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holds an immediate and enduring fascination. Though just an hour's ride on the ferry from Spain, it seems at once very far from Europe, with a culture - Islamic and deeply traditional - that is almost wholly unfamiliar. Throughout the country, despite the years of French and Spanish colonial rule and the presence of modern and cosmopolitan cities like Rabat and Casablanca, a more distant past constantly makes its presence felt.
, perhaps the most beautiful of all Arab cities, maintains a life still rooted in medieval times, when a Moroccan empire stretched from Senegal to northern Spain, while in the mountains of the
, it's still possible to draw up tribal maps of the Berber population. As a backdrop to all this, the country's physical make-up is also extraordinary: from a Mediterranean coast, through four maintain ranges, to the empty sand and scrub of the Sahara.
All of which makes
here an intense and rewarding experience. It's not always easy-going - there can be problems in coming to terms with your privileged position as a tourist, and in dealing with self-appointed guides eager to offer their services. However, in recent years the worst of the hustlers have been cleared off the streets (anyone who visited in the early 1990s will be amazed at the change) and the unofficial guides you encounter are fewer and more discreet. If you find things too much of a struggle, you can take refuge in low-key resorts like Essaouira or Asilah, or in the more cosmopolitan holiday destination of Agadir, built very much in the image of its Spanish counterparts. Or you could make things easy on yourself with a small-group tour, travelling by Landrover or going on an organized trek.
But Morocco is really an ideal place for independent travel. A week's hiking in the Atlas, a journey through the southern oases or into the pre-Sahara, or leisured strolls around Tangier, Fes or Marrakesh - once you adapt to a different way of life, all your time will be well spent. It's also a safe and politically stable country to visit: the death in 1999 of King Hassan II, the Arab world's longest serving leader, was followed by an easy transition to his son, Mohammed VI. And it's difficult for any traveller to go for long without running into Morocco's equally powerful tradition of hospitality, generosity and openness. This is a country people return to again and again
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