A land of amazing contrasts
Beyond the familiar imperial cities, this Grand Tour highlights the diversity of the land from windswept ocean and mountains to green valleys and palm oases meandering across the desert. At the meeting point of the Atlantic and the Med., the ‘gateway to Africa’ opens a whole new world.
We landed in Marrakech, the red garden city we explored at leisure before heading for the Atlantic Coast. Casablanca greeted us with a magnificent mosque battered by the surf then we relaxed in Rabat, the capital spreading on the banks of the Bouregreg. Fishermen mended their nets on the quay, seafood restaurants beckoned along the promenade but most of all I enjoyed Oudaya, the quaint hilltop Kasbah looking down on the estuary, the beach and the ocean as blue as the sky. Two days later Tangier took us by surprise, its huge commercial harbour moved right out of town, giving way to a trendy resort with a marina and a fine sweep of pristine sand. The seafront promenade had palm trees and seats, restaurants popped up on a gleaming jetty while above the new town, the traditional medina led to panoramic views towards the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Mediterranean was around the corner, beaches and more, but the time had come to turn inland across the Rif mountains, the perfect escape from bustling cities. Hills in every shade of green, wild flowers, forests, glistening reservoirs, rugged ridges and rocks, it was stunning. We stopped briefly in Tetouan, a gem of a place with a touch of Andalusia, and in Chefchaouen, a ‘blue village’ tucked in a maze of steps and cobbled lanes climbing towards the mountain tops. The rest of the day was all up and down hills, past olive and orange groves, until we reached Fez, the cultural capital on the fringes of the Middle-Atlas. Ramparts and forts, monuments, fountains, ornate gates and a vast tangled up medina shared with donkeys and stalls, it was almost bewildering but out in the countryside, beyond historic Meknes, Volubilis scattered its Roman ruins and mosaics in flower-filled meadows. Storks nested atop the ancient columns and you could look around for miles, marvelling at the holy town of Moulay Idriss nestling in the nearby hills.
South of Fez we drove up to Ifrane, at over 1600 metres a mountain resort popular for summer treks and winter sports. Leafy lanes, steep red roofs to accommodate rain and snow, parks and coffee shops, it looked almost European except for a massive stone lion, recalling the creatures who once lived in Morocco. Then there were oak and cedar forests and high barren plateaux with a sprinkling of nomad tents and glorious views of the High Atlas covered in snow. By mid-afternoon, beyond Midelt and its apple orchards, it suddenly felt like the desert as forlorn settlements crumbled among cliffs and rocks, as red as the earth. But what was this? A lush ribbon of palms snaking across the burning land, a scene from heaven? It was the delightful Ziz Valley but our overnight stop was Erfoud on the very edge of the Sahara.
‘Wake up call, 3.00 am,’ said the guide, ‘who’s willing?’
We set off under a starlit sky then not too keen on dromedaries, I joined a blue-robed guide to tackle the Merzouga dunes, three steps up, one down. Quiet but tingling with anticipation, we sat on a ridge then something stirred in the dark, shadows began to shift and we watched in silence as a pink glow stretched across the horizon. The sun rose, a tiny spot at first but setting the dunes alight within minutes. Wow.
It was an exciting start to the day and after our first al fresco breakfast, we were back on the road, spotting a fortified village or a few palms here and there and fences and tamarisks set up to stop the advancing sand. Our aim was the wonderful Todra Gorge, towering flaming red above the source of a tumbling river. Could anything beat this?
No problem. Driving west between the High and Anti-Atlas -the lower range close to the Sahara-, we discovered the aptly-named Valley of Roses and the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, including Taourirt, fort and palace all in one, near Ouarzazate, a town also famous for its film studios. Nearby, on a pink sandstone hill, Ait Ben Haddou has its own claims to the cinema and as crowded as it is, the setting takes your breath away.
Late that afternoon, the dramatic pass of Tizi-n-Bachkoum held us spellbound while far below tomatoes, oranges and saffron glowed on a fertile plain. We slept in Taroudant, the quiet ‘mini-Marrakech’ enclosed by 7 km of ramparts and olive trees and orchards all around. There was a lively local market and just a whiff of the Atlantic breeze, I thought, or was it my imagination?
Maybe not. The next day we followed the spectacular coastal road above Agadir, lined with oil rich argan trees, all the way to the lovely little resort of Essaouira, its fabulous seafood, medina and beach, now beautifully closing the loop, only two hours away from Marrakech airport.
Solange Hando travelled on the Grand Tour of Morocco with Jules Verne.
Check the weather before you go and pack accordingly. The coastline can be windy and cool but down south, sun cream, glasses and hats are essential. Have appropriate shoes for steps and cobbled lanes.
A small bottle of drinking water is usually available in your hotel room, but it won’t be sufficient. Buy large affordable bottles in the nearest supermarket.
Respect the local culture and if you visit during Ramadan, expect some places to be closed until late afternoon.