Morocco holds an immediate and and enduring fascination. Though just an hour’s ride on the ferry from Spain, it seems at once very far from Europe, with a culture – Islamic and deeply traditional – that is almost wholly unfamiliar. Throughout the country, despite the years of French and Spanish colonial rule and the presence of modern and cosmopolitan cities like Rabat or Casablanca, a more distant past constantly makes its presence felt. Fes, perhaps the most beautiful of all Arab cities, maintains a life still rooted in medieval times, when a Moroccan empire stretched from Senegal to northern Spain; while in the mountains of the Atlas and the Rif, it is still possible to draw up tribal maps of the Berber population. As a backdrop to all this, the country’s physical make-up is also extraordinary: from a Mediterranean coast, though four mountain ranges, to the empty sand and scrub of the Sahara.
All of which makes travel here an intense and rewarding –if not always easy –experience. Certainly, there can be problems in coming to terms with your privileged position as tourist in a nation that, for the most part, would regard such activities as those of another world. And the northern cities especially have a reputation for hustlers : self-appointed guides whose eagerness to offer their services –and whose attitude to tourists as being a justifiable source of income (and to women as something much worse )- can be hard to deal with. If you find this to be too much of a struggle, then it would probably be better to keep to low-key resorts like Essaouira or Asilah, or to the more cosmopolitan holiday destination of Agadir, built very much in the image of its Spanish counterparts, or even a packaged sightseeing tour.
But you’d miss a lot that way Morocco is at its best well away from such trappings. A week’s hiking in the Atlas; a journey through the southern oases or into the pre-Sahara; or leisured strolls around Tangier, Fes or Marrakesh- once you adapt to a different way of life, all your time will be well spent. And it is difficult for any traveller to go for long without running into Morocco’s equally powerful tradition of hospitality, generosity and openness. This is a country people return to again and again.
Geographically, the country divides into five basic zones : the coast,Mediterranean and Atlantic; the great cities of the plains; the Rif and Atlas mountains; and the oases and desert of the pre- and fully-fledged Sahara. With two or three weeks –even two or three months- you can’t expect to cover all of this, though it’s easy enough (and high-ly recommended) to take in something of each aspect.
You are unlikely to miss the mountains, in any case. The three ranges of the Atlas, with the Rif a kind of extension in the north, cut right across the interior-physical and historical barriers, and inhabited for the most part by the indigenous Moroccan Berbers. Contrary to general preconceptions, it is actually the Berbers who make up most of the population; only around ten percent of Moroccans are “pure” Arabs, although with the shift to the industrialized cities, such distinctions are becoming less and less significant.
A more current distinction, perhaps, is the legacy of Morocco’s colonial occupation over the fifty-odd years befors it reasserted its independence in 1956. The colonized country was divided into Spanish and French zones – the former contained Tetouan and the Rif, the Mediterranean and the northern Atlantic coasts, and parts of the Western Sahara; the latter comprised the plains and the main cities (Fes, Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat), as well as the Atlas. It was the French, who ruled their “pro-tectorate” more closely, who had the most lasting effect on Moroccan culture, Europeanizing the cities to a strong degree and firmly imposing their language, which is spoken today by all educated Moroccans (after Moroccan Arabic or the three local Berber languages).
As far as the climate goes, it would be better to visit the south – or at least the desert routes –outside midsummer, when for most of the day it’s far too hot for casual exploration, especially if you’re dependent on public transport. But July and August, the hottest months, can be wonderful on the coast and in the mountains; there are no set rules.
Spring, which comes late by European standards (around April To May),is perhaps the best overall time, with a summer climate in the south and in the mountains, and water warm enough to swim in on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. Winter can be perfect by day in the south, though be warned that desert nights can get very cold- a major consideration if you’re staying in the cheaper hotels, which rarely have heating. If you’re planning to hike in the mountains, it’s best to keep to the months from April to October unless you have some experience of snow conditions.
Weather condition apart, the Islamic religious calendar, and its related festivals, will have the most seasonal effect on your travel. The most important factor is Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting; this can be a problem for transport, and espe-cially hiking, though the festive evenings do much to compensate. See “Festivals” in the Basics section following for details of its timing, as well as that of other festivals.
Morocco has a population of 34,859,364 (July 2009) Density: 66 persons per square km; however, the population density is highest in the plains and coastal areas of northwestern Morocco. Most of the population lives in the fertile plains or near the Mediterranean coast.
56% of the population live in urban areas:
1. Rabat - 1,453,000
2. Marrakech - 1,517,000
3. Fes (Fez) - 1,012,000
4. Meknes - 750,000
5. Tangier - 554,000
6. Oujda - 962,000
7. Tetouan - 856,000
8. Safi - 845,000
9. Kenitra - 905,000.
Moroccans are predominantly Sunni Muslims of Arab, Berber, or mixed Arab-Berber ancestry. The Arabs brought Islam, along with Arabic language and culture, to the region from the Arabian Peninsula during the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. Today, a small Jewish community remains as well as a largely expatriate Christian population; both enjoy religious freedom and full civil rights.
Arabic is Morocco's official language, but French is widely taught and serves as the primary language of commerce and government. Moroccan colloquial Arabic, Darija, is composed of a unique combination of Arabic, Berber, and French dialects. Along with Arabic, about 10 million Moroccans, predominantly in rural areas, also speak one of the three Moroccan Berber dialects (Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight). Spanish is also used in the northern part of the country. English is increasingly becoming the foreign language of choice among educated youth and is offered in many public and private schools.
If you haven't had the chance to taste Moroccan cuisine, this is the perfect time to do so. Morocco's markets are filled with a colorful array of meat, produce, and fragrant spices, and many people still visit the markets daily to get the freshest ingredients for their meals. Perhaps the most well-known Moroccan dish is Couscous, which is traditionally prepared on Fridays and may include chicken, lamb, or beef with vegetables.
Tajines, which simmer for hours in clay pots, are another favorite Moroccan dish. You will have the chance to sample many traditional foods, including Cous-cous, tajines, and pastilla.