Hidden Highlights of Morocco

David Pettitt

Morocco is home to many iconic sights, from vibrant Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech and the pungent tanneries of Fes to the white-washed Atlantic town of Essaouira and the magnificent Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou. There is however another side to the country, a place of crumbling ancient ruins, spectacular mountain passes, delightful gardens and colourful cobbled towns. Here are five of our favourite, less well known Moroccan gems.

Blue painted Medina of Chefchaouen in Morocco

Majorelle Gardens, Marrakech

Formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent, the Majorelle Gardens are located to the north of Marrakech’s medina. Designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, rare, exotic and colourful plants surround the cobalt blue villa built by Majorelle in 1931 and in 1980 Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the gardens restoring them to their former glory. A welcome escape from the noise and clamour of Marrakech, there is also an excellent small museum dedicated to Berber art in the grounds.

Volubilis and Meknes

The Roman ruins at Volubilis and the Imperial city of Meknes are an excellent combination. Picturesque Volubilis prospered from the production of olive oil and became a Roman provincial capital – the ruins are impressive as much remains – whilst nearby Meknes is a charming city built during the 17th century by Moulay Ismail. Once the capital of Morocco, today relaxed Meknes is home to a fine souk and some of Morocco’s most iconic architecture including the Bab Mansour gate.

Chefchaouen

Lying in the shadow of Jbel ech-Chaouen in the heart of the Rif Mountains, the beautiful north-eastern town of Chefchaouen is one of Morocco’s best kept secrets. With its dramatic backdrop, picturesque medina and powder-blue homes, Chefchaouen was founded in the 15th century and its time under Spanish rule has left it with a decidedly Andalucian feel. Wander the old cobbled streets, marvel at the intricate architecture or head out of the town to explore the surrounding mountains.

Tizi n’Test Pass, Atlas Mountains

At a height of 2,092 metres, Tizi n’Test is one of the highest mountain passes in Morocco. Set in the heart of the Atlas Mountains, the pass connects Taroudant and Taliouine, linking Marrakech with the Sahara Desert. A considerable engineering triumph at the time, it took the French six years to construct the pass which was finally completed in 1932. One of the country’s most scenic spots, the views are spectacular and the descent is dramatic with a drop of 1,600m in little over 30kms.

Zagora

This desert outpost, in the Draa Valley to the south-east of the country close to the Algerian border, is iconic Sahara. Reached by a spectacular winding road from Ouarzazate through the Jbel Anaouar Mountains, the descent to Zagora passes date palms, red Kasbahs and tiny rural villages. A halting point for the historic desert caravans that crossed this great sand sea, Zagora remains a trading post and meeting point for the desert’s inhabitants and is the place to experience Saharan culture.