Time Out's ultimate guide to Morocco

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Fascinating cities, diverse architecture, cool coastal resorts and, of course, kasbahs – Jade Bremner gives you a breakdown on where to go in the exotic North African country

If the physical environment of Morocco has more than its fair share of beauty and drama, the built environment is equally entrancing and diverse. Some towns have a local colour: Marrakech is known as the red city (well, it’s more ochre, really); Chefchaouen is blue. The past is written on the peaks and valleys of the Atlas Mountains in the form of abandoned earth-coloured kasbahs or fortified palaces; it’s also very much present in the green-tiled roofs and intricate multicoloured mosaic tiling of medieval Fès.

The restoration drive, now spreading throughout the country, is responsible for some of Morocco’s loveliest hotels, combining traditional aesthetics, artisanship and materials with modern comforts, as well as ensuring the future of historical monuments. Have always wanted to visit the country but don’t know where to start? Try these…

Almeln Valley and Tafroute 
Trekkers in the Anti Atlas have known for decades about the relaxed, high-altitude rural idyll of Tafroute, as well as the landscape that surrounds the town (cloud-capped peaks, deep valleys and gorges). The Almeln Valley is dotted with tiny, thriving villages, but Tafroute is something special, with its spectacular surroundings making it seem cosier and more welcoming than your average Moroccan town. The region is renowned for its almond harvests, which find their way into delicious couscous and tagine dishes.

Asilah 
Today one of Morocco’s cosiest and most charming coastal resorts, Asilah nonetheless possesses a swashbuckling history of Barbary pirates, Riffian rebels and battles on its 15th century ramparts. The smart and busy Zallaka in the Ville Nouvelle is a hub of decent restaurants and seafront avenues, but you can still get a taste of the romantic past by walking through the Bab Bhar gate into the town’s incredibly well-preserved Medina.

Casablanca 
Preconceptions of Casablanca are often wrong. Glamorous visions of Humphrey Bogart and intrigue in the kasbah bear little relation to this thoroughly modern metropolis. In many ways Casa, as everyone calls it, is more Marseille than Maghreb. This is the country’s economic powerhouse: the principal port, centre of finance, industry, commerce, media and manufacturing.

Detailed town planning and other large infrastructure projects by the French in the early 20th century have shaped the modern city. The resulting economic and property boom left a legacy of myriad 20th century architectural styles, particularly art deco and its colonial spin-off, Mauresque. There are deco gems everywhere, not all of them well preserved.

In Casablanca today, residential boulevards that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills, along with chic French restaurants and beach clubs, play host to Morocco’s wealthiest and most Westernised people. And while the city’s seafront is dominated by the immensity of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is also home to North Africa’s largest Jewish population, consisting mainly of well-off, middle-class Moroccans.

Chefchaouen
Folded high in the inaccessible crags of the Rif Mountains, this remote hideaway has a bewitching, storybook atmosphere to match its fairytale history as a retreat for rebels and European adventurers. Its ancient crafts and diverse heritage have been perfectly preserved, along with its stone-walled streets and impressive Spanish mosque and kasbah.

Dadés Valley 
The Dadés Valley runs between the High Atlas mountains to the north and the Jebel Sarho to the south. Also called ‘The Valley of the Kasbahs’, many fortress cities litter the route as a reminder of the civilisation that once flourished here. It’s the most barren of the southern valleys, which makes palm-strewn oases like Skoura all the more beautiful, and dramatic, twisting gorges like Dadés and Todra all the more spectacular.

Fès 
For many travellers, the city of Fès still represents the ‘real Morocco’: a medieval, labyrinthine Medina, distinctive Arabesque architecture, providing a total assault on the senses. Developed from the ninth century, the city became a major centre of religion, culture and learning at a time when the Islamic world led intellectually. Its monuments reflect this status, with numerous merdersas (religious schools) alongside historic mosques.

Fès may be an extraordinary monument to the past, but it’s also a living and working city. About 200,000 Fassi still live within the walls of the medieval Medina area of Fès El-Bali. Many of them work here too, in commerce or trades eschewing modern production methods, producing outstanding decorative arts. To explore this warren of narrow passages, teeming souks, incredible tanning vats, huddled housing, archaic industry and venerable mosques is to find oneself in a space where elements of the Middle Ages never came to an end.

Marrakech
Founded at the confluence of ancient trade routes, Marrakech has always been rooted in the twin activities of hospitality and trade. In its booming 21st-century incarnation, that means two things: chilling out and shopping. Head to the fantastical central square, Jemaa El Fna, for a nightly carnival of local life; the north medina for a thriving network of souks and hagglers; and the south medina for the Jewish quarter and the glittering remains of the sultan’s palaces.

Ouarzazate 
This desert town is primarily known for its on-screen exploits – Lawrence of Arabia, the Asterix movie and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were all filmed here. The town is inhabited mainly by Berbers, who built many of the kasbahs characteristic of the area. Venture out of the town into the biblical landscape of the Draa Valley, however, and you find Morocco in the raw, just a hop, skip and a sand buggy away from the Sahara Desert.

Rabat and Salé 
When it comes to the successful rebranding of a city, look no further than Morocco’s capital, Rabat, and Salé, its sister city across the river. Once a breakaway republic, nest of piracy and hub of the trade in white slaves, today the twin cities
are models of law and order – host to foreign embassies, the Moroccan monarchy and the machinery of government.

Rabat was once a medieval imperial city, and vestiges of this illustrious past remain in the form of city walls and imposing gates built by Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour in the late 12th century. Today, while Rabat is the seat of government, in national life it takes a back seat to the economic powerhouse of Casablanca. The city’s focus on government and away from tourism means visitors to the area can enjoy the sights in a pleasantly low-key fashion: the picturesque kasbah overlooking the Atlantic, the core of the medieval city, and the peaceful beauty of the walled Chellah. In 2009 the city gained the country’s first tram system, linking Rabat and Salé.

Getting There
There are no direct flights to Morocco from Hong Kong. Qatar Airways flies via Doha to Casablanca from $6,700. qatarairways.com

Morocco fact file

• Morocco has more than 33 million inhabitants. 

• Humans have lived in the country for more than 8,000 years.

• The indigenous people are called Berbers. 

• Spanish, French, Arabic and Darja are all commonly spoken
in the region.

• Morocco regained its independence from France and Spain in 1956.

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