Travel Guide | Morocco

Ait-ben-haddou kasbah High Atlas
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In ancient times Marrakech was called 'Morocco City' and sometimes referred to as the 'Pearl of the South'. The colour of Marrakech is most remarkable, a reddish-brown describes it best. The city walls, the houses and the soil are all of the same shade and even the new French-style quarter contains houses tinted to the same colour. Marrakech has approximately 20kms (12.4 miles) of walls enclosing gardens and lakes. Its great pride and landmark, visible from many miles, is the Koutoubia Tower, sister to the Tower of Hassan in Rabat and the Giralda Tower in Seville.

It is said that after the third of these was completed, the cruel sultan had the eyes of his architect put out, lest he should build another more beautiful tower elsewhere. One of the most striking features of Marrakech is the huge open souk, which for the past 8 centuries has been the scene of parades, executions and entertainment, as well as the centre for buying and selling for hundreds of miles around. It is now the liveliest place imaginable where all sorts of exotic entertainment can be seen, from poetry reading to snake charming to acrobatics. The enthusiastic may wish to hire a bicycle to further explore Marrakech and its environs. Of particular interest are the many beautiful public and private gardens.

Morocco is in many ways a country apart. It nestles on the northwestern tip of Africa, separated from the rest of the continent by the towering Atlas Mountains and by the Sahara itself. Its climate, geography, and history are all more closely related to the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa, and for this reason visitors are often struck by the odd sensation of having not quite reached Africa in Morocco. In the north, its fine beaches, lush highland valleys, and evocative old cities reinforce this impression. Yet, as one moves south and east, into and over the starkly beautiful ranges of the Atlases, Morocco's Mediterranean character melts away like a mirage. The Sahara stretches out to the horizon, and forbidding kasbahs stare.

Places Of Interest:

For adventure travellers, the attractions of Morocco are found in its 3 primary mountain ranges--the middle, high, and anti-Atlas--and the Sahara. Trekking in the High Atlas is especially popular. No traveller, however, should pass up the opportunity to visit Morocco's great old cities. Tangiers and Casablanca, long associated with expatriates and French colonial charm, can still be fascinating. However, they are ultimately much less appealing than the ancient imperial cities of the interior: Fes, Meknes, and Marrakesh. In Fes and Marrakesh in particular, the labyrinthine streets and passages of the centuries-old medinas offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Atlas:

Trekking in the High Atlas is not to be passed up. The experience will reward visitors with some of the most spectacular scenery and views in Africa. The summit of Jebel Toukbal, Morocco's highest mountain, is an excellent choice, offering stunning panoramic views of the surrounding country. Although the two-day trek is suitable for anyone who is reasonably fit, you will need to bring boots and warm clothes--it can be hard going and cold on the way up to 4165 meters (13664.6 feet), especially in the desert night.

Fortunately there is a lodge at Toukbal, located a little more than halfway up. Although Toukbal is the most popular of the Atlas treks, there are plenty of others available, and you can arrange trips of virtually any length. For longer treks, and for walking in more remote regions, a guide is strongly recommended.

The Sahara:

The name itself conjures up romantic images of vast unending sands, charming desert oases, and of course the sheltering sky. If visitors to Morocco really want to lose themselves and get away from it all, there is no more extreme way to do so than to set off across the great desert. Morocco, however, is really little more than a starting point--it is Algiers that contains the Grand Ergs of rolling dunes that most of us associate with Saharan adventure.

Although Morocco does offer a glimpse of Saharan dunes at the southern extremity of the lovely Draa Valley, it is also a convenient starting point for a trip to the Grand Erg Occidental (the western sand sea of the Sahara) in western Algiers. The border crossings at Oujda and Figuig are the most common departure points.

Geography and Climate

Morocco is situated on the extreme northwestern corner of Africa and is bordered by Mauritania and Algeria, both to the south and east. Morocco's varied geography includes no less than 4 separate mountain ranges, in addition to lush river valleys, beautiful sandy coasts, and wide expanses of desert.

The three most prominent mountain ranges, which run parallel to each other from the southwest to the northeast, are the Middle Atlas, the High Atlas, and the Anti-Atlas. The ascent of the country's highest peak, Jebel Toukbal (13,665 ft. / 4,165 m.), is a spectacular and not particularly difficult High Atlas trek. The Moroccan coastline, which fronts onto both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, offers plenty of great beaches as well as a number of fascinating old coastal cities. In the southeast, Morocco's mountain ranges yield inexorably to the desolate expanse of the Sahara. The rivers that flow down this side of the High Atlas support long, narrow, and lush river valleys that resemble linear oases.

The climate in Morocco is reliably dry, although small amounts of rain do fall between November and March. Temperature varies considerably by season and locale. While the southern and southeastern desert regions can reach extremely high temperatures during the hot summer months, the higher altitudes of the mountains are cool in summer evenings and freezing in winter. Most travellers find the early summer months to be the most comfortable time to visit, as rain is not a threat and temperatures are warm during the day and pleasantly cool at night.

The climate in Morocco varies greatly according to the region and the time of year. With it's size and range of topography, with our tours, this can be broken down into several areas. South of the High Atlas / Jebel Sahro - This area is dominated by the Sahara Desert with hot dry summers, very little rainfall and big drops in temperature between day and night.

History & Culture

Morocco's history began with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the 2nd millennium BC Rome extended its rule over the area after defeating Carthage in 146 BC, and testimony to its presence still exists in the fine Roman ruins at Volubilis. As Rome fell into decline Morocco was invaded first by the Vandals and then, in the 7th century, by the Arabs.

Although external Arab rule lasted little more than a century, the arrival of Islam proved to be a permanent addition to Moroccan culture. In the ensuing centuries a series of ruling dynasties came to power, including the Idrissids, the Almoravids, and the Almohads, but none seemed capable of long maintaining the critical support of the Berber leaders.

By the 15th century Spain and Portugal began to intrude into Morocco, after having expelled the Moors from their own lands. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great. By the middle of the 19th century Morocco's strategic importance had become evident to all of the European powers, and they engaged in a protracted struggle for possession of the country. Finally, in 1911, France was formally acknowledged as protector of the greater part of the country, with Spain receiving a number of isolated locales.

French rule came to an end in 1953, although its cultural influence on Morocco remains strongly in evidence. Today the country is ruled by King Hassan II, who has weathered a number of attempted coups in past decades. Hassan appears to be leading Morocco toward both long-term stability and a greater degree of economic prosperity.

Geography and Climate

Situated in North Africa, Morocco benefits from a coastline that spreads from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, and is separated from Europe by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Morocco is traversed by several mountain ranges, the High Atlas, the Rif and the Anti Atlas, and spurs from these ranges extend both to the coast and to the desert. It shares land borders with Algeria, Mauritania and a disputed region known as the Western Sahara, which it presently occupies.

The country covers an area of approximately 700 000 square kms. Vast fertile plains and plateau stretch between the mountain ranges and between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Many of these plains are fed by the watershed of the melting snow of the Atlas peaks.

The High Atlas - These mountainous areas are much cooler due mainly to the altitude, during the trekking season, May to October, the days are very pleasant but the evenings / nights can be very cold. Coastal and Middle Atlas - The weather is less extreme with temperatures being on average between 10 - 28 C (50 - 82.40 F) except for July and August the hottest / summer months where temperatures away from the coast rise to an average of 35C (95 F).

The People of Morocco

As a vast simplification, there are three distinct groups in Morocco; Moslem Moroccans, Jewish Moroccans and foreigners. Of the Moslems, the Berbers are the earliest inhabitants of the country and little is known about their origins, other than that they came from Iberia. The Berbers (60% of the population) generally live in the countryside, the mountains and the palm groves of Southern Morocco and are the main people you will see during the Atlas trek. Mostly animal breeders, some are nomadic and travel with their flocks. In the south they have interbreded with the black population, and form a sedentary and hard working population who cultivate gardens and palm groves.

They pay no tax to the government nor do they receive any social benefits, or ask for any, as independence from outside control, and freedom to resolve their own destiny are fundamental to the Berber way of life. Berber architecture is unique and blends beautifully into its surroundings. The Berber society is largely a masculine one. Women work in the fields and do most of the heavy work, while men 'supervise' or idle the day away talking, tending grazing animals, often at great altitudes, and transport their wares to market or to other villages for trade. For the majority of the population (approximately 99%), Islam is a way of life more than a religion. There is no priesthood, no sacraments, no altar and no images of any sort but there are strict rules of conduct and regular prayer times.

History

From evidence gained from fossilized remains, Morocco has been inhabited since the earliest prehistoric times. Trading ports were set up along the coast from around the twelfth century B.C. It became part of Mauritania under the Romans, until it fell to the Vandals in 429. In 680 the Arab invasion began, and with little interruption, the Arabs have since then been in possession, if not ruling the country.

Morocco's history from the 8th century followed various dynasties, beginning with the Idriss Dynasty which provided two great sovereigns, now the most worshipped Saints of Morocco. These were followed by: the Almoravides (who founded Marrakech and were the first to unite all Moroccan territories under one ruler); the Almohades (their achievements were amongst the greatest of all dynasties and include the building of Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech); the Merinides (builders of the new city of Fez); the Saadians (they fought for a unified Morocco but at the same time established diplomatic relations with a number of European countries); the Alaouites (who still reign in Morocco today and include among their rulers Moulay Ismail, one of the greatest and most famous of the Moroccan Sultans).

Essasouria:

Originally a Phoenician settlement called Mogador, the town was occupied by the Portuguese in the 15th century and visited by Sir Francis Drake in Christmas 1577. The present shape and character of the town was achieved by Sultan Sidi Mohammed bin Abdallah in 1765. With the help of the French architect Theodore Cornut the medina and city walls were rebuilt.