Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech

  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
  • Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
Photo of Moroccan Highlights: Fes, the Sahara, the High Atlas and Marrakech
Photo by flickr user Marcos.Zion

A hire car can be a hindrance in the throngs of people and lively commerce of Morocco's towns and cities, where everyone's on foot on travelling with laden horses and carts, but it's a great way to see Morocco's varied interior.  Just pick it up in Fes, and go on a ten day journey onto the cusp of the Sahara, then head up through the Atlas Mountains before dropping it off in Marrakech.  

Day One – Three: Fes 

Fes el-Bali MedinaFes overwhelms the senses: it's colourful, noisy, doused in scent and inhabited by a lot of people vying for your attention. Its medieval medina is like no where else on earth when it come to shopping, swamped with olive dealers, water sellers and veiled women from the ancient tanneries to the quiet of the madrasas, many of them architectural wonders.

The newer part of town is called the Ville Nouelle and has a French look and feel to it.

The best way to see Fes is with a guide – but they won't necessarily be able to protect you from the action going on around you. They're likely to have their own arrangements with local shopkeepers and restaurants so that you only visit those they're getting a kick-back from, but the alternative is being crowded at every turn, which some visitors find intimidating. Donkeys and mules are the main mode of transport, which only make you feel more like you've walked onto the pages of Aladdin or the Arabian Nights.

The medina is probably the first place you'll want to visit, it's the oldest part of town founded at the end of the 8h Century and inhabited since the 10th – and it looks like it's had a thousand years worth of permission-less building work done on it as well, the narrow streets are like a maze, ending in covered bazaars, and surrounded by high walls which open suddenly onto courtyards where you can see artisans at work, using many of the traditional methods passed down for centuries.

Souks of FesThe souks are extra rowdy pockets of life and colour within the medina. The Marché Centrale is where people do their main grocery shopping, topping up on specialities in Kaat Smen souk. Achbine Souk was once the place to source your traditional remedies, your chameleons in jars or snakeskins or gazelle's horns, but there are only a few of these left now, most of the stalls along it sell birds, of the live kind: chickens, pigeons, doves, turkeys. There are also lots of food stalls. Some of them probably selling the same birds down the line.

Souk Triba has cosmetic and electronics shops, and an orange tree in the centre of the square. Behind it is Souk Tallis, good for wool, wheat and cloth. Souk Selham and the few surrounding it all sell material and haberdashery, but for a really special outfit you should hop over to Chemmaine Souk, which sells ceremonial garb. For a bargain visit L'marqtane – it used to be the slave market but it's now a second hand clothing market.

Tanneries of Fes A lot of the soft leather Morocco is famous for producing comes from the Tanneries of Fes – you can't miss the smell of it, so approach at the peril of your palate. Visitors can get pretty close to the action, if they've an interest to, on one of the terraces that over look the honeycomb shaped dye and treatment pits of the tanning yards.  You might think the leather would be the most toxic scent but it's the bird droppings used in the curing process that really smells the place out.

As well as commerce, leather and carpets, Fes is a city of learning – this is where the world's first universities began, out of the madrasas, and of religion – Jewish, Islamic and Christian.

The Karaouine Mosque (Djemaa el Kairaouine) is the second-largest mosque in Morocco and gives Al-Azhar in Cairo a run for its money as the world's oldest university. Its minaret dates from 956 and is the oldest Islamic monument in Fes, and Morocco's holiest mosque. Non-muslims can't come in, but nobody seems to object to tourists popping their heads in though the gates.

The Bou Inania Madrasa is well known not for its teachings, though it does have a teaching tradition dating back to the 14th Century, but for the grace of its Marinid architecture – the Marinids were known as builders and this is the last madrasa they built. It's the only madrasa in Fes with a minaret.

Fes Jewish Mellah Fes's Jewish Mellah is the equivalent of a European Jewish ghetto, a walled area within which the Jewish community was forced to hole up. The one in Fes was Morocco's first. It's quite close to the king's palace which was supposed to help protect the inhabitants. One of the most unique features of the houses here are the decorations on their wooden doors, windows and balconies.

Zaouia Moulay Idriss IIThe Shrine of Moulay Idriss II is another interesting mosque, tomb and mausoleum is not open to non-Muslims.  Moulay Idriss II was the ruler of Morocco in the 9th Century and was the founder of the second city of Fes. Five Centuries after his death an un-decomposed body was found that was believed to be that of Moulay Idriss II and a shrine and mausoleum was built for him in the spot.  This is now the medina's holiest shrine, and the mosque on the site is still in use – it's popular for funerals and civic functions. Muslim visitors are welcome to go into the shrine and see the tomb and sanctuary, but non-Muslim visitors aren't – but like many of Morocco's great Islamic buildings it's worth seeing the outside to appreciate the architecture. The six foot wooden bars are how you can tell you're not allowed in.

Fes has some interesting non-religious architecture as well, check out the Dar al-Magana which was the Fes municipal water powered clock, the Dar Adiyel and Dar Glaoui, homes of the impressively wealthy, and the Royal Palace of Fes, which is not just a palace, it also has its own gardens, madrasa and several mosques.

Merenid tombs But before you go exploring all over town it could be a good idea to get an idea of the lay of the land by visiting the ruins of the Merenid tombs. There's not much to see of the tombs, but from this spot there's a fantastic view over the city. Get a cab up and walk down the goat tracks. 

The well preserved Roman ruins of Volubilis near Meknes, which has it's own impressive ancient walls to admire, are about an hours drive from Fes.

MerzougaDay Four: Fes to Merzouga

Pick up your hire car and prepare to watch the scene though your windscreen change dramatically as you leave Fes, quickly turning to a flat desert brown before the palm and date trees start lining your route though the Ziz Valley. You can tell you're touching the Anti Atlas Mountains when things start to get rocky, before they start to roll with the sands of the desert round Rissani and your final destination for today, Merzouga. It's about eight hours driving.

Dayet Srji and its birdsDay Five: Merzouga and the dunes 

Merzouga sprang up by the largest sand dune in Morocco, on a flat, inhospitable plain, to be inhabited by a hospitable people happy to welcome visitors. Seeing the sun rise and set over the dunes is one of the things people travel to Morocco for, and this is the perfect place for it. It’s also the place to see some of Morocco’s exotic birdlife, who gather here for the Dayet Srji  – a huge salt lake. Flamingos can be spotted, as can the exotically named Arabian Buzzard and Egyptian Nightjar. Camp on the dunes and walk or ride your camel across the desert dunes, maybe even try your hand – or legs – at sand skiing, or for the culturally inclined visit a Berber family or attend one of the folk dances that are laid on for visitors.

High Atlas, MoroccoDay Six: Todra Gorge and the Valley of the Thousand Kasbahs

Drive back though Rissani to Tineghir, then turn up into the High Atlas Mountains until you get to the palm lined valley pointing your way towards the sheer rocky cliffs of Todra Gorge, whose 10 meter wide and 200 metre high route you can walk along.

From there drive east to Boumaine along snaking roads lined with interesting rock formations and river beds lined with silver birch trees and rows of 17th Century kasbahs made of the red mud that comes from the river. Which is why it's called the 'Red Valley', or the 'Valley of the Thousand Kasbahs'.

Drive on to Skoura, which has one of the most beautiful palm groves in Morocco, as well as more lines of kasbahs.

Day Seven: Skoura to Marrakech 

From Skoura drive to Ouarzazate, where there's an artificial lake and 17th Century Kasbah Taourirt, then on further into the High Atlas, passing though the Tichika Pass then heading down to Marrakech.

Djemaa el-FnaDay Eight – Ten: Marrakech 

Give up your hire car and travel Marrakech via caleches: local horse and carriages, and on foot, spending your first few hours in Marrakech acclimatising round the Djemaa el-Fna - but don't buy anything! Just enjoy the floor show of snake charmers, monkey acts and musicians. There's an art to shopping in Marrakech's marketplaces and it's advisable to visit the fixed price Ensemble Artisanal on Avenue Mohammed V first to find out what you should be paying for things before you do.

As the sun gets lower in the sky note the change in the colour of the entertainment, the snakes and monkeys go to bed and the storytellers and traditional healers come out and the number of food stalls doubles very quickly. Before it gets too late find a place in one of the terrace cafes and give in to buying a freshly squeezed orange juice and whatever follows and watch the life of Marrakech unfold below you.

Like Fes, many of the main cultural and historic sights to see in Marrakech are within walking distance of the medina. The Ben Youssef Madrassa and Mosque, though still an active mosque, allows visitors to look over the madrasa, which is one of the first opportunities you will have had. It's impressive for the beautiful scripts that have been carved into it. The Bahia Palace, was built to be the most beautiful convergence of Moroccan style and Islamic traditions of its time, and while it's not quite considered that today, it still warrants a few hours, before or after visiting the Dar Si Saïd Museum of Moroccan Arts, which has an impressive collection of both ancient art and every day objects: on the ground floor are the Berber pieces and on the second, Moorish and Spanish influences can be seen creeping into the art and design.

The Saadian Tombs lay buried under the centre of Marrakech for four hundred years, but when they were finally rediscovered their decorative tiling was lauded all round, and they're now one of the most popular places to visit. Both the tombs and the remains of El Badi Palace, once a 360 room glory, deserve a half day each if you have time.

The Majorelle Gardens, can be a welcome pocket of green, with their raised pathways, cool sunken pools and groves of bananas, coconuts and bougainvillea. They're best done in the morning before it gets too hot and before they're flooded by the tourist buses.

Marrakech does commerce just like Fes, and again one of the easiest ways to explore the souks is to hire a guide for half day and have them help you explore the souks you're most interested in. Souq des Bijoutiers is the jewellers souk, Souq Sebbaghine is the dyer's souk, Souq Smata is where the famous slippers are made, Souq Hadadine is the Blacksmith's souk, Souq el-Kebir is the leather souk and Criée Berbère is the carpet souk.

If shopping is one of your reasons for choosing Morocco explore the districts of Guéliz and Hivernage, near the old city walls, where there are boutique jewellery and clothing shops – you don't have to haggle as much here, it's where the wealthier locals shop.

If you have a spare few hours one of the other unique things to do in Marrakech is to have a gommage at a hammam bath, which is a vigourous black soap scrub given with rough gloves. Many hotels will have their own hammam, but there are public ones, as well as private, luxury baths. A gommage is just the starter treatment on the hammam scale, if you're more interested in relaxing than invigorating.

The best times to travel in Morocco are spring and autumn.

Get more advice about travelling to Morocco from WR's Moroccan Travel Specialists.

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