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MOROCCO

Morocco's dazzling mosaic of Arab and Berber cultures—with a dash of African and European influence—is at once strange and romantic, alluring and disconcerting. It's little wonder that Morocco has regularly drawn seekers of the exotic.

The country is one of Africa's most popular travel destinations. No matter how well-seasoned a traveler you are, you'll find plenty to see and do: fine Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches, desert excursions, wondrous imperial cities, Islamic landmarks, trance music, Roman antiquities, resort facilities, mountain villages, oases and towering sand dunes.

The tourism industry is expanding at a fast pace in the country, with airport expansions at Casablanca and Marrakech; luxury hotels popping up in major cities; golf courses becoming a big draw; and low-cost flights drawing a wider range of travelers from across Europe.

Just be aware that the combination of heat, dust, spicy flavors and intrusive touts can be overwhelming at times. However, this can be avoided by picking the right destination and time of year to travel.

Snapshot

Morocco's attractions include colorful markets brimming with local handicrafts, the cities of Marrakech and Fez, antiquities, beautiful architecture and design, shopping, beaches, diverse scenery, religious shrines, great food, watersports, Atlas Mountain scenery and Tuareg culture.

Morocco will appeal to the somewhat adventurous and experienced traveler who wants to see an exotic culture and lie on nice beaches. Don't travel there if you're offended by aggressive local vendors and their commission men, although it is possible to visit parts of Morocco where you will encounter none of this. With an influx of high-end hotels, to Marrakech especially, the overall experience for luxe-seeking travelers will only improve.

Potpourri

The English guitarist Davey Graham invented DADGAD tuning, now mainly used in Celtic music, in Tangier in the early 1960s so that he could play Moroccan music on the guitar.

Paleontologists have discovered the remains of several dinosaur species in the Kem Kem sandstone formation of southeast Morocco. The finds include bones from Carcharodontosaurus saharicus (a shark-toothed lizard from the Sahara), which was a fearsome creature at least as big as Tyrannosaurus rex.

Jews and Christians have lived in what is modern-day Morocco for more than 2,000 years. Although they make up a small minority of the population, they are active and accepted in the community. Most live in Casablanca.

Technically speaking, a casbah is a single fortified building, but the word is sometimes used to describe an old quarter, especially one with a citadel.

A ksar (plural, ksour), on the other hand, is a group of residential or storage buildings surrounded by high defensive walls.

Sightseeing

Morocco has many spectacular sights ranging from the World Heritage Roman ruins at Volubilis, which are more than 2,000 years old, to the architectural splendor of the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world, in Casablanca.

Natural wonders include the Atlas mountains and the breathtaking Dades Valley, which is sometimes referred to as the "Valley of a Thousand Casbahs" because of the oases and casbahs found along its length.

The Medja Zerga National Park attracts thousands of migratory birds, making it a paradise for bird-watchers.

In addition to Volubilis, Morocco boasts seven other World Heritage sites: Fes El Bali; Meknes' Imperial City; the medinas in Essaouira, Tetouan and Marrakech; the Portugese port of El-Jadida; and the mud-brick architecture of Ksar of Ait Bebhaddou to the south of Marrakech.

 
 

Recreation

With beaches along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, it's no surprise that a lot of Morocco's recreation is centered around water. The Atlantic beaches, especially resorts around Agadir, are generally better equipped for windsurfing and boating.

Golf has also found a home in Morocco, drawing an increasing number of tourists.

The various ranges of the Atlas Mountains, including the scenic valleys to the south (Draa, Dades, Todra), in addition to the smaller Rif Mountains in the north of the country and even some desert areas, are great spots for hiking and trekking.

Although the facilities are basic, skiing is possible in Morocco December-April, although January-March is probably a better bet when planning a trip.

Dining Overview

Moroccan cuisine is essentially tasty comfort food with exotic spices. There are many low-cost places to dine on local dishes, but even if you're traveling on a budget, splurge one night for a feast in a deluxe restaurant, especially if it has live, traditional music. Harira, the traditional garbanzo-and-noodle soup, is a good starter. Various couscous dishes, tajines (stewed meat or chicken with vegetables, served in a conical clay dish of the same name) and kebabs (also called brochettes) are the most common entrees.

Almond and phyllolike pastries are excellent. Sweet mint tea, served in a clear glass, is available everywhere. Fresh-squeezed juices and milk shakes (almond and avocado are favorites) are also very refreshing. Beer and wine are usually available in hotels and restaurants catering to foreign visitors. The consumption of alcohol is strongly discouraged in open areas such as outdoor cafes.

Marrakech is the hands-down winner in terms of the trendiest restaurant scene and chefs with a following—it's also the best bet if you're looking to take a cooking class.

Dos & Don'ts

Don't start off on the wrong foot: Before asking for directions or making any other inquiries, always start out with the customary greeting, Salaam aleikoum, or Bonjour, monsieur (or madame). Failing to offer it could make you seem overbearing or arrogant. Generally speaking, a friendly, polite attitude makes all the difference in terms of service, and it might even give you a slight edge when bargaining in the souk.

Do take time to sit and talk to vendors in souks about their wares. Remember the pace of life is much slower in Morocco, and shopkeepers will spend time with you. You will not be under any obligation to buy, but if not making a purchase, drop a few coins in the tip tin that will be on display.

Do remember that Morocco is a Muslim country where modesty is appreciated. Both men and women should dress conservatively, which means covering your shoulders, upper arms and legs (unless you are at a beach or tourist resort).

Don't eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours during the holy month of Ramadan.

Do use only your right hand when shaking hands or touching someone.

If you're harassed by a tout or a self-proclaimed guide (called "faux guides"), calmly but firmly decline their offers and ignore them as you go about your business. If they continue to harass you, do make an obvious attempt to seek out a policeman.

Don't enter a mosque without asking permission if you're not Muslim (although generally, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter a mosque in Morocco anyway). Visit the ornate medersas (theological schools) instead. At smaller, less frequented mosques, custodians may allow you to enter outside of prayer times, if you ask politely.

Do take drug laws seriously—even though drugs such as hashish seem widely available, drug laws, particularly when foreigners are involved, are taken very seriously.

Do spend some time languishing in a hammam (bathhouse). Both men and women spend hours there (at separate times), catching up on recent events and family news while being scrubbed, shampooed, massaged and stretched into complete relaxation. Put concerns of modesty aside, however, as these are not designed to be first class-style spas. Follow along as the locals do to feel most comfortable, and it is standard to keep a cloth to cover private areas.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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