For Westerners, Morocco holds an immediate and enduring fascination. Though just an hour’s ride on the ferry from Spain, it seems at once very far from Europe, with a culture – Islamic and deeply traditional – that is almost wholly unfamiliar. Throughout the country, despite the years of French and Spanish colonial rule and the presence of modern and cosmopolitan cities like Rabat and Casablanca, a more distant past constantly makes its presence felt.
Fez, perhaps the most beautiful of all Arab cities, maintains a life still rooted in medieval times, when a Moroccan kingdom stretched from Senegal to northern Spain, while in the mountains of the Atlas and the Rif, it’s still possible to draw up tribal maps of the Berber population. As a backdrop to all this, the country’s physical make-up is extraordinary: from the Mediterranean coast, through four mountain ranges, to the empty sand and scrub of the Sahara.
Across much of the country, the legacy of colonial occupation is still felt in many aspects of daily life. The Spanish zone contained Tetouan and the Rif, the Mediterranean and the northern Atlantic coasts, Sidi Ifni, the Tarfaya Strip and the Western Sahara; the French zone the plains and the main cities (Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat), as well as the Atlas. And while Ceuta and Melilla are still the territory of Spain, it is the French – who ruled their “protectorate” more closely – who had the most lasting effect on Moroccan culture, Europeanizing the cities to a strong degree and firmly imposing their language, which is spoken today by all educated Moroccans (after Moroccan Arabic or one of the three local Berber languages).
This blend of the exotic and the familiar, the diversity of landscapes, the contrasts between Ville Nouvelle and ancient Medina, all add up to make Morocco an intense and rewarding experience, and a country that is ideally suited to independent travel – with enough time, you can cover a whole range of activities, from hiking in the Atlas and relaxing at laidback Atlantic resorts like Asilah or Essaouira to getting lost in the back alleys of Fez and Marrakesh. It can be hard at times to come to terms with the privilege of your position as a tourist in a country with severe poverty, and there is, too, occasional hassle from unofficial guides, but Morocco is essentially a safe and politically stable place to visit: the death in 1999 of King Hassan II, the Arab world’s longest-serving leader, was followed by an easy transition to his son, Mohammed VI, and the country pretty much carried on as normal while the Arab Spring uprisings toppled governments in nearby Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, your enduring impressions are likely to be overwhelmingly positive, shaped by encounters with Morocco’s powerful tradition of hospitality, generosity and openness. This is a country people return to again and again.