Africa & The Middle East
Morocco: A Land of
Color and Contrast
The riot of colors, the cacophony of sounds—Morocco is nothing if not a visceral experience. Considered the melting pot of Africa, this is where the ancient traditions of the Berber, Bedouin, Arabs and North Africans intermingle and thrive, where Imperial cities are filled with opulent pleasure palaces and mysterious medinas, and where the legendary Sahara meets the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Rich in culture, diverse in landscape, Morocco has an allure that has attracted the creative and curious for hundreds of years. Now more popular than ever with Western travelers, this rapidly modernizing country has adapted as it always has, by integrating newcomers with open arms and an innate sense of hospitality. Invitations to share a glass of mint tea and cheerful greetings of As-Salaam-Alaikum (Peace be unto you) are easy to come by, as are palace hotels as exquisite as any in the world and jewel-like riads that have been renovated into opulent guesthouses.
Days begin early in Marrakech, when before sunrise the call to prayer rings out across the city. As the sun warms the cobblestone streets, the city comes to life, reaching a midday crescendo of frenzied activity that won’t break until late in the evening. While exciting new restaurants and chic boutiques have popped up across the city (Le Trou au Mur and 33 Rue Majorelle are two favorites) and the recently opened Musée Yves St Laurent draws crowds from abroad, much of this medieval city remains unchanged, creating not so much a clash of old and new, as an exhilarating co-existence.
While most travelers head straight for the circus-like atmosphere of Djemaa el-Fna or the bustling central souks, there is a quieter, more sophisticated side to Marrakech that is prized for its timeless elegance. Morroco has long been a Muslim country, a place where public modesty is a sacred value. This state of being is reflected in the city’s architecture, where simple wooden doors hide lush gardens and enchanting courtyards, dazzling mansions and opulent riads. These spaces, masterpieces of design and craftsmanship, are for many the essence of the city.
Fez is a place of mystery, a city that doesn’t easily reveal its secrets. The ancient medina, a warren of 9,000 impossibly narrow alleyways, is infamous for its Escher-like complexity. Endless twists and turns, dead-ends and tunnels—unless one has a penchant for getting hopelessly lost, a good guide is a must. With the right navigator, however, the richness of the city slowly unfolds. Private courtyard paradises, artisans whose craft has been perfected over generations, fragrant tajines and sticky honey-laced treats, this is the Fez worth seeking.
For all its medieval allure, the medina can also be intense, even overwhelming at times, and after a morning of exploring, returning to one’s riad for a dip in the pool or a few hours in the hammam is a welcome escape. Paul Bowles once described these traditional courtyard houses as “a little Alhambra of one’s own.” The comparison is apt, especially for the elegant Palais Amani, where the sweet-smelling citrus gardens and refined interiors of mosaic-tiled floors and stained-glass windows make for the perfect Moroccan bolthole.
Like ripples extending out in every direction, the Sahara’s undulating dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. Silence reigns here—where the desert’s vastness is matched only by the seemingly boundless sky. During the day, the landscape’s restricted palate is a minimalist’s delight. At night, a deep darkness overtakes the land, relaxing the mind and body as a thousand points of light shine down from above. Saharan nights are unforgettable, the vivid red sunsets are spectacular and the enveloping solitude is soul stirring.
The Atlas Mountains
High in the Atlas Mountains, the snow-tipped peak of Mount Toubkal stretches toward the sky. At 13,500 feet, it rivals the Matterhorn, although any similarity to the surrounding landscape ends there. While the mountains themselves are breathless, the foothills are captivating. Bordering the Sahara, the eastern side of the range is a wild, almost primordial land, where the red, boulder-strewn earth gives way to deep gorges and sharp crags. In the valleys, on the more fertile western side, brilliant green terraced gardens cling to the side of hills and walnut groves provide welcome shade.
Only a short drive from Marrakesh, some of the most spectacular roads in the world can be found here. Although not for the faint of heart, the R704, the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, is an exhilarating ride. As the road winds upward, the horizon expands into a series of breathtaking vistas. This is the land of the Berber, a place where nomads roam and crumbling kasbahs dot the landscape. The countryside here is filled with surprises, from the Valley of the Roses, where shocking pink blossoms cover the land, to the dry red rock of the dramatic Dades Gorges. The disparity is startling, although it shouldn’t be, Morocco is after all the land of color and contrast.