Morocco is famous for its food, souks, ancient fortified citadels and kasbahs, beaches, mountains, and its Berber people. We start this journey at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains and continue along the rugged terrains and valleys to the ancient ksar of Aït Benhaddou.
We follow the former caravan route through the Sahara Desert to the bustle of the old, colourful souks of Marrakech, and then head west to the cool winds of the Atlantic Ocean. From the wide beaches and whitewashed fortified walls of Essaouira, we go past the fortress built by Vasco da Gama’s brother-in-law in the town of Safi, and then explore the ancient old city of El Jadida.
We conclude with honourable mentions of several other exciting destinations in Morocco such as Fes, Chefchaouen, Tétouan, and Moulay Idriss.
A few things not to miss in Morocco:
A kasbah is a place of living for the more affluent and famous residents, mainly of North Africa, and is reminiscent of a citadel, fortress and a medina. It is typically walled and often surrounded by maze-like streets. Normally with no, or only small windows, the inhabitants are fairly safe against any unwelcome guests.
While kasbahs can be found all over North Africa and are not uniquely Moroccan, it is as synonymous with Morocco as rugs, olives, leather tanneries, and souks (markets) stocked with incredible arts and crafts!
While the many kasbahs spread out around Morocco date back from the 18th and 19th centuries, new ones are constantly being built to serve as exotic accommodation to tourists. One of the most famous kasbahs is located at Aït Benhaddou, in Ouarzazate province, along a former caravan route between the Sahara and the city of Marrakech. The oldest parts of this kasbah date back to the 17th century!
As you are driving along rural roads, you just may come across a sign showing: “Come stay overnight at our relaxing kasbah”. Don’t hesitate. Drive in, have a sumptuous Moroccan dinner, and enjoy the incredible architecture, and hospitality which often comes with a hammam (steam room) and massage!
THE BERBER PEOPLE
The Berber people proudly refer to themselves as the amazigh (male), tamazight (female) or imazighen (plural) which mean ‘free’ or ‘noble people’. They live in communities across North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauretania. While related to the ancient Egyptians, they belong to the Afro-Asiatic group and speak various Amazigh languages.
Today’s Berber people in Morocco live mainly around the mountains, while Morocco’s Arabs and Moors are generally fonder of the larger towns and cities.
Known for their superior craftsmanship and their knowledge of the rugged lands, the Berber people also have a rich history of which they are very proud. A history that is believed to date back over 4,000 years during which they, the Amazigh “proud raiders” people, fought against the French, Arabs, and Romans to prevent colonisation. The Berber language, which is hard to find these days, dates back about 2,500 years.
Different groups of Berbers nowadays live in different regions across Morocco. The Drawa Berbers can be found in the Draa Valley while the Dades Berbers live in the northeast. The Mesgita, Seddrat and the Zeri tribes are living in the northwest. The mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco is home to the Ghomara tribe.
The Berber people are known for their hospitality and outreach to travellers, a custom they developed through generations of being nomadic traders.
The most prominent natural landscape in Morocco is the Atlas Mountains, roughly divided into the “High Atlas Mountains”, “Middle Atlas Mountains” and “Little Atlas Mountains”. The “High Atlas Mountains” have more than 400 summits approaching 3,000 m in elevation.
Some peaks are over 4,000 m high such as Toubkal (4,165 m), Ouanoukrim (4,089 m) and M’Goun (4,071 m). The “Middle Atlas Mountains” lie north of the High Atlas range and south of the Rif Mountains, while the “Little Atlas Mountains” stretch down into southern Morocco, close to the Atlantic Coast and bordering the Sahara Desert.
The Rif Mountain range runs along the Mediterranean Coast in the northernmost part of Morocco. Its highest peak, Tidirhine is 2,456 m.
Hiking or driving around Morocco’s mountains you are bound to spend time with the friendly Berber people who are used to enduring hot summers and snowy winters.
OLD FORTIFIED CITIES
Dictated by a violent history, most of Morocco’s cities have an “old fortified city”. As most of the historical threats approached by sea, cities and towns along the Atlantic Coast are known for their fortifications erected by the Portuguese between 1415 and 1515. While Morocco has well over two dozen fortified cities, some of the most interesting fortifications along the coast can be seen at El Jadida, Essaouira, Safi, Rabat, and Tangier.
Essaouira, located along the Atlantic Coast, a few hours’ drive from Marrakech, has white walls and buildings with blueish trimmings. This is in stark contrast to the more brownish coloured themes of other Moroccan fortified cities.
El Jadida, north along the coast from Essaouira, has a citadel built in 1514 by the Portuguese and is arguably the most authentic fortification along this coast. Its massive city walls are, on average, 8 m high. The patrolling peripheral walkway is 2 m wide and a great way to walk around the city to view the populous down below. The entrance gate closes around 6pm so make sure to arrive early enough to explore.
While Morocco isn’t famous for the most exotic and unspoiled beaches in the world, it has no shortage of long and wide beaches with its fair share of fans who flock in during the cold European months.
Some of the most notable beaches are Saidia, Essaouira, Legzira Plage, Asilah, Sidi Kaouki and Tamara Plage, although there are many more. Accommodation and food are generally good and very affordable!
Think Morocco, think souks (markets). Its ancient Berber markets sell anything and everything. In Marrakech, look out for the Carpet Souk, Slipper Souk, Jewish Quarter Souk, Metalworking Souk and the Spice Souk.
Move on to the city of Fes for another ancient souk most noted for its colourful and smelly leather tanneries and adjacent leather shop. Souks abound across Morocco.
This article appears in the July 2017 issue of Globerovers Magazine.