• Mona Shah

Marvelous Morocco



Morocco is a gateway to Africa, and a country of dizzying diversity, “a cold country with a hot sun.” Here we found such stunning geographical diversity—from mountain ranges, to ancient cities, and sweeping deserts.


We planned our trip in November, and the average temps were 52-74F. Morocco follows the same basic seasonal pattern as any other Northern Hemisphere country, with winter lasting from December to February, and summer lasting from June to August.


The coastal regions can be visited year-round; in the winter they are pleasantly mild, while in the summer they bask in temperatures hovering around the mid-20Cs. The High Atlas Mountains can also be visited year-round, although it does get cold in winter. The latter months of the year are a great window to explore the imperial cities of Morocco. The sunny but cooler days provide a comfortable climate to discover the colorful sights and sounds of Marrakesh and Fez. Other regional centers, such as the coastal town of Essaouira and the High Atlas Mountains, are not to be missed either, but coastal winds and potential snow in the mountains will naturally bring colder weather; particularly in the evenings. One thing to bear in mind when considering travelling during the winter months is that not all riads - particularly not those in the north of the country - have adequate heating, so it's advisable to bring warm layers of clothing.


For example, if your main priority is to see Imperial Cities like Marrakesh or Fez at their best, then the optimum time to visit is during the April to May and September to November shoulder seasons. During these months, the climate is neither too hot nor too cold, and there are fewer tourists to contend with than there would be during the peak summer or winter vacation periods.


The best times to visit Marrakech are from March to May and between September and November. These shoulder seasons are known for their desirable weather (with average daytime temps in the low 70s to low 90s) and affordable hotel rates.


We mostly stayed in riads within the Medina’s in almost all the places we visited. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard


We spent a month in this beautiful country and traversed a huge swath of the land. Sharing our itinerary here, we hope you have a wonderful time exploring!


TANGIER



Our first foray into North Africa begins in Tangier, with its maze like Medina, tranquil gardens and riotous markets. A place of strategic importance to the Mediterranean as a gateway to Africa.

Things to see: Medina. Kasbah Mosque. Musee Archelogique. Rue Es-Siaghine. Night Bazaar. American Legation Museum. The former palace of Dar el-Makhzen. Caves of Hercules.


CEUTA



Onwards to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave within Morocco—they make it very hard to get to. (But it’s well worth the trip, to see the rock of Gibraltar and Spain from Morocco is stunning.) Ceuta, Spain which is set on a rocky peninsula on the northern tip of Morocco as well as Africa. Despite being geographically within Morocco, it remains a Spanish autonomous city and military base. From Ceuta you can look north across the Strait of Gibraltar and view Gibraltar as well as Spain. Ironically, Gibraltar itself is a British overseas territory within Spain.


How we got there: Cab to border walk across the border and clear customs on both sides, cab from other side. No clear signs as to where the border police are. Very disconcerting and not for the faint of heart! We took a Petit taxi (not Grand Taxi) to the Border. Fill out White form (pay Dh to person on street, as border patrol will not give you one.) After going thru immigration, take taxi (6 Euros) to Cueta downtown.


Things to see: Cathedral de la Asunción. Casa de los Dragones. Impressively preserved Arab Baths. Murallas Reales. Mirador San Antonio. Plaza de África. Ceuta Central Market. Parque Marítimo del Mediterráneo. Museo de la Legión.


TETOUAN



Tetouan is a jewel of a town in a striking location at the foot of the Rif Mountains, and just a few kilometres from the sea. It sees relatively few foreign visitors, thus there's an air of authenticity here that adds great value to a visit. Tétouan’s medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, and remains largely untouched by tourism, retaining its quotidian life.


How we got there: Just outside Ceuta ferry port, take a taxi to the Moroccan border (the taxi fare is approximately €5). Then walk for about 5 min to the Moroccan border and pass through the customs checkpoint where you'll have to fill out a customs yellow form with your passport number, destination, duration of your stay, etc... These forms are available at the customs booths. When you clear Morocco customs, then walk for a couple of minutes to the taxi station (blue color taxis) and make sure to negotiate the price with the taxi driver. The taxi costs approximately 90 Dirhams (€5-9), and it takes more or less 40 min to get to downtown Tetouan.


Things to see: Royal Artisan School. Stroll around the primeval Medina. Place Hassan II. Dar El Oddi. Leather Souq. Hike in Talassemtane National Park.


CHEFCHAOUEN



Nicknamed the blue pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 in the Rif mountains by Jews and Moors fleeing Spain. I heard a lot of different (some quite unbelievable) theories about why Chefchaouen is blue. Some say it was painted blue by the Jews who settled there after fleeing Hitler, others say it’s to keep the mosquitos away, while some just said it represents the color of the sea.


How we got there: Chefchaouen is a 1.5 hour drive from Tetouan. We took a cab there, we went through a local travel agent we met at a dinner. Be careful when hiring cabs, they are always out to “get you,” and even if you have negotiated the rate, they will ask for more at the end of the journey.


Things to see: The town is perched on the side of the hill and covered in cobbled lanes and just walking around taking in the various houses and hues is the best thing to do. Check out Place Outa el-Hammam: filled with artisan vendors, tourists and a few must-see attractions such as the entrance gate to the Kasbah monument, the Grand Mosque, and the entrance to the Ethnographic Museum of Chefchaouen. Ras El Ma.

You must see the sunset. Head up the hill to the Spanish Mosque (or Mosquée Bouzâafar), where you will find an incredible view over the blue-washed city and beyond to the neighboring mountains. The uphill climb should take you about 30 minutes, so time it right to see the sunset.


FES



We found it truly intriguing. The oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, it’s hypnotic, idiosyncratic, and often confounding. The country’s cultural, spiritual, and intellectual capital over the course of millennia.


How we got there: The bus is a great option! The local CTM was affordable, and very clean and easy. The journey took approximately 4 hours.


Things to see: The heartbeat of the city continues to be ninth-century Fes el Bali (Old Fez), which with the adjoining Fes el-Jdid (New Fez), founded under the Marinid dynasty in 1276, forms the walled Medina of Fez—one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world.


Trying to explore Fes alone is a common mistake tourists make: do not explore the medina alone! It is nearly impossible to maneuver through the complex tangle of thousands of narrow lanes, alleyways, unmarked doors, and impasses on your own. Even seemingly straightforward plans can become fraught with confusion as you get turned around in a labyrinth of corridors and blind turns. Dead ends appeared where there were supposed to be thoroughfares. We befriended (more like he befriended our son) this guy in our riad, and he insisted on accompanying us everywhere, we for lunch and dinner!


Quaraouiyine Mosque. Medersa al-Attarine. Medersa Bou Inania. Chaouwara Tannery. Military History at Borj Nord. Jnan Sbil Gardens.


MEKNES




Meknes is one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, located in northern central Morocco and the sixth largest city by population in the kingdom. Quieter and smaller than Fez. it’s more laid-back with less hassle, yet still has all the winding narrow medina streets and grand buildings that it warrants as an imperial city and one-time home of the Moroccan sultanate.


How we got there: CMT Bus, Comfort Plus Class bus. 1 hour drive from Fes.


Things to see: Bab El Mansour. Medersa Bou Inania. Place El Hedim (great clay tagines sold at roadside stalls here). Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. Heri Es Souani. Palais Al Mansour. Dar Jamaï Museum. Koubbat As Sufara.


VOLUBIS



The Archaeological Site of Volubilis became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings. Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in a fertile agricultural area. Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.


How we got there: Bus to Moulay Idriss, Taxi to Volublis. It is also possible to do day trip from Fes to Meknes and Volublis.


RABAT



Morocco's capital is a tranquil city with a lovely Rivera dotted with charming cafes. It is known for landmarks that speak to its Islamic and French-colonial heritage, including the Berber-era royal fort, Kasbah of the Udayas, overlooking the ocean.


How we got there: We were to leave Rabat for Marrakesh by train, couldn’t find a taxi from our Airbnb (first one this trip and very nice). Narrowly made it to the station only to find all trains were suspended because the French President was visiting the King. So, we started looking for a car service/bus/taxi anything to get us out of Rabat. No luck, as it suddenly became a seller’s market. J and R found a rogue bus service, Opal, that is a shady operation. Bit dangerous and people haggle for the fare, steal luggage and whatnot. Whoa! What an experience! It was quite eventful, a very Moroccan trial by fire tradition.


Things to see: Stroll the Oudaias Kasbah. Hassan Tower. Mausoleum of Mohamed V. Explore the Chellah Necropolis. Wander through Rabat's Medina. Mohammed VI Museum of Contemporary Arts. Stroll Rabat's Ville Nouvelle. Rabat Archaeology Museum.


MARRAKESH



Prepare for your senses to be slapped in the Red City. Marrakesh's heady sights and sounds will dazzle, frazzle and enchant. We were here 3 times as it was our base for the latter half of our trip. This city is wonderful, frenetic and a clash of old and new.

Loved it, it’s very modern, kind of like Mumbai. Lots of cafes, bars, alcohol sold and consumed openly. We stayed in the old Medina at the most charming, beautifully decorated riad, the best one of all the riads on this trip. The second and third time in Gueliz, which is full of great restaurants/gelatarias/hip cafes with people hanging out and dancing the night away.

In sharp contrast to the tony Gueliz, the medina and its carnivalesque square, Djemaa el Fna, is filled with stoned musicians, transvestite dancers, cobra carrying snake charmers, fortune tellers, magicians and more. Madness prevails here.


How we got there: A direct train depart daily from Rabat Ville Train Station and arriving at Marrakech ​​Train Station. The journey takes approximately 3.5 hours.


Things to see: Koutoubia Mosque. Bahia Palace. Souk Semmarine. Maison de la Photographie. Jardin Majorelle. Musée Yves Saint Laurent. El Badi Palace. Dar El Bacha - Musée des Confluences. Riad Yima Tea Room. The Jewish quarter of Marrakech, The Mellah. Hammam de la Rose. Spices Souk.


3-day tour to Merzouga, the Dadès Valley and Erg Chebbi from Marrakech

Exploring the middle and high Atlas on our way to the Sahara desert


Not wishing to rush our desert experience we spent the days before and after exploring the Great Oasis Valleys (High Atlas and Anti Atlas towns), a sort of lopsided horseshoe from Ouarzazate (Morocco’s Hollywood), past the magnificent Dades and Todra gorges, staying overnight in Agdis, and entering the great expanse of the desert from M’hamid.

We saw some of Morocco’s most characteristic immensity—wide open spaces and tundra like desolation.



On the way we traversed the High Atlas Mountains via the magnificent Tizi-n-Tichka pass Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Aït Benhaddou kasbah with a guide Discover lush palm groves in the desert at Skoura Admire the Todra Gorge and follow the Dadès River to Boumalne du Dadès Take a camel trek from Merzouga to Erg Chebbi and enjoy dinner under the stars at a Berber desert camp. Tour includes some meals and round-trip travel from Marrakech.


SAHARA DESERT



MoJoRa in the Sahara desert! We believe that life’s truly picture-perfect moments come few and far between: a sea of sand dunes, shimmering gray, yellow, orange and red throughout the day is one of them.


We wanted to have a very secluded experience, away from the crowds so we off-roaded 21/2 hrs in. A bit inconvenient but well worth it to spend 3 glorious days entering through Erg Chigaga into God’s own country.


Overnight: campsite in the Sahara Desert. Meet your camel caravan and, with the sun slowly moving across the afternoon sky, set off toward Erg Chebbi and your camp in the heart of the desert. With traditional music from local nomads to entertain you, enjoy dinner and an evening under the stars before retiring to bed. Following an early-morning stroll before breakfast to enjoy sunrise among the sand dunes (optional), ride your camel back to Merzouga.


One of the most enigmatic, beautiful and awe inspiring experiences of our trip and life.


ESSAOUIRA and AGADIR



The coastal town of Essaouira (means image), which is appropriate since it's such a picturesque town. Its charm is undeniable; within the stone ramparts, you'll find whitewashed houses with bright blue shutters, art galleries and wood workshops. Known for its seafood and surprisingly very many vegan/vegetarian restaurants.


How we got there: Rented a car to drive to Essaouira and Agadir


Things to do: Old medina. Jewish mellah, Port. Ramparts that line the city and the skala which was built to protect the city (lots of Game of Thrones scenes shot here). Beach. Fort (where we bought some great artwork and antiques) Browse the shops and intriguing art galleries. Must go to the hammam and get a massage. Must buy Argan oil, it is the best!


CASABLANCA



Casablanca is the principal port of Morocco, on the North African Atlantic seaboard. It’s just a big city and so I would highly recommend that you either skip it or spend as less time here as possible. No trip to Casablanca is complete without a stop at Rick’s Cafe and the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-Muslims to enter—the Hassan II Mosque is spectacular; its minaret is the world's tallest minaret at 210 meters. What’s even more amazing is that it was completed in only six years.


How we got there: Moroccan Railways (ONCF) operates a train from Marrakech to Casablanca every 2 hours. Journey takes 2h 40m.


Things to do: Rick’s Café. Medina. Hassan II Mosque. Walk the coastline. Cathedral du Sacre Coeur. El Jadida's UNESCO-Listed Citadel.

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