Arrival into Tanger airport, where you will be welcomed by your guide and privately transferred to your accommodation in the city.
North of Morocco and Legendary Cities (10 days)
After breakfast, your guide will meet you at the lobby of your hotel for a guided tour of Tanger.
Tangier was probably founded by the Phoenicians. It was a free city under the Romans and the main commercial center of Morocco until the founding of Fès. It was captured from the Moors by the Portuguese in 1471 and transferred to England as part of the dowry that Catherine of Braganza brought to Charles II. During the colonial era, Tangier remained under international control until 1956, when it was returned to Morocco.
William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote, and above all, Paul Bowles ….are some of the famous writers who fell in love with Tangier.
Tangier's unique literary history is in part due to its spell as an international free zone, from 1923 to 1956. During this time, its lawlessness was infamous. Burroughs described it as a magnet for 'junkies, queers, and drunks.' Ginsberg and Kerouac visited it on several occasions, as did Timothy Leary. Their crazy adventures together often found a way into Beat books.
The Tangier canon includes America by Allen Ginsberg, Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles, Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet and more recently, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
For Bowles the fascination with Tangier lay in the city itself. He loved its peoples, its diversity of life, its literature. He dedicated a vast portion of his life to translating many local authors, effectively making possible the knowledge of Moroccan literature to the Western world. He lived in Tangier for most of his lifetime, until his death in 1999.
Your will visit the colourful Grand Soco-market, the typical Moorish cafés, and the fortified Kasbah, one of the city's main attractions. The old Jewish quarter is very interesting and there's a synagogue that can be visited.
Chef Chaouen, Morocco
After breakfast, visit the famous Caves of Hercules, located on the Atlantic coast.
Continue your way to the white and blue city Chefchaouen, one of the most beautiful places in the north of Morocco, where Andalousian art and traditions are still part of everyday life.
Chefchaouen is known by its medina of shady alleys, whitewashed houses with blue turquoise doors, wrought iron windows and tile covered roofs. This holy city has about twenty mosques and sanctuaries. The local markets of Chaouen are animated with traditionally dressed habitants and colourful goods beautifully displayed.
At 660m altitude and with very little traffic of cars, the clean and fresh air invites you to spend some time to discover the beauty of the place and its surroundings, such as Bab el-Ansar and the famed Ras el-Maa, the source of the pure and fresh water for which the city is so famous. It is possible to go for a stroll next to a brook to watch the women washing clothes, and see how the hydraulic mills still work. This precious walk takes us to the Rif Sebbanin, the laundry district, with the Seat of Sebbanin and its mosque of century XV. Either you continue the route here until you reach the center of the Medina again or you go to the new city.
Fès Le Nouveau, Morocco
Moulay Idriss, Morocco
Chef Chaouen, Morocco
After breakfast, we leave the magical town of Chef Chaouen and continue to the imperial city of Fes. The landscape between Chefchauen and Fes is just amazing. En route, you will stop at the holy city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. This holy town holds a very special place in the hearts of the Moroccan people. It was here that Moulay Idriss I arrived in 789, bringing with him the religion of Islam, and starting a new dynasty.
Because of its sacred nature, foreigners were not allowed to enter Moulay Idriss until not so long ago; and non Muslims were not allowed to spend the night within its walls.
Time for lunch in a charming restaurant owned by photographer Mr Mike Lilley, the first foreigner who was allowed to buy a property at Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. His restaurant is perched on one of two hills of this ancient town where Moulay Idriss el Akhbar is buried. It has the exciting allure of a place not yet struck by the unpleasantness of mass tourism.
The climb to the top of the hill is steep, but worth it because of the incredible mountain views from the white minimalist terrace of the restaurant. Enjoy your scrambled eggs with desert truffles, or your Moroccan barbecue, the house speciality.
Continue your way to the Imperial city of Meknes, known as the “Moroccan Versailles” and founded in the 17th century by King Moulay Ismail. Meknes is famous for its 25-milelong walls. There are numerous historic sites to see and here we name but a few; The massive gate of Bab Mansour, the Bassin de L’Agdal - a massive 400m x 100m pool dating back some 300 years - and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of only three Moroccan shrines that non-Muslims can visit.
The Bou Inania Medersa, an Islamic educational institution, was built by Merenid Sultan Abu el Hassan and finished by his successor Sultant Abou Inan around 1340 – 1350. This is the Meknes version of the educational institution by the same name in Fes, more beautiful and better preserved than its more famous twin.
Continue to Fes, arriving in the late afternoon.
Fès Le Nouveau, Morocco
After your breakfast, your guide will meet you at the lobby of your hotel for guided tour of Fes:
Fes el Bali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded in the 9th century, and it is home to what is probably the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries under the Merinids, when it replaced Marrakech as the capital of the kingdom. The urban fabric and the principal monuments in the medina – madrasas, fondouks, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains - date from this period. Although the political capital of Morocco was transferred to Rabat in 1912, Fez has retained its status as the country's cultural and spiritual centre.
Artisan workshops in the medina are as active today as 100 years ago, and strongly contribute to the city’s industrial economy. Trades such as metal and leather working, ceramics, silk, tapestries, and sculpting are still practiced in these workshops. Original ramparts still protect the ancient city and its’ 9000 passageways and narrow streets.
We drive via the Mechouer to the impressive Dar el-Makhzen for a 15 minute stop at the Royal Palace with its magnificent seven bronze gates. From here we walk to and through the Mellah, the ancient Jewish quarter, with its intense atmosphere and fine examples of Hispano-Moresque architecture. We climb up to the Borj Sud to enjoy a panoramoc view of the medina. Off now down to start our walking tour of its labyrinthine and narrow alleys ; of the colourful es-Sebbaghine quarter with its Street of the Dyers; of the brass workers at es–Seffarine; of the aromas of the Souq el–Atterine and its zouk of spices and groceries; of the impressive al–Quarawiyyin Mosque and University, the el – Attarine Medersa; the Kissaria and the Draz, where you’ll see materials being woven the traditional way with really old fashioned looms including the nearly extinct drawloom, still in use in Fes; the renowned tanneries on the bank of the Oued Fes; the Zaouia Moulay Idriss and the delightful el-Nejjarine Square with its fountain and caravanserai and onto the potteries, perfumes and beauty products at the souq el-Henna.
In the late afternoon, you will be transferred to a local house for a Sufi dinner with a Fassi family; this is a good opportunity for round-table exchange conversation. Most Fes homes are decorated in the traditional Moorish style with intricate mosaics and plasterwork adorning the walls and ceilings. You will enjoy live Sufi musical entertainment during your meal, cooked by the lady of the house; dine in the patio, in a private salon, in the garden, or on the roof terrace (depending on the season, and the size of your host's home). You will be served the typical three-course Fassi meal (Fassi meaning "from Fes"), during and after dinner, the Sufi brothers will conduct their performance for you (there will be a group of no more than 5 brothers). You can join in and dance and let the music inspire your innermost thoughts.
(Sufism is a dimension of Islam; Sufis see themselves as on a spiritual journey towards the Divine during their lifetime. Sound and music are important tools in Sufism in the sense that they allow the believer to become closer to the God. Whether it's singing, listening, or surrendering to their ritual, rhythmic whirling dances, Sufi followers often enter into a trance that awakens the soul's consciousness. The most common instruments in Moroccan Sufism are the reed flute and the frame drum. A rich body of literature and poetry has been written to guide mystics through their spiritual journey, often describing feelings of love, the deepest aspects of the human soul, and encounters with the Divine. Sufi brotherhoods (tarikas) are common in Morocco, and music is an integral part of their spiritual tradition, in contrast to most other forms of Islam, which do not use music).
Fès Le Nouveau, Morocco
After breakfast, you'll be transferred to Rabat, the administrative capital of Morocco since the independence of the country. En route, visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis, qualified by UNESCO as ‘an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Roman Empire’.
Volubilis started in 3rd Century BC as a Phoenician settlement. Under Roman dominion as from 1st Century AD, it developed very quickly, with olive growing as the motor of its economy. It had temples, a triumphal arch, and a basilica, as well as public baths and beautiful mansions and villas. It was taken by Berber tribes towards the end of the 3rd Century AD and never went back to Roman hands, due to its remoteness, which made defence unfeasible. However, it continued to be inhabited, falling into gradual dereliction and decline, until at least the 11th Century.
Excavated by the French during the colonial era, these ruins are truly beautiful and contain well preserved mosaics, columns, the remains of a big temple and a basilica, and some town villas and palaces.
Continue to Rabat, where you will arrive in the afternoon.
After breakfast, you'll be met by your guide and driver for a visit of Rabat. Recently granted UNESCO Heritage Site status, Rabat, the administrative capital of Morocco, was founded in 1146 by the Almohads, as a fortress (the name Rabat comes from the Arabic ribaat, meaning ‘fortified place’) from where to launch attacks on Spain. A few years after the capital of the Empire was moved there by Yaqub al Mansour, under whose reign the Koutoubia in Marrakech had been built. He started to build in Rabat what would be the world’s largest mosque at the time, but works stopped when he died; the unfinished minaret known as Hassan Tower – less than half its intended height – bear witness of this attempt. Yaqub al Mansour also erected the city walls and expanded and restored the Kasbah of the Udayas, former stronghold of the Almoravids in the area. He also turned the ruins of the Roman city Sala Colonia, the Chellah, into a royal necropolis, which was further enriched by the Merenids in the 14th Century with the addition of monuments and buildings, and the magnificent main gate, dated 1339. Nowadays the Chellah is home to the best Archaeology Museum in Morocco.
After the death of Yaqub al Mansour the city fell into a period of decline. However, the arrival of Moriscos and Jews expelled from Spain in the early 17th Century revitalised it. Together with the neighbouring Sale, Rabat formed the independent Republic of Bou Regreg in 1627 – a corsair republic which was to cause much trouble both to European and Muslim ships until its collapse in 1818.
In Rabat is located also the Mausoleum of Mohamed V, grandfather of the current King of Morocco. A masterpiece of modern Moroccan architecture, it can be visited by non-believers.
After lunch, continue to Marrakech, a drive of approximately 4 hours.
Marrakech enjoys a legend status which conveys the ideas of mystery, sensuality, and exoticism. Its influence and fame has been so strong and intense in the history of Morocco, that as a matter of fact the country was named after the city.
Marrakech was founded in 1062 by one of the chieftains of the Almoravid king Youssuf Ibn Tashfin. The Almoravids were desert warriors, very much attached to their Islamic religion; the original garrison developed very quickly into a city where numerous mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools) were built. Andalousian craftsmen built and decorated several palaces, merging their style with the Saharan and African traditions, which gave the city a distinctive architectural flavour. The Almoravids also erected the city walls, and created a complex system of underground irrigation canals to bring water from the High Atlas, the khettara – a system still in use to water the several gardens of the city.
At its height, Marrakech was the capital of the Almoravid empire, which stretched as far as Senegal, most part of Spain, and Algiers. In 1147 the Almohads, tribesmen from the High Atlas mountains who practised orthodox Islam, sacked the city, replacing the Almoravids as rulers of the empire, and destroying many of the palaces and mosques of their predecessors. New ones were built soon, though, including the famous Koutoubia mosque, which dates from this period. Ever since, alternate ages of splendour and decline sculpted Marrakech’s unique and charming character, at once decadent and full of life.
Nowadays, Marrakech is a vibrant city which exhibits a curious blend of the ancient and the modern, allowing travellers the chance to experience the genuine medieval atmosphere of the old medina, and visit the trendiest bars, art galleries and restaurants in the French Quarter, Guéliz, built at the beginning of the 20th Century, all in one day.
Highlights of your visit will include:
Djemaa El Fna, the Square
Nobody knows for certain of the origin of this square, whose name evokes, in Arabic, the contradictory notions of assembly or gathering, and that of absence. Probably as old as the city itself, it was a place for public executions during the day, and the meeting point of musicians, mystics, food sellers, pickpockets, acrobats, snake charmers, storytellers, dancers, fortune tellers and other exotic characters at night (happily enough, nowadays it only retains its more playful aspect). Watching sunset from one of its terraces when the call to prayer from the Koutoubia minaret fills the air is one of these ‘zen’ moments that Morocco offers – do not miss it!
Despite its lack of significant monuments, Djemaa el Fna became an UNESCO Heritage Site in 1985, as one of the last places in the world where old oral narratives are still enacted.
Built in the 16th Century as mausoleums for some Saadian rulers and their families, the Saadian Tombs were unknown of until they were discovered by the French in 1917 thanks to aerial photographs. The site comprises more than one hundred graves, distributed in 3 mausoleums whose decoration exemplifies Islamic architecture with floral motifs, calligraphy, zellij and carrara marble, and finely worked cedar wood and stucco. Outside the buildings are a garden and the graves of soldiers and servants.
The Koutoubia Mosque
Built by the Almohads in the late years of 12th Century, the Koutoubia Mosque, and specially its minaret, is the most important landmark of Marrakech, and a symbol of the city itself. The minaret served as model for the Giralda in Sevilla and the unfinished Tour Hassan in Rabat, all three being designed by the same architect. Koutoubia means ‘booksellers’, as the trade of books was concentrated in the neighbourhood during the Middle Ages. The minaret of the Koutoubia, 77 meters high, is visible from almost any point of the city – an old ordinance, still in force, forbids any building of Marrakech to surpass the Koutoubia minaret in height.
El Bahia Palace
Built in the late 19th Century, and decorated by the best artisans of Morocco at the time, this palace – intended to be the most magnificent of its age – features an exquisite blend of Andalousian and Moorish styles. Specially interesting are the harem apartments, the trapezoidal garden, and a huge tiled courtyard with fountains.
The Madrasa Ben Youssef
Ancestors of modern universities, the ancient madrasas were theological colleges which concentrated also all scientific and philosophic knowledge of their age, providing both lodging and education to students. The Madrasa Ben Youssef was founded by Merinid sultan Abu-al-Hassan in the 14th Century, and the geometric patterns of its decoration have attracted the attention not only of artists but also of mathematicians, as they exhaust the catalogue of all possible geometric figures. Its 130 student dormitory cells once housed as many as 900 students, and cluster around a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco. This masterpiece of Islamic art was in use for centuries, until it closed in 1960.
Filling the alleys north of Djmaa el Fna is the souk, or traditional market – the largest one in Morocco. It is, in turn, subdivided in some 18 souks, each one of them devoted to a specific trade or craftsmanship – from spices or ironwork, to the ingredients necessary for casting magic spells. The number of shops – often not much bigger in size than a closet - is overwhelming, and in them Moroccans can indulge in one of the activities that they enjoy most: bargaining. Cunning, patience, sense of humour, and strategy are needed for the game. Try your skills at it!
After breakfast, you'll be taken on a day trip to Essaouira, just 3 hours away from Marrakech.
Although the area of Essaouira has been populated since pre-historical times, the town as we know it was developed in the 18th Century by Mohammed III, after the Portuguese built a stronghold against pirates there, two centuries before.
Mohammed III hired the services of a French engineer, Théodore Cornut, as well as several other European architects and technicians who shaped the town and created the Kasbah, the harbour entrance, and the fortifications. The port of Essaouira became the most important in Morocco, European powers established there diplomatic representations, and Moroccan Jews were encouraged to settle in the town in order to take the reins of the trade with Europe – at some point, Jews amounted to 40% of the population, and its mellah or Jewish quarter contains many old synagogues. Essaouira is famous also for its connection to the Gnawa, descendants of sub-Saharan slaves of the Arabs who came along their masters when the Arab invasion of Morocco, and who regard the town as their spiritual centre.
All this incredible blend of races and influences has given Essaouira its unmistakable flavour. Its Medina is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and a haven for bohemians following its popularisation by Orson Welles – who used Essaouira as location for his cinematic version of Otello – and the visit of musicians such as Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix. The artisans of the medina are famous in Morocco for their dexterity in working with wood, and the town has a flourishing painting scene, with several art galleries open to the public. Music is also a local passion and the Gnawa Festival of World Music, held annually in June, attracts nearly half a million spectators from all over the world.
The beach of Essaouira, always windy, is regarded as one of the best worldwide for wind and kite surfing. Local gastronomy places logically an emphasis on fish and sea food (of excellent quality, and available in Essaouira at a fraction of their Western prices), and it is delicious. The town’s countryside is beautiful and home to the Argan tree, from which Argan oil, of curative and cosmetic properties, is extracted. There’s a French owned vineyard not far from the town which produces excellent wine – the only vineyard in Morocco located outside the most traditional growing areas of Meknes. Horse and camel riding, trekking, and other pleasant outdoor activities, are also available in Essaouira.
Return to Marrakech at the end of the afternoon.
At the time scheduled, you'll be transferred to Marrakech Airport in time for your flight home - have a safe journey!
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A comprehensive tour of Morocco including the not so well known Northern areas, the Imperial cities, and Essaouira.
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