Introduction to Morocco <P>For Westerners, Morocco holds an immediate and enduring fascination. Though just an hours 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 or Casablanca, a more distant past constantly makes its presence felt. Fes, 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 Atlas and the Rif, its still possible to draw up tribal maps of the Berber population. As a backdrop to all this, the countrys physical make-up is also extraordinary: from a Mediterranean coast, through four mountain ranges, to the empty sand and scrub of the Sahara. <P>All of which makes Morocco an intense and rewarding experience, and a country that is ideally suited to independent (or, for activities, small-group) travel. If you have time enough, you can cover a whole range of experiences hike in the Atlas, drive through the southern oases, relax at the laid-back Atlantic resorts like Asilah or Essarouia, and lose yourself wandering the old streets of Fes or Marrakesh. It can be hard at times to come to terms with the privilege of your position as a tourist in a country with severe poverty, and there is, too, occasional hassle from unofficial guides. But Morocco is essentially a safe and politically stable country to visit: the death in 1999 of King Hassan II, the Arab worlds longest-serving leader, was followed by an easy transition to his son, Mohammed VI. And your enduring impressions are likely to be overwhelmingly positive, shaped by encounters with Moroccos powerful tradition of hospitality, generosity and openness. This is a country people return to again and again. <P>Where to go <P>Geographically, the country divides into four basic zones: the coast, Mediterranean and Atlantic; the great cities of the plains; the Rif and Atlas mountains; and the oases and desert of the pre- and fully fledged Sahara. With two or three weeks even two or three months you cant expect to cover all of this, though its easy enough (and highly recommended) to take in something of each aspect. <P>You are unlikely to miss the mountains, in any case. The three ranges of the Atlas, with the Rif a kind of extension in the north, cut right across the interior physical and historical barriers, and inhabited for the most part by the indigenous Moroccan Berbers. Contrary to general preconceptions, it is actually the Berbers who make up most of the population (only around ten percent of Moroccans are "pure" Arabs) although with the shift to the industrialized cities, such distinctions are becoming less and less significant. A more current distinction, perhaps, is the legacy of Moroccos colonial occupation over the fifty-odd years before it reasserted its independence in 1956. The colonized country was divided into Spanish and French zones the former contained Tetouan and the Rif, the Mediterranean and the northern Atlantic coasts, and parts of the Western Sahara; the latter comprised the plains and the main cities (Fes, Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat), as well as the Atlas. It was the French, who ruled their "protectorate" more closely, who had the most lasting effect on Moroccan culture, Europeanizing the cities to a strong degree and firmly imposing their language, which is spoken today by all educated Moroccans (after Moroccan Arabic or one of the three local Berber languages). <P>Broadly speaking, the coast is best enjoyed in the north at Tangier, beautiful and still shaped by its old "international" port status, Asilah and Larache, and in the south at El Jadida, at Essaouira, perhaps the most easy-going resort, or at remote Sidi Ifni. Agadir, the main package tour resort, is less worthwhile but a functional enough base for exploration. <P>Inland, where the real interest of Morocco lies, the outstanding cities are Fes and Marrakesh. The great imperial capitals of the countrys various dynasties, they are almost unique in the Arab world for the chance they offer to witness some city life which, in patterns and appearance, remains in large part medieval. For monuments, Fes is the highlight, though Marrakesh, the "beginning of the south", is for most visitors the more enjoyable and exciting. <P>Travel in the south roughly beyond a line drawn between Casablanca and Meknes is, on the whole, easier and more relaxing than in the sometimes frenetic north. This is certainly true of the mountain ranges, where the Rif can feel disturbingly anarchic, while the southerly Atlas ranges (Middle, High and Anti) are beautiful and accessible. Hiking in the High Atlas, especially around North Africas highest peak, Djebel Toubkal, is in fact something of a growth industry. Even if you are no more than a casual walker, its worth considering, with summer treks possible at all levels of experience and altitude. And, despite inroads made by commercialization, it remains essentially "undiscovered" like the Alps must have been in the nineteenth century. Equally exploratory in mood are the great southern routes beyond and across the Atlas, amid the oases of the pre-Sahara. Major routes here can be travelled by bus, minor ones by rented car or local taxi, the really remote ones by four-wheel-drive vehicles or by getting lifts on local camions (lorries), sharing space with the market produce and livestock. <P>The oases, around Tinerhir, Zagora and Erfoud, or (for the committed) Tata or Figuig, are classic images of the Arab world, vast palmeries stretching into desert horizons. Equally memorable is the architecture that they share with the Atlas bizarre and fabulous pis (mud) kasbahs and ksour, with Gothic-looking turrets and multi-patterned walls. <P>Further south, you can follow a route through the Western Sahara all the way down to Dakhla, just 20km short of the Tropic of Cancer, where the weather is scorching even in midwinter.