December is a harvest time in Morocco. Wherever you go, you are offered fresh olives and mandarins; there is abundance of both. The days are luminous, the sunlight dazzling but there is a chill in the air. The nights are cold. Especially if you choose to sleep in a tent on the edge of Sahara desert.
The desert was one of the reasons why I wanted to come here: pure, elemental, the silence of the sands will fill your ears. The patience of the camel, its stoicism is humbling. The people of the desert are no more resilient and impassive. They are quietly strong. ‘You can shake the sand from your shoes, but not from your soul’- someone said.
Berbers have been inhabiting North Africa for millennia. They call themselves ‘Amazigh’- free people. Maybe this is the biggest draw of the desert: the freedom? The sands are always moving, boundaries are an abstract concept. Nomadic Berbers from the Sahara, the Tuareg, called the blue men of the desert, were from times memorable crossing the sands with their camels, connecting the Mediterranean and the depth of African continent. Along these caravan routes countless Kasbahs have been built, from Marrakech down to Timbuktu. Mud, sand, water and stray were used to create these impressive structures – Ait Ben Haddou, now UNESCO heritage site, is one of the best preserved examples. Despite following Islamisation, Berbers have strong identity and their language has been recognised as official by Moroccan authorities, if only in recent years. Maghreb – the place where the sun sets –as the Arabs names the countries west of Alexandria, has for centuries been a crossroad of civilisations.
Volubilis, an ancient Berber settlement, has been in Roman hands at the beginning of the 1st century AD. You can visit the ruins of the city with its Triumphal arch, floor mosaics and surrounding olive groves. From the 8th century Volubilis became a seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, considered the founder of Moroccan state. Idrisid dynasty brought Islam to the country and they also initiated the construction of Meknes and Fes.
Fes is a fascinating place. Nowadays it is the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, with its modern Ville Nouvelle built during the French occupation in the 20th century. But the real draw of Fes is its ancient medina. It is a labyrinth of narrow passageways where only a man and a donkey would squeeze, with houses that have been continuously inhabited for 12 generations. The time here seems to be following a different clock, forgetting about the outside world. Fes is home to many traditional crafts and industries, the most famous are the leather tanneries. Round, stone wells of the Chouara Tannery has been in use since the 11th century. Did you know: it is also in Fes you will find the world’s oldest, continually operating university: Al Quaraouiyine, founded by Fatima al-Fihri in the 8th century. In one of the ancient riads, or guesthouses, you should try traditional Fes pastilla.
Most people coming to Morocco will visit Marrakech. Despite being mercilessly commercialised, it is an exciting and mesmerising city with its bustling market Jemaa el-Fna, where you can eat local food cooked on the stalls and see snake charmers. It is also famous for beautiful palaces. Marrakech is all about location. The city lies at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and from there you can hike to the top of its highest peak, Mount Toubkal.
Morocco is a country of a great natural beauty, unique culture and long history. It makes the most of its complexity being Mediterranean country, African country, Muslim country with majestic mountains, romantic desert, living traditions and warm welcoming people, it escapes definitions and will leave you mesmerised.