Morocco is just a ferry ride from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean; bordering Algeria and straddling Sub-Saharan Africa. During colonial times it was both a French and Spanish protectorate, previously it has had a long history of Islamic rule followed by Berber dynasties.
This all makes for a wonderful melting pot of cultural influences which can be seen in the lifestyle, food and décor of this fascinating country. I am delighted to share my favourite cultural experiences in Morocco with you here.
Fez is the best place to start a cultural journey of Morocco as it is the spiritual heart of the country, founded on the banks of the Jawhar River in 789AD! Numerous madrasas, mosques and zawiyas (religious schools) still survive within the city gates, with stunning Moorish and Moroccan architectural styles.
The medina is listed as a World Heritage Site, and you will only be able to walk to navigate the narrow winding streets (with a knowledgeable guide to avoid getting hopelessly lost!). They still dye leather in the traditional way here – with ancient stone vats of colour below hanging hides drying in the sun.
Here you will find craftsmen hammering metal or stitching leather bags and slippers, or carpet sellers offering to barter over endless glasses of sticky mint tea. Carpet weaving is a traditional craft in Morocco and styles vary dramatically from region to region and from tribe to tribe.
While in Fez, we always take a day to visit the ancient city of Moulay Idriss and then walk amongst the Roman ruins of Volubilis. It is the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco, with many beautiful mosaics preserved on site.
Where to stay in Fez: My favourite hotel in Fez is the fabulous Palais Amani, a 17th century palace with a shady orange-scented courtyard and sumptuous furnishings. Outside this haven, you’ll find soaring minarets, saints’ shrines, pungent tanneries, all in the labyrinth of little alleys that make up the souk.
Leaving Fez behind, I love the contrast of spending a night in the footsteps of the nomads, amongst the breath-taking sculptured dunes of the Sahara Desert. You can ride the last hour to the camp on a camel, as it sways over the sands, and settle down by the crackling camp fire, watching the stars emerge from the black velvet skies. Then retreat to your luxury tent and drift off to the sound of nothing!
We like to travel from the desert towards Marrakech along the former caravan route, via the palm-lined oasis Skoura, staying at the most heavenly mud walled Kasbah (fort). Here there are no keys, no menus, no itinerary; everything is built around surprises. Lunches and dinners are laid out in a different place every day, and a driver takes you around to desert towns, or an isolated canyon where they set up a full lunch on a fine Berber rug.
Where to stay in Skoura: Dar Ahlam, in the palm grove of Skoura, is a must. A traditional pink mud clad Kasbah, I have never experienced two days the same here.
As well as a horse-drawn carriage ride to some of the loveliest gardens including Yves Saint Laurent’s oasis of colour, Jardin Majorelle, I took a morning out to gather fresh herbs and vegetables with Chef Bahija in the gardens and citrus grove before learning to prepare spicy local culinary dishes.
I found the evening was the best time to explore the ancient Marrakech square, with snake charmers, music makers, arrays of colourful stalls selling mounds of spices, sizzling mouthfuls of juicy bites.
Where to stay in Marrakech: I adore Riad Farnatchi, where you will be treated like royalty from dawn till dusk and the spacious suites have every spoiling detail – you may never want to leave!
Or for a more peaceful retreat, one can stay just twenty minutes from the hubbub of the city. I spent three nights at the exclusive Dar Zemora, with only seven rooms and set in lovely gardens. Here each room has been lovingly decorated with fabulous paintings, Moroccan artefacts and comfortable furnishings.
The Berber people (traditionally nomadic from the Sahara) can be found in villages nestled on the hillsides of the Atlas Mountains and down to the fertile valleys where olives and walnut groves are scattered between cultivated terraces. They have their own languages and traditional beliefs and make wonderful guides for hiking in the mountains.
Where to stay in the Atlas region: After the buzz of Marrakech, I headed for some fresh mountain air and spent a few days of peace and relaxation at Kasbah Bab Ourika with is incredible views. From here we enjoyed hiking through the ancient walnut groves and up to the higher peaks, meeting the friendly Berber villagers.
Our driver swept us away to the breezy Atlantic town of Essaouira, once a Portuguese fortress. This ancient port has been used as a trading post since the 5th Century BC. The Portuguese built the Castelo Real de Mogador here which was later taken by locals when the Portuguese abandoned many of their settlements on this coast.
Modern Essaouira was built in the 18th century by a Berber king using European architects and engineers. This makes for a fantastic variety of architectural styles, and cultural influences. I enjoy taking a walk through the medina to see the many artisan craft shops such as the wood carving workshops. Then next stop is always the harbour to see the blue boats moored or the fishermen coming in with their catches.
Where to stay in Essaouira: I love to stay in the chic hideaway Villa Maroc between the beach, harbour and the heart of the medina, with a roof terrace encompassing all three.
Last but not least! A word about what you will eat. Influenced over the years by Berber, Jewish and Arab cultures, Moroccan cuisine is a blend of spices and textures, from mouth-watering tagines to baba ganoush. The flavour combinations, aromatic spices and exotic ingredients make even the most basic dishes come to life. Arabs introduced lamb, sweets and dates, while Jews brought their pickled lemons and the olives.
From UK or Europe, Morocco is a quick 3.5 hour flight – making even a long weekend feasible!
From the USA, fly direct on Royal Air Maroc from JKF to Casablanca which takes just under seven hours departing at 20:55 and arriving at 08:45 the next morning.
On arrival you can be whisked away to Fes in your comfortable air conditioned Mercedes Viano, stopping in Rabat en route for lunch in the gardens of Villa Mandarine. You will soon be relaxing in the cool of your riad within the ancient labyrinth of the city medina.
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.
If you would like more information about fantastic cultural holidays to Morocco, please do feel free to contact me.
Images kindly provided courtesy of Kasbah Bab Ourika, Riad Farnatchi and Dar Ahlam.