This sprawling city, the largest in the Maghreb, is not one that most tourists stay in for long. It lacks the exotic charm of many of Morocco’s other cities but has huge importance and is definitely looking to the future.
A modern city, with a skyline dominated by tower blocks and ringed by a motorway, it is a surprise for those that have an image in their heads based on the movie.
The city is a victim of its own success as its rapid expansion still attracts the rural poor searching for the opportunity of a better life but often getting no further than the huge shanty towns. Casablanca dominates the national economy with its port, being the financial, industrial, commercial and manufacturing centre of the kingdom. In the whole North Africa, only Cairo city can compete with its verve, but Casa seems more oriented and sympathetic to western influences.
Casa’s true treasure is the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world. The build statistics of this stunningly beautiful building are absolutely incredible. As one of the few religious buildings in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed into, it definitely shouldn’t be missed. The minaret is the second largest in the world after the one in Mecca, and has the sun glancing off its façade of marble and glazed tiles, topped by the 3 gilded balls at its summit. Steel and titanium doors, guard the precious interiors, granite columns lit by Venetian chandeliers. In a Koranic verse, ‘the throne of God was built on water’ and the position of this mosque is deliberately placed on the natural shoreline. Beyond simply impressive it needs to be seen to be believed.
Remarkably easy to get around, Casa ends up dismissed by the traveller, and even though it should never be the centre of a holiday, a half day can be spent here. Visit the vast Mosque of Hassan II and stroll the streets of the New Town where, on Boulevard Mohamed V, faced with friezes and balconies, there are the Neoclassic residential blocks to jump you back in time to the fashionable Art Deco era.
It’s the most forward-looking city of Morocco, and maybe, a good stop for those who want to taste the Moroccan modern nightlife too.
Fes is the oldest, complete Islamic city in the world, and another UNESCO World heritage site. Home to thousands of traditional craftsmen, the medina was originally built in the 9th century. It consists of a network of narrow, twisting and utterly confusing alleys barely wide enough for a donkey. 100,000 people live inside the medina and many have never been outside of the walls.
Fes was once a centre for culture and learning, housing the oldest university in the world and it was the demand for book leather that resulted in what is now the oldest leather tannery in the world, dating back nine centuries. With a sprig of herbs held to the nose to ward off the sometimes overpowering smell, you can stand on the balcony overlooking a site like no other. The many stone vessels contain a vast range of natural dyes. The process turns the animal hides into the highest quality leather products you will ever see.
Its history has for a thousand years also been the history of Morocco’s political, commercial, intellectual and spiritual life. Fes supplied the intellectual elite of the country and foreign learned men with knowledge in its Karaouiyine Mosque.
Founded in the 9th century as the capital of the Idrissid state, the first Muslim Kingdom of Morocco. A century later, the Idrissid Dynasty had declined but the city they had established, survived. The legend says that Idriss and his loyal regent Rachid, decided to create a specifically Muslim city. One day while travelling between the two cities of the Christian Volubilis and the Jewish Sefrou they rested at the Ras el Ma spring and following it downstream they discovered green hills and a valley.
During the excavation its said they found a golden axe – or fas – and helped settle the form of the human sacrifice, to protect each gate for which a pair of Persian exiles (Fars) were buried alive at the gates of Bab Boujeloud and Bab el-Ftouh.
From here the city was named Fès, its citizens as Fassi. This air of religiosity still clings to the air, especially during Ramadan.
The city has now a population of more than 1 million distributed in its three parts: Fès el Bali – old Fès, Fès Jdid – New Fès, and the French New Town.
Besides these attractions, Fès has some pretty interesting streets, squares and historic quarters such as the famous Tanners Quarter of Chouara, the Andalusian Quarter and its intricate souks in the old Fès.
It is not an easy city to get to know and it definitely requires a guided visit by an official guide.
Fes is the spiritual centre of Morocco and is somehow suspended in time, existing quite happily with or without tourists.
The name Marrakech means Land of God. Famous throughout the world for its souks, square and pinky-red buildings, Marrakesh nestles at the base of the spectacular High Atlas Mountain range. This mystical city pulsates with life and manages to be bohemian, cultured, traditional, magical and romantic.
In the main square Jma el Fnaa, exotic wares, snake charmers and musicians line the streets as you’re tantalised by the most vibrant array of colours and scents to be found anywhere. Escape the grey skies of home for this rose-tinted city where the beauty is in the detail. Choose from a number of beautiful gardens to escape the hustle and bustle for a while. Stay in a riad where you can escape the hustle and enjoy the sights from a roof-top garden oasis.
The medina takes you right back to the middle ages and is made up of many areas. The central area around the Ben Youssef Mosque has an impressive collection of museums, madrassas and historic attractions. These are showcasing art and cultural artefacts, photos and rare video footage, kaftans and even perfumes of Morocco. The oldest building in Marrakech, the Almoravid Koubba features some of the most remarkable architectural decoration in the whole of the Islamic world.
Spiritually known as the ‘city of the 7 men / saints’ and their brotherhoods around the medina.
There is also the Moukef which is a gathering place of workers for hire. The Polishers Street is where vendors bring items to be polished. The Souika is full of fruit and veg and Souk Leghzel sells baskets, spices and herbs.
A year-round destination and great starting point for a number of day trips or longer excursions, Marrakech has so much to offer. Its traditional, modern mix is captivating and entertaining. Our advice would be to spend a couple of days here at the beginning or end of your holiday and experience the “Real Morocco” on a tour or desert tour with us.
Following a chronological order, the site of Marrakech has been continually occupied since the Neolithic times. But what we know right now as the Red City begins with the Almoravids, eclipsing the older and predominant towns of Aghmat (on the way to Ourika) and Nfis. And became the main market for the nomadic tribes and farmers of the Tensift Valley.
The Almoravids brought “technology” and survival skills which they used in the desert. With these they improved the city’s water supply. Astonishingly, long pipes were built to carry water underground from the High Atlas to the houses and gardens of Marrakech.
The city was then almost entirely rebuilt by the following Almohads, and the most monumental buildings of this time still dominate the city such as the Koutoubia Mosque, Bab Agnaou and El Mansour Mosque. It then sunk into a period of decay while Morocco was ruled from Fès, before becoming the ‘Golden Capital’ again under the Saadians.
The city became the collection and transit point for the produce of the Sahara and the sub-Sahara: slaves, gold, ivory, arabic gum, and ostrich feathers. Civil wars in the 18th century plundered the city, which it never totally recovered from even though the Alaouite Sultans tried to alternate the government between Fès and Marrakech.
Only after the French chose Marrakech as an important centre in the South, building the new city of Guelìz, the area was adorned with roads, railroads, hotels, schools and hospitals within a generation. But these improvements were allegedly for the benefit of colonial farmers and caidal, corrupt allies such as Glaoui, the infamous wealthy Pacha of Marrakech.
The independence in 1956 brought an end to this corrupt regime and now Marrakech is the most important administrative centre of the south, earning valuable foreign currency as a tourist destination.
Intoxicating and chaotic – a people watchers paradise.
17th Century Spanish-Moorish City, the ancient imperial city of Meknes is otherwise known as the Versailles of Morocco. This is a city of fortified walls and gates created by the tyrannical Moulay Ismail, steeped in folklore and culture.
The fifth largest city in Morocco, Meknes is at the centre of a rich agricultural region with a dynamic economy. Thriving on olives, wine and mint tea, grown by Berber farmers in direct contrast to the foreign and Arab birth of Fès. With its beautiful gates, ramparts, mosques and palaces, the city has charm and style and is surrounded by beautiful countryside.
It was never set out to be an ‘imperial city’, but the inhabitants of Fès and Marrakech showed little enthusiasm for 17th century ruler Moulay Ismail, therefore he turned his attention to Meknès and made it the capital. Meknes is historically important and contains some wonderfully grand Moorish architecture. On its doorstep sits the most important archaeological site in Morocco – the city of Volubilis. This is a partly excavated Roman city, developed from the 3rd century as a Phoenician settlement.
Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”. Most of the structures are in impressive condition with a beauty not dimmed by time.
The well-defined quarters of the medina, the imperial city and the ville nouvelle, make up the city of Meknès.
Let’s dive a bit on the mystic side of this part of the country. In Morocco, the Islamic faith of law-makers (fkihs) and learned men (ulema) coexists with popular forms of religion, in which the cult of saints and the role of brotherhoods are prominent. Many followers of these religions are craftsmen and traders who gather to perform spiritualist rites involving singing, music and dancing according to the teaching of their founders. Those religions are connected to those of Eastern mystics and they have spread wide and well beyond the boundaries of Morocco. This spiritualist branch of Islam is known as Sufism (Suf – the wide woolen garment worn by ascetics).
Example of these brotherhoods is the Aissaoua with the mausoleum of Sidi Mohamed ben Aïssa in Meknès.
This is a city of fortified walls and gates created by the tyrannical Moulay Ismail, steeped in folklore and culture.
Modern capital and historic city. Rabat is the fourth imperial city of the Kingdom of Morocco and one of the less known if not only as its capital and administrative, political and financial centre. The modern part of the city is Africa’s most ambitious urban development. Rabat has a distinctive style characteristic of contemporary Morocco and demonstrates an innovative approach to city planning. The influence of the cultural history of Rabat is evident in the architecture.
There is a tangible European feel with a new tram system and redeveloped marina. Carry on up the hill and you move back in time with the remains of the old Roman city and medieval tombs still partially visible. On the opposite side of town you will discover impressive Art Deco architecture with wide tree lined avenues and the partially built Hassan Tower of 1196. This is next door to the Mausoleum of King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah, which is guarded by traditionally dressed soldiers.
Strolling through its older and newer streets, we can see the flow of its history. Rabat has been an Amazigh land, a Phoenician and Roman settlement, an Islamic conquest and Spanish and Jewish influenced French colony. Besides it’s Pirate Republic years, which we can dream about by glazing to the Atlantic coast from the Oudaïas Kasbah.
The medina of Rabat has the advantage if being built by Muslims that were expelled from Spain. It follows a much more organised plan, which makes it easy for the visitor to follow without getting lost unlike in other cities of Morocco such as Marrakech or Fes.
As a 19th century French city, the new area offers wide 3 lane avenues embroidered by palm trees and gardens, restaurants and coffee houses. Here you can enjoy one of the national activities: people watching while sipping a delicious orange juice or nuss-nuss (half coffee-half milk).
The souks are a much gentler experience than in Marrakech.
In fact Rabat is a gem of a city and its charm lies in its silence. There is a lot to shout about here – but no-one does.
Once an international city, Tangier has a special character that sets it apart from other Moroccan cities. It has drawn artists, musicians and writers, from Henri Matisse, Claudio Bravo, Delacroix, Paul Bowles, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Almost all the writers of the Beat Generation travelled / moved here at the beginning of the 20th century, drawn not only by the climate but stimulated by the spiritual well-being, atmosphere, sense of freedom and adventure that the city projected on them.
Located at the top of Morocco it is a product of its own location: its port is the main link between Africa and Europe, and its history has been shaped by the sea and the strategic location in the Straits of Gibraltar.
While the historic heart of Tangier is the medina, the soul of the city is the Kasbah, which has a palace-museum, narrow streets, gateways and a seafront promenade.
From the famous 1920’s ‘Café Hafa’ you can absorb all the energy of those young Moroccan men and fishermen, gazing across the sea at a hazy Spain. The sense of nostalgia, artistic and literary memories is still in the streets of Tangier. The Tangier of political exiles, homosexual brothels, international banks, smugglers, spies, arms and dirty deals so lovingly recorded in movies and literature has now largely gone and left its ghosts behind.
It’s said to be the oldest continually inhabited city of Morocco starting with the Carthaginians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths and the Umayyad empire before joining modern Morocco.
The Gateway to Africa
A small city in the Sous Valley in southern Morocco whose greatest monument is the medieval city walls (the Ramparts: 7,5 kilometres long, 130 towers, 19 bastions and 9 gates) that we suggest to admire at dusk. This town didn’t spill beyond these walls, following its old Almoravid layout.
It is generally known as a very fertile land surrounded by oasis which was once used as a base to attack the Portuguese in Agadir, and most commonly as the “grand mother of Marrakech.”
The road to Taroudannt from Agadir is picturesque with its nature, a savanna dominated by the miracoulous Argan tree and bewitching view of the Atlas mountains. Abundant rain seasons allow this region’s fertility but also make it subject to floods the few times that rain pour down for more than one day.
Saadians chose Marrakesh as their capital , but not before making the town of Taroudannt prosper through the riches of its territory, marketing goods such as sugar cane, cotton, rice and indigo. In fact, the golden age of the Sous was in the seventeenth century when the region enjoyed autonomy and profited from both the trans-Saharan gold trade and the sale of sugar to Portuguese, Dutch and English traders.
A minor touristic affluence allowed this town to keep its original charm and kind spirit, making the shopping experience much more pleasant for those who are not prepared to haggle prices in places such as Marrakech! Here you will get a truly authentic experience and particularly good buys are jewellery and carpets.
Berber market town with excellently preserved town walls, well off the beaten track and with few tourists and a lovely warm winter climate.
Set between the Rif Mounatins and the Mediterranean Sea. The dramatic beauty of Tetouan with its white medina contrasting with the mountains – and an impressive colonial architecture in the Spanish town – resulted in its medina being declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tetouani claim that they are the heirs of the Andalusian civilisation, and affectionately call their city “the daughter of Granada”. Architecturally, the Hispanic influence is dominant throughout the city. Tetouan was first built by Muslim refugees from Spain in the 15th century and enlarged many years later by the Spanish government, in order to make it the capital of their protectorate in Northern Morocco.
Tetouan is a Berber word that has different meanings: “the eyes”, “the springs”, “the edges of water”. In the words of Arab poets, Tetouan is a white dove, the sister of Fès.
It started on the empty southern side of the Martil valley with what is now only the remains of Tamuda, Roman Tetouan. Even if its foundation dates to 1484, when a group of citizens led by the noblemen Al-Mandari touched land by leaving Granada a few years before the Catholics took over.
A fortunate move, considered the alliance with the nearby prince of Chefchaouen, the flood of skilled refugees from Andalusìa, and profits from piracy. Tetouan soon became one of the largest cities in the land and an oasis of refined urban living comparable to Florence or Venice at the time of the doges.
Fatima bint Ali Rachid, the wife of Al-Mandari, assisted her husband while his blindness was increasing and she soon became Hakima, governess of the corsairs. This extraordinary and talented woman ruled Tetouan for 33 years, before her son in law ended her rule and escorted her back to her hometown Chefchaouen where she lived another 20 years.
The Jewel of the North.