Just 14km of sea separates Morocco from Europe, yet traversing the Strait of Gibraltar can feel like crossing into another dimension.
On the cusp of Africa, Morocco's cultural canvass is a colourful mix of Islamic and Berber with splashes of European, African and Arabian influences from the country's long history as a trade mecca. This simmering cultural melting pot is probably best epitomised by the mint tea introduced by Europeans and sourced from the Far East that is ubiquitous in Morocco and often offered as a welcoming gesture.
By turns spicy, colourful, exotic and chaotic, Morocco's cities are a full-on sensory feast. By contrast, its dramatic desert and mountain wildernesses are deeply serene places. Mixing the two together can make for a brilliantly-balanced and diverse travel experience. There's a seemingly-endless collection of cultural and natural treasures in Morocco but here are five of the most atmospheric places to really experience the essence of this beautiful country.
'Le mysterious' medina, Fes
The French called Fes 'le mysterious' which nicely sums up its allure. Diving into the medieval maze of streets that make up its Unesco-listed walled medina, there are surprises at every turn – a lane blocked by a carpet-laden donkey here, a nook filled with beautifully-decorated objects there. Strange sights, sounds and smells fill the passages of this endless village that is the largest pedestrianized urban space in the world, clanking echoes from old-style workshops tucked into the walls and a strange pungent odour grows ever stronger as you approach the heart of the labyrinth.
The ancient tanneries that have been producing leather here for more than twelve centuries still use the same traditional method to cure, colour and wash the hides that involves vats of cow urine and pigeon droppings, thus the smell. It also explains why I once bought a leather purse that smelt like a pig's sty! On the outer terraces, large cylindrical holes are filled with dyes and other concoctions.
From above they resemble a giant watercolour palette in muted tones of brown, tan, red, ochre and white. The city itself was founded on the leather-making industry and the quality of its produce is unmatched. Every leather item is handmade and purchasing a pair of bright babooshes, soft slippers, an embossed wallet or a pouf is the ideal souvenir of your trip.
Mapping the Atlas, Imlil
Freedom and fresh air, eye-popping panoramas and earthy Berber villages await travellers traversing Morocco's High Atlas, which snake in a concertina across North Africa. Climb up above the verdant valleys of cherry orchards and walnut trees, cross babbling streams strewn with boulders and gawp at the stark and spectacular scenery.
The villages of the Berbers, who inhabited the mountains long before the Arabs arrived in Morocco from the east, are built from earth and stone and camouflaged against the bare slopes. They are rich in traditional culture and if you are lucky you may witness one of the traditional ceremonial dances of the Berbers accompanied by percussion, clapping and singing. Stay below the snowline in Imlil and gaze up at Morocco's highest peak – Mount Toubkal.
It's easy to hire a guide if you want to explore the surrounding area using the well-kept mule tracks that criss-cross the valleys. The more ambitious can arrange to scale the peak from the village, which acts a kind of base camp for hiring guides, mules and equipment. The picturesque landscape can also be explored in less strenuous ways – on horse-back or in the comfort of a four-by-four – with the iced peaks of the Atlas as an ever-present backdrop.
Dune raider, Erg Chebbi
A Saharan pocket of apricot-hued dunes towering like waves in a tempest-tossed sea, Erg Chebbi offers blistering vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. Close to the border with Algeria, the empty desert is flanked by rocky plateaus and the little town of Merzouga is used as a base for forays into the sands. Visit the dunes on camel-back at dawn to experience the serene shape-shifting sands glow orange and glitter gold.
Take long loping strides down steep-sided dunes as your shoes sink into the soft sand and immerse yourself in the romance of this desolate wonderland. Stay overnight in a Berber camp to fully fall under the desert's spell. As daylight fades and long shadows creep across the silent landscape, the night sky is illuminated in all its glory. Free of light pollution and cloud, it's one of the most magical places for star-gazing too.
Rock the Kasbah, Ait Benhaddou
A majestic walled city nestled in the southern foothills of the Atlas, Ait Benhaddou rises in a series of crenellated keeps fashioned out of earth and clay. The Berber fortress was once a stop for trade caravans crossing the Sahara bound for the markets of Marrakech and has an eerie radiance and time-worn beauty most striking as you approach the gates. Unesco-listed for its stunning pre-Saharan architecture, the almost-abandoned city contains clusters of now-empty Kasbahs so atmospheric they have been used as the set for countless epic movies – Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia among them.
The towers look as robust as miniature castles but are decorated like embossed leather with raised motifs and lattice cut-outs adding grace to the thick walls. Climb up and up the ancient stone steps, through vaulted doors and dusty squares, and gaze down from lofty terraces – the place is a playground for Indiana Jones wannabes.
Souk up the scene, Marrakech
The epitome of heady, exotic Morocco – a sensory bombardment of curiosities and delights – bartering for bargains in Marrakech's bewitching souks is a defining Moroccan experience. Alleyways filled with endless nooks and curios and canopied arcades like an Aladdin's cave of glittering objects, stacked high with embroidered slippers, handwoven carpets, shining teapots, decorative tagines and lanterns. Amid the chaos, strange sights materialise – monkeys on leads, mule-drawn carts loaded with live chickens or deadly snakes charmed by their flute-playing masters. The aroma of sweet pastry treats or neatly parcelled herbs and bright spices meets your nose from little shops tucked into arched nooks and vendors vie for attention from passers-by.
The vast walled square of Djemma el Fna is the jewel in its crown and offers a different scene whether you visit by day or night. To get the best of both worlds, get there before sunset as the haunting call to prayer echoes across the rooftops and storytellers and musicians entertain the crowds. Row-upon-row of stalls and canopied carts laden with spices, herbs or neatly stacked citrus fruits are illuminated as the sun sets, and smoke wafts into the sky from numerous barbecues. After strolling through the crowds, take a pew to sample delicious lamb kebabs and traditional Moroccan broths or head to one of the surrounding rooftop terraces for a panorama of this daily medieval jamboree.
Morocco is an amazing place to shop for strange and attractive objects but if it's your first time in the souks be prepared for some friendly yet hard haggling or you will end up paying way too much. Try not to be offended if the seller's first quote is more than quadruple the fair price – Marrakech is an ancient marketplace where this kind of trading is a tradition that stretches back to the days of merchants crossing the Sahara to peddle exotic wares. You can always 'come back later' if you feel you're not getting a good deal.
One amazing odyssey
With a little careful planning and abit of toing-and-froing, you can experience all these Moroccan hotspots in one deeply enriching trip of roughly two weeks, depending on how slow you like to go. Starting with exploring the mysterious maze of Fes' El-Bali medieval medina, little-changed for hundreds of years, you can head into the cool highlands of the Atlas mountains where traditional Berber villages cling to bare crags above lush valleys.
Contrast this by plunging into the baked dunes of Erg Chebbi in the south-east and camping overnight to watch the sunrise from the highest crest. Then head into the southern foothills to play pioneer amid the deserted Ksar of Ait Benhaddou and spot the difference between 300-year-old structures and bits of movie set still in situ.
The iconic city of Marrakech – an ancient capital and trade hub for caravans crossing the desert – is the perfect place to end your trip. Spending at least one night in a gorgeous Moroccan Riad – a traditional home with a walled inner atrium – is a great way to complete your experience and totally fall in lovw with Morocco.