For centuries, Morocco has been drawing poets, artists, writers and travellers in search of adventure and the exotic. For many travellers Morocco provides the first taste of Africa, Islam and the developing world. It can be quite a shock, as Morocco is, and always has been, a fascinating and often bewildering place - full of contrasting images, colorful sights, strange smells and wild experiences. For those wanting a different sort of trip, full of variety and life, Morocco provides a stimulating assault on the senses.
Morocco was known to the ancient Arabs as Al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the Farthest Land of the Setting Sun, and stands at the western extremity of the Arab and Muslim world. On a good day you can see Spain from Tangier; Morocco has long been a gateway for Europeans into Africa and for Africans and Arabs into Europe. Today the pull in both directions is as strong as ever - economic opportunity lures ever-increasing numbers of Africans into the European Union countries, while a new generation of travellers is discovering Morocco, which has again become a very popular and hip travel destination.
However, Morocco's image is changing. The old romantic notions of a conservative nation steeped in Islamic and feudal history now jars with the contemporary reality. The medieval labyrinthine medinas of Marrakesh, Fes and Meknes are what Morocco is all about for many, but don't be surprised to hear the shrill ring of a mobile phone or a sign pointing down some darkened alley to the nearest Internet cafe. The young King Mohammed VI may be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and wield absolute power, but he's also president of Oudayas Surf Club in Rabat.
Morocco has a wealth of experiences to offer, starting with an astonishingly rich architectural tradition and deep cultural history, Medieval cities, Roman ruins, Berber kasbahs and beautiful Islamic monuments await. The country's numerous mountain ranges exert an enormous pull over trekkers, climbers and adventure-sports freaks, whether they be after the icy, snow-covered ridges of the High Atlas Mountains in winter or the rocky semidesert of Jebel Sarhro.
Huge sections of Morocco's isolated mountain regions still remain the sole preserve of the Berber tribespeople and their animals. Whatever hassles may be thrown at you in the hectic towns and cities, you will never doubt the legendary genuine hospitality of these gracious people.
The Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines illustrate brilliantly the tumultuous history of Morocco, with fortified cities constructed by a host of nationalities and dynasties waiting to be explored. The coast also offers fine sandy beaches (some developed, some not), numerous surf breaks and windsurfing spots, while the estuaries and lagoons support a tremendous diversity of wildlife - and they're just one piece in the jigsaw of habitats that makes Morocco such a great bird-watching destination.
Dropping off the back of the vast High Atlas (which lie across the heart of the country) and sweeping towards the vast Saharan emptiness of Algeria, are some of the most stunning arid and desert landscapes in North Africa. Among them are the kasbahs of the Draa Valley, the classic rolling sand dunes at Merzouga and the endless beauty of the coastal drive into the Western Sahara. Get off the beaten track and out into these places - they can be explored on foot, by 4WD or on the back of a camel.
Once off the beaten track Morocco can arguably become a warmer, more welcoming place. Get out into the unknown because for many, encounters with local communities form the most enduring memories of all.
Morocco is not necessarily a country where you can gracefully glide through and see everything with the minimum of fuss. Sometimes it's a demanding, frustrating place that confronts you at every turn. But what it offers is a unique experience of totally differing cultures and wildly varied landscape. Take a deep breath and dive in.
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