From the outside, it looked like any other of the thousands of grotty buildings vying for space inside the labyrinthine Fes medina. But once through the front doors, its old, dirty and decrepit external walls were a distant memory, replaced by a stunning mosaic floor and exquisite wood carved walls.

Gazing up, we counted three storeys of Moorish palace grandeur. Each looked down on an airy internal courtyard complete with lush citrus trees and a calming fountain. Our guide, Ahmed, tilted his smiling face to one side and clocked our surprise.

“Morocco is like a woman with a veil – from the outside you can’t imagine how beautiful she is,” he said.

This Fes riad, as the Moorish palaces of Morocco are known, is but one of dozens hidden within the walls of the country’s medinas, or old cities.

Some of them are open to the public for a nominal fee – no more than a pound – and provide a rare chance to glimpse Morocco’s hidden world.

Covered, hennaed and confusing to the uninitiated, this isn’t a country that jumps off the page screaming its essence at you.

The people of this constitutional monarchy on the tip of North Africa take a bit of time to warm up. But when they do, and with the help of a guide, Morocco’s secrets come to life.

Most visitors opt to tour the so-called Imperial Cities of Fes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Casablanca, before heading into the Atlas Mountains or south to the extraordinary experience of the Sahara desert. This tasting plate of Morocco also opens the door to the country’s diverse cultures – Berber, Arabic and Moorish – as well as its more recent history as a French protectorate until independence in 1956.


The delights of Fes, also known as the ‘green city’ because of the colour of its many mosques, are to be found inside her bustling and confusing medina, home to a million people and more than a thousand alleyways, some not even wide enough for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder.

It pays to have a guide to get around anarchic Fes, although even with Ahmed by our side, we sometimes felt a bit lost as
he steered us through the souk, or market.

Fes is a shopper’s delight, but getting to meet the local artisans is as much a part of the souk experience as haggling. And that’s where Ahmed came in handy. He showed us the way to the legendary, pungent Fes tanneries, where leather has been treated in the same way for centuries (it’s the pigeon poo that makes it reek so horrifically).

Then he led us deep within the medina to a non-descript building that turned out to be a stunning riad where more than a dozen members of the same family have been weaving sumptuous Moroccan textiles for generations.

And it didn’t stop there. We met carpet weavers and sellers, blacksmiths, potters, mosaic makers and cooks – many of whom we simply never would have stumbled across alone.

Fes is also Morocco’s main Arab town and its spiritual capital.

It’s home to some impressive mosques and theological schools, the most ancient of which include the 12th century Medersa Bou Inania and Medersa el-Attarine.

The Mellah, or Jewish quarter, which dates from the 14th century provides an interesting contrast to the Muslim styles elsewhere. Respectful visits to the extensive whitewashed Jewish cemetery and Ibn Danan Synagogue, which was restored with the help of Unesco in 1999, are welcome.


Morocco’s main Berber town and undoubtedly its centre of tourism is an assault on the senses in quite a different way to Fes. While it can sometimes feel like flogging handicrafts to tourists is the main activity of everyone here, Marrakesh really is a town like no other.

At its heart is the extraordinary Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh’s totally bonkers main square, which is lively any hour of the day, but really comes to life in the late afternoon and evening. Here you’ll see acrobats, snake charmers, henna artists, performing monkeys, musicians and apothecaries competing for space against a phalanx of stalls selling delicious sweet orange juice and barbecued meat and fish.

We grabbed a seat on the terrace at Argana (on the north side of the square) and sipped mint tea, also known as ‘Berber whisky’, while watching the party unfold below.From here, most of Marrakesh’s sites are an easy stroll, including its massive souk stuffed with all manner of handicrafts and spices and where anyone even remotely interested in shopping will be tempted by the hundreds of stall-keepers clamouring to help you part with your safely tucked away dirhams.

The ochre Katoubia dominates the city’s skyline, which at 70 metres tall is the highest minaret for miles. Morocco’s mosques are shut to non-Muslims – a hangover from French colonial times, according to our guide – but you can take a stroll around the pretty gardens at the foot of the building.

Also worth checking out is the stunning 19th century Bahia Palace – built by the grand vizier of the time to house his coterie of concubines – and the ornate Saadian Tombs, the 16th century eternal resting place of 66 privileged princes, which weren’t rediscovered until 1917.

We took a horse and cart tour around the ville nouvelle, or new city, a worthwhile way to see some of the town’s stunning gardens, including the pretty Jardin Marjorelle, which is now owned by French couturier Yves Sant-Laurent.

Also worth a look


There’s not much reason to stay long in this massive modern city immortalised in film by Bogart and Bergman. The only drawcard here is the mind-blowing Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world and the only one in Morocco open to non-Muslims.

Built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday in 1993, it cost more than half a billion US dollars, can hold 25,000 faithful, has a heated floor, electric doors and even a retractable roof. Not kidding.


Morocco’s pleasant bureaucratic centre and official capital is a nice stop-off for traveller’s needing a break from some of the hustle and hassle that can be exhausting elsewhere.

The new city is all wide boulevards and fancy restaurants catering for the city’s expat population, while the medina boasts a lively souk. You can visit the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the ornate resting place of the current king’s grandfather and father Hassan II.

Outside the tomb is Le Tour Hassan – Rabat’s most famous landmark – an unfinished minaret from the 12th century surrounded by dozens of shattered pillars.


Morocco’s largest and best-preserved Roman ruins, about 33km from the town of Meknes and about 80km from Fes, are an unexpected treat. The incredible preserved mosaics left in situ and the 2nd-century sauna, olive press and triumphal arch are must-sees. There’s not much shade, so don’t forget a hat.

The Sahara

Nothing quite prepares you for that first glimpse of true African sand dunes and there’s no better place to visit this magical landscape than at Erg Chebbi, near the tiny town of Merzouga.

Only a day’s stomach-churning drive across the High Atlas mountains from Marrakesh, anyone who’s ever fantasised about being Lawrence of Arabia won’t be disappointed.

We stayed at one of the more than 20 auberges on the edge of the dunes, and were completely charmed by our Berber hosts. We chose to sleep on the roof, by far the coolest place in summer, but could have opted for a traditional Berber tent or even lodge-style accommodation indoors if the climate had been different.

After a night of star-gazing, we woke early and followed our hosts out into the dunes where a waiting convoy of camels shuttled us almost to the top of the tallest dune in the area (we had to walk the last bit because it was too steep for our dromedary friends).

Eat up

Morocco’s food reflects its cultural blend: Moorish, Arabic, Berber and French.

On the menu you’ll find lots of couscous, a native Berber dish, usually topped with a rich stew of vegetables; or meat and tagine, a stew of meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts cooked slowly in an eponymous conical-lidded earthenware dish. Less well known is pastilla, a flaky pastry pie of pigeon or chicken in a lemony sauce with almonds.

Moroccans also love their pastries and there are plenty of bakeries, both Moroccan and French, at which you can sample their delights.

There is no more ubiquitous tipple in Morocco than mint tea. It’s served sweet and is not only an essential part of all culinary experiences, but also part of Moroccan etiquette and ritual in every aspect of life. You’ll even be plied with it while haggling in the souk.

You can sample excellent Moroccan fare while watching traditional Berber, Arabic and Moorish dancing, singing and music at many restaurants in the main towns. Even the ones set up for tourists can be surprisingly high quality. If in Fes, try Palais La Medina (8 Derb Chami; 035-62 92 59).

Staying healthy

Like many developing countries, western travellers to Morocco need to exercise common sense when it comes to staying healthy. Tap water in Morocco is not safe to drink, which means bottled water will become your best friend when you’re thirsty or just want to brush your teeth.

A bottle of anti-bacterial handwash will mean you’ll always have clean hands, even if you’re in the middle of the desert.

Generally speaking, Morocco is just like everywhere else – if you stick to clean-looking establishments you’ll probably enjoy your Moroccan adventure without too many urgent trips to the squat bog.


When to go Spring and autumn are best and mean you’ll avoid the worst of the summer heat and the surprisingly bone-chilling winter nights. Avoid going during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which usually falls in September but is different each year. Many restaurants are closed and people tend to stay at home more during this time.
Getting there A range of carriers fly daily from London to Casablanca and Marrakesh. You can also get a ferry to various ports on the Moroccan coast from southern Spain, France and Gibraltar.
Visas Most visitors to Morocco don’t require visas and are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days. South Africans must apply for a three-month, single-entry visa.
Money The Moroccan dirham £1 = 16.1 MAD.
Language Arabic is the official language, although French is widely spoken.
Vital info If you hear someone shout “balak” in the medina, get out of the way fast or risk being trampled by a ‘Moroccan taxi’ – otherwise known as a donkey.

  • Samantha Baden travelled to Morocco with Topdeck (0208-879 6789; The nine-day Moroccan Explorer tour, taking in Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, the Sahara sand dunes and Todra Gorge, starts at £465, plus a £115 local payment.