Morocco’s desert sand, spicy cuisine and ceramic artistry is nothing short of an African fairy-tale

Morocco – the North African country that is booming with modernism and luxury tourism. Drenched in history yet with innovation at its helm, Morocco’s ‘Red City’ of Marrakech is pioneering this dichotomy by embracing the notion of an Africa reborn. Surrounded by desert and mountains, and bordering the Atlantic Ocean, this cultural hub offers an experience that is both traditional and modern, contrasting its Mediterranean heritage with contemporary treasures that include ‘souks’, boutique hotels and museums filled with ancient artefacts. 

Stay

Boutique hotel Ryad Dyor Marrakech is a charming illustration of how a traditional ‘riad’ is transformed into a place of modern comfort. The hotel is idyllic with traditional artworks and leather craftsmanship adorning its interiors. Besides the cosy suites, it is situated near a hammam spa, where weary travellers can enjoy a pamper session, and is on the doorstep of the most popular tourist sites in the Red City. 

Known for its enchanting gardens, the Ksar Char-Bagh Relais & Chateaux is where Morocco’s French flair is brought to life. Visitors have the option of opulent suites that overlook an exclusive garden or apartments with terraces. Situated 10 minutes from the city centre, the Chateaux’s amenities — a billiard room, spa, crystal pool, and cigar cellar and smoking lounge — is reminiscent of a bygone era.


Amenities at the Ryad Dyor Marrakech.

A few miles away, in the Moroccan mountain range known as Middle Atlas, Michlifen Resort & Golf is a five-star getaway that presents a unique perspective on the country. Luxurious alpine chalets  that are open during summer as well as winter, when the country — quite surprisingly — experiences snowfall, entrance guests in 
a wonderland that is a far cry from the desert landscape that is generally associated with Morocco
Golfing, spa days and hikes through the Ifrane National Park are par for the course or, for the more docile, the Château Roslane Boutique Hotel and Spa’s vineyard serves a stellar glass of wine.

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While feasting on Moroccan cuisine is wonderful, mastering its flavours is a priceless skill. Dar Chef restaurant in Marrakech offers an authentic cooking class where participants lean hearty Moroccan recipes and are immersed in the experience by having to buy all the ingredients from souks in Medina, which is the old part of the city, prior to the class.

Food is not the only highlight of the city, though. Morocco is rich in arts and culture and has more than 15 museums, most notably the Dar Batha Museum and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent.

Housed in an old royal palace in Fez, the Dar Batha – also known as the Qasr al-Batha – displays ancient collectables such as delicate jewellery, historical documents, cobalt-blue pottery and iron work. The ‘zellij’ flooring, giant medieval-style doors and courtyards with huge fountain centrepieces are breath-taking, to say the least.

Over in Marrakech, the newly opened Musée Yves Saint Laurent is a tribute to the fashion legend and is home to up to 5 000 unique haute couture pieces, ranging from textiles to accessories, as well as mood boards and sketches that have shaped the designer’s career. The museum is also home to an incredible liberal arts library, accessible by appointment to researchers of archeology, curatorship, history and art.

The Koutoubia Mosque is another exemplar illustration of momentous architecture stooped in history. Its unique style was a collaborative effort between the Berbers and 12th-century military commander Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansurin. Unfortunately, the mosque can only be admired from outside by non-Muslims as they are prohibited from entering.

North of Marrakech, in Tangier, a port on the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cave of Hercules brings the myth of the great Greek hero Heracles to life with day tours to this natural beauty. The entrance of the cave faces land whilst the exit overlooks the sea and is shaped in a reverse map of the African continent.

Dine

Influenced by the Renaissance era, the Grand Café de la Poste has a French-inspired menu and ambiance. Head chef Philippe Duranton prepares his dishes with only the freshest of garden vegetables and the highest quality of butchered meats, and the menu is updated with new additions and special offers on a weekly basis. Signature dishes include traditional steak tartare, duck confit and a French cheese selection. 

For genuine Moroccan cuisine, NOMAD restaurant is the ideal location for a delicious tagine. Located in Medina, the restaurant has four floors with an option of dining on the rooftop terrace. It is renowned for its ‘modern Moroccan cuisine’ and also caters for vegetarians and pescatarians (the roasted cauliflower and fish-ball tagine are tasty options, respectively) while carnivores can tuck into the decadent lamb tagine. 


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Lamb tagine served in an earthenware bowl. Photo: © Unsplash

Known as Moors, the mixed Arab inhabitants of Morocco have contributed greatly to the flavours of the city. At La Sqala Café in Casablanca, exquisite fountains with blue mosaic tiling is contrasted by traditional Moor dishes such as kemias, kefta and méchoui. The ambience is reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style café, enhanced by the greenery of plants that surround the courtyard.

For a complete luxury dining experience, La Table at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech proffers white tableclothes, stunning silverware and elegant decor coupled with a lavish menu that boasts grilled lobster with ginger butter as well as a hearty black angus rib-eye steak. 

‘Souk’

Truly delving into the heart of Morocco means exploring the wide variety of souks that pulsate in each major city. The most infamous soul, Jemaa El Fna, can be found in the centre of Marrakech. A massive city square packed with merchants and to which most of the surrounding alleyways lead, it is here that local traders and craftsmen display their finest work in the form of ornaments, street food, jewellery and more – a souvenir collector’s absolute dream. The vibrancy of the square is enhanced by singers and musicians performing for passersby and neighbouring riads to enjoy. 


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Fashion, food and crafts can all be found at the busy Marrakechi souks across the city. Photo: © Unsplash

For a further examination of craftsmanship, Tamegroute – a village located in the Draa River valley – is host to a cacophony of intricate handwork, including tagines, plates and bowls, created by humble local artists. The materials used for these creations are sourced from the area and the Draa riverbed, where ingredients for the green glaze many potters use as a coat for their ceramics is found.

Over at the Fez Tannery, fashion lovers will be spoilt for choice with the wealth of bags, purses and wallets on sale, each design stitched to perfection. Visitors are also given a chance to witness the production of natural leather and the creation of the products on display.


Learn the lingo

Riad – A multi-story house with inward-facing windows that overlook a courtyard in the middle of the building

Souk – A craft market or bazaar

Tagine – An earthenware pot made of clay or ceramic (1); A Maghrebi dish named after the earthenware pot it is cooked in (2) 

Kémia – A variety of appetizers such as tapas

Kefta – A dish similar to meatballs

Méchoui – Barbequed lamb


A version of this article first appeared in Edition 3-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.