Morocco, North Africa. What does that conjure up in your mind? Endless desert dunes and camels? Yes, but you may be surprised to know that it is also incredibly green and fertile with agricultural regions, forests, oases and is just about as diverse as a country could get.
Majestic mountains with their seasonal adornment of snow glow a rosy pink in the dwindling sunset. In their hills are hidden neatly terraced valleys full of fruit trees and crops, feeding a myriad of small Berber villages scattered along the most beautiful river courses, which in turn are fed from spectacular waterfalls formed from snowmelt. The cycle of life in these mountains has hardly changed for generations. In early spring, the delicate pink almond blossoms fill the hillsides, followed by plums, apricots, figs, apples and pomegranates. Walnuts are also grown in these protected valleys. The vast plateaus are a lush green of the swaying wheat grown for grinding into flour, animal fodder and part of the traditional mix that makes the mud bricks to build houses.
Magnificent waterfalls cascade in multi tiers, casting fantastic rainbows as they tumble down past rustic riverside restaurants serving delicious local dishes. Indigenous Barbary monkeys venture down to seek food from visitors. Well-trodden paths lead the adventurous to hidden caves tucked away amongst oak and olive woods.
Down at sea level, charming coastal medinas along the Atlantic are a haven for artists and wanderers. Full of history, atmosphere, hidden treasures and artisan delights, these towns are adorned with vibrantly painted doors in shades of blues that make them irresistible to photograph.
Ancient red ochre kasbahs stand in regal silence, each one with its carved decoration telling a unique story in the symbols of the local tongue. Walled gardens follow the rivers for dozens of kilometres with verdant oases of palms dripping with succulent dates. The waters wander south, carving a way to the distant desert sands which eventually absorb them completely.
Gorges split apart the mountains, revealing breathtaking views as corkscrew roads lead into secret villages and lush valleys flush with the finest Damascus roses. The prized essential oils and beauty products produced here are sought after the world over. Rock formations that look like fat monkey fingers amaze the passing convoys of travellers. And, yes, there are deserts, vast tracts of land once covered by water long since absorbed. They have given up some of their hidden fossils and geological treasures to knowledgeable locals. Dinosaur bones and ancient fossils of many different species can be seen in museums and shops, along with exquisite semi-precious gems and rocks mined in the area.
Morocco has much to offer visitors, many places to explore and a wealth of history, landscape, culture and lifestyle to absorb. Its vibrant colours, heady aromas and endless artisan displays will give you many reasons to linger. A visit to the silent distant deserts with a night spent under the vast canopy of stars, that seem so close you are sure you could touch them, will give you many reasons to want to come back and feel again that peace that speaks to your soul.
The wonderful people, about 80% of whom are indigenous Amazigh or Berber people, will welcome you as they go about their daily tasks, and often offer you to ”Come and have some tea”, hot and sweet but very refreshing with the distinctive aroma of fresh mint which is so much a part of Moroccan life.
For those who have been and understand, for those yet to come and for those who need no reason, these are the places I recommend that you visit in Morocco:
• Marrakech for me is the heart of Morocco; from here you have many opportunities and options. The old Medina bustles with its souks full of artisans, ancient and not-so-old superb monuments and gardens. Marrakech has great street food, atmosphere and a soul that speaks to you from old and deep in the earth. It’s a dynamic city, colourful, aromatic, busy and vibrant. Marrakech is the gateway to the south and the road to go north. It´s the way to the coast and the route for the mountains. A perfect central point to explore Morocco from.
• The High Atlas Mountains are majestically stunning and full of hidden secrets for you to discover. South of Marrakech, they are a hiking and trekking paradise for groups and families alike. All the year round there is something to experience. Visit villages like Imlil on your way to climb Mount Toubkal, the lakeside village of Lalla Takerkouste with its weekly souk, or the spectacular valley of Aït Bougamez. These mountains are home to many small Amazigh villages with their secluded valleys and hidden gems.
• The Middle Atlas Mountains are a nature lover’s playground featuring lakes, forests of huge cedars, volcanic plateaus, waterfalls and Morocco´s ‘Little Switzerland’. Deep snow in the winter makes it an international ski resort that becomes a hikers dream in the late spring and early summer. The great cedar forests in the Ifrane National park are home to the Barbary monkeys. Lakes full of huge mirror carp are wonderful retreats for fishermen, as well as perfect grounds for bird watchers, for horse riding and hand-made crafts lovers. Here women make some of Morocco´s most beautiful carpets, carpenters carve superb furniture and a huge variety of baskets are woven for sale in the souks.
• The Dades Valley is home to more than a thousand kasbahs in varying states of splendour. This valley is also famously home to the Damascus rose. You can visit dramatic gorges and wild rock formations.
• The Ounila Valley is the ancient route of the caravans from Tombouktou and is still the salt route of today. Visit the UNESCO heritage site at Ksar Aït Benhaddou where so many famous blockbuster movies were filmed, and the palace of the old warlords of the region.
• The Ourika Valley, despite being so well publicised, is still on this list because it has much to offer for a day out from Marrakech. If you only had one day I would suggest going – why? It is beautiful all year round, with saffron and organic farms, gardens, fantastic riverside restaurants, waterfalls and traditional Berber houses to visit. You can go on a camel or horse ride, and if you continue to Oukaimeden you can go skiing. And that is only some of what there is to see and do!
• The Draa Valley is an extended oasis that carves its way to the desert dunes of Chegaga through Tamnougalt, Agdez, Zagora and M´hamid. Tamnougalt is a fascinating old Kasbah, once a Jewish settlement and also known for the Haritine people who are black descendants from the region of Mali. Situated on the caravan route, it was once a major caravanserai – a meeting and trading place. Parts of it have been restored and some families still live there. Stop here for an interesting guided tour by one of the locals.
• The Ziz Valley takes you down the eastern side of the country through diverse scenery, to the desert dunes of Erg Chebbi and the towns of Merzouga, Rissani and Efroud. A Spanish influence is very apparent here as exiles from the Kingdom of Granada in Andalucia came to this region to help populate the area, bringing with them their language and some architectural influences. A staggering amount of fossils, dinosaur bones, semi-precious rocks and crystals can be seen here.
• Fez and Meknes are the oldest Medinas with a character all of their own and well worth a visit.
• Essaouira and Asilah are two of the most charming coastal medinas on the Atlantic seaboard. With their vibrant blue doors and street art, their array of fish, seafood and sandy beaches, these towns provide a great respite from the inland vistas.
These are only my top ten choices, as obviously I could prattle on about all the places I love in Morocco. Come and see for yourselves!
Karima Rebecca Powell is an English revert now living near Marrakech. She has two grown up children – one in Spain and one a chef in Ireland. She is an artist, travel agent and loves the diversity Morocco offers. For more touring information in Morocco please visit her websites:
www.discoverhiddenmoroccotours.com and LetsGo2Morocco.com.