Of Noble Origins... in Morocco
In a tale of four cities, travel writer Sarah Gilbert takes us on a tour of Fez, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat, all capitals during Morocco’s long and fascinating history. Collectively known as the imperial cities, they are renowned for their magnificent monuments, mesmerising medinas and vibrant souks.
FEZ – THE SEAT OF POWER
First came Fez, founded in the eighth century by Idris I and expanded by his son, Idris II, both descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. It was the seat of power of four different dynasties for around 650 years, and while it's no longer the country's political or administrative capital, it remains its cultural and spiritual heart. The melodious call-to-prayer competes with the guttural cry of hawkers. Donkeys laden with cargo have right of way down its ancient alleyways and only satellite dishes and mobile phones remind you that you're still in the 21st century. Mysterious and often overwhelming, Fes el-Bali's living medieval medina, or old city – said to be the world's largest, urban, car-free zone – is a tangle of souks, workshops, palaces, mosques and monuments, along more than 9,000 ancient alleyways.
One of the most extravagant and beautiful of the Merenid monuments is the 14th-century Madrasa Bou Inania, a masterpiece of Islamic artistry, with its intricately carved cedar wood, dazzling zellij tiles, elaborate stucco and Arabic inscriptions. A working Koranic school and mosque, it's the city's only building still in religious use that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. At the heart of the old city, a steady stream of worshippers flows through the painted doors of the Qarawiyyin mosque. Founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, in 859, its university was a leading institution in the Islamic world and its magnificent library, filled with rare tomes and believed to be the world's oldest working library, has just been restored to its former splendour.
The Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts is housed in a beautiful fondouk – ancient inns used by travelling merchants who stored and sold their goods below and slept on the floors above. Around the courtyard are displays of traditional tools, Berber chests and musical instruments. Four more crumbling fondouks, all with soaring cedar-wood columns, have been reborn to support the city's famed artisans, including the 13th-century Chemmaine-Sbitryine fondouk, which houses disappearing crafts, such as wooden hammam buckets and combs crafted from cattle horn. Monuments aside, Fez medina is very much a living city and every neighbourhood has five things: a mosque, a school, a hammam, a fountain and a communal f'ran, a subterranean stone-walled bakery, where men slide loaf after loaf into a wood-fired oven.
Moroccan cuisine is a genuine melting pot: the invading Arabs brought dried fruit, nuts and spices, the Moors provided olives and citrus fruit, the Ottoman Turks introduced the barbecue and the French left behind baguettes and pastries – and Fez is the perfect place to savour all this. Moroccans are passionate about sweet things. Try chebakia (deep-fried dough coated in a honey and rosewater syrup, sprinkled with sesame seeds) and sellou (a mix of sesame seeds, almonds and flour described as energy on a spoon), which are both are made in Fez. Take a sightseeing break at the British-run Ruined Garden, a restaurant in the romantic remains of a riad, complete with mosaic floors and lots of greenery. Order in advance and you can sample the most quintessential Fassi dish, b'stilla – pigeon meat cooked in spices, topped with a layer of toasted and ground almonds, saffron and cinnamon, all wrapped in the paper-thin warka pastry, and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.
And Fez isn't living in the past. For a fine dining feast, head to NUR, which opened earlier this year in a stylish riad-turned-restaurant. Chef Najat Kaanache worked in Michelin-starred restaurants around the globe before returning to her Moroccan roots with a seasonally inspired tasting menu that mixes market finds with sophisticated culinary techniques, for example sashimi with zaalouk, a zesty mix of smoky aubergine, tomatoes and spices. Perched on a hill overlooking the medina, Hotel Sahrai is a boldly designed, ultra-contemporary, boutique hotel. Rooms and suites are all about modern minimalism, an infinity pool and rooftop bar overlook the medina's tiled rooftops, there's a Givenchy spa as well as a hammam, and a French brasserie for those tired of tagines.
MARRAKECH – A DYNASTIC CAPITAL
Around 400km to the south, Marrakech was Morocco's second imperial city, founded by the Almoravids in 1062 with three more dynasties – the Almohad, Saadian and Alaouite – making it their capital. The fabled Red City has long attracted visitors, from Silk Road traders to hippies, artists and rock stars. Today, Marrakech is an enticing blend of North African culture and tradition and European style and sophistication, where stylish riads, designer boutiques, luxurious spas and gourmet restaurants complement the time-honoured attractions. The city's medina, or old city, is a maze of narrow streets with Africa's most famous square at its heart. The Djemaa el Fna's daily circus is a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells. By day you're enveloped in the tang of freshly squeezed oranges and the sweet scent of plump dates while the melodious call-to-prayer mingles with Arabic hip-hop. Coiled snakes unfurl to the strains of a flute and people gather around charismatic storytellers as villagers from the Rif mountains, their distinctive straw hats decorated with gaudy pom-poms, weave through the crowds.
At dusk, gas-lit, pop-up stalls peddle all manner of meat and fish brochettes, spicy merguez sausages and snail soup to eat at communal tables amid the smoke haze from the grills. Rhythmic gnaoui bands add to the mayhem, pounding out hypnotic rhythms on drums and ouds. In a prime position on the edge of the medina, La Mamounia opened its doors in 1923 and its guest list reads like an international who's who of royalty, celebrities and politicians – from Winston Churchill to Sarah Jessica Parker. Set amid a beautiful landscaped garden that is magically lit at night, this legendary grande dame hotel remains a serene refuge.Following a recent makeover, it's added a vast, subterranean spa but its divinely opulent rooms and suites have kept their signature Moorish-meets-art deco design. An old house in the jasmine-scented grounds has been converted into Le Marocain, serving modern Moroccan cuisine. But for all its newfound glamour, Marrakech remains a trading town. North of the square, the labyrinthine passageways of the souk are devoted to everything from spices to slippers, leather bags to lanterns. Windows overflow with glittering Berber jewellery, studded with semi-precious stones; carpets, from shaggy cream Beni Ourain to vivid, tightly woven kilims, are piled floor-to-ceiling; and rainbow-hued babouches – pointed leather slippers – jostle for space in open-fronted emporiums.
Djemaa El Fna Square with Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech
The oldest section of the souk is divided up by trade and along the knot of narrow lanes you'll still find artisans weaving on handlooms, banging out metal and chipping at wood. There are also an increasing number of boutiques where homegrown and expat designers are breathing new life into age-old crafts. To the south, ancient royal palaces, mosques and synagogues, display the country's finest decorative arts. The gold covering the walls of the El Badi Palace may be long gone, but it's not hard to imagine 16th-century sultans sweeping through its magnificent pavilions and courtyards. The 19th-century Bahia Palace is a former royal residence replete with intricate marquetry, ornate stucco and colourful zellij, and the former palace of Dar Si Said is now the opulent home of the Museum of Moroccan Arts. Morocco's French heritage – it was a protectorate from 1912 to 1956 – is clear in the wide boulevards of Gueliz, the French-built Ville Nouvelle. Its most famous landmark is the Jardin Majorelle and the striking cobalt-blue house that was owned by Yves Saint Laurent, surrounded by shady pathways lined with exotic flora. Next door is the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech which opened in October, it offers a thrilling insight into his work and collections.
Now a new wave of artists and designers are finding inspiration in Morocco's rich artisanal heritage. Opposite the Jardin
Majorelle, the city's first concept store, 33 Rue Majorelle, stocks the work of more than 90 contemporary Moroccan designers. The newly opened MACMA gallery showcases both contemporary art and Orientalism, and you can buy the colourful work of the 'Moroccan Andy Warhol', Hassan Hajjaj, at his colourful home-cum-gallery, Riad Yima. Loaded with atmosphere, culture and history, and constantly evolving, Morocco's imperial cities really do have it all.
Colourful street in the medina, Marrakech
Meknes & Volubilis
Meknes became the country's third imperial city in the 17th century, when the legendary Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail chose it as his capital. Its compact medina is more low-key than Fez and Marrakech, and its grand palace complex is fascinating. This fortified city-within-a-city is home to dank dungeons where 60,000 slaves were shackled to the wall when not working on the sultan's building projects. These included the royal stables where grain silos held enough food for the populace for a year, as well as stabling for more than 10,000 horses. There's also the ornate Moulay Ismail Mausoleum, one of the few Moroccan holy sites open to non-Muslims.
Street in Meknes
Just half an hour's drive from Meknes lay the impressive ruins of Volubilis. Built in the third century and one of the furthest outposts of the vast Roman empire, it's an outstanding example of Roman urban planning, offering a glimpse into the lives of its ancient inhabitants. In what would have been the administrative centre are the remains of the forum, basilica, capitol and public baths. Houses were laid out along both sides of the main road, the Decumanus Maximus, with well-preserved mosaic floors depicting mythological scenes, such as the Labours of Hercules, and displaying the wealth of the owners. At the road's end, the triumphal arch was built in honour of the Emperor Caracalla.
Ruins of Basilica, Volubilis
Both a modern capital and a historic city, the fortified town of Rabat was founded by the first Almohad ruler in the 12th century, perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Bou Regreg river. It became Morocco's fourth imperial city in the 18th century and the capital of Morocco in 1912, when the French transferred the title from Fez. It's long been a hub of business and diplomacy, and remains the seat of government and home to the king to this day. The original settlement is now the atmospheric Kasbah des Oudayas, encircled by thick ramparts, where the blue and white, flat-roofed houses are reminiscent of Andalucía. The city has spread over the years to encompass the walled medina, the Ville Nouvelle's palm tree-lined boulevards and an expanse of golden-sand beaches. A blend of ancient and modern, it's most famous landmark is Yacoub al Mansour's unfinished Hassan Tower. The tower was originally part of a mosque, destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Today only the tower and a series of shattered columns are testament to his grandiose plans. Nearby, the spectacular marble Mausoleum of Mohammed V is where the present king's father and grandfather were laid to rest.
Kasbah of Oudayas, Rabat
Find out more about Cox & Kings' Moroccan Explorer: Imperial Cities to Desert group tour here (10 Days & 9 Nights • From £1,695)
Explore the imperial cities of Fez, Rabat, Meknes and Marrakech, all former or current capitals of Morocco and known for their architecture and vibrant souks. Along the way, travel through diverse landscapes, from the Atlantic coast through fertile plains to the Sahara desert.
Colorful fabrics on the Agadir market, MoroccoShare:
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