Morocco stands in such exotic contrast to its European neighbours that it’s hard to believe that the country is just across the Mediterranean from Spain. Despite a strong French influence on Morocco’s cities and high culture, this westernmost country of the Arabic-speaking world is arguably more influenced by the culture of local Berbers, longstanding inhabitants of the area whose language is still spoken in many places.
Few sights in Morocco can rival the covered souk, hawkers and storytellers of Marrakech’s phenomenally lively Djemaa el-Fnaa central square, or its surrounding tangle of ancient streets. Less visited but no less magical is the ancient capital of Fez, with its sprawling old town, ancient university and traditional leatherworking industry. Morocco also offers real peace, notably in the stark, ancient kasbah fortresses and mountain valleys of the High Atlas, the well-kept, sandy beaches near Atlantic Agadir and the easygoing charm of the historic port of Essaouira. Further off the beaten track are the camel trails and eerie beauty of the Moroccan Sahara.
While international visitors often head first for the enchanting labyrinth of Marrakech’s old town, Morocco is full of beguiling cities waiting to be discovered. The royal city of Fez is perhaps the most perfectly preserved medieval settlement in the Arab world, its Medina a seemingly endless network of alleyways, mosques and arched colonnades. Casablanca is the country’s modern heart, with an elegant European look and a sophisticated café culture that recalls Marseilles. The modern beachfront town of Agadir is arguably the most laid-back of Morocco’s major cities, while Mediterranean Tangier is shedding its former louche reputation to rediscover its identity as a charming, cosmopolitan port.
Overlooking Marrakech to the south are the dramatic High Atlas Mountains. With peaks over 4,000 metres, often snow-covered in winter, the mountains also contain terracotta kasbahs such as Ait Benhaddou, fortified villages whose ancient appearance has made them popular film settings. Beyond the mountains lie the rocky expanses and palm oases of the Moroccan Sahara. Morocco can also be surprisingly lush, however. On the Mediterranean coast, the Rif Mountains are covered in oak and cedar forests – they’re also home to the picturesque, powder blue hillside town of Chefchaouen – while the Atlantic Coast’s endless ribbon of beaches is trimmed with green hills and villages where traditional life continues unbroken.