Morocco’s diverse geography and rich cultural have made the country a fascinating place to explore. My recent Gate1 Travel tour took me inside the chaotic medinas of its vibrant cities, across the craggy peaks of the Atlas Mountains, into the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert and to windswept shores on the Atlantic coast.

 In medieval Fez, I learned about the country’s tumultuous past, while in modern Casablanca and Rabat I marveled at towering skyscrapers that will define its future as a modern power in Africa and the Middle East.

Here are some highlights from my amazing trip:

Rabat: A Mix of Old and New

Morocco’s modern capital city on the Atlantic Coast is also home to King Mohammed VI and the country’s parliament. Signs of the government’s progressive modernization efforts are everywhere. A futuristic-looking performing arts center is under construction on the city’s river front – not far from a bullet-shaped office tower that will be the second tallest building in Africa.

On a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic, Oudaia Kasbah is a 12th century military fort whose keyhole-shaped gate is considered one of Morocco’s most beautiful architectural masterpieces. After we paused to admire its intricate carvings of geometric forms, we headed inside where we sampled still warm bread from a community oven. The adjoining kasbah, with freshly whitewashed walls and bright blue doors, is now a fashionable residential and shopping area. From an open terrace above the ocean, we viewed Rabat’s twin city of Sale, a former base for pirate ships that terrorized European powers in the 1800s.

Another 12th century treasure is the still-unfinished Hassan Tower and the stubby columns that are all that remain of the Hassan Mosque. The opulent white marble Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, who secured independence from France, was built nearby, making this a must-see site in Rabat. Guards dressed as Berber warriors in red suits with white capes oversee the tomb on horseback — they don’t mind getting their pictures taken.

Volubilis: Rome’s Most Remote African Outpost

The ancient Roman city of Volubilis is now a glorious open-air museum in the rural countryside outside Meknes. Our local guide Magid led us through the ruins of what was the most remote Roman outpost in Africa. Volubilis flourished until the end of the 3rd century but was later stripped of many of its treasures by nearby villagers. Rediscovered in the 1900s, French excavations revealed a prominent city like Pompeii in Italy but overgrown with weeds, not covered by ash. Many of the site’s treasures are now displayed in Rabat’s archeological museum, but Magid pointed out several original mosaics. Look for storks nesting atop the still-standing Corinthian columns.

Fez: A Trip Back to Medieval Times

Visiting Fez is like traveling back in time. The old medina, known as Fes el Bali, is a labyrinth of a narrow winding walkways connecting medieval mosques, schools and palaces. Tiny stalls overflow with colorful items handmade by potters, weavers, tanners and carpenters who still practice their crafts much as their ancestors did long ago.

Claustrophobic, yet captivating, the medina is best visited with a local guide. Hassan, who grew up in the medina, kept us from getting lost and pointed out unforgettable historic sites.

Red carpets and crystal chandeliers mark the entrance to the shrine of city founder Moulay Idriss II, whose 9th century tomb (closed to non-Muslims) is surrounded by fragrant candle and incense shops. Attarine Medersa is one of the Islamic world’s oldest colleges, dating back to the 1300s. We explored tiny dorm rooms on the upper floors that are decorated with traditional zellije tiles and lacy stucco moldings. The rooms overlook a central courtyard that opens onto a popular square.

Morocco is also known for elaborate woodworking techniques used to make everything from doors to musical instruments. The beautifully renovated Nejjarine Museum, once an inn where desert travelers spent the night, showcases the delicate work of talented carpenters. The nearby Nejjarine Fountain is a fine example of Moorish tile work that must be touched to be appreciated.

We paused for a much-needed tea break in a carpet shop packed with a dizzying array of brightly colored and patterned carpets in every imaginable shape and size. We oohed and aahed as attendants rolled out a dozen beautiful Berber and tribal carpets at our feet as we sipped our tea.

At a leather shop, we climbed several flights of stairs to watch tanners dunking animal hides in honeycombed vats of dye. Fortunately, we received sprigs of mint beforehand that helped disguise the putrid smell of urine and dung, still used in ancient tanneries to produce supple leather goods in a rainbow of colors. The experience was unforgettable, despite the foul odor.

Erfoud: Through the Middle Atlas Mountains

A surprise snowfall in the Atlas Mountains altered our route to Erfoud and the Sahara Desert. Though we missed stopping at the country’s only ski resort at Ifrane, we saw plenty of snow-capped mountains as our driver wound the bus around some tricky hairpin turns.

Though the ride was long, we arrived in the dusty town of Erfoud near the Algerian border just in time for our first desert sunset. At the African-themed Kazbah Xaluca Hotel, which was one of my favorite hotels, mint tea and cookies awaited us — along with a spirited band of musicians. Traditional red adobe walls encircle an oasis of palm trees that shade an inviting swimming pool. We feasted on buffet-style meals in front of a wood-burning fireplace in the lodge-like dining room.

Sahara Desert: Sunset and Camels

Our day in the Sahara began at a fossil factory, where we learned about nautilus and cone- shaped Orthoceras imbedded thousands of years ago in the sedimentary rocks now scattered in the desert. Workers polish the rocks into jewelry as well as sinks and coffee tables, all of which are sold in the showroom.

A Berber guide, dressed in a traditional blue djellaba and head scarf, led us through nearby Rissani’s chaotic ancient souk on a busy market day. Inside, we dodged donkeys carrying produce, stopping to sample and learn about the fruit of the oasis — dates.

Despite a lovely, refurbished gate, the city seems little changed from the days when caravans arrived from Timbuktu. Travelers these days visit Rissani because it’s close to Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s largest sand dunes.

That’s why we were there. All 23 of us signed up for the optional desert tour that included a camel ride to view a desert sunset. No surprise — it was an amazing experience and the highlight of the tour and well worth the additional cost.

We left civilization behind after climbing into a half-dozen 4X4 vehicles for a surprise thrill ride. Our nomad-like drivers raced each other in the sienna-color dunes along the edge of the Sahara until we reached a tented camp for a festive lunch.

After devouring grilled chicken and fries, we were back in our vehicles, stopping briefly for some fossil foraging on our own in the desert. Then we sped toward a camel ranch that looked like a mirage at first. A jovial crew of men in traditional djellabas and headscarves helped us mount our camels (the easy part), warning us to lean back as the dromedaries stood up — back legs first and then the front. My camel’s jerky rhythm took some getting used to, but I soon relaxed enough to marvel at the sand surrounding us as we traveled single file up into the dunes.

The scene was surreal – mounds of sand sculpted by the wind into soft undulating waves that seemed endless.  After a short ride, we dismounted and climbed up a ridge with an 180-degree view of the sunset to come. Our guides snapped pictures of us in silly poses like throwing sand in the air as we waited for the orange orb to descend. The sunset was a near-perfect 10, but we were as happy as our camels to head back as the temperature plummeted.

Ouarzazate: Kasbahs and Ksars Meet Lawrence of Arabia

A camel ride is hard to top, but more fascinating desert scenery spread out around us as we traveled to the remote city of Ouarzazate. Nicknamed “the door of the desert,” the former French outpost is best known today as a sought-after location for movies. The epic Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there in 1962 as were more recent movies, including American Sniper, and scenes from TV’s Game of Thrones.

Visible for miles, the red-clay walls of Ait Benhaddou, a ksar, or fortified village, cling to a remote hilltop outside Ouarzazate. A popular movie backdrop, the ksar is one of the best-preserved examples of a remote stop on the trans-Sahara trade route to Marrakesh.

We climbed winding steps up to a lonely granary for panoramic views of the mostly treeless burnt-orange terrain. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ksar’s crumbling earthen architecture dates to the 1100s. Locals still house goats and chickens there, while open-air shops, art galleries and coffee houses fill tiny rooms where desert travelers once found safe refuge.

Though many craft people sell their handmade goods at tourist attractions like the ksar, we also met crafts people almost everywhere we went, even in remote places. At photo stop on a desert hilltop, a family from a tent camp nearby came running toward us as soon as they saw our vehicles. As we took pictures, the woman and several young children set up their handmade camels and jewelry in the sand. It was a very poignant scene. Of course, we bought several camels.

Marrakesh: Morocco’s Merry Red City

We crossed Tichka Pass, the highest road point in the southern, rugged High Atlas Mountains, to reach the red city walls of Marrakesh. Once a desert oasis, the city is now the country’s most popular tourist destination as well as the heart and soul of Morocco. (The kingdom’s name was derived from the city’s own.)

Snake charmers mingle with Berber musicians, jugglers, fortune tellers and juice sellers in the old city square of Jemaa el Fna. Merriment and chaos reign, particularly after dark when the square resembles an open-air circus. Tiny stalls overflow with colorful pottery, medicinal herbs, leather goods and delicate boxes made from aromatic sandalwood and cedar.

The medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominated by the towering minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Built in the 12th century, the minaret was the model for Rabat’s Hassan II Tower and the Giralda in Seville, Spain.

Other historic sites include my favorite, the Saandia Tombs. The remains of a powerful sultan’s family were interred in lavishly appointed tombs that were literally walled into obscurity by a vengeful rival in the 17th century. The French finally rediscovered the tombs two centuries later. Bahia Palace, the only royal residence open to visitors, is cherished for its ornate tile floors, painted cedar ceilings and finely carved stucco moldings. Built for a sultan in the 19th century, the palace’s leafy courtyard, or riad, brims with tropical fruit trees.

For a brief escape from the noisy city, I piled into a taxi with some new friends to explore the magnificent Majorelle Garden. Created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, the tranquil botanical garden is a kaleidoscope of colors splashed on pots, decorative orbs and walkways that accentuate acres of flowering green plants and cacti. French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent bought and refurbished the garden, the bright blue pavilion and the Moorish-style villa. His ashes are scattered there.

Marrakesh’s luxurious La Mamounia is also known for lush gardens. British prime minister and landscape artist Winston Churchill was a frequent hotel guest. His paintings can only be viewed by reserving his former room, though strolling through the gardens is free.

Essaouira: Atlantic Breezes and Goats in Trees

 On an optional tour from Marrakesh to windswept Essaouira on Morocco’s south Atlantic Coast, we also discovered the virtues of Argan trees — for humans and goats. After someone yelled “goats in trees,” we clamored to the right side of the bus. Yes, a dozen goats perched contently, or so it seemed, in branches of the gnarly trees. The goats are moneymakers for goat herders, who expect a tip for photos. Our Gate1 tour manager Mohammed obliged, as we snapped pictures of the wily goats.

At a nearby argan cooperative run exclusively by women, we learned why argan is treasured by people. Oil painstakingly squeezed from the tree’s hard-to-crack nuts is made into everything from salad dressing to bath soap. Authentic argan from the coop is reputed to cure most illness and reverse signs of aging (or so we were also told by our youthful guide).

Essaouira’s windy waterfront seems designed for strolling. Anglers patiently mending their nets seemed oblivious to the parade of tourists who passed by to admire their deep-blue boats. Since it was too cool for the beach, we browsed the art galleries along the walkway to the picturesque ramparts built by the French. In a jewelry shop where handicapped youth learn age-old silversmithing techniques, I finally did some shopping Thankfully, I still had time for a glass of wine on a café balcony with splendid views of crashing ocean waves.

Casablanca: A Modern City and World-class Mosque

Our last stop, Casablanca, is the economic center of the country that shows off Morocco’s ambitions on the world stage. The massive Hassan II Mosque is a beacon on the city’s sun-drenched corniche along the Atlantic Ocean. Considered one of finest religious buildings ever constructed, it is also the largest mosque in Morocco and among the biggest in the world. Opened in the 1990s, its minaret stands 700 feet tall, so it’s also the world’s tallest religious building.

On a private tour arranged by our tour manager Mohammed, we were awed by the size and beauty of the prayer hall, inside and out. About 25,000 people can kneel on the red carpet inside, with another 80,000 on the surrounding esplanade built over land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. Designed by a French architect, the best Moroccan materials and craftmanship are on display in the exquisitely carved cedar-wood ceiling (it’s retractable), the elegant marble walls and floors, and the basement hammam with mushroom-shaped cleansing stations.

Coupled with several high-rise residential towers and a modern mall with a food court that includes several U.S. fast food restaurants, the mosque has transformed the once-seedy waterfront into a fashionable destination. Our tour ended at a more-authentic restaurant, where we dined on Moroccan-style seafood and steaks. Even Mohammed joined in as we danced through the aisles after dinner. I knew the memories and friendships we made would linger long after our flights departed the next day.

By Barbara Redding

Barbara Redding is a freelance travel writer based in Austin, Texas, A retired journalist, she loves to explore new destinations as well as revisit familiar places, She’s written about luxury resorts in Bali, a Hindu wedding in India, snorkeling in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, and saving sea turtles in Jamaica.

Posted by Gate 1 Travel

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