PRECIOUS PLACES:The Imperial Cities of Morocco
Morocco’s Imperial Cities were built to dazzle, and that they do… still. Comprised of Marrakech, Rabat, Fez and Meknes, the cities are rich in history, ancient monuments and the heritage of the country’s glorious past dynasties.
A great way to see the cities, which are acknowledged to be the most beautiful in the North African country, is to connect them on a seven-day tour, which also introduces surprising stops in between, such as the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis near Fez and Meknes, and “Little Switzerland” in Ifrane. And naturally, there’s historic Casablanca, just a short distance from Rabat and Marrakesh.
The most renowned of the iconic Imperial Cities is Marrakech, dubbed both “the Red City,” and “the pearl of the south.” Set against a backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the city is centred for visitors around the medina, or old quarter – a jumble of winding streets, ramparts, palaces, mosques and souks, as well as the famed Jemma El Fna Square – a “bona fide unwalled insane asylum” filled with jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, magicians, musicians and acrobats, and a place to pick up local handiwork and souvenirs. Highlights of the city include the Koutoubia mosque, Saadian tomb with its honeycomb stuccoed walls, Jardin Majorelle, and El Badi Palace.
Rabat, the capital on the coast, became an Imperial City in the 19th Century and the country’s capital in 1912 when the French moved it from Fez. As such, for over a century, the city has been a centre of culture and tourism and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights for visitors including strolling down wide, open boulevards lined with palm trees and sightseeing at the grand marbled Mohamed V Mausoleum, covered in zellige tiles, and thousand-year-old Hassan Tower. There’s also a beach if time allows.
Fez is the spiritual capital of the kingdom with a venerable, mysterious medina that is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The medieval city is also considered the best-preserved in the Arab world, albeit a “living, breathing one.” Significant sites include Kairaouine (possibly the oldest university in the world), the stunning entrance gate to the Dar el-Makhzen palace, and the remains of the Merenid tombs. The city is also renowned for its exquisite cuisine.
Seventy kilometres from Fez is the fourth Imperial City, Meknes, another open-air museum. Its medina and the remnants of the royal palace also earned it UNESCO designation. An Imperial City since the 17th century, Meknes symbolizes the power of Sultan Moulay Ismail, epitomized by the Bab-El-Mansour Gate, a masterpiece of Spanish-Moorish art and entrance to the medina. Another highlight is the royal Heri es-Souani complex, once the site of Moulay Ismail’s huge granaries and stables housing 12,000 horses. Meknes is considered an undiscovered gem – less hectic than Marrakech, less famous than Fez and without Rabat’s political clout. It’s the place to go to discover Morocco without the crowds.
First published at Travel Industry Today