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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.
The colorful little port town of Essaouira is a stone’s throw from Morocco’s best beach, a wonderful swath that curves for miles to the south. When you’re souked out from visits to Marrakech, Fez, and Tangier, this is the place to park your bag for some R and R, Moroccan style.
Within Essaouira’s walled fortifications, designed by a French architect for Sultan Sidi Mohammed in the 18th century, is the central medina, a hurly-burly whose narrow lanes teem with the craft shops and artisans for which this city is known, as well as friendly cafes in a relaxed atmosphere of a small-town neighborhood.
Since the 1980s Essaouira has been a secret (on everybody’s lips) as an excellent surfing and windsurfing destination because of the strong Atlantic winds, so its image as a hassle-free tourist-friendly town may soon be a thing of the past. Go now and check into the simple, serene, and stylish Villa Maroc.
The renovated hotel has twenty-two rooms with blue-painted balconies and shutters wrapped around an open courtyard filled with jasmine and bougainvillea. Some have fireplaces, others have antique canopied beds. The best part is breakfast on the open-air roof terrace, and dinner featuring aromatic spices from the local markets and served indoors by the soft light of wrought-iron chandeliers.
The intellectual, cultural, and religious center of Morocco for the last 1,200 years, Fez offers countless wonders. If you want to get totally immersed in the flavor of Old Morocco, Fez’s old town, Fes el Bali, will give you the chance of a lifetime.
An almost perfectly preserved medieval town whose donkey-wide, winding alleyways and covered bazaars are encircled by an unbroken line of magnificent ramparts and gates, Old Fez is the largest, and most confusing, medina in the Maghreb area of North Africa, once so large it was subdivided into twenty smaller medinas.
Crammed with every conceivable sort of workshop, market, and restaurant, it is a delirious assault of sights, sounds, and smells you are not likely to forget. Fes el Bali and its dye pits, tanneries, butcher shops, tiled fountains, mosques, and spice markets is best seen with a local Fassi guide. Even they sometimes lose their way amid the maze of narrow streets—but it’s better than getting lost alone.
Apart from electricity, everything in the sacred city of Fez seems to belong to another century. You can keep the Ali Baba dream alive if you check into the Palais Jamai, a princely palace built in 1879, the only hotel within the walls of the medina. During the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, another dimension is added.
Still in its nascent stage—and refreshingly uncommercial and movingly sincere for that reason—this unique music festival confirms that if music is the world’s universal language, sacred music is the universal language of the soul. You may hear local ritual Berber music, the whirling dervishes of Konya, choirs from Harlem performing gospel music, female Gregorian chanting from France, or ancient Judeo-Spanish lullabies.
The weeklong festival schedules at least two concerts a day in different outdoor venues in and around the magnificent city—Morocco’s oldest imperial capital— which include a 15th-century Moorish palace and the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, 35 mi/70 km outside of town. Fez is the perfect setting for evening concerts, which are interrupted only by the Muslim call to prayer and the song of swallows.
The Moroccans believe that the High Atlas Mountains are as close as you can get to heaven without leaving earth. This majestic, often snowcapped mountain range can be glimpsed from different vantage points in and around Marrakech, and its beauty is arresting whether seen from a distance or up close.
It was here that John Huston shot the breathtaking ‘Tibetan” sequences of The Man Who Would Be King. Reasonably flat terrain can be alternated with a more challenging trek at heights averaging 13,000 feet, determined by individuals or Berber-guided groups that join up with U.S.-run Sarah Tours, Owned by a Moroccan-born native of the Atlas Mountains who is a twenty-year veteran of Moroccan expeditions, Sarah Tours knows their turf: “from the lofty crags and screes of the Toubkal, to the cedar forests of Michlefen and the plunging gorges and karsts of the Mgoun Valley.”
Amid the highest Atlas peaks, move through vast panoramas untouched by modern times. The promise of contact with the unchanged Berber and Moorish mountain people—shepherds, nomads, remote villagers—only enhances the expedition.
When Truman Capote advised, “Before you go to Marrakech, make sure you say goodbye to all your friends and draw your savings from the bank,” he must have been booked at La Mamounia. It is one of Morocco’s (and North Africa’s) most special hotels, the jewel in the crown of her many exotic hostelries.
Built in the 1920s on the revered site of a sultan’s palace within the ancient walls of the old city, it is a curious mix of Art Deco and traditional Moroccan. The original gardens, laid out in the 16th century, are still maintained—32 aromatic acres of orange, lemon, and banana trees, palms, mimosas, roses, jasmine, and ancient garden walls covered with bougainvillea.
If you really have drawn your savings from the bank, you might stay in Winston Churchill’s favorite suite, facing the city and its mosques. Dedicated to the great statesman, it is decorated with some of Churchill’s oil paintings of these very gardens. But if you want to feel like the pasha whose palace once stood here, request the Moroccan Suite for the full effect of the exotic local atmosphere.
Whatever room you choose, dine at Le Marocain, the hotel’s traditional restaurant and one of the best in the city, perhaps the country. The open-air terrace lets in the sound of the fountains and birds, while the scent from the garden mingles with the spices on your plate.
According to Paul Bowies, a Moroccan at heart, Marrakech without the huge Djemaa el-Fna would be just another Moroccan city. This is where it all happens, an impromptu medieval circus enacted around the clock.
The snake charmers, performing monkeys, and souvenir sellers may be there for the foreigners, but the dentists, barbers, storytellers, acrobats forming human pyramids, cartwheeling dancers, and scribes writing wills and bills are surrounded by small crowds of locals.
From the countless food stalls, aromas of sizzling kebabs, couscous, and sheep brains cooked in their own skulls fill the square. Maybe fresh-squeezed orange juice will do. Dusk is the bewitching hour, when lanterns around the square are lit, the cast of fire swallowers, healers, shoe shiners, and soothsayers reaches a climax, and the Place Djemaa crawls with humanity well into the night.
A number of outdoor rooftop cafes ring the square, where you can take in the colorful scenario at a distance with a glass of sugared mint tea. Could this have been the very spot that Winston Churchill had in mind when he advised, “If you have only one day to spend in Morocco, spend it in Marrakech”?
The great chef Paul Bocuse once announced, “There are only three cuisines in the world: French, Chinese, and Moroccan.” And not necessarily in that order, one is inclined to believe, after dinner at Yacout.
Deep in the heart of the medina, through the massive, unmarked door of a sumptuous 200-year-old house, visitors cross carpets strewn with rose petals to enter rooms that are almost too romantic, with hundreds of flickering candles, tiles and mosaics, and fireplaces. In the air, there’s a scent of jasmine and the delicate music of a zither.
Yacout, which means “sapphire” in Arabic, has created a visual mise-en-scene that enchants all the senses. Rapt guests succumb to the arrival of a feast (sans menu) redolent of ancient caravans and the foreign nations that shaped Moroccan history and food.
The elaborate variety showcases the breadth of traditional Moroccan food, but even a simple couscous dazzles. Repair to the gloriously tiled, beautifully lit courtyard for apres-dinner mint tea and desserts sweeter than honey served next to a splashing fountain and a narrow pool.
No roads, no people, total silence, and at night, an ocean of stars, uncannily clear and bright. Spending a few days in the quiet expanse of the Sahara is a magical odyssey. Local Berber guides bring alive the traditions, romance, and history of their extraordinary environment.
After penetrating deep into the Sahara by jeep, in and around the shifting sands and undulating waves of towering golden dunes, your tented campsite appears like a mirage against the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, the highest in Morocco.
Walks are arranged in the cool, early hours of the morning; jeeps convey you to desert towns, fortresses, ruins, and cool oases where foreigners rarely venture. Camel-and goat-herding Tuareg nomads drop by your camp with their tales and musical instruments.
Delicious campfire meals are enjoyed in the dining tent or under the stars that have guided caravans since ancient times. You’ll see enough shooting stars to last a lifetime—have your wishes ready.
Scattered among the remote villages of the Atlas Mountains, the nomadic Berber tribes maintain the ancient customs of their ancestors. The most emblematic ritual is the betrothal ceremony at the annual Imilchil fair.
Having spent spring and the hot summer days in the mountains with their flocks, neighboring clans return to the verdant plain of Imilchil every September to settle in for the winter and to celebrate with this much- awaited social gathering, a kind of marriage mart.
Singles come to find and be found: young men dressed in white djellabahs, displaying their most precious silver daggers; girls wearing modest dresses and handiras capes, heavily hand-embroidered and accessorized with as much jewelry as befits their family’s position.
It is the girls who do the browsing, making small talk; a young girl may take the hand of a handsome young man and lead him about, giggling and asking questions. If she decides he’s a kindred soul, they walk to the scribes’ tent, the two families close in to negotiate, and that evening the couple is married. The fair lasts just three days, and the music and dancing make it feel like one large wedding reception.