Mesmerising Morocco

On a journey through Morocco, Hannah-Rose Yee discovers the country’s unique and individual flavours and fragrances.
January 2022

It’s dusk in Fes, and the sun is starting to set. We are on the rooftop of Riad Fes, a beautifully restored riad in the centre of the medina, decorated with mosaics and intricate carvings. As part of our intimate Abercrombie & Kent adventure, we have spent the afternoon in a cooking class, and are awaiting the slow-cooked fruits of our labour (we have been making tagine after all). The sky is turning shades of pink and purple – rosewater, raspberry, a pale lilac – as the day sheds its skin and slips into evening. The call to prayer is echoing out over the city. It’s a warm evening in February, and though the temperature will drop a little bit as the sun dips below the horizon, it won’t be by much. It’s sandal weather almost all year round in Morocco, just make sure you have a jacket on hand come nightfall.

It’s not the first showstopper of a sunset on the trip, and it definitely won’t be the last. With Abercrombie & Kent’s nine-day tour of Morocco, you’ll take in the length and breadth of the country, starting in historic Casablanca before moving to Rabat, Fes, Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains and ending in Essaouira and Oualidia on the west coast. It is both an introductory overview of Morocco and an action-packed cross-country tour, full of history and culture and food and shopping – so much shopping! Part of the reason we are so excited to take in that glorious Fes sunset is that it’s an opportunity to rest our weary feet; we have been walking the rumoured 9,000 winding alleys and laneways of the historic Fes medina, home to the world’s oldest and continuously functioning university, all day long.

It’s not the first showstopper of a sunset on the trip, and it definitely won’t be the last. With Abercrombie & Kent’s nine-day tour of Morocco, you’ll take in the length and breadth of the country, starting in historic Casablanca before moving to Rabat, Fes, Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains and ending in Essaouira and Oualidia on the west coast. It is both an introductory overview of Morocco and an action-packed cross-country tour, full of history and culture and food and shopping – so much shopping! Part of the reason we are so excited to take in that glorious Fes sunset is that it’s an opportunity to rest our weary feet; we have been walking the rumoured 9,000 winding alleys and laneways of the historic Fes medina, home to the world’s oldest and continuously functioning university, all day long.

Earlier that morning, we stop by the ancient tanneries, where leather is cured and treated – and has been for hundreds of years, built at the same time as the medina in the 9th century and now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site – to be turned into the sandals and handbags and homewares that line the stores in the souks. There is a viewing platform, high above the tanneries on the terrace of a leather shop, where we peer down, watching the work unfold below. Raw leather is dipped into deep vats of dye, in and out, in and out, ready to be hung and cured by the sun. It is a timeless practice, carried out today in exactly the same manner that it has been for hundreds of years. It is also a difficult, backbreaking one. The work is physical, undertaken under a blazing sun. And even from a great distance, the smell is overpowering: pungent and thick. Bunches of fresh mint are thoughtfully passed around to alleviate the odour.

Leather goods are just one piece of the Moroccan retail offering. Another is ceramics. In Fes, we stop by Art D’Agile on the outskirts of the city, where the friendly Ahmed Lahkim has taken up his family’s pottery business. Everything is done by hand, with trained artisans working directly with the clay on the wheel, shaping it into smaller pieces such as tagines, vases, plates and jugs. These pieces are fired in an ancient kiln, heated with thousands and thousands of crushed olive pits, before they are sent for decoration. The embellishments are endless. Pieces can be hand-painted in intricate swirls, glazed with a deep gloss or tiled over with mosaics. Larger pieces, such as an arched fountain, standing proudly by the entrance of the store, can take a craftsman several days to make.

Fes is just one of the many bustling cities in Morocco. Our Abercrombie & Kent journey also makes stops in Casablanca – where the elegant Hassan II mosque stands proudly on the coastline, ready to welcome some 105,000 worshippers – Rabat, Marrakech and Essaouira. Each has a unique and individual flavour. Rabat, the country’s capital, is a polished modern city built upon its own history. The sunken Citadel of Chellah gardens are a Roman ruin in the middle of the city, dating back to around 250AD. Nearby, in the Kasbah of the Udayas – another UNESCO World Heritage site – you will find winding streets painted blue-and-white. A short drive from Rabat is Meknes – an imperial city, built with splendour in the 17th century – and Volubilis, an impressive Ancient Roman ruin that has been impeccably excavated and maintained. Situated in a valley and drenched with sun, even on the February afternoon when we visit, you can see why a wealthy Roman would want to set up court there, surrounded by olive trees and fields of flowers.

But the Moroccan city which most travellers come to see is Marrakech. A desert oasis at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech shimmers with history. The walled medina is ancient, built in the 11th century and comprising a winding network of souks, selling spices – ras-el-hanout is the blend to buy, a local specialty perfect for roasting meats created from a mixture of 30 or more different herbs – and handwoven carpets and lanterns and baskets and ceramics galore. You could lose whole days to the souks of Marrakech and their endless alleyways, but don’t forget to venture outside the red-tinged stone walls of the medina. There, you’ll find the new wave of the Marrakech creative community, such as ceramicist Laurence Leenaert of LRNCE, whose modernist-leaning homewares and clothing is stocked in boutiques all around the world. Her studio is located in Sidi Ghanem, a warehouse district just a short taxi ride from the city centre.

Creatives have always flocked to Marrakech. A few days in the city and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a vibrancy and an energy as you walk the streets that is endlessly inspiring. The colour palette – pink clay, cactus green and the bright blue sky – is inspiring too. No wonder fashion icons including Serge Lutens, Talitha Getty and Yves Saint Laurent have all called Marrakech home. There’s even an Yves Saint Laurent museum dedicated to the designer’s sensual, glamorous aesthetic, just outside the medina. We visit the museum, which tells the fascinating story of the YSL brand, as it is entwined with the city of Marrakech, on a warm February afternoon.

Afterwards, we head next door to the Majorelle Gardens, a sprawling homestead painted in blue that was once owned by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, and is now open to the public, alongside its famous cactus-filled gardens. Here are all the colours of Marrakech in one place: the deep cerulean blue of the house, the terracotta stones, the herbacious greens, everything washed out and warmed by the sun.

Afterwards, we head next door to the Majorelle Gardens, a sprawling homestead painted in blue that was once owned by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, and is now open to the public, alongside its famous cactus-filled gardens. Here are all the colours of Marrakech in one place: the deep cerulean blue of the house, the terracotta stones, the herbacious greens, everything washed out and warmed by the sun.

Marrakech is a busy city. Before the pandemic, it regularly drew crowds of three million annually. We stay at La Sultana, a luxurious hotel on the fringes of the medina, easily accessible both by car and on foot and decorated riad-style with carved columns, internal water features and one of the best bathtubs we’ve ever seen. Each morning, we are treated to a traditional Moroccan breakfast of freshly baked bread – the crumpet-like beghrir, light as a feather and made for spreading with amlou, the Moroccan blend of peanut butter and honey that is a particular favourite – and thick, syrupy coffee.

The food in Marrakech is really good. We eat tagine after tagine, fragrant with spices like turmeric, saffron and ginger, mopped up with couscous and flatbread. For dessert, we eat slices of orange doused in rosewater and cinnamon, or a millefeuille-esque treat made from layers of pastry with an orange blossom-scented custard filling.

For a change in pace, we leave Marrakech towards the end of our trip and head to the coast. It’s about a five-hour drive to Essaouira, the seaside town on the western coast of Morocco, famous for both its silversmiths and its seafood. We visit the fish markets in the centre of the medina, where trawlers display the day’s catch proudly: fat oysters, writhing crabs, fresh crayfish. You might recognise Essaouira, and in particular its carved, creamy sandstone gate. The city has served as a filming location for projects as varied as Orson Wells’ classic adaptation of Othello to Game of Thrones and the new Jack Ryan miniseries.

Just a short drive away from Essaouira is Oualidia, a sleepy resort town famous for its seafood. La Sultana has a sprawling outpost situated right on the water, with infinity pools overlooking the ocean, shaded by towering palm trees. This 12-room hotel is a true respite designed for relaxation and repose. There is a top-notch spa, a fantastic restaurant featuring produce fished out of the sea – oysters as big as your fist, sweet, salty crayfish – or from their own kitchen garden, and beachy-inspired room design. Down by the water there’s a long deck and, at the very end, an oyster bar. On our last night, we amble down there before dinner, nursing a few cocktails from the bar. We’re treated to yet another great sunset: a marbled pink sun slowly fading into the horizon mirrored in the still water all around us. There are so many showstopping sunsets in Morocco. You’ll never forget them.

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