Highlights of Morocco
Djemaa El Fna
Everywhere you look in Marrakesh’s main square (pronounced ‘jema’ – the ‘d’ is silent), you’ll discover drama in progress. The hoopla and halqa (street theatre) have been non-stop here since the 11th century. Until a few decades ago, it hosted a daily food market for mountain traders. Now the whine of snake-charmer pungi flutes hits full throttle by mid-morning, and the show doesn’t really kick off until sunset when restaurants fire up their grills, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments.
Locals delight in telling tourists that its name means ‘assembly of the dead’, which could derive from the fact that public executions were likely held here in the past. Unesco declared Djemaa El Fna a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ in 2001 for bringing urban legends and oral history to life nightly, and although the storytellers who once performed here have since given way to communal games, musical performers, and slapstick comedy acts, Djemaa’s nightly carnival continues to dazzle. Amazigh musicians strike up the music and gnaoua troupes sing while henna tattoo artists beckon to passersby, and water-sellers in fringed hats clang brass cups together, hoping to drive people to drink. This is a show you don’t want to miss, and it’s a bargain too: applause and a few dirhams ensure an encore.
The square’s many eclectic exhibitions are not without a darker side, though; you are likely to see monkeys dressed up and led around on chains for entertainment, and some of the practices of the plaza’s snake charmers are ethically questionable to say the least.
While wandering around Djemaa at any time of day, stay alert to cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn-carriage traffic, which whizz around the perimeter of the plaza (cars are banned after 2pm). Also be on guard against pickpockets and rogue gropers who are known to work the crowds, particularly after sunset. To nab prime seats on makeshift stools around musician circles (women and elders get preference), arrive early in the evening.
The Fez medina is the maze to end all mazes. The only way to experience it is to plunge in head first, and don’t be afraid of getting lost – follow the flow of people to take you back to the main thoroughfare, or pay a small boy to show you the way. It’s an adventure into a medieval world of hidden squares, enormous studded doors and colourful souqs. Remember to look up and see intricate plasterwork, magnificent carved cedarwood and curly Arabic calligraphy, while at your feet are jewel-like mosaics.
The High Atlas
Zaouiat Ahansal is the Chamonix of the eastern Atlas. Hemmed in by the cracked and fissured summit of Aroudane (3359m), the valley is characterised by kilometres of cliffs, soaring buttresses and dramatic slot canyons. With the arrival of a paved road in 2013, this awesome natural canvas is just beginning to attract attention. For rafters and kayakers the valley is a green jewel where rafts whip between 2.5m-wide limestone walls; for climbers and trekkers the extreme topography and huge routes offer ridiculous views and a thrilling sense of wilderness.
Steep and cobbled, the Chefchaouen medina tumbles down the mountainside in a shower of red roofs, wrought-iron balconies and geraniums. The blue-washed lanes enchant, making the town a photographer’s dream-come-true. You could be content for hours just people-watching over a mint tea in the cafe-packed main square, lorded over by a grand red-hued kasbah. Or amble down the riverside walk, stroll to the Spanish mosque on the hill and even venture into the surrounding Talassemtane National Park to explore the Rif Mountains.
Life in the Palmeraies
Until you see the vast palmeraies (palm groves) that carpet the Dades and Ziz Valleys, you can’t fully appreciate the amazing feat of Morocco’s existence. Thick with palms and networked by communal wells and khettara (underground irrigation system) the palm groves of Figuig, Ziz Valley, Tinejdad, Tinerhir and Skoura are the historical lifeblood of the Moroccan south. Even today they continue to play a vital role in oasis life, with plots beneath the shaded canopy providing a surprising bounty of barley, tomatoes, mint, pomegranates, apricots, figs and almonds sustaining generation after generation.
Draa Valley Kasbah Trail
Roads now allow safe, speedy passage through the final stretches of ancient caravan routes from Mali to Marrakesh, but beyond the rocky gorges glimpsed through car windows lies the Draa Valley of desert-traders’ dreams. The palms and cool mud-brick castles of Tamegroute, Zagora, Timidarte and Agdz must once have seemed like mirages after two months in the Sahara. Fortifications that housed gold-laden caravans are now open to overnight guests, who wake to fresh boufeggou dates, bread baked in rooftop ovens, and this realisation: speed is overrated.