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Morocco’s Traditional Ceramic Crafts: Pottery and Zellige Tilework Tour
Morocco is a gem of breathtaking landscapes, lively colors, and astonishing variety, all of which comes through in its art. Moroccan handicrafts are as varied and exceptional as the country itself. Traditional artisans still ply their trade in small workshops and community cooperatives.
Blending Arab, Berber, Jewish and Andalusian traditions, the ancestral know-how of Moroccan artisans has been praised for centuries. In every Moroccan medina you encounter shops of textiles, spices, wood furniture, rugs, and jewelry. Morocco has been known for centuries for its craftsmen, sell leather goods and carpets, shoes, and even spices of the highest quality.
There are authentic treasures of handicrafts throughout the country. Morocco’s souks and bazaars hold many workshops that are worth visiting.
Fes is considered the center of excellence for many of Morocco’s best-known handicrafts. From the craftsmanship of silver teapots and trays, leather, copper and embroidery to ceramic crafts both as pottery and ‘zellige’ (handmade Moroccan tile).
Visit the medina of Fes and explore each specialty in individual souks. Continue to Ain Nokbi, just outside the medina of Fes and near the southern ramparts and visit to the pottery district. There are several pottery co-operatives there, highlighting the art of Moroccan pottery through workshops, apprenticeship centers and showrooms of finished products.
Take a tour of the Pottery Village in Fes and discover the entire process of the craft of Moroccan pottery and zellige.
Take part in a workshop of Fassi Pottery characterized by its refined and typical blue and white geometric designs
The most prized pottery in Morocco comes from Fes. While the most common type of clay is earthenware, Fassi pottery is crafted from fine, light-colored stoneware clay. Only the most traditional methods are used to throw pottery in Ain Nokbi. Fassi pottery is shaped by hand, the pottery wheel is turned by foot for complete control, and a fine thread or piece of wire is used to cut the shape from the wheel. Once the desired shape has been formed, it is set out in the sun to dry.
Raw clay drying in the Moroccan sun before getting fired in the traditional kilns of Ain Nokbi, Fes, Morocco.
Moroccan craftsmen use fine horsehair brushes to paint geometric designs on the pottery. Though available in a variety of colors, the most traditional Fassi pottery is easily recognizable by its cobalt blue and white designs. Pottery from Fes is still fired in traditional kilns which are primarily fueled by ground olive pits, a by-product of the olive oil industry in Morocco. Olive pits allow for an extremely hot yet “clean” burn and are also an economical and ecologically-friendly alternative fuel source. Stoneware clay can be fired at a high temperature, resulting in a light grey and durable, non-porous finished product. This makes it the ideal clay for products for home use, such as vases, plates, jars, tagines, mugs, bowls and ashtrays. Other popular finished products from the Potters’ Quarter in Fes include mirrors, chargers, oil diffusers, candlestick holders and egg cups. Along with the paint and glaze work, traditional pottery from Fes is virtually scratch-resistant.
Zellige: the art of handmade Moroccan tile
Inspired by Roman and Byzantine mosaics, Moroccan zellige first made its appearance in the 10th century and evolved during the Merenid Dynasty. Originally used to illustrate luxury and sophistication in the homes of wealthy art patrons, zellige tilework remains the hallmark of Moroccan architecture and design. Zellige craftsmanship can be found gracing floors, walls, columns, staircases, fountains, hammams and swimming pools throughout Morocco: not only in historical palaces such as Dar Batha in Fes, Bahia Palace in Marrakech, and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes, but also in more modern structures such as riads and restaurants. Zellige is a key design element in the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.
The first step for any Moroccan mosaic tilework is to mold and calibrate the square tiles, using the same fine stoneware clay as for Fassi pottery by tiles. Each zellige square is then glazed of a single color and fired according to a specific temperature for each hue. Once the zellige tiles are fired and cooled, they are ready to be shaped and cut by hand. This is a unique characteristic of Moroccan tiles and a shining example of Moroccan craftsmanship: shapes are cut out of hard tiles, rather than being molded in the desired shapes before being fired. More often than not, it is the apprentices who ”cut” zellige tiles by quickly tracing a model piece of zellige onto the tile, and then chipping away the extra. A steady and careful touch is needed to chisel out the individual pieces of zellige; the size and weight of the tool is disproportionate to the width of the tile and ultimately, the delicacy of each small shape which emerges. Each craftsman will make his specific shape from the tile, from which the expert craftsmen will ultimately create their masterpieces.
Geometric zellige designs are carefully chipped away by hand – a coffee break is always welcomed! (photo courtesy of Christopher Pogue)
In the case of free-standing Moroccan tilework, such as tabletops or fountains, these are created face-down. The Moroccan artisan takes piece by piece of each design element, then “glues’ them into place. In this case, the “glue” is actually “Black soap”, also known by its French name, “savon noir” or “savon bildi”, another by-product of the olive oil industry in Morocco. After all of the zellige are in place, cement is poured over the back, and once dry, the piece is turned over to discover the beauty.
Master craftsman laying out tile upside down for traditional Moroccan zellige tabletop (photo courtesy of Christopher Pogue)
Once the backing of the zellige tabletop has dried, it is carefuly turned over to reveal its beauty. (photo courtesy of Christopher Pogue)
Moroccan zellige tiles are not only sturdy but also water and oil-resistant. This makes them an ideal material for both indoor and outdoor use, such as tiled tabletops, plunge pools, staircase steps, fountains and fireplaces, along with the more traditional use of zellige as wall coverings or floor work. Once you see the process of the traditional Moroccan craft of zellige, you cannot help to be in awe of the splendor and intricacy of Moroccan design.
Wood Carving – This is where Essaouira truly shines. While wood carvers ply their trade throughout Morocco, there is something special to be said about the twuia wood found only on the south coast, and locals have been making good use of it for centuries. From larger chess boards and plates, to small boxes and children’s toys, sculptors have perfected the technique of drawing the beautiful from the seemingly mundane, and few visitors leave without at least a small trinket to remind them of the relaxed Moroccan sea coast.
Pottery – Moroccan pottery can vary wildly from place to place, but a few cities have truly put their mark on the ceramics trade. Safi is perhaps the most notable ceramic city, with large markets dedicated to their sale as well as a wide variety of shops and styles. Safi also offers a more relaxed atmosphere for shopping, and since the pottery is made onsite, you’re often dealing with the very men who created the plate in your hands. Outside Zagora, Tamegroute is known for its unique green-glaze pottery.
All this is to say nothing of the natural oils and dyes, knitwear, cooking supplies, tapestry, leather and innumerable other finds you’ll come across as you wander through the souks. Like so much in Morocco, you’ll get the most from your market day with an open mind and a little curiosity. Be prepared to take your time, and be open to whatever strikes your fancy!
Breakfast at your hotel and early morning departure to Fez. Stop en route to have maloui and fresh Arabic Coffee.
Have lunch on the road to Fez. On your way to Fez visit the Roman Ruins of Volubilis. Arrive in Fez in mid afternoon and check in at your riad in the old medina that is covered from floor to ceiling with old Fassis zellij tile. Rest for one-hour before a half-day tour of the medina.
Your visit includes visiting the weavers Cooperative specializing in weaving the ﬁnest Jellaba fabric, made of silk and wool threads imported from Italy. After that visit the slippers souk where they sell beautiful hand made shoes, caftans, pottery, local Fassis crafts and fabric.
Return to your riad to freshen up and then venture to Palais de Medina for dinner. Palais de Medina is a palace restaurant that was built in 1356 and once inhabited by several families. It offers some of the best Moroccan gourmet food in Fez. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Fez.
Begin your ﬁrst day at the zellij cooperative workshop. You will enjoy a workshop lead by zellij masters whereby you will learn how to make and paint the zellij unique to Fez. You will learn the history as well as their local techniques. An English translator will be provided along with materials for you to make your own pottery. Everything you make you will be able to keep. Spend the day learning the traditions of Fes zellij tile making. After the zellij workshop, have dinner and relax at your riad. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Fez.
Begin your day at the pottery cooperative workshop. Spend the day learning the traditions of Fes pottery making until early afternoon. After the pottery workshop, have dinner and relax at your riad. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Fes.
Begin your day with a panoramic view of Fes. Start with the magnificent Fez old medina. It is a real labyrinth left intact since the Middle Ages. It has been classified as a world heritage in 1981 by UNESCO. Fez medina is considered the largest medina in the Arab world and surrounded by 24 kilometers of walls. The medina encloses 9500 houses, 176 mosques, 83 mausoleums, 11 madrasas dating from the Merenids dynasty and 40 hammams. The medina also encloses magnificent palaces.
Enter the old medina of Fez, through the bleu gate known as Bab Boujloud dating to the 12th century. The name is a vernacular corruption of the expression "Bou Jnoud", meaning a parade ground or military square, referring to the large square known as Place Bou Jeloud just outside and to the west. It is also located near the site of what used to be one of the main citadels of Fes el-Bali, the Kasbah Bou Jeloud.
Stroll the Talaa Kebeera shortly after Bab Boujloud and continues on through the much of the medina. Many different shops, souks and sights are located just off this main road. Though often crowded by locals and tourists alike, it is a nice taste of old Fez.
Visit the Dar Batha Museum. Dar Batha Museum is located in the heart of the medina. Before becoming a museum in 1915, the building was a beautiful palace of Arab-Andalusian style, built by Moulay el Hassan in the late nineteenth century. This museum is full of treasures that reflect the traditional art of Fez and its region carved wood, embroidery, zellige, wrought iron, jewelry, coins, carpets … depicting the stunning wealth of Fassi craftsmanship.
Continue to The Madrasa Bou Inania founded in AD 1351–56 by Abu Inan Faris. It is widely acknowledged as an excellent example of Marinid architecture.
Visit Nejjarine Museum on your way. This well-restored former Fondouk – a place where traders took lodgings and stored and sold their goods during the 18th century – is now home to the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts. Opened in 1998, the museum allows visitors to marvel at such artefacts as craftsmen’s tools, prayer beads, ancient chests, and musical instruments.
Visit (from outside) the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, a religious shrine containing the tomb of Idris II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828. He is the main founder of the city of Fes and of the first Moroccan Islamic state. In this place your will encounter amazing shops selling candles and locals Fessi sweets altogether with various fragrances used for religious and special events.
Visit Kissaria Serrajine, where an irresistible range of silks, brocades, braided trimmings, embroidered slippers and kaftans awaits you coming. Along the streets you can see a fabulous expertise at work. Continue to Seffarine known for its Boilermakers, coppersmiths, glazed ceramic workshops marked by the famous cobalt blue of Fez. All is a fascinating world of craftsmanship
Visit the famous Quaraouiyine University, the oldest existing, constantly operating. It the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records. Quaraouiyine University is referred to as the oldest university that was founded by Fatima al-Fihria in 859 with an associated madrasa, which next became one of the principal spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. It was incorporated into Morocco's modern state university system in 1963.
Visit the Al-Attarine Madrasa close to the Al-Quaraouiyine. It was built by the Marinid sultan Uthman II Abu Said in 1323. The madrasa takes its name from the Souk al-Attarine, the spice and perfume market.
Visit the Glaoui palace and the Mokri Palace where to admire the fine work of the woodcarvers or the delicate lines of the wrought iron sculptured with surgical precision.
After enjoying your lunch continue your visit by visiting Fez tanneries referred to as the Chouwara tanneries. The tanneries, made of numerous ditches filled to the brim with a incredible variety of pigments, process skins for production of sleep, cow and goat leather in the traditional manner. Look down at the proceedings from a neighboring rooftop terrace-a giant artist’s palette in all its colorful splendors.
Visit the Pottery area and you will come across several scattered shops of ceramic around the medina, each with its own specialty. Some sell fountains, others tilework, etc
Finally return back to your boutique riad in the Old medina, B&B accommodation.
Take the road to Marrakech via the Middle Atlas of Ifrane. Arrive in Marrakech, check in at your hotel and visit Djema El Fna Square. Dinner in Djema El Fna Square -Beneath the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in the city center of Marrakech lies Djemma el Fna, a famous UNESCO recognized city square, where you will discover a world of mysterious bazaars and a set amidst the ancient city walls of Marrakech’s medina. Djemma El Fna is a unique L- shaped square best described as a labyrinth of mazes. In the evening, snake charmers, fortunetellers, monkeys & musicians transform this city Center into a medieval circus. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Marrakech.
Begin the day with a visit of the Majorelle Garden and the Museum of Islamic art. The Majorelle Gardens- The Majorelle Garden is filled with colorfulwalkways, ponds, cactus and plants as well as a beautiful shop with hand-made goods.The Majorelle Gardens are a lush, garden estate designed by Jacque Majorelle and maintained by Yves Saint Laurent.
The Majorelle Garden, previously the Jardin Bou Saf, bears its name from its original creator, Jacques Majorelle, the French expatriate artist who was born in Nancy France in 1886. Jacques Majorelle was the son of the celebrated Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle. In 1947 he opened his gardens to the public and during this time also painted a magnificent ceiling space at La Mamounia, a five-star hotel with gardens and the place where Alfred Hitchcock wrote, “The Birds.” Jacques Majorelle studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nancy in 1901 and later in 1919 he went to Marrakech, Morocco to recover from heart problems. He built the garden during those years using special color of blue which he used extensively in the garden that is named after him, Majorelle Blue. Jacques Majorelle returned to France in 1962 after a car incident and died later that year of complications from his injuries. As a collector of unique plants from five continents Jacque Majorelle left to Saint Laurent one of the more unique collections of flore and fauna of this era as well as a place of inspiration and contemplation. Even though Morocco is no longer under the French protectorate, this originally French creation is one of the most beloved areas in Morocco.
After your visit on our way to the old medina, we will pass by the La Mammounia Hotel Garden where Alfred Hitchcock wrote the famous film The Birds and then onto El Bahia Palace.
Next we will visit 12th century Koutouba Mosque and its influential minaret along with the Mausoleum of Lalla Zohra. Lalla Zohra was a former slave whose mythology is that she turned into a dove at night and performed miracles.
The Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens- The largest mosque in Marrakech, Morocco. The minerat was completed under the reign of the Almohad Caliph Yaqub al- Mansur (1184-1199) and was used as the model for the Giarlda of Seville and for the Hassan Tower of Rabat. The name is derived from the Arabic al-Koutoubiyyin for librarian, since it used to be surrounded by sellers of manuscripts. It is considered the ultimate structure of its kind. The tower is 69 m (221 ft) in height and has a lateral length of 12.8 m (41 ft). Six rooms (one above the other) constitute the interior; leading around them is a ramp by way of which the muezzin could ride up to the balcony. It is built in a traditional Almohad style and the tower is adorned with four copper globes.
El Bahia Palace - The El Bahia Palace in Marrakech is a beautiful building and an excellent example of Eastern Architecture from the 19th century that represents trends and standards of the wealthy who lived at that time. It was built for Ahmed Ibn Moussa (or Ba Ahmed) between 1894 and 1900 in the Alawi style that was popular at the time. Craftsmen were brought from Fes to work on this monumental task which took approximately fifteen years to complete. It is said that the palace was built as a home for Ba Ahmed’s official concubines, and it has also been said that the importance or favor of each concubine increased along with the size of their bedroom. The name ‘Bahia’ means ‘palace of the beautiful.” There are 160 different rooms in the palace which are sprawled out in an open, rambling fashion. Decorations take the form of subtle stucco panels, zellij decorations, tiled floors, smooth arches, carved-cedar ceilings, shiny marble (tadlak) finishes and zouak painted ceilings. The palace is surrounded by an eight-hectare garden.
Next visit the sixteenth century Saadian Tombs with its stark towers, the ruined 16th century El Badhi palace, and the Mellah and the Jewish quarter.
The Saadian Tombs - The Saadian tombs in Marrakech date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). The tombs were only recently discovered (in 1917) and were restored by the Beaux-arts service. The tombs have, because of the beauty of their decoration, been a major attraction for visitors of Marrakech. The mausoleum comprises the corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River.
Your guide will then help you navigate through the labyrinth like streets and alleys of Djemma El Fna Square. Enjoy the aromatic streets, taste the fresh squeeze orange juice and venture into the souks (shops) specializing in Berber carpets, silver jewelry, artisan workshops,handmade shoes, tanneries, etc. Marrakech is a city of underground channels built by the architects from Cordoba, Spain to provide water for the town and Palmery.
Enjoy a three- course lunch consisting of fresh salad, tajine and fruit at one of Marrakech most delectable restaurants.
The Jewish Mellah - Founded in 1558 by Moulay Abdallah, the Mellah district was designated as the Jewish quarter in Marrakech. At the time of the Spanish religious wars, Jewish refugees were escaping the country, and were offered this little piece of security by the Sultan.
The Old Spice Market- The Rahba Kedima is a colorful market filled with a wide array of spices from Cumin, Cinnamon, Saffron, Dried Pepper and more.
Take the road to Zagora. During your journey to Southern Morocco you will also pass the olive groves of the Oued Zat, as you ascend onto the Tizi-N-Tichka Pass Road. Built by the French in the 1920’s, the Tizi-N-Tichka Pass can be described as having mountainous barriers, Mediterranean and oceanic nuances and desert borders.
Enroute we will visit the Argan Cooperative to see how argan oil, argan nut butter and cosmetics are made from the argan nut. Enjoy a tasting session. For lunch we will stop in the village of Tadart where you will dine in a local restaurant with incredible views and enjoy a tajine made with fresh local olive oil. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Zagora.
Take a camel excursion across the Dunes of Tinfo. At the end of the main road you will ﬁnd the famous road sign to Timbuktu that reads “52 jours” – 52 hours by camel.
Visit the Koranic library and the old Zaouia.
Next visit the Tamegroute pottery cooperative and spend half of the day learning how the local, forest green, glazed pottery is made and ﬁred using regional henna. You will enjoy a workshop lead by Tamagroute pottery masters whereby you will learn how the pottery unique to this region of Zagora is made. You will learn the history as well as their local techniques. An English translator will be provided along with all necessary materials for you to make your own Tamagroute pottery. Everything you make you will be able to keep.
Depart Zagora and drive to the Berber village of N’kob. Dinner with a Berber Family in Ait Ouzzine Village. Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Nkob.
Breakfast at your Riad and drive to explore Skoura oasis and the Valley of One Thousand Kasbahs. Skoura is an abundant haven with enormous palm groves that offer gorgeous views of the Atlas Mountains along with desert sceneries. It is well-known for the cultivation of roses. The palm groves were placed in the 12th century by the Almohad sultan Yacoub el-Mansour. The most stunning Kasbahs in southern Morocco can be found here. The Valley of Roses, just north of El Kelaa Mgouna is for certain an enjoyable trip on the way to Ouarzazate. You will stop for a visit of the cooperative producing various products of roses: rose water hand and body soaps, oil, crème fragrance. The annual Rose Festival is a perfect time of the year to visit.
Your journey will lead you to the breathtaking Valley of Nomads located in BouTaghrar. The stunning valley where nomads still live in caves will allow you to travel back in time . The valley is surrounded by Mount Mgoun which is the second highest mountain in Morocco with astonishing views of earthy scenery. A stop to have tea with a nomadic family to see the everyday life of the nomads and observe their weaving of Berber carpets.
Continue to the Dades Valley that covers 125 km between the Todra Gorge and Ouarzazate. The Dades Valley is located in the high valley of Dades that is scattered with Oasis, palm groves and kasbah. Carved through the walls of the High Atlas Mountains by the Dades River, Dades Gorge is an exceptional natural beauty. It has spectacular views which is best seen in the morning when the sun reaches the bottom of the canyon. Driving along you will pass fertile agricultural fields, riverbanks, and several fortified ksours.
Lunch will be served at a local restaurant offering local Moroccan food and a panoramic view. Relax and sip mint tea while contemplating the remarkable valley view. Continue your discovery of the Dades Valley and Gorge after lunch.
Dinner and accommodation at a nice Riad with views of the Dades Valley
Rise early, have breakfast and take the road to Marrakech.
Enroute we will visit the picturesque village of Aït Benhaddou, which is, located 32 km from Ouarzazate. Aït Benhaddou is situated in Souss-Massa-Draa on a hill along the Ouarzazate River. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here and Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodome and Gomorrah; and for Jesus of Nazareth the whole lower part of the village was rebuilt. In recent years more controlled restoration has been carried out under UNESCO auspices. Aït Benhaddou is one of many locations in this region used for shooting Hollywood films.
Your guide will lead you on a private tour through this Berber village of towered and crenulated Kasbahs that once guarded the lucrative caravan route through the Atlas Mountains. Explore the Kasbahs by foot with the option to ride a donkey across a river. Aït Benhaddou which once served as the f route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. Most of the town's inhabitants now live in a more modern village at the other side of the river; ten families however still live within the ksar. Aït Benhaddou was once a significant stop for traders carrying gold, salt and slaves along the famous Southern Caravan route moving through the Sahara.
Have lunch in Ait Benhaddou and then take the road to Marrakech.
Overnight at a Boutique Riad or Hotel in Marrakech.
Departure early morning at Marrakech’s Menara airport