Day 1: Casablanca – Rabat ( 1 hour drive). (Driving times don’t include the various stops along the way).
Our Morocco private tour starts off with Casablanca ( we can also start the tour in Marrakech or Rabat, to suit your flights) which does not hold much in the way of historical sites. That is perhaps the reason why King Hassan 2 decided to give the city a landmark- the second largest mosque in the world. The last few years of its completion, 1400 craftsmen worked by day and 1000 by night. The marble, cedar wood and granite all come from Morocco while the glass chandeliers and white granite columns were brought from Murano, Italy.
Next, our itinerary takes us to the capital Rabat, recently declared UNESCO world site. A quiet administrative center, Rabat has also a much richer history and makes the perfect introduction to Morocco, suspended somewhere between Europe and the Arab world. We will visit the 12th century Kasbah des Oudayas and its Andalusian Gardens, an important outpost of the Almohad dynasty. We can dwell further into the past and visit the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, where Phoenician, Roman and Merinid traces blend.
But perhaps better stories are to be told about Sale, the sister city to Rabat and a flourishing piracy center, centuries ago. Our guide here, a local university teacher will relate how water canals used to run inside its gates and its pirates were famous for rapidly attacking European ships and taking illustrous nobility as prisoners. Once inside the city, the massive doors would close and the European powers had no other choice than to pay the ransom requested. The Republic of Sale, a state within a kingdom, even came into existence briefly and refused to pay any tax to the sultan.
Day 2: Rabat – Meknes – Volubilis – Fez ( 3 hour drive).
After breakfast, our itinerary is headed towards Meknes , an imperial city that rose to prominence with the sultan Moulay Ismail ( 1672- 1727) who set the capital of Morocco to Meknes and gave it its golden age by building his imperial palace, city walls and kasbahs upon dismantling Badi palace in Marrakech and fetching to Meknes most of its marble, ivory and wood.
[ Read: Morocco on a honeymoon ]
Places of interest in Meknes include Bab El Mansour gate, Masoleum of Moulay Ismail, the imperial palace and the royal granaries and stables. Back on the road we are to reach shortly the Roman ruins of Volubilis with its Galem’s baths, basilica, capitol and forum. Of particular interest is also the nearby sacred village of Moulay Idriss . Moulay Idriss was Prophet Mohammed’s great grandson and fled Mecca during the 8th century AD. He established himself at Volubilis, converted the locals to Islam and founded the first Moroccan imperial dynasty. The journey should reach Fez late afternoon/ evening. Dinner and accommodation inside the medina of Fez.
Day 3: Fez – guided tour of the city ( no drive).
With the first light of dawn, you realize you have travelled in time. Four centuries? Five? If it weren’t for the satellite dishes adorning every roof, it could be more. Perhaps as much as the Kayraouine University and mosque, now 12 centuries old, the oldest still working university in the world. The heyday of the caravan trade coming from Timbuktu is long resolute.
‘At the end of the fifteenth century, however, Fez was still enjoying great commercial prosperity and was at the peak of its fame as a seat of learning, its mosques and libraries being the resort of students from many parts of the Muslim world. It was therefore the most natural haven for the exiles from Granada’ ( E.W. Bovill – The Golden Trade of the Moors).
There are thousands of derbs, streets so narrow you could whisper in your neighbor’s ear. Your private English speaking guide will collect you from the Riad just after breakfast and try to make some sense out of the apparently chaotic old town. The numerous Islamic schools, among which the most ornate are perhaps Bou Inania and El Attarine, will wow you with their intricate stucco and cedar engravings that have so well resisted the passage of centuries. Out in the streets again, you will most likely scent the tanneries before you see them… Dozens of workers toil over open vats, dipping skins in to treat them before hand-dyeing them in bright yellow, red and white, stomping them under the hot sun to distribute the pigment.
The guided tour of Fez takes us to Nejjarine Square you can catch your breath enjoying a mint tea on the roof terrace of Nejjarine Foundouk, an 18th-century caravanserai, turned woodwork museum after six years of painstakingly renovation. “There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez,” wrote Paul Bowles about Fez and that still holds true nowadays. Just when the walls seem to cave in on you, a little square comes up and suddenly all menace disappears. The secrets to be found around every corner draw you into the long forgotten world of travels of Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus.
Day 4: Fez – Ifrane – Azrou – Mildelt – Merzouga – Erg Chebbi ( 7 hours drive).
With Fez in the background, our custom Morocco tour serpents its way up into the shade of cedar forests. Our trip takes us first through Ifrane, the ‘Switzerland of Morocco’, quite popular during the snow season when it becomes Morocco’s prime ski resort. Prettier walks are to be had in the foothills of the next town, Azrou. Country lanes wind through pine forest and lush villages. Hard to believe that tonight you’ll be treading desert dunes… The dense forest is also home to the Barbary macaque, almost domesticated now and the 800- year old Gouraud’s cedar. On the other side of the Middle Atlas, the countryside is pigmented by apricots, walnuts and plum trees and pictures of rural Berber life as we approach Midelt.
A few hours later, our Morocco trip arrives in Erfoud and the change in landscape is sharp – Sahara is not far now. Given the time we will visit the ancient Jewish district and the Musee des Oasis. Reach the kasbah by the dunes and trade the 4×4 for camels. The camel ride is swift and the transfer can also be made by 4×4. Shortly after, while the staff are busy unloading your luggage, try to find the highest dune and reach the top. For as far as you can see, there is nothing but sand, an ocean of it as set to conquer everything that stands in its way.
‘The Beduin of the desert, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness, too harsh for volunteers, for the reason that there he found himself indubitably free.’ T.E.Lawrence
And while the sun sets, there is nowhere else you would rather be. Dinner and accommodation in a private tent in a Sahara desert camp. Here, you have the choice between a basic tent with toilets/ bathroom outside or a comfort tent/ luxury tent with en suite bathroom and toilets. If possible, we recommend adding an extra day in the dunes, especially more so during winter time, when days are short. Have tea with the nomads, visit the old mines, pick up fossils, discover the rock engravings or dinosaur sites or quad bike in the dunes.
Day 5: Erg Chebbi – Tinejdad – Todra Gorges – Tinerir – Dades/ Skoura ( 4-5 hour drive).
Try to wake up to catch the sunrise- there is nothing quite like it… Have breakfast back at the kasbah by the dunes in Merzouga. But first, why not surf down first the highest dune you can find ? After breakfast our route takes us first to Rissani that used to serve as a caravan trading post until a century ago. Gold and slave auctions were taking place here as late as 1800’s. Before it, the caravan trade and the most important city in Morocco was Sijilmassa, the ruins of which lie opposite Rissani. From its gates, Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus left Morocco to embark on their illustrious journeys across the Sahara into African countries.
[Here ( in Timbuktu) are many shops of artificers and merchants, and especially of such as weave linnen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbarie merchants bring cloth of Europe… Here are verie few horses bred, and the merchants and courtiers keepe certainn little nags which they use to travel upon: but their best horses are brought out of Barbarie. And the king so soon as he heareth that any merchants are come to town with horses, he commandeth a certain number to be brought before him, and chusing the best horse for himselfe he payeth a most liberal price for him.] ( Leo Africanus – History and description of Africa).
Before Tinerir, we’ll explore a local ksour, a honeycomb traditional village where sun shafts trickle through open pits. The spectacular Todra Gorges, lie only 15 km from Tinerir, presenting an arresting spectacle with its crystal clear river emerging from it, its huge walls changing colour to magical effect as the day unfolds. We are back in the Atlas mountains as we pass through Tinerir, an important center for the Berber nomad tribes with its extensive palm grove, the decaying ksours and 19th century adobe mosque. Less touristy, the Dades Gorges are worth a detour, with their awkward monkey fingers rock formations and great trekking opportunities. We can stop for the night in Dades or continue for one more hour and spend the night in the palm grove of Skoura.
Day 6: Dades/ Skoura – Ouarzazate – Ait Benhaddou – Telouet – Marrakech ( 4- 5 hour drive)
This morning our boutique Morocco tour takes us first to the immense palm grove of Skoura. Tour the palm grove with Abdel and learn about kasbah architecture, marriage customs and life in the community. In the shade of the palm trees, you will walk past pumpkins and figs, grapes and tomatoes, coriander, parsley and rosemary. Olives are pressed into the precious oil – dip your bread into it and try a local’s breakfast. Fire, water, earth and dye are what make most of things here. Or else, go for a trek at the foothills of the High Atlas mountains.
In Ouarzazate, time allowing, we can visit the film studios where more recently some of the episodes of Game of Thrones were shot. Half an hour later, our tour turns right to shortly arrive at post- card perfect UNESCO world site of Ait Benhaddou. There is always someone willing to guide you but the best is to just lose yourselves in its alleyways. There is always a new way to reach its peak, from where the snowcapped Atlas Mountains framed by the denim blue sky will steal your breath away. If the climb up hadn’t already.
Past Tamdaght and the kasbah made famous by the slave scene from ‘Gladiator’, the beauty of the valley serpenting underneath the route is beyond words. In the wall of the canyon, the nomads have dug galleries of grottoes where they used to stock their grains. Telouet is next, where the former pasha’s palace dominates the village, a fortified citadel that is both a microcosm of an empire and its demise. Pacha Glaoui overshadowed the sultan by controlling most of nowadays Morocco and decided to erect a palace in the middle of nowhere, where his family had originated from.
He had employed the most skilled artisans to build and decorate his main residence and, in its golden age, armies, stables and Christian slaves were confined within its walls. Shortly after Telouet, the trip joins the main road again and after innumerous twists, over Tizi n Tichka pass, we descend the High Atlas and reach the plain. Ahead in the night, lays dormant and sensual Marrakech, its walls and eighteen gates enveloping hundreds of foundouks, once protecting the caravans and their precious cargos.
Day 7: Marrakech – visit of the city ( no drive).
Where Fez is the bashful scholar, the ‘red city’ is the exuberant dancer. More than its opulent night life and luxurious palaces, the design boutiques or the French restaurants, it’s something in the air. The light of the south as some may call it, a certain feeling that nothing can go wrong, a certain je ne sais quoi… A good point to start is perhaps Maison de La Photographie, located in one of the most authentic districts of Marrakech. The photos on display document life in Morocco from late 1800’s all the way to the 1950’s. The roof terrace offers 360 degrees views over the Medina and is the perfect spot for a mint tea and postcard- photo shoots.
Crossing the souks you may want to spoil yourself with some shopping. Miles of Ali Baba closet- size caves where everything glitters will lure you in. Marrakech has the finesse of craft met in Fez but also bears the influence of foreign artists that have taken residency in the city, making it a mecca for the intrepid global shopper. If too early in the day for shopping, you can also admire the dyeing of the wool or the looming of a Berber carpet on site. Past Place des Epices and its shops stuffed with turtles, colorful spices and witchcraft accessories, we make our way into the Kasbah.
Not before entering the gardens of 19th century Bahia Palace, an epitome of Islamic art of the era and residence of the grand vizier. Uncovered by chance in 1917, the nearby Saadi Tombs hold the remains of the sultans responsible for the last golden age of the city , the 16th and 17th century. The Carrara marble stands witness to the wealth of the dynasty and so does the nearby El Badi palace, albeit only a ruin nowadays. The palace never completed and the next sultan dismantled the marble, ivory, precious wood and used it all to build his royal palace in Meknes.
As the sun sets and the shades of its towers lose their contour, the fumes start rising on the nearby Jemaa El Fna square. Musicians, acrobats, snake charmers, witch doctors and food stalls all come alive as if they had never left. This is the city at its most essential, a place where people from everywhere mingle, perform and people- watch, half way between a tableau vivant and a circus show. Try to catch one of the story tellers in action, a tradition perpetuated for centuries, likely to disappear soon. A different way to discover Marrakech is booking a cooking class complete with lunch inside a local’s home and a tour of the medina to sample the various ingredients that make up the staple of Moroccan cuisine: the preserved vegetables, the smmen butter, the farnatchi, the herbalist, the souika market, mechoui ovens and more.
Day 8: Marrakech.
Should time allow for it, we recommend spending the morning visiting some of the gardens that made the ‘red city famous’. The Almohad dynasty of 12th century built most of them. Agdal gardens, south of the city was where the waters from the Atlas Mountains were converged by ingenious Arab engineers. They also created Menara gardens with its ornate pavilion overlooking the waters, still a favorite of marrakchi families for picnic on Sundays. One other garden belonged to a painter who had fallen in love with Marrakech in the 1920’s and decided to create his own version of paradise on earth. Majorelle Gardens were subsequently acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and then made available to the general public. Nowadays they require booking in advance.
Or perhaps you fancy a Moroccan hammam ( steam bath) and body scrub with the locals in one of the dozens well- kept public baths scattered around the Medina. If you still have the energy, the village of Imlil, an hour drive from the city, offers tremendous trekking opportunities for a few hours or a full day.
Depending on your flight out, the driver will drop you off at the airport two hours before your flight. If you are flying out of Casablanca, keep in mind it takes 3 hours to make it to the airport there from Marrakech.