If the physical environment of Morocco has more than its fair share of beauty and drama, the built environment is equally entrancing and diverse. Some towns have a local colour: Marrakech is known as the red city (it’s more ochre really); Chefchaouen is blue. The past is written on the peaks and valleys of the Atlas Mountains in the form of abandoned earth-coloured kasbahs, or fortified palaces; and it’s very much present in the green-tiled roofs and intricate multicoloured mosaic tiling of medieval Fès. The restoration drive, now spreading throughout the country, is responsible for some of Morocco’s loveliest hotels, combining traditional aesthetics, artisanship and materials with modern comforts, as well as ensuring the future of historical monuments.
Almeln Valley and Tafroute
Rural idyll & small gem
Trekkers in the Anti Atlas have known about the relaxed, high-altitude town of Tafroute, as well as the landscape that surrounds it (cloud-capped peaks, deep valleys and gorges), for decades. The Almeln Valley is dotted with tiny, thriving villages, but Tafroute is something special, with its spectacular surroundings making it seem cosier and more welcoming than your average Moroccan town. The region is renowned for its almond harvests, which find their way into delicious couscous and tagines.
Today one of Morocco’s cosiest and charming coastal resorts, Asilah nonetheless possesses a swashbuckling history of Barbary pirates, Riffian rebels and battles on its 15th-century ramparts. The smart and busy Zallaka in the Ville Nouvelle is a hub of decent restaurants and seafront avenues, but you can still get a taste of the romantic past by walking through the Bab Bhar gate into the town’s incredibly well-preserved Medina. Casa Garcia (51 Avenue Moulay Hassan ben Mehdi, +212 39 41 74 65) is a small, genuinely beguiling restaurant that knows a lot about the town’s speciality food: fish.
Preconceptions of Casablanca are often wrong. Glamorous visions of Humphrey Bogart and intrigue in the kasbah bear little relation to this thoroughly modern metropolis. In many ways Casa, as everyone calls it, is more Marseille than Maghreb. This is the country’s economic powerhouse; the principal port, centre of finance, industry, commerce, media and manufacturing.
Detailed town planning and other large infrastructure projects by the French in the early 20th century have shaped the modern city. The resulting economic and property boom left a legacy of myriad 20th-century architectural styles, particularly art deco and its colonial spin-off, Mauresque. There are deco gems everywhere, not all of them well preserved.
In Casablanca today, residential boulevards that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills, along with chic French restaurants and chi-chi beach clubs, play host to Morocco’s wealthiest and most westernised people. And while the city’s seafront is dominated by the immensity of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is also home to North Africa’s largest Jewish population, consisting mainly of well-off, middle-class Moroccans.
Folded high in the inaccessible crags of the Rif Mountains, this remote hideaway has a bewitching, storybook atmosphere to match its fairytale history as a retreat for rebels and disguised European adventurers. Its ancient crafts and diverse cultural heritage have been perfectly preserved, along with its stone-walled streets and impressive Spanish mosque and Kasbah. Try to book a table at Casa Aladin (+212 39 98 90 17), which has a well-executed roll-call of rich and sticky tagines and couscous and a highly romantic atmosphere.
The Dadés Valley runs between the High Atlas to the north and the Jebel Sarho to the south. Sometimes called ‘the Valley of the Kasbahs’, dozens of fortress-cities litter the route as a reminder of the civilisation that once flourished here. It’s the most barren of the southern valleys, which makes palm-strewn oases like Skoura all the more beautiful, and dramatic, twisting gorges like Dadés and Todra all the more spectacular.
For many travellers, Fès still represents the ‘real Morocco’: a medieval, labyrinthine Medina, distinctive Arabesque architecture, a total assault on the senses. Developed from the ninth century, the city became a major centre of religion, culture and learning at a time when the Islamic world led intellectually. Its monuments reflect this status, with numerous merdersas (religious schools) alongside historic mosques.
Fès may be an extraordinary monument to the past, but it’s also a living and working city. Around 200,000 Fassi still live within the walls of the medieval Medina area of Fès El-Bali. Many of them work here too, in commerce or trades eschewing modern production methods, producing outstanding decorative arts. To explore this warren of narrow passages, teeming souks, huddled housing, archaic industry and venerable mosques is to find oneself in a space where elements of the Middle Ages never came to an end.
Founded at the confluence of ancient trade routes, Marrakech has always been rooted in the twin activities of hospitality and trade. In its booming 21st-century incarnation, that means two things: chilling out and shopping. Head to the fantastical central square, Jemaa El Fna, for a nightly carnival of local life; north medina for a thriving network of souks and hagglers; and south medina for the Jewish quarter and the glittering remains of the sultan’s palaces and gardens.
The stretch of azure Atlantic, butterscotch beaches and rugged caramel cliffs between Casablanca and Safi is a haven for wildlife, birds and surfers alike. Oualidia is just one of the unique gems of towns that punctuate the wilderness. Here, a ruined Saadian Kasbah stands sentinel over the ethereal beauty of a crescent-shaped inland lagoon, but the town is most famous for its oysters, which you can sample straight from the water with a dash of sun-kissed lemon. Try a plate of them on ice on the terrace next to the lagoon at eaterie Ostrea, accompanied by a perfect glass of chilled white wine from the Moroccan and French wine list.
Ouarzazate is a town primarily known for its on-screen exploits; Lawrence of Arabia, the Asterix movie and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were all filmed here. The town is inhabited mainly by Berbers, who built many of the kasbahs characteristic of the area. Venture out of the town into the biblical landscape of the Draa Valley, however, and you find Morocco in the raw, just a hop, skip and a sand buggy away from the Sahara Desert.
When it comes to the successful rebranding of a city, look no further than Morocco’s capital Rabat, and Salé, its sister city across the river. Once a breakaway republic, nest of piracy and hub of the trade in captured white slaves, today the twin cities are models of law and order – host to foreign embassies, the Moroccan monarchy and the machinery of government.
Rabat was once a medieval imperial city, and vestiges of this illustrious past remain in the form of city walls and imposing gates built by Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour in the late 12th century. Today, while Rabat is the seat of government, in national life it takes a back seat to the economic powerhouse of Casablanca down the road. The city’s focus on government and away from tourism means visitors can enjoy the sights in a pleasantly low-key fashion: the picturesque kasbah overlooking the Atlantic; the core of the medieval city, and the peaceful beauty of the walled Chellah. In 2009 the city gained the country’s first tram system, linking Rabat and Salé.
Tangier is a city that has changed hands more times than it cares to remember, and African and European sensibilities battle with each other in its jumble of architecture, ancient alleyways and mixture of coastline and Kasbah. The Grande Mosquée and little cafés in the Petit Socco sedately remain much as they did at the early part of the last century, but a visit to the terrace of the port-side Gran Café de Paris (Place de France, Ville Nouvelle, no phone), and one coffee and pastry’s worth of people-watching, leaves you in no doubt that this is a city still very much at the hub of human movement.
Head off the tourist trail out of Fes, through steep, rolling hills of brown and velvety green, and you come to Taza, a rather isolated provincial town with stunning views of both the Rif and Middle Atlas mountain ranges. Built as a fortress in the 12th century, you can still wander within medieval city walls and enter its original Andalucian mosque. Nearby is Jbel Tazekka National Park, a rambling wilderness home to the largest cave system in North Africa.