Morocco could be seen as something of a baby-step, rather than a stride away from European life. A short boat ride leaves you almost within touching distance of British rule in Gibraltar, but ahead lies a cocktail of cultures, less diluted and more traditionally Arabic the further you travel from mainland Europe.
Tangier is a perfect example. The combination of lifestyles is instantly striking, the call to prayer echoing on a warm quiet night is beautifully charming, but seems odd juxtaposed against a landscape that would slot easily into southern Spain. Inside the city’s medina - or old town - however, the taste of authentic Moroccan living among the twisting tight-knit streets whets the appetite for an alternate way of life.
Fes has this authenticity by the bucket-load, even if it is gift-wrapped to an extent for the mass of tourists the city attracts. As soon as you enter the medina your senses are immediately struck from all angles with everything from spice stalls and carpet viewing invitations, to passing pack-donkeys and wall-to wall colour, all in extremely confined surroundings. One thing is for sure though, you will get lost and a few Dihrams paid to a local child may be your only way of avoiding hours of wandering in circles.
The entertainment in the country’s tourist hotspot, Marrakech, is shrouded in much less mystique. The main square of Djemaa-el-Fna is adorned with snake charmers, orange carts and stalls which entice the meandering tourists to brave the blistering heat, but once the sun retreats a street party atmosphere thrives with locals and foreigners alike enjoying restaurants, carnival games and music way into the night, and the views from the surrounding cafe terraces will enchant you for just as long.
Both these cities attract many to their markets with a mix of cut-price treats and costly tat. It also provides you with a great stage to try one of the more fun, but challenging activities available – bartering. Attempting to tackle one of the locals in a tête à tête over souvenirs takes practice and requires a mix of patience, lyrical skill, a touch of cooperation, but most important of all is a keen sense of value. Coming away with a local’s price, particularly when validated by an impartial native, is fantastic, but never be afraid to walk away.
The people here are one of the main delights you will go away with as the hospitality of many is fantastic, with the opportunity to step inside for a mint tea (often called Berber whisky) is never much further than round the corner and almost all are interested in what brings you to Morocco.
If you get sick of the crowds, avoiding the stereotypical tourist city-break is easily done, and highly advised. A trip out west to the seaside town of Essaouira, made a bohemian mecca after being adopted by Jimi Hendrix, is a fantastic place to while away dreamy days with a coffee and sumptuous fresh fish away from the baking heat inland.
The natural delights Morocco contains are some of the most breathtaking, and unexpected, though. The central High Atlas Mountains are stunning and beyond them to the east is the picturesque Todra Gorge. The intricately irrigated land surrounding the valley’s river – the palmeries – acts like a green vein of life in amongst the barren southern landscape leading you up towards the gorge. You are then treated to a stunning parting of the mountains when you reach it, even if its natural beauty is tainted somewhat by the inevitable collection of hotels at its base.
The country’s gem though is to be found on the south-eastern border. The Sahara desert has such a variety of awe-inspiring elements in its midst it is astonishing.
To those willing to brave the extreme heat, a few days is essential to appreciate everything it has to offer. Experiencing the simplicity and unfathomably bleak surroundings of the indigenous people is utterly alien and eye-opening, with their hospitality humbling to the highest degree.
Crossing this landscape by camel is an experience in itself and should you get the chance try sandboarding as it's truly exhilarating under the setting sun.
But the endlessness of the black desert, the deep colour of the Erb Chebbi dunes at sunset and the amazing night sky, which seems to reveal more and more the longer it ensnares your gaze, are the things that will definitely stay with you – as well as possibly some hump-shaped bruises.
By Danny Masters
JMU Journalism travel articles
One of the many markets in Marrakech; YouTube: highlights of Morocco