In Marrakesh, Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in the old historic quarter forms the cultural heart of the city. Busy, bustling and vibrant, it’s home to snake charmers and street theatre, filled with food stalls and accompanied by musical interludes.
In between the sweet aromas of cinnamon and saffron, there’s a sense of timelessness that hangs in the air, a feeling that is compounded when wandering through the labyrinth of alleyways, workshops and stalls that make up the souk. The stalls are stocked with piles of earthen spices, handmade tagines, glowing coloured-glass lamps and intricate metal and leatherwork; much of what is on offer here today is what would have been sold a century or two ago.
While a stall-holder sneaking a look at the football results on his smartphone might be the giveaway that you’re rooted firmly in the modern day, the moment he senses your interest, he’ll invite you to share glass of rich sweet mint tea. It’s reassuring: in a world where so little is built to last, the hospitality inherent to Moroccan culture is timeless.
History here runs deep. From the imperial cities of Meknes and Fes to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, Morocco boasts nine historic sites with UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou, located in the valley of a 1000 kasbahs, fulfils all your Arabian Nights fantasies.
The rust-red adobe fortress dates from the 17th century and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. Amazingly, five families still live behind the ramparts in the Kasbah, which has had a starring role in everything from Gladiator to Game of Thrones. But the celluloid images that captured the world’s imagination have nothing on the feeling of being here yourself.
The mountains…no, the desert…no, the mountains.
It’s hard to decide. For us, driving from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara encapsulates the best of both. High up in the mountains and across the desert, you can explore everything from sand dunes to salt lakes at their your own pace. While at some points snow binds the ridges of the High Atlas Mountains, there’s a patchwork of crops across the valley floor, clusters of terracotta-coloured homes that mark the Berber villages and pockets of palm trees heavy with dates. It’s like being transported back to another, more simple time.