Salt for gold. Literally. Salt mines were present all around Morocco but for a long time, caravans used the salt mines of Taghaza, in the heart of the Sahara. From there, the salt slabs were loaded onto camels and exchanged at the end of a 9-week journey across the desert for gold in Timbuktu, Gao or Oudaghoust. When salt was scarce, an ounce ( 28 grams) of gold was worth a pound ( 454 grams) of salt. The caravans would return with gold, slaves and ivory and reach Morocco through the oases of Akka or Sijilmassa to then cross the Atlas Mountains and deliver their loads to the courts of Marrakech and Fez. Already at the time of the Almoravid dynasty, in the 11th century, their gold dinars were highly sought after at the courts of Europe, which proves that the Almoravids were by then supplying themselves with gold from south, across the Sahara. Five centuries later, the Saadien sultan of Marrakech sent an expedition across the Sahara, seized the salt mines and with them, the monopoly of the gold trade, yet failed at finding the gold source. When the Portuguese discovered the maritime route along the African coast in 15th century, the Saharan trade started to decline.
Day 1: Casablanca/ Rabat – Fez. ( 3 hour drive)
Our private Morocco tour kicks off with Casablanca which, in spite of its myth, does not hold much in the way of monuments. That is mainly the reason why the former king decided to give the city an imposing monument - the second largest mosque in the world. The last few years of its completion, 1400 craftsmen worked by day and 1000 by night. The marble, cedar wood and granite all come from Morocco while the glass chandeliers and white granite columns were brought from Murano, Italy. Should your flight arrive in Casablanca early in the day, our private tour will stop in Rabat on its way to Fez.
With a rich history and recently included on the select UNESCO site list, Rabat lies suspended somewhere between Europe and the Arab world. The 12th century Kasbah des Oudayas and its Andalusian Gardens are a delight. We can dwell further into the past and visit the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, where Phoenician, Roman and Merinid traces blend. Or loose yourself inside the splendid 'Jardins d'Essais Botaniques'. Sale, across the bay, harboured a pirate nest and a republic onto its own. But perhaps it is best to hear all about it from our local guide, a passionate university teacher who will give you a comprehensive behind- locked- doors visit. The journey should reach Fez late afternoon/ evening, just in time to freshen up and get ready for dinner. As the dusk gives way to night, the meal is set in the décor of your 1001- nights riad, the most appropriate introduction to the highly- praised Moroccan cuisine.
Day 2: Fez.
With the first light of dawn, you realize you have travelled in time. Four centuries? Five? If it weren’t for the satellite dishes adorning every roof, it could be more. Perhaps as much as the Kayraouine University and mosque, now 12 centuries old, the oldest still- working university in the world. The heyday of the caravan trade coming from Timbuktu is long resolute. Instead, the migration of wealthy Moors and Jews from the courts of Granada and Cordoba in 15th and 16th century is more present. The numerous Islamic schools, among which the most ornate are Bou Inania and El Attarine, will wow you with their intricate stucco and cedar engravings that have resisted the passage of centuries. Out in the streets again, you will most likely smell the tanneries before you sight them... Little has changed here since Fez took over Cordoba in Spain as the center of leather production around the Mediterrenean. Dozens of workers toil over open vats, dipping skins in to treat them before hand-dyeing them in bright yellow, red and white, stomping them under the hot sun to distribute the pigment.
The trip through the souks takes us to Nejjarine Square you can catch your breath enjoying a mint tea on the roof terrace of Nejjarine Foundouk, an 18th-century caravanserai, turned into a woodwork museum. One can only awe at the level of craftsmanship infused by the Arabic calligraphy imbedded on 12th century wood beans or musical instruments and other chests of drawers. “There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez,” wrote Paul Bowles about Fez and that still holds true nowadays. There are thousands of derbs, streets so narrow you could whisper in your neighbor’s ear. Just when the walls seem to cave in on you, a little square comes up and suddenly all menace disappears. The secrets to be found around every corner pull you into the long forgotten world of travels of Ibn Battuta or Leo Africanus.
Day 3: Fez - Ifrane - Azrou ( 1 hour drive).
After a full day spent visiting the old town, you should be by now, better with directions or at least more confident about it. Lately, many derelict palaces of Fez have turned into riads ( boutique hotels built around an inside garden) while others became museums, like Palais Batha. On display are fine examples of woodcarving, stucco, and zellij, much of it rescued from Fes's crumbling medersas, along with embroidery, Berber carpets, jewelry, textiles, astronomical instruments and calligraphy. The gardens are an oasis in the bustling Medina and especially come to life during the world- famous Fez sacred music festival. Back inside the maze, you will sooner or later end up next to the zaouia of Moulay Idriss, the site where the founder of the city is buried, which at any time of day is packed with women, burning candles and incense looking for the much coveted baraka (good fortune). Up until the 1980’s any Muslim had the right to claim asylum from prosecution or arrest and so the area was a heaven for fugitives and outlaws.
If you feel you had a culture overdose by now, venture in the country side for a picnic (just one hour drive from Fez the countryside is peppered with lakes and forests) or indulge in a traditional Moroccan hammam
( Arab steam bath and body scrub with eucalyptus soap) in one of the hundreds of public baths available. Trekking opportunities also abound eastwards around the holly village of Moulay Idriss, overlooking the Roman site of Volubilis. Perhaps you should allow some time for shopping as well: the leather and brass trade in Fez is without equal in all of Morocco. If you want to try your hand at a Moroccan cooking class, Fez offers the possibility of a complete immersion into the Moroccan culture and family life. Learn how to bake hubz, preserve lemons, the name of the different spices and make mint tea, before embarking on to prepare the ubiquitous tagine. Later in the afternoon, leave Fes behind and take on the Middle Atlas. With Fez in the background, our trip serpents its way up into the shade of cedar forests. The route takes us first through Ifrane, the ‘Switzerland of Morocco’ The waters of the lake nearby are crystal clear and boats are rented out to those wishing to paddle across. Pretty walks are to be had in the foothills of the next town, Sefrou. Country lanes wind through pine forest and lush villages. Dinner and accommodation in Azrou.
Day 4: Azrou - Beni Mellal - Ouzoud Waterfalls - Marrakech ( 7 hours drive).
The dense forest is also home to the Barbary macaque, almost domesticated now and the 800- year old Gouraud’s cedar. The monkeys and their babies nibble on whatever they can find to eat, spoiled by the generous offerings of the visitors. It will be a rather long day and stops will be frequently accommodated to enjoy the dramatic twists and turns that the Middle Atlas provides. We are soon crossing lush pastures and olive groves, each with its own olive mill. After lunch, we can take a detour and stop by the 110- meter high Ouzoud waterfalls. From the top, it is possible to trek down to the bottom of the waterfall taking a number of stone steps. The oversized grottoes here used to shelter watermills, grinding wheat into flour as the river is diverted through the wheels before plunging over the edge. A path through a grove of olive trees leads to the pools carved out of the rock at the base of the falls: here you can swim, in the right season.
Leaving the falls behind, our boutique Morocco tour bumps off a rutted road, through rich farmland. Fields of golden grain, patched by deep green and thickets of trees, fade to haze in the distance. Here and there stands a farm compound and, in late afternoon, the village is softly hushed, the only sound the bleating of far- off goats. Ahead in the night, lays dormant and sensual Marrakech, its walls and eighteen gates enveloping hundreds of caravanserais that used to accommodate the caravans and their precious cargos.
Day 5: Marrakech - visit of the city.
Where Fez is the bashful scholar, the ‘red city’ is the exuberant dancer. More than its opulent night life and luxurious palaces, the design boutiques or the French restaurants, it’s something in the air. The light of the south as some may call it, a certain feeling that nothing can go wrong, a certain je ne sais quoi… A good point to start is perhaps Maison de La Photographie, documenting life in Morocco from late 1800’s all the way to the 1950’s through photographs and a worthwhile documentary on the Berbers. The roof terrace offers 360 degrees views over the Medina and freshly infused atay. Crossing the souks, the shops do look like they just got Ali Baba's last shipment and shameless snooping turns compulsive. If it is too early in the day for shopping, you can also admire the dying of the wool or the looming of a Berber carpet on site. Past Place des Epices and its shops stuffed with turtles, colorful spices and witchcraft accessories, we make our way into the Kasbah. Uncovered by chance in 1917, the Saadi Tombs hold the remains of sultans responsible for the last golden age of the city, the 16th and 17th century.
An English merchant that lived at the sultan's court in 16th century relates: 'Six days past here aryved a nobleman from Gao (in Mali), whoe was sent by thins King 10 yeares paste to conquere the said countrye. He brought with him thirtie camels laden with tybar, which ys unrefyned gold; also great store of pepper, unicornes horns and a certaine kynde of wood for diers, to some 120 camel loades, and great quantitye of eanuches, duarfes, and weomen and men slaves, besydes 15 virgins, the Kinge's daughters of Gao, which he sendeth to be the kinge's concubines. You must note all these to be of the cole black heyre, for that contry yeldeth noe other.'
The Saadien sultan had sent a powerful army over the Sahara, led by Spanish mercenaries, that gained control over the gold trade and made him one of the wealthiest men of his time. Thousands of Christian slaves worked for 16 years at the completion of what was to become the Badi' palace where marble columns were brought from Italy and Ireland, onyx slabs from India and ceilings were inlaid in gold. A dutch painter visiting Marrakech in 1641 declared the palace was world's eighth wonder. Unfortunately ,the palace was to be dismantled by the succeeding dynasty and only the walls and towers remain nowadays. As the sun sets and the shade of its towers loses its contour, the fumes start rising on the nearby Jemaa El Fna. Musicians, acrobats, snake charmers, witch doctors and food stalls all come alive as if they had never left the place. This is the city at its most essential, a place where people from everywhere mingle, perform and people- watch, half way between a tableau vivant and a circus show.
Day 6: Marrakech - visit of the city/ relaxing/ cooking class.
The popularity of Marrakech is with foreigners and Moroccans alike. Its gardens are a magnet to people living in traffic jammed Casablanca or conservatory Fez. They were likely first introduced by the Spain- born and educated sultan, who brought with him the refinement of Spain with its elegant houses built around an inside garden back in 11th century. The Almohads then built the Kasbah and the vast manicured gardens still in use today. Who could imagine that the Arabs had the engineers back in 12th century to drain water from Atlas Mountains's springs 50 kilometers away into what became the vast pool of Agdal who would then supply the whole capital in water ? The vast basin was then reputedly used to train for the crossing of Mediterranean by the sultan’s armies.
But perhaps the most interesting gardens in Marrakech are to be found inside private properties. One of them belonged to a painter who had fallen in love with Marrakech in the 1920’s and decided to create his own earthly heaven. Majorelle Gardens were subsequently acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and then made available to the general public. They are best visited early in the morning before they become crowded with visitors. One other garden was given as a wedding gift by a sultan to his son Mamoun, that regularly organized nazha (sort of garden parties). In 1923, La Mamounia became a hotel and the epitome of Moroccan luxury, La Grande Dame counting among its guests Winston Churchill, the Reagans and the Rolling Stones. The magnificent gardens ( and the best cocktails in town) are probably best enjoyed at dawn.
Day 7: Marrakech – Telouet - Ait Benhaddou ( 4 hour drive)
Shortly after leaving Marrakech, our 14 day itinerary climbs up into the Atlas. It is one of the most winding roads, filled with twists and turns and making its way up to 2300 meters altitude to then descend onto Ouarzazate and the Grand sud. Before arriving at the Tizi n Tichka pass, mesmerizing views alternate with the shade of the pine forest, argan oil cooperatives and goat herds. Shortly after the pass, our itinerary takes us away from the tarmac and into the back country roads. The tour reaches Telouet with its imposing derelict palace dominating the village, a fortified citadel that is both a microcosm of an empire and its demise. Pacha Glaoui had managed to overshadow the sultan by controlling most of nowadays Morocco. He had employed the most skilled artisans to build and decorate his main residence and, in its golden age, armies, stables and Christian slaves were confined within its walls while a flourishing Jewish community ruled the nearby salt mines.
Leaving Telouet behind, our 4x4 Morocco tour crosses spaghetti western backgrounds to then follow the canyon. The gardens by the river bed melt into a gigantic green serpent imprisoned between the barren light brown walls of the canyon, only to escape out into the horizon. Here and there, decaying kasbahs stand witnesses of an age soon resolute. Leave your luggage at the kasbah and go visit the troglodyte grottoes. Then, hop on a camel or take the 4x4 and head to Ait Benhaddou. Late afternoon, just before sunset is the ideal time to visit the UNESCO world site citadel. A fat, red sun, only underlines the beige tones of the mud and straws mixture and through the covered passages and stone walls, the past filters itself into the present. Dinner and accommodation in a kasbah by Ait Benhaddou.
Day 8: Ait Benhaddou – Ouarzazate - Agdz - Zagora ( 4 hours drive)
Early in the morning, bake bread with the local ladies on almond corks. Back on the road, our trip crosses Ouarzazate, famous by its film studios where scenes of '
Game of Thrones
' and 'Gladiator' were shot. , the tour sways its way through barren rocky hills and valleys before entering the gorges and picking up altitude. The Draa runs underground until the oasis of Agdz. From the pass, under hazy skies and past the djebels , you just about glimpse the palm grove following the river and only wonder where the Sahara commences. As we come out of Agdz, the magnificent Kasbah Tamnougalt deserves a visit. The adobe honeycomb is a testimony to the grandeur it used to shed on its neighbors centuries ago. Across the palm grove, we will stop and visit the Black People village, a small untouched community of Harratin, likely descendants from traded slaves. Further on, you can also admire megalithic rock paintings depicting animals and hunting scenes. Reaching Zagora we are headed to the local Jewish old quarter with its pise synagogue and still- surviving silver craft, once the monopoly of the local Jewish community. Silversmiths, in the shade of alcoves, melt and shape wire-thin segments of metal into intricate earrings and pendants while masks and chests from Mali adorn the walls. Back at the guest house, the dusk is upon us when the breeze stirs the palm trees swaying in the enveloping night. The wind has so many stories to tell but speaks its own secret tongue. Dinner and accommodation in Zagora.
Day 9: Zagora – Tamegroute - Mhamid - Erg Chigaga ( 3 hours drive)
Our tour takes us past Tamegroute. Seemingly a ghost town on the way to the desert, there is more than meets the eye. The local Sufi zaouia used to be one of the most important in the country, dating back to the 1600’s. Among the thousands of priceless manuscripts on display in its library, works of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and a 900 year old Koran. The emerald- glazed pottery cast in the open- air earth ovens is famous throughout Morocco. If you wish, you can try your hand yourself at a short clay pottery class. The palm grove is soon put behind us and a few twists and turns later, through desolate plateaus and tagine- shaped ridges the tour reaches the end of civilized world.
The next two hours of our trip make full use of the four wheel drive as rocky desert gives way to rocky hamada and then sand dunes, past the occasional water well and oasis. The anticipation built doesn’t quite prepare you for the spectacle ahead of you: sleepy yet shifting leviathans of sand as far as the sight can stretch, dotted by the occasional desert camp. Here, we can arrange for you to be met and taken by camel ride to the desert camp for the last bit of the way, next to the highest dunes. These are the dunes of Erg Chigaga. While the staff of the camp is unloading your luggage and preparing your dinner, you climb onto the highest dune you can find. And lose yourself. And while the sun sets, there is nowhere else you would rather be… Dinner and accommodation in a private tent under the stars.
Day 10: Erg Chigaga – Foum Zguid - Tazenakht - Taroudant (7 hours drive)
(If you have an extra day at hand, it is worth spending an extra night in Tata inside a 500 year old noble house to then reach Taroudant on the evening of the next day following one of the most dramatic and off the beaten track roads in Morocco).
Should you have missed the sunrise… well, try not to. If yesterday was about getting away from civilization, today is about getting back to it. After toddling across sand dunes, we reach the vast Lake Iriki, nowadays completely dry, where the Draa river used to form its estuary. We'll have a break and have tea with the nomads, then search for fossils. Further on we take on the hamada, to finally come out to Foum Zguid. Good bye Sahara, hello tarmac. On the way to Taroudant, we pass through Tazenakht, reputed for its carpet weaving and then Taliouine with its magnificent Kasbah. You may want to keep a small bag handy – this is where the
best saffron is found in Morocco
Arriving in Taroudant, there is hardly anything more relaxing after the desert trip than a plunge in the refreshing pool and/ or ridding off the sand inside the in- house hammam ( steam bath) at the local guest house. As the lights start to twinkle, in the gardens the scent of jasmine perfumes the air while dinner is set. Dinner and accommodation inside the medina of Taroudant or in the palm grove nearby.
Day 11: Taroudant
Taroudant lies in the middle of a fertile plain that crashes into the foothills of the Anti Atlas while nudging the Sahara in the south. Also called sometimes ‘Petit Marrakech’ due to its similar looking walled old town, it is in fact older than its northern sister. Its present walls were built by the Saadi sultans back in 16th century when the city was their capital and the main base to attack Portuguese invaders on the nearby Atlantic coast. Taroudant retains the inscrutable aura of the caravan trading outpost it was centuries ago with a ride in the cheerfully painted horse drawn caleches around the city walls and a visit to the silver souk the only activities worth undertaking. If you are curious about the surroundings, there is quite a lot on offer. You can have a day trip into the countryside to Tafraoute
with its stunning rock formations and picturesque brick- red houses. This is Morocco's Berber heartland, where proud tribes, traditions and folklore pre-date the Arab conquest by centuries. Just a short ride from the city and along the Atlantic Ocean, the Sous Massa natural preserve is a bird watcher paradise. Catch glimpses of yellow wagtails, greater flamingos, spoonbills and red-necked nightjars. Or spend your afternoon riding Arab horses. Accommodation as previously.
Day 12: Taroudant – Agadir - Essaouira ( 4 hours drive)
Less than 1 hour drive from Taroudant lies Agadir, best enjoyed outside summer season. Our tailor made Morocco tour is now headed towards Essaouira folows the Atlantic coast, past surfer villages and summer resorts. Past Taghazout and its surfing beaches, the region lays claim to a windswept, untouched spot on the western coast with empty, golden beaches, clear blue sky and waves to surf on. As we approach the wind city, shepherds—very young boys or very old men—dressed in hooded djellabas tend flocks of sheep and goats. Camels and donkeys graze side by side outside adobe villages. Neat stone fences surround elegant olive groves. Cows lie in fields of purple wildflowers.
Soon, a curious town comes into sight, white cubic buildings with blue doors and windows. With its strong breezes, Essaouira
is one of the world's top windsurfing and kite boarding spots. It has a lot more going for it though, besides water sports, glorious trading past and European military architecture. In recent years, the city has become a cultural center, a place where the calendar is studded with two world-class music festivals and galleries display internationally known local artists. Should you arrive before sunset, you can have a quiet walk on the vast beach, passing the impromptu soccer matches, out to the dunes where hooded horseback riders offer bonjours and a shimmering lagoon is filled with birds. Or listen to the plaintive calls of the gulls, providing a constant soundtrack.
Day 13: Essaouira – Oualidia - El Jadida ( 4 hours drive )
The present Essaouira dates from 1765, when the sultan decided to build a port on the site of the ancient Mogador, a Phoenician settlement, which would open Morocco up to the world and develop commercial ties with Europe. The influence of the French architecture of the time as used at Saint Malo can be seen within the ramparts, especially the Sqala of the Port and the Sqala of the Medina and the Bastion of Bab Marrakesh. The new port became one of the country's main commercial hubs; it was called the 'port of Timbuktu' as it was the destination of caravans bringing a variety of products (including slaves) from black Africa. The local Jewish community played a very important role as the sultan made use of them to establish commercial relations with Europe.
On the way to El Jadida, the picturesque fishing village of Oualidia, built around a wide lagoon midway up Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is a quiet, slightly out-of-time place. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Moroccan bourgeoisie decamped here in the summer, eschewing the urban fug for their modest white-and-blue vacation houses. Today, well-to-do Moroccans come for the clean air, the tranquility and the best oysters in the country, which are shucked tableside on the terrace at L'Araignee Gourmande or the posh Sultana Hotel. The lagoon is right on a wide and deserted beach, with blonde sand gently sloping into the palest blue water.
Day 14: El Jadida – Casablanca ( 1H30 drive).
UNESCO world site El Jadida radiates with the memories of the Arab sultans and Portuguese explorers who came and went on the trade winds, enriching the surrounding coast with their cultural patrimony. It was one of the very first settlements of Portuguese explorers in West Africa on the route to India. Built in two phases in the 16th century by the Portuguese, applying the Portuguese technology of new architectural concepts of Renaissance adapted to the advent of the firearm. When Portuguese left in the 18th century it fell into decline and revived in 19th century. Traces of vanquished prosperity and forsaken grandeur linger in mercantile arcades and crumbling Lusitanian villas. Eeriest of all, the Church of the Assumption, keeps the echoes of its past corralled in impregnable walls. Echoes of Orson Welles' Othello still resonate within the 16th century old water cistern.
The trip to Casablanca takes no more than 1 hour and a half and the driver will make sure to drop you off at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight.
One or two days can always be added or squeezed out of the itinerary if your flight schedule demands it.