Places To See
Aït Benhaddou is one of the most exotic and best-preserved kasbahs in the entire Atlas region. This is hardly surprising, since it has had money poured into it as a result of being used for scenes in as many as 20 films. In recent years its population has dwindled, but it is under Unesco protection.
Hassan II Mosque
The crowning achievement of King Hassan II, this phenomenal building is the world's third-largest mosque. It was built to commemorate the former king's 60th birthday and rises above the ocean on a rocky outcrop reclaimed from the sea. It's a vast building that can hold 25,000 worshippers and accommodate a further 80,000 in its courtyards.
Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, the mosque is topped by a soaring 210m (689ft)minaret, which shines a laser beam towards Mecca by night. In addition to this high-tech call to prayer, the mosque also has a centrally heated floor, electric doors, a retractable roof and a section of glass flooring allowing the faithful to see the Atlantic washing the rocks below.
Above all though, it is the vast size and elaborate decoration of the prayer hall that is most striking. Large enough to house Paris' Notre Dame or Rome's St Peter's, it is blanketed in astonishing woodcarving, zellij (tile work) and stucco moulding.
The project cost more than half a billion dollars and was paid for largely by public subscription. Although most Moroccans, particularly those from Casablanca, are very proud of their modern monument others believe this vast sum might have been better spent. In particular, resentment lingers among the slum dwellers who were evicted without compensation from the area around the mosque.
The medina of Fès el-Bari (Old Fès) is the largest living medieval city in the world. Its incredible maze of 9400 twisting alleys, blind turns and souqs are crammed with shops, restaurants, workshops, mosques, medersas (theological colleges), dye pits and tanneries. A riot of sights, sounds and smells, 21st-century Fès is groaning at its 9th-century seams.
Despite its designation as a World Heritage site, investment has been slow to follow. While the chic cafe-lined boulevards of the ville nouvelle provide a stark contrast, many young Fassis remain jobless, and the bright lights disguise the sad lot of the poorer people living on the periphery.
For the short-term visitor, Fès is terribly exotic and can be difficult to come to grips with. The medina can seem totally impenetrable. Though the amount of hassle is far less than it once was, the attention of unofficial guides, small boys, touts and shopkeepers can be intimidating for some. It is a veiled, self-contained city where life moves to centuries-old traditions - a city that doesn't easily bare its soul. With time, visitors begin to glimpse behind the anonymous walls and appreciate the rich culture and spirituality that is Fès.
Volubilis is the site of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco. Dating largely from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, excavations have revealed that the site was originally settled by Carthaginian traders even earlier. At its peak, it is estimated that the city housed up to 20,000 people. Take a guide, a hat and plenty of water. Magical at dusk.
This huge square is the backdrop for one of the world's greatest spectacles. Lively at any hour of day, Djemaa el-Fna comes into its own at dusk when the curtain goes up on rows of open-air food stalls infusing the area with mouthwatering aromas. Jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, musicians and acrobats fill the remaining space.
In between the groups of spectators, diners, shoppers and tourists weave the occasional hustler, pickpocket, knick-knack seller, hashish dealer and glue-sniffing kid. On the outer edges are the juice stalls with their kerosene lanterns ablaze. Beyond them, hunched on the ground with their eye-catching wares spread before them, herbalists sit poised to prescribe a potion for whatever ails you.
Later at night, with fewer visitors around, musicians from the Derkaoua and Gnawa spiritual brotherhoods start playing their strong hypnotic music on drums, flutes and ginbris (two- or three-string guitars).
Morocco is one of those religious frontiers where orthodoxy and local custom have met and compromised. The veneration of saints is frowned upon by orthodox Sunni Muslims but, in Morocco, mainstream Islam blends with the mystical practises of Sufism, which involves devotional dancing, poetry and trance. Because of this, the Moroccan calendar retains many moussems (non-Islamic 'holy' days), honouring holy men like Moulay Idriss. It's worth asking around for details of festival dates because they alter a little every year.
The two largest moussems in the Moroccan calendar are Moussem of Ben Aïssa, held in Meknès in June, and Moussem of Moulay Idriss II, held in Fès at the end of September when thousands gather to watch the processions to the saint's tomb.
Other, non-religious events, that pull in impressive crowds are the world-famous Gnawa and World Music Festival, held in Essaouira, and the Festival of World Sacred Music held in Fès in June. The Marrakesh Film Festival, held between September and December, is also growing in popularity and showcases Arab and African cinema to an often star-studded audience. Independence Day, one of five national secular holidays, is celebrated on 18 November.
When to go?
On the northern coast the weather is tourist-friendly pretty much all year round, although winter can bring cool and wet conditions. Beaches further south are prone to fog in the summer months, a phenomenon caused when the heat of the desert meets the chill Atlantic current. In the lowlands, the cooler months from October to April are popular among visitors. This time of year is pleasantly warm to hot (around 30°C) during the day and cool to cold (around 15°C) at night. Winter in the higher regions demands some serious insulation. If you're heading into the hills, the ski season usually lasts from December to March. April to October is the main trekking season, when the mountain snows start to thaw. In high season (mid-June-mid-September) you'll need to book or you may find areas full.
Travel Visa Overview
Most visitors to Morocco do not require visas and are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days on entry. Exceptions to this include nationals of Israel, and most sub-Saharan African countries (including South Africa). Moroccan embassies have been known to insist that you get a visa from your country of origin. Should the standard 90-day stay be insufficient, it is possible (but difficult) to apply at the nearest police headquarters (Préfecture de Police) for an extension -the simplest thing to do is to leave (eg travel to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) and come back a few days later. Your chances improve if you re-enter by a different route. The Spanish enclaves have the same visa requirements as mainland Spain.
European plug with two circular metal pins
HIV is spread via infected blood and blood products, sexual intercourse with an infected partner and from an infected mother to her newborn child. It can be spread through 'blood to blood' contacts such as contaminated instruments during medical, dental, acupuncture and other body piercing procedures and sharing used intravenous needles.
Spread through the bite of an infected sand fly, leishmaniasis can cause a slowly growing skin lump or ulcer. It may develop into a serious life-threatening fever usually accompanied with anaemia and weight loss. Infected dogs are also carriers of the infection. Sand fly bites should be avoided whenever possible.
Tuberculosis (TB) is spread through close respiratory contact and occasionally through infected milk or milk products. BCG vaccine is recommended for those likely to be mixing closely with the local population. It is more important for those visiting family or planning on a long stay, and those employed as teachers and health-care workers. TB can be asymptomatic, although symptoms can include cough, weight loss or fever months or even years after exposure. An x-ray is the best way to confirm if you have TB. BCG gives a moderate degree of protection against TB. It causes a small permanent scar at the site of injection, and is usually only given in specialised chest clinics. As it's a live vaccine it should not be given to pregnant women or immunocompromised individuals. The BCG vaccine is not available in all countries.
Spread through bites or licks on broken skin from an infected animal, rabies is fatal. Animal handlers should be vaccinated, as should those travelling to remote areas where a reliable source of post-bite vaccine is not available within 24 hours. Three injections are needed over a month. If you have not been vaccinated you will need a course of five injections starting within 24 hours or as soon as possible after the injury. Vaccination does not provide you with immunity, it merely buys you more time to seek appropriate medical help.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis:A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
Diphtheria is spread through close respiratory contact. It causes a high temperature and severe sore throat. Sometimes a membrane forms across the throat requiring a tracheostomy to prevent suffocation. Vaccination is recommended for those likely to be in close contact with the local population in infected areas. The vaccine is given as an injection alone, or with tetanus, and lasts 10 years.
Do not walk barefoot or stick your hand into holes or cracks. Half of those bitten by venomous snakes are not actually injected with poison (envenomed). If bitten by a snake, do not panic. Immobilise the bitten limb with a splint (eg a stick) and apply a bandage over the site, using firm pressure, similar to a bandage over a sprain. Do not apply a tourniquet, or cut or suck the bite. Get the victim to medical help as soon as possible so that antivenin can be given if necessary.
Heat exhaustion occurs following heavy sweating and excessive fluid loss with inadequate replacement of fluids and salt. This is particularly common in hot climates when taking unaccustomed exercise before full acclimatisation. Symptoms include headache, dizziness and tiredness. Dehydration is already happening by the time you feel thirsty - aim to drink sufficient water such that you produce pale, diluted urine. The treatment of heat exhaustion involves fluid replacement with water or fruit juice or both, and cooling by cold water and fans. The treatment of the salt loss component involves consuming salty fluids such as soup or broth, and adding a little more table salt to foods than usual.
Heat stroke is much more serious. This occurs when the body's heat-regulating mechanism breaks down. Excessive rise in body temperature leads to sweating ceasing, irrational and hyperactive behaviour and eventually loss of consciousness and death. Rapid cooling by spraying the body with water and fanning is an ideal treatment. Emergency fluid and electrolyte replacement by intravenous drip is usually also required.
Bites and stings
Mosquitoes may not carry malaria but can cause irritation and infected bites. Using DEET-based insect repellents will prevent bites. Mosquitos also spread dengue fever.
Bees and wasps only cause real problems to those with a severe allergy (anaphylaxis). If you have a severe allergy to bee or wasp stings you should carry an adrenaline injection or similar. Sand flies are found around the Mediterranean beaches. They usually cause only a nasty, itchy bite but can carry a rare skin disorder called cutaneous leishmaniasis. Bites may be prevented by using DEET-based repellents.
Scorpions are frequently found in arid or dry climates. They can cause a painful bite which is rarely life threatening.
Bed bugs are often found in the hostels and cheaper hotels. They lead to very itchy lumpy bites. Spraying the mattress with an appropriate insect killer will do a good job of getting rid of them.
Scabies are also frequently found in cheap accommodation. These tiny mites live in the skin, particularly between the fingers. They cause an intensely itchy rash. Scabies is easily treated with lotion available from pharmacies; people who you come into contact with also need treating to avoid spreading scabies between asymptomatic carriers.
Lack of oxygen at high altitudes (over 2500m) affects most people to some extent. The effect may be mild or severe and occurs because less oxygen reaches the muscles and the brain at high altitudes, requiring the heart and lungs to compensate by working harder. Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) usually develop during the first 24 hours at altitude but may be delayed up to three weeks. Mild symptoms include headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. AMS may become more severe without warning and can be fatal. Severe symptoms include breathlessness, a dry, irritative cough (which may progress to the production of pink, frothy sputum), severe headache, lack of coordination and balance, confusion, irrational behaviour, vomiting, drowsiness and unconsciousness. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to what is too high: AMS has been fatal at 3000m, although 3500m to 4500m is the usual range.
Treat mild symptoms by resting at the same altitude until recovery, which usually takes a day or two. Paracetamol or aspirin can be taken for headaches. If symptoms persist or become worse, however, immediate descent is necessary; even 500m can help. Drug treatments should never be used to avoid descent or to enable further ascent.
Diamox (acetazolamide) reduces the headache of AMS and helps the body acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. It is only available on prescription and those who are allergic to the sulfonamide antibiotics may also be allergic to Diamox.
Also known as enteric fever, typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease.
The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains.
You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity.
Seek medical help for any fever (38C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating.
Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
Yellow fever vaccination is not required for Morocco. However, the mosquito that spreads yellow fever has been known to be present in some parts of the Middle East and Africa. It is important to consult your local travel health clinic as part of your pre-departure plans for the latest details. For this reason, any travellers from a yellow fever endemic area will need to show proof of vaccination against yellow fever before entry. This normally means if arriving directly from an infected country or if the traveller been in an infected country during the last 10 days. We would recommend however that travellers carry a certificate if they have been in an infected country during the previous month to avoid any possible difficulties with immigration. Travellers should carry a certificate as evidence of vaccination if they have recently been in an infected country, to avoid any possible difficulties with immigration. For a full list of these countries visit the World Health Organization website (www.who.int/wer/) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (www.cdc.gov/travel/yb/outline.html). There is always the possibility that a traveller without a legally required, up-to-date certificate will be vaccinated and detained in isolation at the port of arrival for up to 10 days or possibly repatriated. The yellow fever vaccination must be given at a designated clinic and is valid for 10 years. It is a live vaccine and must not be given to immunocompromised or pregnant travellers.
On the Atlantic-Mediterranean coastline June to September are the most pleasant times to visit Morocco, offering mostly rain-free days and moderately humid and warm conditions, with the mercury lingering around the high 20°Cs (low 80°Fs) during the daytime. Further inland, rain is sparse the year round and it can get quite hot. More comfortable conditions on the central plateau will be found during March to June and September to December. Don't underestimate the extremes of heat and cold in the higher mountains, where some peaks can remain snow-capped from November to June.
History and Culture
Morocco has a rich repertoire of artistic traditions - exquisite marquetry, impressive leatherware, attractive ceramics and ornate silver jewellery, as well as a multitude of carpet designs.
The Moroccan music scene has evolved to include a vast range of genres from the haunting strains of Arab-Andalucian love songs to the syncopated rhythms of Berber and Gnawa music, with African overtures. Contemporary musicians employ a fusion of African, French, pop and rock sounds. Throw in a serve of couscous washed down with sweet mint tea and you'll come somewhere close to the cultural flavour of Morocco.
Pre-20th Century History
Unlike other North African nations, Morocco has been largely occupied by one group of people for as long as recorded history can recall. The Berbers, or Imazighen (free men), settled in the area thousands of years ago and at one time controlled all of the land between Morocco and Egypt. Divided into clans and tribes, they have always jealously guarded their independence. It's this fierce spirit that has helped preserve one of Africa's most fascinating cultures.
The early Berbers were unmoved by the colonising Phoenicians, and even the Romans did little to upset the Berber way of life after the sack of Carthage in 146 BC. All the same, the Romans ushered in a long period of peace during which many cities were founded, and the Berbers of the coastal plains became city dwellers. Christianity turned up in the 3rd century AD, and again the Berbers asserted their traditional dislike of centralised authority by following Donatus (a Christian sect leader who claimed that the Donatists alone constituted the true church).
Islam burst onto the world stage in the 7th century when armies swept out of Arabia. Quickly conquering Egypt, the Arabs controlled all of North Africa by the start of the 8th century. By the next century much of North Africa had fragmented, with the move towards a united Morocco steadily growing. A fundamentalist Berber movement emerged from the chaos caused by the Arab invasion, overrunning Morocco and Muslim Andalucia. The Almoravids founded Marrakesh as their capital, but they were soon replaced by the Almohads.
Under these new rulers, a professional civil service was set up and the cities of Fès, Marrakesh, Tlemcen and Rabat reached the peak of their cultural development. But eventually weakened by Christian defeats in Spain, and paying the price for heavily taxing tribes, the Almohad power began to wane. In their place came the Merenids, from the Moroccan hinterland, and the area again blossomed - until the fall of Spain to the Christians, in 1492, unleashed a revolt that dissolved the new dynasty within 100 years.
After a number of short-lived dynasties rose and fell, the Alawite family secured a stranglehold in the 1630s that remains firm to this day. Although it was rarely a smooth ride, this pragmatic dynasty managed to keep Morocco independent for more than three centuries.
Enter the European traders in the late 19th century, and a long era of colonial renovations. Suddenly France, Spain and Germany were all keen on hijacking the country for its strategic position and rich trade resources. France won out and occupied virtually the entire country by 1912. Spain clung to a small coastal protectorate and Tangier was declared an international zone.
The first French resident-general, Marshal Lyautey, resisted the urge to destroy the existing Moroccan towns and instead built French villes nouvelles (new towns) alongside them. Whether this was out of respect for the Arab culture or because the French had no desire to live in rundown medinas with no modern services is a topic up for debate. Whatever his reasons, Lyautey made Rabat on the Atlantic coast the new capital and developed the port of Casablanca. The sultan remained, but as little more than a figurehead. Lyautey's successors were not so sensitive. Their efforts to speed French settlement prompted the people of the Rif Mountains, led by the Berber scholar Abd el-Krim, to rise up against both colonial forces. It was only through the combined efforts of 25,000 Spanish-French troops that Abd el-Krim was eventually forced to surrender in 1926. By the 1930s, more than 200,000 French had made Morocco home. WWII saw Allied forces use Morocco as a base from which to drive the Germans out of North Africa.
With the war over, Sultan Mohammed V inspired an independence party that finally secured Moroccan freedom in 1956. Tangier was reclaimed in the process, but Spain refused to hand over the northern settlements of Ceuta and Melilla (to this day they remain Spain's last tenuous claim on Africa).
Mohammed V promoted himself to king in 1957 and was succeeded four years later by his son, Hassan II. This popular leader cemented his place in Moroccan hearts and minds by staging the Green March into the Western Sahara, an area formerly held by Spain. With a force of 350,000 volunteers, Hassan's followers overcame the indigenous Sahrawis to claim the mineral-rich region as their own.
By the 1960s it had become clear that the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the 'territory' wanted independence. Western Sahara's Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) didn't take kindly to the invasion and embarked on a protracted war of independence against Morocco. Despite attempts at international mediation the issue remains unresolved. While the Moroccan masses applauded the southern invasion, it left nearby Algeria about as happy as the Western Saharans themselves. Morocco's relations with this particular war-torn neighbour have been poor ever since.
In 1999, Mohammed VI ascended to the Moroccan throne just prior to his 35th birthday. The young king accelerated the more liberal trends that began late in his father's rule. In his first speech as king, he promised the amnesty of nearly 50,000 prisoners and apologised for past political repressions. More significantly, he sacked the powerful and much feared long-time head of the security forces, the infamous 'Butcher Basri'. Still, Morocco remains a monarchy in which the limits of political tolerance reflect the king's personal views.
Mohammed VI has shown himself to be most innovative in the field of social policy, and more specifically, in women's rights. In 2002, the king married Salma Bennani, a computer engineer - an event that appeared to symbolise acceptance of an increasingly modern role for women. In 2004, the government adopted landmark changes to the Moudawana, or Family Law, a legal code protecting women's rights to divorce and custody. Mohammed VI has overseen other small but real reformist steps, including elections, and the introduction of Berber languages in some state schools
Today, Morocco's human rights record is arguably the cleanest in Africa and the Middle East, though still not exactly spotless - repressive measures were revived after 9/11 and the 2003 Casablanca bombings.
At a different level, investment in new roads, the widespread introduction of electricity, the provision of better sanitation and a huge number of social housing developments are all improving the daily lives of average Moroccans.