Morocco is beautiful in its breath-taking colours, its lively people and its expansive landscapes – all resonating to the haunting sounds of the daily call to prayer. In this busy teeming world, Morocco still offers the opportunity to find tranquillity and immersion, rather than travelling just to pass through and tick your list.
Morocco’s diversity is inherent in its landscape. From bustling cities to the wave-pounded Atlantic shores, with craggy mountains giving way to the rusty endless sandscapes - this is a land of infinite variety and, even better, truly magical landscapes can be found just a short direct flight away.
Despite visiting many times the pull of Morocco always brings me back, and so I recently spent a week exploring this exciting country again. I am delighted to share my experiences and recommendations with you below:
Kick off your Moroccan adventure in the country’s lively capital, Marrakech. The first time I visited I was immediately struck by the spacious feeling of driving along the tree-lined verges with the brilliant hues of scarlet, purple and white bougainvillea cascading over the red painted walls. Don’t expect two days the same here! After a morning spent in a horse drawn carriage visiting some of the gorgeous gardens and riads, my ideal afternoon in Marrakech is spent enjoying a cookery lesson in the art of mouth-watering tagines.
As the hot midday sun drops, it is a delight to explore the labyrinth of narrow alleyways in the souk in the later afternoon. As we twisted and turned through the pink walled maze, following Nori, our entertaining guide, we listened to his stories and recommendations for where to buy the best rugs or handmade leather. He also took us to watch a metal worker painstakingly hammer a fabulous lantern and shiny brass trays!
Come evening, we headed to one of the city rooftop restaurants to watch the orange glow of the sun slowly sink bringing cooling breezes and muffled street sounds.
From Marrakech drive up into the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from north eastern Morocco to the western region near Agadir. One can take a wonderful 4x4 journey to the hillside Berber village of Imlil high up in the mountains.
Abdul, our guide, took us for a wonderful morning hike through the mud clad villages in the Ourika Valley. Along the way we stopped to learn about the crops being tended in the terraced fields which were interspersed with olive and walnut groves, with goats hopping onto the low stone walls.
Then set off for the desert and en route stay at Skoura - one of the mud-walled towns in the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs where locals make their living from sheep, dates, camels and nuts with donkeys trot by carrying baskets of alfalfa. Houses are flat-roofed and plastered in orange mud, with little slits for windows.
On the way to Skoura it is possible to visit the famous Aït Benhaddou, the stunning red clay fortified village which lies along former caravan routes between the Sahara and Marrakech. Aït Benhaddou will probably look very familiar to you as it has been used as the location for many film and TV productions including, most recently, a location for Game of Thrones.
Next stop – the Sahara Desert. Here staff materialise like desert genies to assist you to your tent – which is extremely comfortable and decorated in Berber style.
We enjoyed a traditional cooked Moroccan dinner around the campfire, although it is possible to dine in the private restaurant tent. As the sun went down over the rolling golden dunes, we gazed up at infinity into the endless stars and constellations, where even the Sahara is dwarfed by the vast velvet night skies.
In the old cities of Marrakech, Fes and Essaouira, you can stay in a traditional townhouse (riad) –built around a central courtyard. You will be amazed at how peaceful it is inside these riads when outside there is so much going on in the city.
I have always enjoyed my stays at Riad Farnatchi where nothing is too much trouble, amongst the maze of alleys in the heart of Marrakech, or for peace and spacious gardens, one can relax at Dar Zamora, which has only seven beautifully decorated rooms.
For the Atlas Mountains, I stayed in (and loved!) Kasbah Bab Ourika. This is a traditional red Kasbah, set in fabulous grounds where you can relax or hike up into the mountains with a picnic carried by Pepita the donkey.
Another favourite is Kasbah Tamadot, perched on the edge of a valley with views up to Mount Toubkal and over to some of the traditional Berber villages that dot around the region. Now owned by Richard Branson, this is the former home of a renowned antiques dealer, who filled it with tables, sculptures and ornaments collected from North Africa and the Far East.
In Skoura I recommend that you stay at Dar Ahlam, one of the last of the great kasbahs. Enter through a huge wooden door and step into an Arabian Nights world of passageways and intimate salons, fountained courtyards and cushioned alcoves where terraces lead to lush walled gardens.
One can find wonderful projects set up to help the people who need it most in Morocco. We were enchanted by Pikala Bike Project, where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are taught to restore and mend bicycles.
Morocco has high unemployment so this project gives young people the skills they can use in a future career as a bicycle mechanic. They also teach young people to become professional bicycle tour guides and they took us on a magical guided bike tour of the medina.
From USA, one can take a seamless overnight flight from JFK to Casablanca; go to sleep over the Atlantic and arrive in the mystical land that is Morocco. In June 2020, American Airlines will launch the only US carrier operating a direct flight to Casablanca from Philadelphia.
From the UK, direct flights to Marrakech take 3 and a half hours from Gatwick, Luton or from Manchester.
Morocco is a varied country so it is possible to visit all year round, depending on your interests. However the best times are in April and May or September, October and November, when rainfall is lower and temperatures are favourable.
Magical Morocco is such a wonderful destination;a land of vibrancy, culture and passion. From the medinas, with their explosion of colour and exotic smells to the cacophony of street merchants and the call to prayer - the contrast of experiences abound. For me, travelling the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas across to the Sahara desert, immersing oneself in Berber tradition and culture and relaxing along stretches of untouched coastline exuding rich Arabian influences provides a truly fantastic Moroccan adventure. If you would like more information about fantastic holidays to Morocco, please do feel free to contact me.
Images kindly provided courtesy of:
Kasbah Bab Ourika, Kasbah Tamadot, Riad Farnatchi and Dar Ahlam