The twists and turns of Morocco’s walled Fez el Bali medina have vexed visitors for centuries, and our family of four was no exception.
One minute we’d be wandering through quiet, crumbling passageways, passing between centuries of dwellings layered on top of each other. The next, we’d round an innocuous bend and find ourselves in the center of a bustling souk, engulfed in the chaos of shoppers, donkey carts, wheelbarrows and motorbikes.
We followed the medina’s sinuous streets for hours. Through districts where young men strung red floss along the walls to keep it taut as they spooled and knotted it into embroidery to adorn traditional caftanlike jellabas. Past closet-sized shops overflowing with tin lanterns, and around pushcarts laden with pink and green nougat and palm-sized oranges.
There are few good maps of the old medina, and smartphone apps are confused easily here. The most reliable ways to navigate the labyrinth remain as they have for centuries: Hire a local guide or ask for directions. A lot.
For us, the dead ends, the walking in circles and the utter unpredictability of it all was half the fun. We happily embraced the magical disconnect that comes from being lost in a city, lost in an adventure and, ultimately, lost in time.
It was a feeling we experienced throughout our nearly two-week trek from the coastal metropolis of Casablanca to Fez and on to the colorful markets of Marrakech. We felt like we’d walked through the back of a wardrobe and into a mythical world where cultures blended and the most ancient of traditions coexisted within a very modern world.
And yet, Morocco is entirely real. Less than 10 miles from Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar and stretched along the verdant coast of North Africa, it’s a stable, safe and prosperous kingdom, a land enriched by more than a thousand years of art, culture, architecture and beauty.
Morocco’s hardly an off-the-grid travel destination, but recently its popularity has soared among families looking for a new and different vacation destination, says Emmanuel Burgio. He’s CEO and founder of Blue Parallel ( www.blueparallel.com), a bespoke travel boutique with a diverse portfolio of destinations, including several spectacular Moroccan family excursions that include helicopter rides across the Sahara.
What’s hooking families, he says, is the total sensory immersion they experience there. “Unlike big European cities with must-see museums and art galleries, Morocco’s cultural attractions are more organic and visible in the everyday life of Moroccans — busy bazaars, changing cultural scenery and varying natural environments like mountains, palm grove oases and the Sahara Desert,” he says. “That means it’s very difficult for kids to get bored.”
Also important to note if you’re traveling with two young daughters like we were: Morocco even has a princess.
Our adventure began in a city with a reputation for romance, Casablanca. Except that atmosphere of romance likely left town with Ingrid Bergman. In reality, Casablanca is gritty and industrial. With a population around 4 million, it’s one of the biggest cities on the continent, and its port is one of the largest artificial ports in the world.
We had budgeted two nights to recover from jet lag, giving us a full day to explore — more than enough time to see the city’s most important attraction, the Hassan II Mosque.
Completed in 1993, this spectacular monument is the largest religious building in Morocco and one of the largest mosques in the world. Its main prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, and its minaret is the highest in the world. (Quick note if you go: Remember to wear or bring socks — shoes are not allowed in the prayer hall.)
Nearly every inch of this breathtaking place, from the 41 fountains studding the ablution hall to the soaring ceilings, is lavished with onyx, marble and travertine and adorned with carvings, calligraphy and intricate zellij tilework.
While the artistic techniques used throughout the mosque are ancient, the architecture has a contemporary, lofty feel, and the building is considered an architectural marvel because more than half of it is actually built over the water. It’s a structural homage to a Koranic verse that references the “throne of God” existing on water.
Later that evening, we dined at L’Etoile Centrale, a charming two-room restaurant with an eclectic, cozy ambiance and an extensive menu made up primarily of variations on two of Morocco’s most typical dishes: tajine and pastilla.
Tajine is a vegetable and meat dish cooked inside a cone-topped natural clay pot called a tajine. It’s an ethnic Berber dish that has as many variations as it does cooks who prepare it.
Pastilla — which actually rhymes with flotilla, not tortilla, as we Texans thought it did — is another Berber staple where crispy layers of a phyllolike dough encase a spiced meat filling (usually chicken). It looks like a golden-brown Frisbee dusted with cinnamon and sugar. We enjoyed variations of both dishes nearly every day of our trip, and we even learned to cook them when we arrived in the next city on our itinerary, Fez.
The ancient walled city containing Fez el Bali — now commonly called “Old Fez” — came about when two towns, one founded in A.D. 789, the other in A.D. 809, were unified in 1070 during the Almohad dynasty. Over the years, Fez became a major world power and, with a number of esteemed madrasas and a diverse population, was once considered the intellectual center of the known world.
In the 1600s and 1700s, Fez also became a major trading center. It was both a major post benefiting from Barbary Coast commerce and the last stop along a north-south gold route from Timbuktu.
Today, Old Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the largest car-free urban area in existence. It’s called everything from the “Mecca of the West” to the “Athens of Africa.”
The city, both new and old, is the third-largest in the country (after Casablanca and the capital city of Rabat), but it’s first in the hearts of many Moroccans as the birthplace of the country’s princess, Lalla Salma. The daughter of a schoolteacher, the flame-haired beauty worked as a computer engineer until King Mohammed VI made her his bride in 2001.
The royal family’s popularity here seems to surpass even that of the Windsors in England. Lalla Salma belongs to a jet-set group of progressive and high-achieving Muslim royal women — a group that includes Princess Ameerah al-Taweel of Saudi Arabia, Queen Rania of Jordan and Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned of Qatar — and her every public appearance and wardrobe choice makes news across the Arab world.
Framed photos and paintings of the royal couple and their two children hang in nearly every shop, hotel and home in the country, and Fez is no exception.
The smiling images of Lalla Salma and her photogenic family made my own family feel welcome, but it was the cheerful countenance of another woman that made us feel at home. Kriselda Athimulam is the general manager of Riad El Yacout, a 22-room bed-and-breakfast adapted from what was originally a private home of a noted scholar that dates to the 16th century. (A “riad” is a traditional upper-class home built around an open courtyard with a fountain at its center.)
Kriselda greeted us with an enthusiastic “Hey, guys!” and flashed her ultra-white smile. She had good reason to be happy. The stylish young South African presides over a hotel that’s akin to a hidden slice of heaven. Traditional Moroccan architecture is driven by modesty — exteriors are generally unadorned, giving passers-by no way to gauge the opulence of the home — or the wealth of the homeowner. Once the front door swings open, however, it’s another story, and Riad El Yacout was a true stunner.
Completely restored yet still authentically rustic, the riad boasts original mosaic floors and thick interior columns covered with zellij tilework and wood-framed windows that open out to a three-story interior courtyard with a fountain, a new swimming pool, abundant flowers and singing birds. Ours was a two-bedroom suite with two sitting areas and a giant dressing room.
I am not the only one to fall under the spell of Riad El Yacout. The legendary rock band U2 so loved it here that it rented the entire property for two weeks back in 2007 and turned the courtyard into a music studio where it recorded several tracks for its No Line on the Horizon album (check out the videos from these sessions on YouTube).
Kriselda arranged for a private guide to take us through Old Fez. He took us to places we would never have found ourselves, all for the price of lunch and a $50 tip we are still not sure was sufficient.
He took us to tucked-away carpet-trading bazaars built centuries ago and explained the religious symbolism in the tilework colors on the walls of the madrasas. He showed us how the iron studs and the three-pronged metal shapes adorning most of the old wooden doors in the medina worked in concert to ward off evil spirits.
He also took us to the tanneries, a centuries-old facility where sheep, goat, cow and camel hides are processed into the glove-soft leather used to make shoes, bags, coats and more. Walking in, we were handed a handful of mint sprigs and taken up a series of stair cases.
Emerging into the sunlight on the rooftop observation deck, we immediately realized the meaning of the mint: to shield the nose against the stench of the open pits. Inhaling through our handful of leaves, we surveyed the hivelike network of whitewashed vats and hide-covered rooftops that stretched before us.
What I found more overwhelming than the smell, however, was the utter lack of automation or any visible sign of modern equipment (or safety gear). The tanners appeared to be working as they had for centuries — standing thigh-high in chemicals and dyes while scrubbing tissue-thin skins by hand.
The next day, we explored Old Fez entirely on our own, using our wits, my older daughter’s basic Arabic language skills and a few scattered hints provided by The Ruined Garden Restaurant. Or rather, its signs.
We’d eaten there the night before, and of course got lost trying to find it, even though it was a short walk from our hotel. It was then we noticed the myriad tile signs studding the walls of the old medina that were painted with the restaurant’s name and direction. We were only too happy to turn this clever marketing plan into a primary navigational strategy.
The Ruined Garden restaurant is a true outdoor cafe. It sits on ancient mosaic floors in the midst of the crumbled columns and fountains that were once inside a grand riad. Co-owner Robert Johnstone decided to turn the rubble into a restaurant, and in 2010, the dashing English chef began removing nearly a century of debris from the site, an endeavor that took five donkeys more than five months to complete, to make way for jasmine, roses, citrus trees and tables.
He and his business partner, a London-based entrepreneur, also renovated a neighboring home into a charming boutique hotel called Riad Idrissy.
Our meal at The Ruined Garden was so delicious that even my younger daughter, a very picky eater, devoured every last bite of her lemon chicken, and kept on going for cake and hot chocolate.
On our last night in Fez, we dined on the chicken tagine, vegetables and cinnamon- and sugar-dusted oranges that we’d help prepare during a cooking class that Kriselda arranged for us with the hotel’s cook, Zohr. It was astounding to watch how she and her assistant were able to feed a hotel full of dinner guests with just two burners, a big oven and an abundance of talent and heart.
It was a long drive through the Middle Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. We made good time speeding past red-clay villages and kids playing pick-up soccer games near orange groves, and then lost it again as we putt-putted behind delivery trucks and stopped to make way for herds of goats and sheep.
We arrived at the Royal Mansour after dark. As we pulled onto a dark, unmarked street, a security guard holding a walkie-talkie stopped us to determine whether to let us venture farther down the road. We were indeed on the list, and the guard motioned our car to proceed toward the hotel’s 4-ton bronze gates that had begun yawning open for us.
While our Fez experiences made us feel close to Moroccan royalty, our four days at the Royal Mansour made us feel as if we were to the manor born. Which may have been what King Mohammed VI intended when he built it.
Legend has it that the king wanted to attract more tourists to Marrakech, so he decided to build the most spectacular hotel in the world and use it to showcase the best in Moroccan architecture and design. He chose an 8.7-acre property just inside the city’s 13th-century medina walls and summoned thousands of the country’s finest artisans to craft every element entirely by hand.
It has been widely reported that there was no budget, and the final cost of construction is unknown — perhaps even unknowable. When it opened in 2010, one publication joked that the hotel was so luxe, it catered to billionaires rather than to mere millionaires.
The Royal Mansour isn’t so much a hotel as it is a compound. Inside its 10-foot walls lies an elegant village of 53 individual riads nestled in a fairytale garden of palm and pomegranate trees, lily ponds, bougainvillea and fountains.
The central reception center has a series of rooms, including one that’s paneled completely in onyx. There’s a cigar bar stocked with Cubans, and a library where the leather wingback chairs have iPod ports hidden in the armrests and the roof is split in the center to open out to the heavens like a book.
The three-story spa, which has its own separate entrance, has an indoor pool, treatment rooms, private spa suites with dedicated terraces and hammams, a gym and a full-service salon, all connected to a central pergola that’s entirely — and incredibly — encased in white latticework like a spun-sugar birdcage.
Our two-bedroom, three-story riad boasted more than 4,600 square feet of living space laden with every amenity imaginable, from personalized stationery letterpressed with my name in gold to platters of snacks like dried fruits, nuts and cookies replenished daily.
Everyone’s beds were covered with silk pillows. Every wall was carved, painted or elaborately tiled in glazed terra cotta. Every bathroom was lavished with marble. The central courtyard was topped with a retractable glass roof that opened and closed at the press of a button, and the entire third floor was a rooftop terrace with separate dining and lounging areas situated around a private plunge pool.
For our kids, however, nothing was as awesome as Douchoua. That was the name of our private butler, who was on call for us around the clock. A sweet young man from Mauritius, Douchoua let the girls teach him card games, made sure my younger daughter always had extra ketchup for her chicken nuggets and arranged their candy bars on a silver platter.
While Douchoua was the link between request and fulfillment, he rarely acted alone. He was simply the most visible member of a team that tended to us throughout our stay.
When we ordered meals from the dining room’s collection of hard-bound menu books, a small troupe appeared to assist Douchoua with setting the table and laying everything out. Fresh-squeezed juices, French croissants and pastries and a ribbon-tied printout of The Times newspaper appeared in the morning at the appointed time, and when we ventured out for the day, we returned in the evening to our riad illuminated by fires cracking in the hearths, rose petals floating in our courtyard fountain and flickering candles throughout.
Yet Douchoua’s team was rarely visible — it was as if they “apparated,” Harry Potter-like between floors, unpacking, packing, fluffing, cleaning, tidying and turning down. In fact, they traveled between floors via a narrow service elevator, and they traveled unseen between riads via golf carts using an extensive underground tunnel system.
Honestly, we strongly considered never leaving our riad. But the riches of the old city were just steps away from the property, so we headed out.
If Marrakech were a circus, all three rings would be in Djemaa El Fna Square. This vast open-air marketplace, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been the heart of the city since the 1100s.
Once upon a time, criminals were publicly executed here, their pickled heads hung from the city gates. Today, however, the only points of caution are the sizzling grills of the food stalls and the possibly poisonous snakes swaying to the tunes of the turbaned snake charmer’s flute.
Here, we found an encampment of old Berber women who specialized in henna hand painting. For about $10, both my daughters had small masterpieces stenciled around their fingers and wrists, the extent of which became apparent only later in the afternoon as the ink fully cured.
We also paid a few dollars to hold and hug a very affectionate pair of Barbary apes — a definite iPhone moment — and a few dollars to let the girls pose for a photo next to an owl — a touch of Hogwarts in North Africa! Additional photo ops were everywhere with lizards, bugs, turtles and roving groups of men wearing folkloric costumes. The girls couldn’t resist taking a few pictures next to a giant mound of brownish-black goop at one of the apothecary stalls. They were excited to tell their friends back home that it was actually soap.
As a lover of fashion history, I couldn’t wait to visit the Majorelle Garden. This tiny patch of paradise was created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and ’30s. Considered a masterpiece of landscape design, the manicured grounds showcase thousands of cactus species, and brilliantly hued flowers pop against walls painted a distinctive shade of cobalt blue — now called Marjorelle Blue — and trimmed in bright yellows and aquas.
But it was another owner who propelled the property to its current status as an internationally renowned tourist attraction: Yves Saint Laurent. The legendary couturier and his longtime partner, Pierre Bergé, bought the property in 1980, and so loved it that when Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered here.
Bergé still owns it, and he has turned the studio on the property into a museum that includes North African textiles and ceremonial jewelry from YSL’s personal collection.
From there, we explored the twisting streets and colorful souks of the medina, which was just as fascinating but far less confusing than Fez. We made our way through the old Jewish quarter, called the “mellah,” a once-gated ghetto dating to the 16th century, and we all marveled at the gold-gilded opulence of the Saadian Tombs.
Because no trip to Marrakech would be complete without it, we popped into the fabled La Mamounia Hotel to stroll through its famous gardens and grab a late-afternoon snack in its opulent lobby area. Designed in the 1920s and extensively and expertly renovated in 2009, this iconic grand hotel blends the best of Moorish architecture with French art deco: Winston Churchill, who spent winters here, called it “the most lovely spot in the whole world.”
We dedicated the next day to do what I think must be the Moroccan equivalent of visiting a theme park: ride camels in La Palmeraie. The ideal way to ride a camel is to trek into the nearby Sahara Desert to immerse yourself in a true Bedouin experience. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time, so we booked a three-hour “Camel Ride in Marrakech” experience online through ClickExcursions.com.
Ahmet, our guide, drove us about 15 miles outside of town to La Palmeraie, a majestic 46-square-mile date palm grove containing some 150,000 federally protected trees. Legend has it that the grove sprouted from the date pits discarded by an Almohad sultan’s army when it camped here in the 11th century.
Interspersed among the palms are modern walled villas, hotels and golf clubs, and Ahmet told us that this is some of the priciest real estate in the region.
It’s also a destination for a steady stream of minivans and petit cabs transporting tourists to the many camel ride outfits offering a taste of the nomadic lifestyle in 90 minutes or less. Here everyone in the family can pull on an embroidered jellaba, get his or her head wrapped in turbans and sway atop a camel as it trudges down a well-worn path between date palms and mansions.
The guide stops your party at several points along the way to snap some pictures (just hand him your iPhone) and, for a slight upcharge, you can enjoy a glass of traditional mint tea upon your return.
Sure it was hokey, but we loved it. The camels were taller and more interactive than we’d expected (yes, they spit and also hurl snot), and it was an incredible rush to be wedged into a rickety, swaying saddle as the animal thrusts straight upward on its spindly legs from a kneeling position to its full height.
That evening, we left the kids in the care of a hotel babysitter and stepped out for a romantic dinner of Moroccan cuisine at La Grande Table Marocaine, one of two fine-dining restaurants at the Royal Mansour under the direction of the three-Michelin starred French chef Yannick Alléno. (The other is La Grande Table Française.)
We spent hours experiencing the most elevated preparations of pastilla, tagine and other traditional dishes while enjoying Moroccan wine — a blend from Château Roslane, perhaps the most well-known vineyard in the AOC of Les Coteaux de l’Atlas, outside Meknes. For dessert: delightful orange “pearls” that burst open to release sweet orange juice when you popped them into your mouth.
Walking through the Royal Mansour gardens after dinner, hand-in-hand with my wonderful husband, I knew our fairytale vacation was coming to an end. In the morning, a Royal Mansour Mercedes would whisk us to the airport, where we’d be escorted to a private lounge as our luggage was checked and our passports stamped.
We’d board a plane and soon return to real life, where work responsibilities loomed, homework demanded to be done and the only King in town was the one that served burgers. But for one last moment in the moonlight, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world — a bit, maybe, like a princess.