Hooked on Morocco: A guide to this Colourful Country
Once you’ve acquired a taste for the spicy scents, sights and sounds of Marrakech, you’d be forgiven for wanting to see more. Morocco is amazingly diverse: from the vast dunes of the Sahara desert in the east, across the striking Atlas range that run its length, to its Atlantic and Mediterranean shores in the west and the north, there’s plenty to add to your list of Insta moments.
First Stop, Fes
Although flights from Marrakech to Fes are regular, the eight-hour train trip is easier on the pocket and worth the experience of meeting local travellers. Fes is the most ancient of Morocco’s imperial cities (founded in 789 AD) and, once you’ve passed through the Blue Gate (Bab Boujiloud, its principal entrance), there’s a wealth of history and medieval architecture at every turn. Fes’ dense medina is every bit as labyrinthine as that of Marrakech, but with even narrower lanes, so opt for a tour – our guide was a very knowledgeable and accommodating history teacher.
Because the old city is car-free, transport is powered by humans or donkeys, and the pleasant din of the souks and children playing in the street continues unchecked by the honking of car hooters. Visit Kairouine Mosque and University, considered the oldest in the world; Neijarine Square and the Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts, near the carpentry souk in the middle of the medina; the Islamic schools Medersa Bou Inania and Medersa Al-Attarine, both adorned in zellige tiles and ornate stucco work; one of the state-run carpet co-ops that represent the weaving of different tribal groups; and the famously pungent Chouara tannery, with its ancient, multihued dyeing vats.
Haggling is inevitable if you’re tempted to part with your dirhams – but Fes purveyors are way more relaxed about their sales efforts, compared to Marrakech… Look out for the public bakeries, where stooped doorways reveal windowless chambers and wood-fired ovens that produce the locals’ quota of khobz loaves daily. As the old city’s ‘eyes and ears’, the bakers always know when there’s an extra guest staying or if someone is away. Take a break from the hubbub with a day trip through Fes’ surrounding vineyards, wheatfields and mint plantations to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, about 30km from the town of Meknès.
The Blue City
There’s a reason Chefchaouen in north-west Morocco is known as the Blue Pearl. An easy three-hour drive from Fes through rolling hills and picturesque cedar forests brings you to ‘Chaouen’, as it’s known, perched in the foothills of the Rif Mountains, and about 40km from Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. This pretty, indigo-washed destination was once a defensive outpost for Rif-based Berber tribes against attacks by Portugal, and expanded quickly in the late 1400s when Andalusian Muslims and Jews sought refuge here from their oppressors.
The town was occupied by Spain as late as 1920 until Moroccan independence in 1956, but its street signs and favoured second language remain Spanish (unlike the other colonial tongue adopted by other major Moroccan cities – French). The Jewish residents began painting their homes a vivid sky blue in the 1930s, and Chaouen’s picture-perfect charm has attracted camera-toting travellers ever since. Expect an unhurried, cool atmosphere in which to browse the small medina, unhindered by eager sellers (and prices are reasonable).
It’s a vibrantly colourful space, with smiling, Ddellaba-clad inhabitants going about their daily business as numerous well-fed felines loll about on sunny steps. And if you’re up for a stroll in the surrounding hills, Chaouen is a perfect starting point for many nearby hiking trails.