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Spain & Morocco
Rivers of Gold and Arabian Nights
December 2015

A Grand Tour of Spain and Morocco

This adventure was undertaken encompassing the Moorish influenced cities of southern Spain and the alluring imperial cities of Morocco. Geographically two countries on two different continents - separated by the narrow 9 miles (14km) of the Straits of Gibraltar - Spain and Morocco have an intertwined historical and cultural background dating back many centuries. From the stunning architecture of the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Granada, to the heady atmosphere of the medina of Fez and the iconic city of Casablanca in Morocco, this trip was full of incredible highlights that have provided treasured moments that linger long in the memory.

A selection of decorative plates advertising the historic sites of Cordoba

Spain - A Brief History

First indications of human habitation in the region date back to around 800,000 BC, with evidence of the last of the Neanderthals inhabiting Gibraltar around 30,000 BC. The earliest inhabitants for whom hard historical evidence is available were the Tartessians of the Bronze Age in the 2nd millennium BC. By 1100 BC the Phoenicians were the major trading power of the Mediterranean region and had established entropots along the southern Spanish coastline. By 230 BC the Carthaginians had supplanted the Phoenicians as the regions power brokers, but as a result of the Punic War (218-201 BC) Rome now became the dominant player and mistress of the seas, with Spain becoming a Roman vassal state. Roman occupation of Spain lasted for seven centuries, its atrophy in the 5th century AD saw Spain occupied by the Visigoths who ruled Spain for almost three hundred years.

The year 711 witnessed a seismic event in the country’s history when the rampaging Muslim forces under Tariq ibn Zayid swarmed crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco, this event being the precursor to the eventual Muslim occupation of mainland Christian Spain that was to last for nearly 800 years. The Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain found its seminal momentum in the late 11th century, culminating in the capture of Valencia in 1094 by El Cid - the most brilliant soldier of his generation - his exploits immortalised in the spectacular eponymous 1961 film starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. But ultimately it would be another 400 years before the reconquest would be complete. Moorish rule in the Spanish peninsula came to end in 1492 with the fall of their last outpost, the city of Granada. The year 1492 also saw an event that subsequently changed the course of world history; setting sail from Spain, Christopher Columbus would discover the New World and create an empire for Spain that would last for nearly five centuries. During the early years of trade with the Americas “rivers of gold” flowed into the coffers of Spain, prompting ostentatious spending on public works, palatial houses and churches.

The Peninsular War of 1807-14 saw Napoleon Bonaparte’s bellicose French army overrun the whole of Spain.  The dawn of the 20th century revealed Spain minus almost all of its overseas empire. In 1936 the Spanish army under General Francisco Franco rose up against the democratic government ushering in a bloody three year period of civil war, Franco would hold Spain in an iron grip and dictate its destiny  for the next three and a half decades. By 1986 Spain was a democratic country once again and part of the European Union, a modern progressive country in the heart of Europe.

A highly colourful display of fans decorate a shop in Cordoba

Morocco - A Brief History

Archaeological finds and rock engravings indicate that Morocco was settled in the remote past, but little hard evidence is available to identify these early settlers. The arrival around 1000 BC of the Phoenicians, early masters of the Mediterranean Sea, would introduce trading posts along the Moroccan coast. By the 5th century BC the Carthaginians had supplanted the Phoenicians as the regions power house, they in turn were superseded by the Romans who destroyed the Carthaginian capital Carthage in 146 BC. Rome’s Empire atrophy in the 5th century AD saw Morocco occupied by the Vandals as they expanded across North Africa. The 6th century AD heralded a brief incursion by the Byzantines, whereupon religious unrest and local uprisings signalled the finality of the grip of the regions ancient civilizations.

Towards the end of the 7th century the inexorable expansion westwards of the Arab forces resulted in the arrival of Islam in Morocco. Down the centuries numerous Arab dynasties would rule Morocco, amongst them the Almoravids, the Merinids, the Saadians and the present day ruling dynasty the Alaouites. The 16th century saw the apogee of Morocco’s wealth as it secured control of the Saharan trade, with gold, salt and slaves transiting through the country.

The dawning of the 20th century saw France extend their colonial presence – already established in Algeria and Tunisia – into Morocco, although it would take French forces 22 years until 1934 to bring the entire country under its control. The French protectorate ended in 1956, whereupon Morocco gained its independence, with the monarchy being restored under King Mohammed V who returned to the country from enforced exile. Disputes over the demarcation of the border between Morocco and Algeria resulted in the outbreak of war between the two countries in 1963.

Demonstrations in Morocco in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring protests and revolutions in other North African countries, elicited from the government comprehensive constitutional reforms with the aim of improving democracy and the rule of law. Unlike some of its North African neighbours, Morocco survived the Arab Spring uprisings relatively unscathed, and today appears as an island of stability within the still stormy seas of North African politics.

The Journey

After a short flight from Gatwick this exciting adventure touched down in Malaga – located on the Costa del Sol it is the rough diamond of Spain’s monolithic tourist industry – a favourite haunt for British holidaymakers, and a rumour mill of bank robbers and drug barons living the high life, earning it the epithet of the Costa del Crime. Malaga is a vibrant metropolis, not quite as banal and touristy as I had imagined, amongst the cultural offerings worth a visit are a hilltop fort, a Roman theatre, and its most prominent landmark the 16th century Cathedral.

Located a two hour drive from Malaga is the magnificent city of Cordoba - once the grandest and most important city in Europe- when the Muslims invaded in 711 AD Cordoba became the capital of Islamic Spain. Cordoba’s most important and stellar monument is La Mezquita, the third largest mosque in the world. Began in 785 AD and subsequently enlarged through the centuries, its design is an exquisite hodge-podge of building materials recycled from previous Roman and Visigothic structures. Interestingly the mosque’s mihrab does not face Mecca but is orientated towards Casablanca, maybe a nod towards where the Muslim conquerors originated from. Apart from its architectural magnificence, the most fascinating aspect of La Mezquita is the Gothic Cathedral that is housed within its walls. Cordoba fell to the Christians in 1236 and the mosque was reconsecrated as a church, with work beginning on the cathedral in 1523. Here two formerly opposing religious worlds are situated under one harmonious roof, a fitting image for the city that over the centuries sheltered many cultures.

The Alcazar de los Reyes is a sumptuous palace built by the Christian kings in 1327, it is supposedly where Queen Isabella informed Columbus that she would bankroll his outrageous scheme to sail off the edge of the known universe, the rest as they say is history. Cordoba’s Jewish Quarter is a throwback to the halcyon days when the city had a thriving Jewish community; having settled here during the time of the Romans, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 during the infamous Inquisition. Cordoba’s medieval Synagogue was constructed in 1315, and today serves as a reminder of a once thriving and influential community that is now consigned to the pages of history.

The highly detailed exterior of the unique Palace of Charles V

Heading towards the next destination of Granada, the journey is through a barren, dry and bleak landscape covered in a forest of olive trees, indicative of the fact that Spain is one of the world’s biggest producers of olive oil. Granada was the final city to fall to the Christian reconquest, architecturally it epitomises the essence of the refined culture of Moorish Spain. The tour of the city commences with a visit to the Alhambra, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and the most impressive medieval Moorish palace in the world. Construction of the Alhambra began in 1338, the core of the complex is the Royal Palace, an ephemeral fantasy of delicate arches, intricate carvings, hanging muqarnas and trickling water fountains. Such is the kudos of the Alhambra that it has become through the centuries an inspirational magnet for many composers, painters, poets and writers.


The Generalife Palace is especially noted for its Italianate gardens, acclaimed as the most magnificent of their type in Spain. The soothing sound of running water in this oasis of fountains and waterfalls, set amongst picture perfectly manicured botanical splendour, make for a pleasant antidote to the heat and rigour of the days touring.

The Palace of Carlos V is one of the most outstanding paradigms of Renaissance architecture in Spain with its unique circle-within-a-square design layout. Construction of the palace began in 1527, proceeding piecemeal over the next century before succumbing to desuetude and subsequently being abandoned unfinished in 1637. After centuries of neglect the building was finally completed in 1967.

It’s a short train journey from Granada to the next stop on this tour. Perched above the Tajo Gorge in an incomparable setting is the beautifully scenic city of Ronda. The old town is replete with many elaborate mansion houses, these were built from the proceeds of the gold appropriated and brought back by the conquistadors from their conquest of the New World. Currently many of these mansions are falling into disrepair due to the high cost of maintenance and the current state of the Spanish economy.  Ronda is home to the largest and most impressive bullring in all of Spain, construction of which commenced in 1779. Fabricated entirely from stone the bullring has a seating capacity for 5,000 spectators. Ronda’s visitor poster attraction is the New Bridge – spanning the Tajo Gorge at its deepest and narrowest point -  is a uniquely assertive feat of civil engineering standing over 300 feet high above the gorge floor. Construction begun in 1755 and took 34 years to complete, its architect Jose Martin de Aldehuela tragically fell to his death inspecting the structure shortly before its completion. The spectacular setting of Ronda has attracted the rich and famous, among them Earnest Hemmingway and Orson Wells who both have streets named after them. Driving out of Ronda and up into the mountains there are innumerable hairpin bends and spectacular views all the way. This province of Spain is exceedingly green and lush due to its heavy level of rainfall, which enable a multitude of crops to be cultivated in this region.

The so-called White Towns are groups of small villages containing picturesque bijou whitewashed houses. The fortified Moorish hill village of Zahara literally transports you back to a distant time, its picture postcard whitewashed terraces are dominated by an impressive Moorish tower and an 18th century Baroque church. The pretty mountain village of Grazalma has steep cobbled streets that are lined with impossibly immaculate whitewashed houses, their windows are covered with wrought iron railings and plant pots spill over with colourful flowers. These sleepy villages see their small resident populations swell hugely with the influx of tourists to the area.

A visit to Spain would be incomplete without sampling one of their cultural icons, a flamenco guitar recital. Flamenco with its gypsy roots is a genuine southern Spanish art form, at its best it is uplifting and dramatic, the skill and complexity of the music is quite mesmerising.

The raging bull sculpture stands guard outside the impressive bullring in Ronda

Catching a local train, the next destination is Algeciras situated in the shadow of Gibraltar, from where it’s a short ferry trip across the Straits of Gibraltar from European Spain to African Morocco. Disembarking in Tangier is like entering a portal to a different world; the city tour commences with a visit to the medina (old town housing quarter), the house where the Woolworths heiress Barbara Hann lived is located here. Tangier’s Kasbah is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways full of the heady sights and smells of spices, incense, leather goods and the numerous tempting edible confections on offer. Enterprising salesmen here also provide genuine spurious goods, Nike, Adidas, Armani, you name it and they are traded here.

The stopover in Tangier is all too brief and it is time to travel 4 hours south-east to Fez, the oldest of the imperial cities, and the third largest city in the country. The labyrinthine alleyways of Fez’s medina contain 9400 streets and 360 mosques, they provide the ultimate opportunity for every non-resident to get completely disorientated within minutes of entering; the medina’s narrow enclosed streets extinguish any possibility to obtain sightings of any useful landmarks. The medina covers a vast area, and contains the souks where all manner of commercial activity takes place. Traders and manufacturers are grouped together according to their products; the spice souk, the slipper souk and the leather souk are just a few of the numerous varied enterprises where exponents of mercantile endeavour all vie for the passing trade.

Surrounded by olive trees and giant cacti – overlooking the medina of Fez - the ruins of the 16th century Merinid Tombs are today a shadow of the former marble clad magnificent structures they once were. Their current dilapidated state now make for extremely evocative photographic subjects.

Located in the centre of Fez, the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II is considered to be the most venerated shrine in Morocco. Built at the beginning of the 18th century, the interior is utterly resplendent with a dazzling array of marble cladding and zellij tilework. The exterior of the building is no less ornate, a visual feast for the eyes and a stunning example of Islamic craftsmanship.

Constructed between 1350 and 1355, the Bou Inania Medersa is one of the largest and most sumptuously decorated buildings of its kind ever built. The medersa acted as a mosque, cathedral, student residence and school combined. Lavishly decorated with marble, zellij tilework, stuccowork, hanging muqarnas and sculptured wood, this building runs the gamut of the Islamic decorative repertoire. Today the medersa functions as a cultural and religious establishment, as well as a sanctuary for prayer and reflection.

The Tanneries of Fez are a mesmerizing visual experience; encircled by houses, its dying vats are resplendent with colourful treatment solutions, everywhere tanned hides are hung out to dry, making this the most interesting and picturesque of the souks in Fez. The production of leather goods is a significant part of the economic output traded within Morocco’s souks. It is said locally “that if you want to get lost come to Fez”, having walked the labyrinthine streets for 2 days I can most definitely concur with this condign statement.

Another train journey the destination being Rabat, the capital of Morocco, in this city 45% of the population work as functionaries in government institutions. Rabat has a very French feel to it, here elegantly dressed ladies and smartly suited business men promenade along the streets, ominously the traffic congestion of a capital city is all too pervasive. Rabat’s Royal Palace currently houses a number of Morocco’s governmental organizations employing some 2,000 staff. The extensive palace gardens are immaculately manicured, a repository for innumerable species of trees and exotic plants, the vast grounds even include a racecourse.

The Chellah Necropolis is surrounded by impressive defensive walls, inside are the royal tombs, an elegant minaret as well as the remains of a mosque. The ruined mosque dates back to the 13th century as does the burial complex, which was ransacked several times in the subsequent centuries, and was then largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Within the complex are the extensive ruins of the former Roman city of Sala Colonia, once a prosperous Roman conurbation, it subsequently fell into decline, and by the 10th century had descended into complete perdition.

The Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the father of Moroccan independence, was completed in 1971. Standing on an elevated platform, this impressive structure is clad externally in white marble; immaculately costumed ceremonial guards stand rigidly to attention at its entrance. The interior boasts wonderful zellij tilework, a delicate marble frieze detailed with Arabic calligraphy, and a twelve-sided dome with mahogany muqarnas that crowns the burial chamber.

A local trader happy to pose for a photograph

Like in every other city visited the souk of Rabat is a sensory overload, a cacophony of noise. Donkeys and hand carts laden with goods pass down the narrow alleyways barely missing collisions with locals and tourists alike. Men and women dressed in florid djellabas add colour and character to the hectic maelstrom of the souk.

Casablanca is the next destination on this peregrination, a 1 hour train journey from Rabat. The Moroccan government has invested vast sums of money on the country’s railway infrastructure. Many of the stations are of a modern design heavily influenced stylistically by tradition architectural themes. Much of the rolling stock is new, designed along the lines of the French TGV trains, with some being quite luxurious double-deckers.

Casablanca is the commercial and financial capital of Morocco, a city where skyscrapers stand in stark contrast to the narrow alleyways and small shops of the medina. In this fairly affluent city most of the population is attired in western-style dress; the well to do parade up and down in 4x4 SUV’s or promenade along the corniche stopping to taking lunch at a beach side restaurant. Completed in 1993, the King Hassan II Mosque is the second largest mosque in the world - after the one in Mecca - with its prayer hall able to accommodate 25.000 devotees. This magnificent building is adorned with decorative zellij tiles, stucco work, travertine cladding and beautiful cedar wood carvings, living proof that the skills of the ancient craftsmen are still alive today. This building is an absolute delight to photograph.

From Casablanca it’s a journey on the legendary Marrakech Express to the final destination of this tour and the spiritual heart of Morocco. Marrakech is an absolute feast for the senses, this magical city is the must see destination for any visitor to Morocco. The ubiquitous city tour commences with a walk through the souk, as usual the sensory overload is all pervasive, the temptation to buy ever present. The Koutoubia Mosque, constructed towards the end of the 12th century is one of Marrakech’s unmissable visitor experiences, as well as the city’s main landmark. Resplendent with many classic Islamic design features it boasts horseshoe arch gateways with moulded arcature, majestic tile and stucco work and a 70 metre high pink stone minaret.

The Kasbah Mosque dates to the end of the 12th century and like most mosques visited it is built in the distinctive Moroccan architectural style, the minaret is square in shape with the height being five times the width, the main building being single storey and rectangular in shape. The distinctive minaret is constructed from brick and stone crowned with an attractive terracotta frieze and turquoise tiles. The exterior walls are topped by crenellations and denticulate merlons.

As a break from the hectic routine of city tours there was the chance to trek for a day in the High Atlas Mountains, North Africa’s greatest mountain range. Walking through the Imlil Valley the scenery is simply spectacular, the sun turning the mountains a soft golden hue. Ochre coloured houses are dotted across the landscape, sheep and goats graze serenely while locals encourage their burdened donkeys along the mountain tracks, an anachronistic scene virtually unchanged for centuries.

Back in Marrakech on the final day of the tour time enough to visit two more exceptional sites. The Palais el-Badi was constructed towards the end of the 16th century; Italian marble, Irish granite, Indian onyx and coverings of gold leaf decorated the walls and ceilings of this palace’s 360 rooms. At its peak the palace was considered to be one of the wonders of the Muslim world. By the end of the 17th century the palace was abandoned and partially demolished, its valuable materials cannibalised for use on other buildings. Today the palace remains as a picturesque photogenic ruin currently undergoing sympathetic restoration.

Marrakech’s most famous attraction is the Jemaa el-Fna Square. A cacophony of activity, the square attains the peak of its mesmeric allure from sunset when it becomes the setting for a multifaceted open-air show. As the air fills with the smoke from grilling meat and the exotic aroma of spices, the square explodes with an egregious array of musicians, dancers, storytellers, fortune tellers and snake charmers, who each draw crowds of astonished tourists and locals alike, presenting a scene that could almost be drawn straight from the pages of Arabian Nights.

An Overview

This was a truly wonderful holiday on two starkly contrasting continents, a highly memorable way to spend a Christmas and New Year break. To visit a part of Spain that was not thronged with package holiday tourists was a real pleasure, the architectural gems visited were something quite unique in continental Europe. The exotic charm of Morocco was quite the antithesis to the Spanish part of this trip, but the synthesis of these two destinations morphed into a holiday experience that exceeded many pre-departure expectations. Both of these destinations are target rich environments offering abundant prospects for cultural enrichment in addition to innumerable photographic opportunities.

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