are free. At least that’s how the song goes. But in the mayhem that is Marrakech’s old medina, I could only assume that Luther Vandross never made it as far as Morocco’s Red City… Our stroll through the head-spinning souk had led us to an unmarked arched doorway along a quiet side street. Inside, the comforting smell of freshly baked bread pressed against the walls. The blazing furnace of the public oven, to which poorer families bring their doughy mixtures to be baked, was attended by a laconic man who stood in a small ashen pit. He stared ahead blankly as cameras clicked and dog-eared dirhams were dropped into his rusty tin. As the others shuffled out, I remained in the hope of striking up a conversation with the mysterious baker. “He won’t talk for free,” said guide Abbes. Everything, it seemed, has a price in Marrakech.
“There’s no doubt the city has changed,” added Abbes. “People are far more money focused and everything has become considerably more expensive in recent years, but there’s a Marrakech for every wallet.” Marrakech has, for years now, proactively courted those with deeper pockets – and it’s a trend that shows no sign of subsiding. In the past year alone, a string of new five-star hotels has opened, some costing upwards of £500 per night; several more are due to roll out their red carpets as demand continues to grow. With this in mind, I wondered whether Marrakech was still the good-value destination it once was. Having booked the cheapest tickets I could find (£113 return from Stansted with easy jet), I overlooked the inconvenient flight times and set off to find out whether Morocco’s Red City still fulfilled the brief for a budget city break.
Finest freebies – Much of what makes Marrakech so wonderfully enticing doesn’t cost a dirham. Just walking around, dodging the donkey carts and getting hopelessly lost in the maze of crowded alleys, is a pleasure afforded indiscriminately. On arrival, I headed straight for the Djemaa el-Fna – the world’s greatest public square, which plays host to a nightly spectacle of food, music and drama. As dusk draped over the snake charmers, astrologers and poor chained monkeys posing for photos, dozens of open-air restaurants commandeered the space.
Fielding off an onslaught of vendors clutching laminated menus, I eventually settled down to an alfresco feast of lamb, spiced and grilled to perfection, with salty olives and a hearty7 bowl of harira soup, a tomato and lentil broth usually eaten during Ramadan. The best bit? The bill was barely 40 dirhams (£2.95). Delicious and cheap, it was a far cry from the mediocre and overpriced lamb, prune and sesame tagine I later wasted 150 dirhams (£11) on at La Tagine, one of the city’s ‘best’ restaurants. Dar Yacout, located in a striking mansion with spiral staircases and hushed courtyards, offered a better fine dining experience, with tasty dishes served in tagines the size of small tipis.
Affordable attractions – The next morning it was time to walk off the excesses of the night before with local guide Abbes. Sightseeing in Marrakech needn’t break the bank – admission to most of the main sights costs 10-20 dirhams. Our first stop was the sprawling el-Badi Palace, built in the 16th century by Ahmed el-Mansour. Once a place of great grandeur, the marble, carved cedar-wood panels and glazed tiles were torn down by King Moulay Ismail, who dreamed of creating his own palatial pad in Meknes. “He came here and fell asleep in a grand room, only to be woken by a servant who nervously informed him he had been snoozing in the toilet,” laughed Abbes. Today, it’s a shadow of its former self: the walls are bare, sun-baked and crumbling. But it remains an impressive sight, its large sunken gardens filled with perfumed orange trees that sweeten the air.
Population: 33 million
Foreign visitors per year: 10 million
Languages: Moroccan Arabic (Darija), Berber (main dialects Tashelhit, Tamazight and Tarifit), French
Major industry: phosphate rock mining and processing
Unit of currency :dirham (Dh)
Cost index: glass of beer Dh25 (US$3), two-hour surf lesson Dh300 (US$36); tourist hammam visit and scrub from Dh200 (US$24); tagine in budget restaurant Dh50 (US$6)
Recognising the spell Morocco’s winding medina lanes, carpet-piled souks and High Atlas peaks have cast on travellers since the hippy-trail days, the country’s tourist industry aimed to attract 10 million visitors annually by 2010. Five years later, the industry is halfway to its next staging post of 2020, hoping to double tourist arrivals to 20 million and become a top-20 destination.
Developments such as budget flights are certainly bringing Morocco’s surf beaches, mountain valleys and palm groves closer to Europe. On the ground, travellers can also enjoy increasingly chic accommodation, from medina hideaways to hilltop kasbahs ¬notably the riad hotels fit for glossy magazines. None of the country’s Maghrebi mystique is gone, but travellers can now explore the stirring landscapes and Berber culture in comfort and style. Equally, immersive, community-run tours and homestays offer opportunities to meet Moroccans and learn about their daily lives.
In June, Fez Festival of World Sacred Music stages performances by tariqas (Sufi orders) and World Music stars.
During July’s Festival of Popular Arts, the scrum of storytellers, snake-charmers, acrobats and astrologers on Marrakesh’s carnivalesque square, Djemaa el-Fna, reaches fever pitch.
One of the year-round religious festivals known as moussems, lmilchil Marriage Moussem in September pairs young Berber shepherds with wives.
Historic riads with hammams, zellij tiles and tadelakt walls.
Hotels where Hendrix/ Jagger/Burroughs supposedly stayed with squat toilets and crumbling walls.
Get lost in the medina. These labyrinthine old quarters, where mopeds and donkeys navigate alleyways and date vendors juggle mobile phones and sales patter, are Morocco’s chaotic heart and soul. Brave the Tizi n’Test pass. Cross one of the notoriously tortuous mountain passes to the snowy peaks of the High Atlas. Mountains such as Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest at 4167m, are famous for trekking and climbing, with more opportunities for hiking and village stays in the Middle Atlas, Anti Atlas and Rif ranges.
Go in search of white Saharan sands. In Merzouga or M’Hamid, hire a turban-wrapped guide and head between the dunes by camel or 4WD to a nomad camp for a night under the stars.
Alternatively, find a shady spot in a date-farming oasis village, or generate more static than a worn carpet when you try sand boarding.
Having graced Hollywood movies, Morocco’s varied landscapes and atmospheric cities have recently appeared in TV series. In the third season of Game of Thrones, Essaouira medina features as Astapor, where Daenerys acquires an army and her dragons fry the city’s cruel rulers. Rabat stood in for Tehran in the third season of Homeland, and the first season of Atlantis was shot around Ouarzazate ¬already nicknamed `Ouallywood’ for its film studio.
Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, one of the world’s largest, has a glass floor overlooking the Atlantic waters beneath its rocky perch.
Fez medina, a millennium-old maze of souks and tanneries, is the world’s largest living Islamic medieval city and most populous car-free urban area.
On the Mediterranean coast, Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish-owned enclaves, with plazas, tapas bars and Gaudi-influenced architecture.
Goats climbing frizzy argan trees in the Souss Valley to munch on the nuts.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THE LOOK? Tucked away in the Kasbahof Marrakesh, this mansion is the culmination of over 300 years’ worth of expert craftsmanship. Rooms, strewn with berber carpets, feature hand-cut mosaic tiles, painted cedar wood and carved plasterwork.
WHICH ROOM IS MOST MEMORABLE? The roof terrace at the top of the house has views over the Atlas Mountains.
Deservedly famous as one of the most exclusive and opulent retreats in northern Africa, this former hunting lodge is surrounded by its own luxurious oasis in the middle of the desert. Snuggled amid the jasmine, rose bushes, and towering lilies and hibiscus are thirty flower-covered stone cottages in as many acres.
Beyond them stretches a citrus plantation thick with gnarled olive trees. Beyond that lies the desert, and on the horizon, the snowcapped Atlas Mountains. There is a riding stable on the grounds for sunset forays, but most of the well-heeled British and French guests luxuriate in doing nothing.
A famous poolside lunch buffet of numerous Moroccan salads and specialties draws nonhotel visitors. The dining hall is an opulent Moorish tentlike space, where a five-course Moroccan-European dinner is served by gracious waiters exotically dressed as if for some royal feast.
The hotel is a ten-minute drive from the ancient market town of Taroudant, once magnificent enough to be called “Little Marrakech.” Hidden behind 4 miles of red, crenellated, 20-foot-high walls, the town has an excellent souk for some animated bargaining and trinket shopping.