Travelers visiting Morocco are enchanted by the varied architecture, the medinas on cobbled streets, the dazzling sands of the Sahara, and the stunning snow-capped Atlas Mountains whilst staying in brilliant riads (traditional homes sometimes converted to hotels that have unique courtyards that conveniently ventilate the structure) on lush gardens in a labyrinth of culture, history and beauty. Surely Westerners have heard of the film Casablanca, the romantic 1942 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. It takes place in the enticing city in northwest Morocco. What some of us do not know is Morocco has four “Imperial Cities” - each having been capital at least once and several times for a couple. They are, in no particular order: Fes (Fez), Marrakech, Rabat and Meknes. Interestingly, Casablanca isn’t necessarily the most captivating city to visit. To the north of Casablanca, and also on the shores of the Atlantic, is the current capital of Rabat.
Rabat (meaning “fortified place” showcasing its prominent military importance) has a lesser population than Casablanca - slightly over one million inhabitants. It has a heavy French influence and houses the King and embassies. Its main languages are Arabic and French. Most escorted group tours go to the abandoned mosque (the Almohad ruler who started it died) with the incomplete Hassan Tower which is about half the intended size –approx 140 ft. Also commonly visited are the Royal residence (Dar-al-Makhzen), Pietri Square, the Bouregreg Marina, the Kasbah of the Udayas, the Rabat Archaeological Museum and the Riad district. Stop at a zoo (Zoo de Rabat), the gorgeous Andalusian Gardens or perhaps Les Jardins Exotiques de Bouknadel, the Mausoleum of Mohammad V, the Museum Mohamed VI of Modern and Contemporary Art, and the must-visit Chellah, an ancient Roman ruin. The weather and food are blissfully Mediterranean, therefore beach activities and lounging are constant go-tos.
Meknes, partially surrounded by ancient walls encompassing exquisite gates (such as Bab Mansour) considered some of the best-preserved of the Islamic world, was capital from 1672-1727. It is about 80 miles inland from Rabat and is a bustling, though less populated and noticed, city that some feel is easier to navigate. Intended by its creator, Moulay Ismail, to rival Versailles, a lot of it (including the walls) was leveled by an earthquake in 1755. The prices here may be more reasonable and the people more friendly. Some noteworthy sights are the Bou Inania Medersa, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Dar Al-Makhzen, Jamai Palace (inside is the Museum of Moroccan Arts) and the El Hedim Square (Place El Hadim) providing entertainment such as snake-charmers, story-tellers, horse riding and medicine men. Nearby are souks and famous confectionary merchants. Fortifications were key to Ismail so there is an impressive stable (for 12,000 horses!) and granary. Maybe stroll through Moulay Idris if you have a good sense of direction. Take a guided tour through the rolling hills to the nearby amazing Roman ruins of Volubilis, perhaps the best preserved ruins in northern Africa.
Fez is considered the heart of Morocco – at least in a religious or intellectual sense (and it is more inland than coastal, like Marrakech). It also has a population of just over a million. See the medinas of old Fez (Fes el-Bali), the streets resplendent with an onslaught to the senses – narrow winding paths through food stands, silk and tapestry shops, brass and copper souks, mosques and bazaars and lots of people! Delight in bakers, butchers and spice vendors selling their delicacies. Along with the old Fes see the Chaouwara Tanneries, the Kairaouine Mosque and University (possibly the oldest university in the world), the Jewish Cemetery & Habarim Synagogue and the Medersa Bou Inania. The New Fez, Ville Nouvelle, was built by the French so it has the feel of a French provincial town. It has wide boulevards with delicious dining (cap the night off with some of the famous mint tea) and local entertainment.
Last of the Morocco Imperial Cities is Marrakech. It is dubbed the Red (or alternatively, Ochre) City because of red sandstone buildings built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122-1123. It is nestled about fifteen or so miles from the base of the Atlas Mountains, has a more semi-arid climate (compared to the coastal cities) and is replete with local markets (souks), gardens, monuments, palaces, food, fun and entertainment. Namely: Djemaa el Fna Square – the main entrance square that comes alive with vendors and performers that change throughout the day, the Koutoubia Mosque, Bahia Palace, Saadian Tombs, Ben Youssef Madrasa and Almoravid Koubba, for a start. You can browse the medina for wares such as traditional Moroccan lanterns or slippers. And of course, see craftsmen at work, purchase Berber carpets and dine sumptuously. Don’t forget your mint tea!
The author of this article, Nil Aykut, is the Marketing Manager of Anatolia Travels. Anatolia Travels offer private and escorted tours to Turkey, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, Dubai & Morocco. More information at http://www.anatoliatravels.com