The Complete Guide to the Imperial Cities of Morocco

The cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat are collectively known as the imperial cities, and have all, at some point in Morocco's history, been the capital; Rabat is the current holder.

Which cities are we talking about?

The cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat. They are collectively known as the imperial cities, and have all, at some point in Morocco's history, been the capital; Rabat is the current holder. The oldest is Fez, first established as capital in the ninth century under Sultan Idriss II, a great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. After the fall of his dynasty, the Almoravides took over, and Marrakesh became their capital; but Fez remained an important city, and has been capital twice since under different rulers. The Almohads took control in the 12th century and built a new city, Rabat, as their capital; this was replaced, during the rule of Morocco's notorious sultan, Moulay Ismael, by Meknes. Rabat again became capital under the French protectorate, which began in 1912, and retained the title after independence.

Where should I start?

Fez. The most exciting of the imperial cities is built on a grand scale, with surrounding walls that extend for nearly 10 miles. The best views over the city are from the Merenid tombs on the north side. Fez is really three towns in one. The core is Fez el Bali, the medieval city, or medina, where half the population of the city still lives; most visitors concentrate on the sights and streets here. Next is Fez el Jedid, the new city (although new in Fez means late-13th century) where you'll find the Mellah, or old Jewish quarter. Most visitors sensibly ignore the third part, the modern ville nouvelle, built by the French during the Protectorate.

None of the mosques is open to non-Muslim visitors, although it is worth looking through the entrance of the Zaouia Moulay Idriss at the tomb of the city's founder. There are many lovely buildings in Fez, especially the Medersa, or religious college, Bou Inania, an ancient and incredibly ornate courtyard, surrounded by the very plain cells once used by the students. The newly opened Belghazi museum is also worth seeing; its treasures are all exhibited in a 17th-century riad, or town house built around a courtyard garden. But the main attraction for most visitors is the medina, with its narrow alleys. Horses and donkeys have right of way here, as they deliver supplies to the little shops in the souk. These are side by side with the essentials of everyday life: every district has its own bathhouse, bake house, knife-sharpener and so on. The whole medina is a maze, in which getting lost is (usually) part of the fun.

Do I need a guide?

The medinas are confusing and often extremely crowded. On top of that you are bound to get hassled by the stall-holders who will all tell you that you should buy from them as they have the best/cheapest/most unusual wares in the market. A guide can shield you from all this, but can also make sure that you don't miss the highlights of the medina. It is important to agree the price in advance; the official guides, who all wear badges, charge the rates set out by the tourist authority: currently 120 dirhams (£7.50) for a half-day. You should also give the guide some idea of what you are hoping to see in advance, otherwise the choice of stops en route is likely to be dictated by where the guide has relatives hoping to benefit from your custom. "You don't know anything about Moroccan music? Well, let's listen to some at this shop. My cousin [who owns it] will find something you will like", is a typical sales pitch.

Will I get a hat in Fez?

There are a few shops that still sell the traditional red felt hats now associated more in the western mind with Tommy Cooper than with any kind of typical Arab dress. But although in centuries gone by, Fez was the only place in the world to buy the headgear that bears its name, you can now find a fez anywhere, which makes the authentic item a less essential souvenir.

Where next?

Meknes, a much more relaxed place than Fez. The main focus of interest is not the medina but the 17th-century imperial headquarters of Moulay Ismael. This is a fortified city-within-a-city containing several palaces, mosques, dungeons and gardens. The highlights are the dungeons; the royal stables containing grain silos that used to hold enough food for the populace for a year, as well as stabling for 12,000 horses; and the Moulay Ismael Mausoleum, one of very few holy places that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. You will find another in Rabat: the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.

Considering it's the capital, Rabat isn't very famous

No, even though the city has a long history, and ancient and modern have been sensitively blended together. This is particularly noticeable in the way Rabat's two most famous landmarks have been combined. The Tour Hassan was built by Yacoub el Mansour – also responsible for the Giralda in Seville, as well as the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh. The tower was originally part of a mosque, built at the end of the 12th century; the stumps of the mosque's columns are all that now remain. At the far end of this site has been added the second main sight, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, grandfather of the present king.

At first, many Rabat residents were outraged at this combination of old and new; but the mosque incorporates many of the same motifs that were used in the old tower, and the craftsmanship in the modern building is exquisite. Another ancient corner of Rabat that is worth exploring is the kasbah, or fortification, overlooking the coast, and completely different in feel from the rest of the city. It consists of vast ramparts, which enclose a huddle of small, blue and white, flat-roofed houses that look more Andalusian than Moroccan.

I want to see something exotic

Much of Morocco is exotic, but for something a bit different go to the 11th-century tanneries in Fez, the oldest in North Africa, where animal skins are treated and dyed before being sold and made into bags, jackets and belts. The skins are first placed in limestone vats, where the hair is soaked off in a solution containing sulphur and pigeon dung; then they are washed and transferred to the dyeing vats, before being dried out on the flat roofs of the buildings around the tanneries.

An exotic experience of a different (and less smelly) kind is to be found in the main square, or Djmaa El Fna, in Marrakesh. This vast space is unremarkable in daylight, but it comes alive after dark when it fills up with story-tellers, witch doctors, letter-writers (used by those unable to write for themselves), musicians and snake-charmers. It is tempting to think that this is all put on for the tourists, but most of the audience are locals.

Is Marrakesh worth a visit on its own?

Yes, though apart from the obvious sights – the square, the souks and the Koutoubia tower – many of the highlights are hidden away. These include the Saadian tombs, the mausoleum of 66 kings from the Saadian dynasty; the Koubba el Baadiyin, one of the oldest buildings in the city, which is believed to have covered the ablutions pool next to the mosque; and the magnificent Ibn Youssef Medersa, the largest in Morocco. The Bahia Palace was built in the Alhambran style by a slave who managed to become wealthy and powerful. Despite being empty of furniture, it is a wonderful example of 19th-century architecture on a grand scale, as is the nearby Dar El Said, a former palace that is now a museum.

Marrakesh is also famous for its gardens, the finest of which are the Jardins Majorelle, created by a French painter and now owned by Yves Saint-Laurent.

What about shopping?

The best locations are the souks inside the old medinas, the most extensive of which are in Marrakesh and Fez. Look out for ceramics, particularly in Fez, where the traditional blue and white pottery is made; mosaics; and carpets. You are unlikely to get out of the souk without having the art of carpet-making explained to you. Even if you buy nothing you will be an expert in the differences between woven and knotted carpets.

The theory of bargaining is politely to decline the first price quoted, and offer around half as much; the vendor and buyer then move towards a compromise figure of around two-thirds the original quote. The vendors know that western tourists believe this, and happily come up with an opening figure many times higher than a reasonable price. For any expensive purchases, shop around to establish the price range, but do not begin to haggle unless you are serious about buying. To assist negotiations, especially for a large item such as a carpet, expect to be offered a glass of mint tea.

When shall I go?

Now, if you want to experience a country sadly depleted of tourists. The daytime climate is mild, even in winter, but the nights can be extremely chilly. The optimum time for visiting the cities is in April, when the weather will be warm, but not too hot for sightseeing.

Many people avoid travelling to Muslim countries during Ramadan, although there is no real reason for this; many of the sights close an hour or so earlier than usual, but otherwise, everything functions as normal. Non-Muslims are not prevented from eating, and breakfast is served in all the hotels. Some restaurants close at lunchtime, but in the evening, the atmosphere can be very lively, as everyone stays up late, making the most of the hours of darkness during which they are allowed to eat and drink. This year, Ramadan begins in early November.

How do I get there?

The national airline, Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.co.uk) flies from Heathrow and Stansted to Casablanca. You can connect here for flights to and between all the imperial cities. With the exception of Marrakesh, they are pretty close together, so flying may not be the quickest way to travel. GB Airways flies on behalf of BA (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) from Gatwick to Marrakesh.

All four cities are connected by frequent train services – visit www.oncf.ma for timetables. An indulgent alternative is to ask your hotel to arrange private transport to your next destination; you are chauffeured by a registered driver, who will agree a price in advance, and who will be obliged to report to the police before setting out.

In contrast, the locals mostly use shared taxis, which can be useful especially for the short distance between Fez and Meknes; go to the depot next to the train station and look for a car heading in your direction. Six passengers in a Mercedes may not be the most comfortable way to travel, but it is cheap, and offers a slice of Moroccan life.

Alternatively, you could book a package tour; many operators, including Panorama, Thomson, JMC and First Choice, go to Morocco, but for the imperial cities you could try Best of Morocco (01380 828533; www.morocco-travel.com) or Cadogan Holidays (023 8082 8304; www.cadoganholidays.com).

Where should I stay?

For luxury, the place to go is the Mamounia (00 212 44 44 44 09; www.mamounia.com) in Marrakesh, one of the best hotels in Africa and built in a garden that once belonged to a Moroccan prince. It was a favourite with Churchill, who used to go there to paint. The Churchill Suite still contains his easel and an unfinished watercolour of the garden. The Mamounia is a pleasant place to go for a drink, even if you don't stay.

Almost as atmospheric is the Hotel Palais Jamai (00 212 556 34 331) in Fez, set in lovely, Andalusian- style gardens beside the Bab Guissa, with beautiful views over the medina. In Meknes, the Hotel Rif (00 212 552 25 91) on Zankat Accra is a good choice; not the most expensive hotel in town, but in a good location in the ville nouvelle. The Hotel Safir (00 212 37 73 47 47), on the Place Sidi Makhlouf in Rabat, has a very exotic feel to it, and is in a good location for exploring the city.

London's Moroccan Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; tourism-in-morocco.com) can supply lists of other hotels, from luxurious to basic.

Is it safe?

Yes. On the whole, the people are extremely friendly, and are anxious to ensure visitors enjoy their stay. That said, women travelling alone are regarded with interest, since even in tourist centres this is considered unusual, but they are no more likely to come to harm in Morocco than anywhere else.

An early imperial excursion

The ruins of Volubilis, once the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, are a half-hour drive from Meknes, and are a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. The ruins are well-preserved, and it is easy to imagine how the settlement would have looked. Most of the houses were along both sides of the main paved road, the Decumanus Maximus; at the far end is a triumphal arch, built by the people of Volubilis in honour of the Emperor Caracalla.

In what would have been the town's administrative centre are the remains of the forum, basilica, capitol and public baths. Many of the buildings have well-preserved mosaics, the most impressive depicting the Labours of Hercules, and Orpheus with dolphins, elephants and other animals.

Plenty of guides will be waiting at Volubilis to take you around, but they may not be necessary if you have a good guide book. The ruins are open every day from sunrise to sunset.

Six Moroccan dishes

The cuisine of Morocco is varied. There are women selling home-made bread in the medinas, makeshift cafés that appear every evening in the Djmaa El Fna in Marrakesh, and palace restaurants established in some of the old riads, where the food is very traditional.

Briouat

Triangular or tubular-shaped pastries, filled with meat or rice and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon, and usually eaten as an appetiser.

Harira

A thick meat-based soup, made with chickpeas and coriander. It is available all year round, but is traditionally eaten during Ramadan to mark the breaking of the fast.

Pastilla

A main-course pie, sweet and savoury at the same time, made of layers of filo pastry, with a filling of meat mixed with vegetables and nuts. Dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.

Tagine

The word tagine refers to the cooking dish – a flat pan, with a conical shaped lid – as well as its contents. These could consist of chicken or lamb, cooked with vegetables, dried fruits or lemons.

Mechoui

A piece of lamb – or a whole lamb if it is cooked for a large gathering – which is roasted in a traditional oven, and served in portions on a platter, usually accompanied by bread.

Corne de gazelle

These tiny croissant shapes are the most famous of the Moroccan pastries. They are stuffed with ground almonds, nuts and honey, and are sold in bakeries and pastry stalls all over the country.

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