Rabat is Morocco's charming coastal capital. Cooled by strong Atlantic sea breezes, it’s surprisingly laid-back and easy to navigate on foot. The best place to start a tour is at the stunning Kasbah of the Udayas (Kasbah des Oudaias). From the window of a speeding taxi the walls of the medieval city look impenetrable, but as you enter through the imposing Bab (gate) Oudaia, you’ll find yourself in a fairy-tale maze of white-washed narrow lanes and cobalt-painted antique doors.
Washing flaps in the wind and cats laze contentedly next to bright blue plant pots full of crimson and tangerine Bougainvillea. The hypnotic sound of the midday call to prayer echoes from the octagonal minaret of the mosque. It's a magical place and hard to believe people actually live here. Out on the windswept ramparts, you can watch surfers down below take on the mighty waves of the Atlantic and admire sweeping views of the coastline.
When you’re finally done exploring, exit the Kasbah down a steep street, (tactfully declining the henna ladies), emerging at the Andalusian Garden, a peaceful place to relax while inhaling the heady scent of hundreds of Moroccan roses. Once rested, carry on down to the Corniche, stopping at one of the cafés near the harbour to admire the view of Kasbah.
Then head up the hill to two of Morocco’s iconic landmarks, the Hassan Tower (Le Tour Hassan) and the adjacent marble Mausoleum of Mohammed V.
The gleaming white mausoleum is guarded by the Moroccan Royal Guards, standing to attention under oversize brass lanterns, rifles in hand, their distinctive super-hero-like red capes flying in the breeze. Inside, a calm and peaceful atmosphere prevails; pause for a moment to hear the elderly imam recite verses from the Koran, while gazing down on the tombs from the viewing gallery.
Although there’s a European feel to central Rabat, authentic Moroccan street life is still easy to find. Wander down the Rue Hassan II amongst fruit sellers and tiny makeshift stalls manned by Saharan Africans selling batik cottons, muumuus (African kaftans) and brightly coloured djellabas (Long, loose, hooded garments with wide sleeves traditionally worn in Morocco). The walled Medina runs along one side of Rue Hassan and is accessed through one of the babs. As Rabat is not on Morocco’s main tourist trail, it’s actually possible to mooch around the Medina browsing antiques, spices, traditional textiles, rugs and silverware without any pressure to buy.
Further south down the Atlantic coast is Casablanca, the industrial and economic hub of Morocco, a 45-minute train journey from Rabat Ville station. Casablanca has a gritty and industrial vibe to it, which some people find unappealing, but as it only sees a trickle of tourists, the city is unvarnished and down-to-earth. Brush up on your elementary French, especially for the petit-taxi drivers which buzz around the city.
Downtown Casa has lots of interesting French colonial Art Deco buildings, some in good condition, some sadly crumbling. Look upwards and you’ll spot ornate wrought-iron balconies and the classic curved corners of Parisian Art Deco. Notice how traditional Moroccan design blends with European – an architectural style known as Mauresque, or Neo-Moorish.
Most people come to Casa to visit the landmark Hassan II Mosque, a truly magnificent piece of architecture. Situated on a rocky ocean promontory, it soars above the waves, its minaret the tallest in the world. The vast, sumptuous interior can hold 25,000 people, has an enormous retractable roof and is decorated with ornately carved cedar wood and finely moulded marble arches. It���s worth joining one of the guided tours of the inside (come in appropriate clothing).
Outside, the exterior is covered in eye-catching geometric patterned tiles known as zellig, one of Morocco’s most popular artistic exports.
Casablanca offers inexpensive internal flights with Royal Air Maroc, a great option to maximise your time in Morocco. For example, it’s only a one-hour direct flight to the desert town of Ouarzarate on the edge of the Sahara. Ouarzarate (pronounced war-zazat) is a quiet and sleepy, but modernised town, known as the ‘Door of the Desert’ - it’s the launching pad for desert excursions. Before moving on, make sure you take a stroll around the town and stop at the Taourirt Kasbah for inspiring views of cubist ochre houses and lush green palm groves.
A 40-minute taxi ride away is the superb ksar (meaning fortified village or castle) of Ait Benhaddou a world-famous UNESCO site and architectural icon of Morocco. It’s simply stunning in late afternoon light when the red brick glows against azure blue skies.
On the way back, stop for a short tour of the Atlas Film Studios, the Hollywood of Morocco. It’s great fun to explore the long-abandoned sets of many familiar productions and pose for a few cheesy snaps.
The last town before the Sahara proper is remote Zagora, reached by bus or grande-taxi from Ouarzarate. Highlighting the outback-vibe is the famous sign at the town’s edge which reads "Tombouctou 52 days", the time it takes to reach Timbuktu in Mali on foot or by camel.
Despite its reputation as a desert outpost, Zagora has a significant tourist industry and there are several decent cafes, travel agents and souvenir shops in the town centre. It also has a hidden gem, the oasis-like Riad Dar Sofian, situated in the heart of Zagora’s palm grove.
A mix of contemporary and traditional Moroccan design, furnished with Syrian antiques, all 10 rooms have super-soft bedding and two come with private rooftop terraces. For a real taste of the Arabian Nights, sip a glass of mint tea poured from a silver teapot in the sequinned Berber tent.
Hire a driver in Zagora and head further south to a village called Tamegroute marooned between a line of distant purple mountains and inhospitable desert scrub. The village is famous for its pottery collective as well as the 16th-century tomb of a Sufi saint and ancient Quranic library.
The shrine attracts many pilgrims, some pitch-up for weeks, waiting for the powerful presence of the Sufi mystic to cure their health problems. Inside the adjacent Quranic library, an old but flirtatious man in a wheelchair, seized my hand and wouldn't let go as he pointed out 14th-century astrological illuminated manuscripts and asked my star sign: "wow did like Pisces!"
Tamegroute is also known for its ancient mud kasbah. Enter through the tiny Alice in Wonderland door into a labyrinth of dark lanes. Transported to medieval times, you’ll marvel at this indoor-town filled with goats, children carrying firewood and old Berber women swathed in black, gossiping around ancient bread ovens. It feels like the deepest, darkest part of the Sahara. The ancient synagogue is fascinating, a single mud room lit by a hanging naked bulb, with niches for candles and a hole for the Torah; taken when the final Jewish family left for Israel in 1948. The family opposite keep it firmly locked, although it’s empty and the chicken coup next door makes for a great alarm.
Emerging from the gloom, outside the desert wind is building and clouds of dust and sand swirl through the streets. Packs of dust-coated kids surround the jeep, keen for a dirham or a ‘bon-bon’. A group excitedly follow an older girl wielding a dead snake on a stick like a big game hunter. This is life in the remote Sahara. Only another 8km on, you can stop for an afternoon camel ride at the windswept and deserted Tinfou Dunes.
Not many tourists stop at these minor dunes, but for the visitor who’s pushed for time, they offer a fleeting desert experience, without driving another 160km, through M’Hamid, to the flaming orange sand-sea of Erg Chigaga. After your desert adventures, drive back to the Riad and treat yourself to a candle-lit meal served up by the illuminated swimming pool.
After the remoteness of southern Morocco, the tourist hustle of Marrakech can be an assault on the senses. It’s the perfect moment to retreat to one of the fabulous riads Marrakech is so famous for. Dar Darma is a small but exquisitely designed boutique hotel right on the edge of the Medina. More of a private home, with a low-key atmosphere, the property has only four suites and two apartments, painted in vintage shades of blue, brown, red and orange. The plush interiors have ancient carved doorways and are furnished with antique oriental rugs and statement vases. Some suites have moulded concrete bathrooms with gold fittings and striking black and white chequerboard floors run throughout. The bountiful breakfast on the roof terrace is a great start to a day of exploring – Dar Darma is just a stone’s throw from the souk and Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the most famous Islamic colleges in Morocco.
The terrace has sweeping views that stretch from the Medina rooftops and the Koutoubia Mosque to the distant Atlas Mountains. It also boasts a swimming pool flanked by white sun-loungers, a true sanctuary from the chaos of the Medina. Personal shopping and cooking lessons are on offer, as well as massages and beauty treatments in the hammam.
Beautifully and sensitively restored, the overall result is decadent, opulent and unique – it really is the perfect place to round off an exhilarating tour of Morocco.