YOU think you know Morocco until you get there for the first time.
Yes, there’s everything people told you – the frantic hustle and bustle of the main cities, the energy, the passion, the street markets and the smell of spices filling the air.
But then there’s the side you didn’t expect. And that’s what we discovered when we visited this incredibly diverse country – a diversity which has kept it one of Africa’s most popular destinations for decades.
First Choice Holidays have two destinations from Manchester, flying direct to Marrakech and Agadir. This piece of North Africa is less than four hours from the UK, but it couldn’t be more different. Snake charmers and acrobats fill city squares, camels strut along sandy beaches, and maze-like souks are piled high with lanterns and carpets.
Marrakech is Morocco’s most famous city. In the walled inner city zone – called the medina – is where the heart of real Morocco lies.
This hub of Marrakech life surrounds the city’s main square Jemaa el-Fna and in the evening it buzzes with energy as soothsayers, storytellers, acrobats and snake charmers try to grab your attention.
This is what you thought Morocco was going to be like – unpredictable, exciting, pulsating with a host of different rhythms. Only it’s even better when you experience it for real than you ever could have imagined.
During the day the city’s network of souks (markets) of Jemaa el-Fna come alive. Souk Haddadin is the blacksmiths’ souk, Souk des Teinturiers the dyers’ souk and Souk Zrabia the place to go for rugs and carpets. They’re easy to get lost in, but that’s half the fun. Just ask someone to point you in the direction of the main square if you get stuck.
Just by Jemaa el-Fna is one of Marrakech’s must-see sights. The 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque is a magnificent building and dominates the city centre skyline. You can’t actually go inside unless you’re a Muslim, but don’t let that put you off – the main attraction here lies on the outside.
The 70-metre-high minaret is covered completely in intricate ceramic tiles and topped with four copper globes. An amazing piece of architecture unrivalled in Morocco.
OVER on the Atlantic coast you’ve got Agadir. When you think Agadir’s got a sunshine record of 300 days a year, it’s not surprising most people home in on the beach here. It stretches for over six miles and the sand is wonderfully soft. The conditions and the lively Atlantic swell make it a haven for watersports enthusiasts, too, particularly wind- and kite-surfing.
DRIVE two hours north of Agadir and you’ll hit Essaouira – a laid-back former hippy haven which was once the favourite hang-out of such legendary names as Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. This seaside town has a chilled-out vibe, with an artsy medina and a breezy beach that’s great for windsurfers.
HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS
BUT there’s more to Morocco than souks and beaches. Head for the hills and you discover a whole different side to this great country. This is a place of ultimate contrasts – an African country where you can even go ski-ing!
Why not take a day trip to the tiny ski resort of Oukaimeden, 45 miles south of Marrakech in the Atlas Mountains and see for yourself – or ski for yourself, if you like.
Oukaimeden is Africa’s highest ski resort, its village sitting at 2,600m and its chairlift rising to 3,258m – the peak of Jebel Attar. Five runs come down from this dizzying height; elsewhere are four drag lifts servicing the nursery and intermediate slopes.
It has all the facilities you find in a typical European resort – ski hire, ski school, restaurants and hotels – but all done in a Moroccan way. And all at a fraction of the cost of a day on an Alpine slope.