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A Design Enthusiast’s Guide to Morocco

From intricate mosaic lanterns casting lace-like patterns, winding souks lined with vibrant tapestries, to the layers of arched keyhole doorways and riads, Morocco has an exotic allure shaped by centuries of religious and cultural influences. The North African destination has a lot to discover and offers something for everyone, and yet we know so little about it.

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Over the course of its history, Morocco has been a melting pot for Berbers (Native Moroccans), Moors (Arabs), Spaniards, Romans, French, Portuguese and sub-Saharan Africans that have settled in the country. The integration of influences culminates into a country that’s rich with culture, history and characterful design jewels.

Morocco owes their radiant rugs to the Berbers, who spun wool to make rugs coloured with bright plant dyes. The Moors introduced Islamic elements in the form of marquetry and round shapes like the curved archways in Moroccan riads. The mosaics were inspired by the ancient Romans, while various other elements were inspired by countries like France, Portugal and Spain, which have occupied Morocco.

Through this written piece, you’ll get a chance to be a part of our 12-day journey to Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Chefchaouen and Fez. We hope our reportage evokes feelings of travel with a touch of excitement, enough to have you start planning your next trip.

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The ambassador of Morocco to Indonesia, Ouadia Benabdellah, was appointed to his current position by HM. King Mohammed VI. With an architectural background, Ouadia understands the beauty of Morocco’s history and culture on another level. Here’s our short chat with the ambassador.

What defines Moroccan design?

We can find the answer in our history and culture. Morocco was actually (part of) an empire with Libya and Mauritania – it’s a hub of cultures from Europe, Africa, Arabic countries, and this make the diversity of the country. And this diversity influences our culture and our design; all this diversity is rich in the handicrafts, innovations, products, and colours. You can find it in the cities in Morocco. When you go to Morocco, all the cities are different. Every city has its own particularities, has its own specificity. And so when you live in this environment, you produce design and art very specific of every region, of every place you are in.

What about Moroccan design do you like the most?

What I like the most? That’s difficult. When you have so many (choices), it’s difficult. I just invite everyone to go to Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca and you can see all kinds of design. It’s rich and it’s huge, with multiple (design elements). So if you ask me which one I love most, it’s impossible for me to answer. I invite everyone to open books, or better, to go to Morocco and to see all kinds of design.

I can say the same thing about Indonesia. If I ask you what you prefer in Indonesia, it’s difficult to answer because Indonesia is also rich in history and culture, and everything has its own beauty.

What are some words you would use to describe Moroccan design?

My words in English are limited, but there are some words that come to mind. Mystic, enigmatic – because you cannot know the origin since it’s so rich, so heavy with history – and beautiful. I think this word is the best. You can find beauty in many things and I invite everyone to visit Morocco to touch, see, and discover for themselves. I said mystic because there are so many questions. You try to know the origins of things. You try to know where they come from. It’s a mix between religion, the land, the geography, and a mix with many other things. It’s difficult to have a lecture on the products, so there are a lot of questions. Lastly, (Moroccan design) is also very spiritual.

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RABAT and SALÉ

The capital city of Morocco, Rabat, sits along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. While tourists include Marrakech and Fez in their Moroccan itinerary, Rabat is often overlooked. The seaside city is enchanting in its own way: unspoiled beaches, the majestic Hassan Tower that – if it had been completed – would be the tallest minaret in the world, and a commuter town (previously a pirate town) called Salé that lies on the other side of the Bou Regreg river.

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Free from the hustle and bustle of Rabat, Salé has the enviable slow pace of a simple small town. Scooters roll up and down the narrow, labyrinth-like streets, where children still play during the day. Local men meet at run-down tea houses while the women bring home fresh goods from the bakery.

When visiting Salé, be sure to visit the ancient madrasa (Islamic school) in the medina (old town). It’s no longer running as a school, but the beauty is still open to observers. Decorated with mosaics, the 14th century madrasa is intricately designed, typical of a Moroccan hidden gem. Visit other historic buildings, like the kasbah and mausoleum, and spend the evening in the glamorous ville neuve (new town).

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CASABLANCA

Casablanca is Morocco’s most populated city, packed with colonial buildings, flea markets, and most recently, shopping malls, condos and art galleries. We recommend to start the day by the seaside area (the Corniche), walking along the boardwalk in the early morning when it’s still quiet.

Don’t miss one of the largest mosques in the world, Hassan II, which can welcome up to 25,000 worshippers inside. It took around $800 million, 10,000 craftsmen and over seven years (1985-1993) to complete the mosque for the former Moroccan king. Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, Hassan II Mosque displays Moorish architecture with white granite columns, Agadir marble, Murano glass chandeliers and intricate decorations. The mosque boasts the world’s tallest minaret at over 200 metres.

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Casablanca is filled with diverse captivating architecture styles. At the city centre, the leafy Boulevard Mohammed V celebrates French influence. Local Moroccan design prevails in Mahkama du Pacha, a parliament building characterised by its stark geometric façade and elegant interior. Meanwhile, the Casablanca Cathedral, designed by another French architect, is a blend of Gothic and Art Deco styles. Take a stroll around the city and you’ll find it’s fairly easy to find aesthetically pleasing, colourful corners everywhere you go.

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MARRAKECH

Arguably the most famous city in Morocco, Marrakech is a market town that was founded in the 11th century. The chic bohemian Red City is easily an Instagram hotspot — it’s packed with attractive shops, luxurious riad hotels, beautiful doorways and more. The souks and their warmly lit lamps bring colour to your feed, while the traditionally designed hotels and their distinguished courtyards bring a much welcome symmetry.

While in the bustling city, spare some dirham to spend in the Marrakech Souk and be sure to snap some memorable shots. Get lost in the maze of stalls and shop for handmade woodwork, iron and bronze wares, traditional jewellery, carpets, spices, and more.

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Consider staying in the consummately designed Royal Mansour. The charming medina resort was commissioned by the King Mohammed VI, so expect to receive impeccable service worthy of a royalty. Royal Mansour’s spectacular mosaics, artistic lightings and world-class luxury reflect Morocco’s flamboyant architecture heritage. Inside are 53 riads and the city’s most exquisite hammam and spa.

Another stylish option is the Mandarin Oriental, which has over 50 villas, nine suites and a two-hectare rose garden. It’s adequately steeped in the past and perfectly attuned to contemporary standards, a hotel worthy of the Mandarin’s standard.

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Marrakech is also known as a garden city. The Majorelle Garden will leave you completely smitten with flowers, exotic plants and chirps of birds that call this spot home. It took French painter Jacques Majorelle 40 years to complete his namesake.

The blue-walled garden sure offsets the terracotta-coloured Jemaa el-Fna, a lively city square that helps define Marrakech. The sound of snake-charmers’ flutes is thick in the air and so is the smell of the grill heating up. Water sellers wearing multi-coloured headpieces and traditional attires will catch your eye. When night falls, get rewarded with the rich tastes of delicacies, music and dance performances.

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Stay fascinated with Moroccan design as you step into Madrasa Ben Youssef. At the heart of the Quranic learning centre is a main courtyard with an ablution pool. Some remarkable elements to look out for include the carved cedarwood cupolas, chiseled stucco, and wooden lattice balcony. Arabic inscriptions punctuate the madrasa’s zellij (mosaic tilework), including the quote “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded” in the entrance. The Quranic learning centre is set to re-open post-renovation in 2019.

Museum-lovers will delight in the opulent Dar Si-Saïd Museum and its invigorating juxtaposition of the old and new. Housed in a palace, there’s much to explore in the museum grounds than just the permanent collection. Speaking of palaces, the eight-hectare imperial remnant Palais de Bahia, a palace named ‘brilliance’ is another beguiling destination.

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For fashion enthusiasts, spare a couple hours at the Yves Saint Laurent’s museum and be bewitched by the late designer’s couture legacy. Opened in 2017, the museum was designed by Paris-based Studio KO at the command of the late Pierre Bergé, YSL’s long-time partner.

Marrakech’s largest mosque, Koutoubia is also a must-visit landmark. In the 12th century, manuscript seller stalls surrounded the mosque, earning the house of worship the name koutoubiyyin, meaning ‘librarians’. Its 70-metre minaret is a monumental architectural reference; it was the prototype for Seville’s La Giralda and Rabat’s Hassan Tower, and it displays authentic Moorish architecture with its keystone arches and jagged merlons.

There’s a lot to see, experience and taste in Marrakech. In short, it’s not a trip to Morocco without travelling to Marrakech.

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CHEFCHAOUEN

Widely known as the Blue City, Chefchaouen embodies the romantic and mystic personality of Morocco. It will remind you of Santorini’s fascinating aesthetic, but Chefchaouen’s ethereal charm is one-of-a-kind.

If you’re a photographer, you’ll surely appreciate how photogenic this small town can be. The perfect place to get lost in, Chefchaouen is filled with shops and houses that are painted in different shades of blue, anything from robin’s egg, azure, indigo, turquoise to cobalt blue. In fact, it’s rather easy to get lost in if you don’t speak the local language or French; there aren’t street signs and the labyrinth-like streets won’t help.

The Blue Pearl of Morocco was founded in 471 AD but it wasn’t coated in blue until the 1940s. Some say the colour is a symbol of solidarity with the Jews, who took refuge in the city during the Nazi’s occupation. The colour was meant to symbolise peace and tranquility for the Jewish community.

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These days, tourists aren’t the only ones wandering aimlessly in the blue medina. If you’re a cat-lover, look out for little fur balls prancing up and down the stone steps and roaming the narrow cobbled streets.

Don’t forget to shop for colourful blankets, carpets, gauzy textiles and other local craft works in the medina. Take breaks along the way – locals are likely to offer some mint tea or follow the smell of oranges until you find a fresh juice stand.

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The heart of Chefchaouen is a square called Plaza Uta el-Hammam. It’s packed with cafés and restaurants, making it an ideal place of rest after a day out and about. There’s a kasbah inside, a terracotta-coloured edifice that offers a view of the city. It has a garden and a small museum worth a short visit.

Also overlooking the city is the Spanish Mosque that was built in the 1920s. The 45-minute hike to the mosque passes the Ras el’Ma river, where local Riffian women usually do their laundry.

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FEZ

With a population of 1.1 million, Fez is the second most populated city in Morocco after Casablanca. During the reign of the Merinids, Fez enjoyed its best era. It replaced Marrakech as the capital of the Kingdom around the 13th-14th century, before Rabat claimed the title in the early 1900s.

Perhaps Morocco’s most underrated city, Fez, has remained its cultural and spiritual centre. The Merinids founded a new town, Fez Jedid, beside the original town, Fez El-Bali (a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site). The new town became home to the royal palace, the army and residential areas. At the time, the medina of Fez was the largest Islamic metropolis city with diverse architectural styles and plenty of religious, civil and military monuments that paved the way for a multicultural society. Now, the medina of Fez is a prominent historic town in the Arab world rich with heritage.

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Wander through the Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) archways to enter the car-free yet ultra busy medina. Behind this Mauresque-Andalusian style gate are 9,500 streets waiting to be explored.

Inside lives Al Quaraouiyine, believed to be on of the world’s oldest universities. Built in 859 AD, the institution is a leading spiritual and educational centres for the history of Islam. Only Muslims are allowed inside but you can catch a glimpse of its classic Islamic design through one of the building’s 14 doors. The library, however, is open to public. Al Quaraouiyine’s Andalusian art, superb tilework and ornate calligraphy are some things to admire.

If you want to enter a religious building that allow non-Muslims, consider Bou Inania, a madrasa built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris in the 14th century.

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Unfortunately, similar to Al Quaraouiyine, the imperial palace in Fez can only be observed from outside. Considering how stunning the Dar al-Makhzen’s bright brass doors are, it’s still worth the trip. On the same note, if beautiful doors are your thing, you’re in the right place. Like other Moroccan cities, Fez is filled with random beautiful doors decorated in mosaic everywhere you turn.

To add to the list of beautiful yet Muslim-exclusive spots, the sumptuous Zaouia Moulay Idriss II is a holy shrine in the medina that will entice visitors from the outside. It’s the final resting place of Moulay Idriss II, ruler of Morocco from 807 to 828.

While in the medina, chances are you’ll stumble into a rug store, landing in a room filled with loud colours and tribal patterns. For a change of view, hike up to rooftop or elevated ground to admire Fez, which lies in a valley between the Rif and the Middle Atlas Mountains. Maybe even hike up to the Merenid tombs.

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A unique experience that Fez offers may upset the olfactory senses. In the pungent Tanners’ Quarter, dozens of barefoot workers toil around dye pits, dunking hides in animal excrement and turning them into leather. Out of three tanneries in Fez, Chouara is the largest. A local guide will hand you a sprig of mint before leading you to the observation point.

Morocco is a land of design inspiration, and one that presents visitors with the chance to appreciate its eclectic provenance. We left Morocco with exotic finds from the souks and amazing photos, but also with a mind filled with colourful interior and architecture ideas and a shorter bucket list.

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