Countless stories weave around the rich tapestry of Moroccan culture, immediately springing stories like A Thousand and One Nights to mind A^- conjuring images of boisterous, energetic marketplace and hawkers shouting out wares and magical potions. Morocco, a land of mystical discovery is a journey that begins in a kingdom almost as old as civilisation when it first began. One canA^'t help but be drawn by its diversity in architectural and cultural appeal. Morocco's history began with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the 2nd millennium BC. Although external Arab rule lasted little more than a century, the arrival of Islam proved to be a permanent addition to Moroccan culture. By the 15th century Spain and Portugal began to intrude into Morocco, after having expelled the Moors from their own lands. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great. Today the country is ruled by King Mohammed VI as he leads Morocco toward both long-term stability and a greater degree of economic prosperity.
The fourth of the imperial cities, Rabat is a curious mix of a long history and a contemporary modern day world. In the 12th century, the then Sultan used the Kasbah (citadel) as a base for campaigns against the Spanish. It was during this time that the city's most famous landmarks sprang up. A haven for Muslims driven out of Spain in the early 17th century and a capital city only since the days of French occupation, Rabat's ambience comes from Islam and Europe in fairly equal proportions. For every place of worship there are three or four European-style cafes.
Marrakech Al Badi Palace
TodayA^'s Casablanca is no longer the same sleepy dive depicted in the movie featuring Humphrey Bogart. Morocco's largest city and industrial centre is a huge brash metropolis where traditional Moroccan burnouses (cloaks) seem out of place among the natty suits and designer sunglasses. This port city was deep in decline until the French decided to remodel it with wide boulevards, public parks and imposing Mauresque (Moorish) civic buildings. Casablanca's medina, or ancient quarter, is worth a look, and the Hassan II Mosque here is one of the largest in the world.
The oldest of the imperial cities, FA~?s is arguably the symbolic heart of Morocco. Its labyrinthine streets and crumbling grandeur add to its intrigue. The medina of FA~?s el-Bali (Old FA~?s) is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world, and its gates and walls are magnificent. Unlike many walled cities, Old FA~?s hasn't burst its banks. The population has instead exploded out towards the southwest and spread to the hillsides in an arc stretching north and south of the new city. Within the old city is the towering Medersa Bou Inania, a theological college built in 1350.
One of Morocco's most important cultural centres, Marrakesh is a lively former capital famed for its markets and festivals. Its wildly beating heart is the Place Djemaa el-Fna, a huge square in the old city. Rows of open-air food stalls are set up here and mouth-watering aromas fill the air. Jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, magicians, acrobats and assorted benign lunatics take over the rest of the space. The souqs (markets) here are among the best in Morocco and a large budget hotel strip makes exploring the old city area cheap and easy.
While it's a compelling sort of city and a popular port of entry for tourists, Tangier is also home to some of the world's best hustlers. Perched on Morocco's northern tip, its international flavour remains strong as does its reputation for inspiring shady deals and harbouring foreign misfits.The city's central Petit Socco is the focus of attention. Back in the days when Tangier was a neutral international zone, this area provided the background for the seediest of lifestyles and it hasn't completely lost this air. It's the kasbah that interests many visitors.
This town is the most popular of Morocco's coastal spots with independent travellers, and only rarely do you see package tours here. Essaouira has a beautiful beach that curves for kilometres to the south. Those who've had enough haggling and jostling in the big cities will be glad to hear this town can be summed up in one word: relaxing. The forts of the old city are a blend of Portuguese, French and Berber military architecture, and their massiveness lends a powerful mystique to the town.
This unspectacular town about halfway down Morocco's Atlantic coast is a good base for hiking trips in the surrounding hills and to Berber villages. Just outside it is an eccentric array of rocks painted by a Belgian artist behind the strange attraction.
Near the High Atlas town of Tinerhir, at the end of a lush valley of palms and villages, hemmed in by barren craggy mountains, is one of Morocco's most glorious sights. The Todra Gorge is some 300m (984ft) high but only 10m (33ft) wide at its narrowest point, with a river running through it. Although the main gorge can be explored in half a day, it's best to head further up the gorge towards Tinerhir. There are numerous kasbahs and the locals are friendly. Rock climbing is becoming popular on the gorge's vertical rock face and camping around the base is also an attractive option.
Volubilis is the site of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco. It dates largely from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, although excavations have revealed that the site was originally settled by Carthaginian traders even earlier. Signposting is minimal, so hiring a guide is recommended. There's a hotel and also other camping facilities readily available.