Magical Marrakesh – exciting, colourful, vibrant and shrouded in the mysteries of Arabia…..By Sue Alexander of Eagle Travel
Just 3½ hours flight time from UK lies Morocco’s ‘Red Imperial City’ of Marrakesh. From humble backgrounds in the 11th Century the modern city of Marrakesh offers a mystique all of its own and is the country’s prime tourist destination.
Comprising two distinctly different parts, the ‘new city’, planned by the French from the early 20th century, has wide boulevards housing world class hotels with vast manicured gardens and inviting pools. A haven of peace and quiet in a busy bustling city.
However in my opinion, by far the most interesting place is the old Moorish part of the city, with its famous Medina and the largest market square in Morocco, Djemaa el Fna Square, probably the busiest in Africa. With a myriad of souks it must be one of the most fascinating shopping spots in the world. Visitors are presented with a mind boggling array of handicrafts, rugs, perfumes, fabrics, leather goods, jewellery and spices and you are expected to haggle, so never pay the first price asked. Most tourists flock to this area at night to breathe in the unique atmosphere with its acrobats, dancers, storytellers and snake charmers. It is also probably the most interesting place to eat as improvised ‘tent’ restaurants are set up in the evening serving everything from fish to traditional Moroccan dishes like couscous, tagine and pigeon pie. This is best left to the more adventurous, as hygiene is not to our standards and travellers with delicate stomachs are warned to beware!! Moroccan cuisine is rightly celebrated and the French influence is reflected in the high standards in most of the hotels and restaurants. Although you will find nightclubs, folklore shows and cinemas throughout the city, everything else is a bit tame compared to The Medina Square.
I visited Marrakesh last November for a three day travel conference. Although most of my time was taken up in the Palais Du Congress, I did manage to glance at a few of the hotels available to would-be visitors and there is a vast choice for any budget. From the Ancient Merchant Houses or Riads which have been converted to Boutique Hotels and Guest Houses, to a number of international hotel chains which have discovered the city’s charms. I was lucky enough to stay at La Mamounia, described by Sir Winston Churchill as ‘the loveliest spot in the world’. The newly refurbished luxury hotel dating back to 1923 remains to this day the most celebrated hotel in North Africa and is a haven of elegance within a walled oasis of orange groves and 100 year old olive trees. To enjoy a cocktail in the bar of La Mamounia is described by many to be a ‘must do’ for any visitor to the city. Unfortunately for many people a single cocktail here could break the bank! Even though it is a Muslim country alcohol is widely available so look out for the local wines, the best of which are red.
Temperatures here vary considerably and whilst we did have a little rain, we also enjoyed pleasantly mild daytime temperatures. The best time to visit will depend on what you want to do. The summer is hot and dry, perfect for those looking for sunbathing opportunities by the pool, followed by exciting nights exploring the souks and markets of The Medina. During the winter months you can expect mild temperatures and a little rainfall, ideal for exploring the historic buildings such as the 12th Century Koutoubia Mosque or a round of golf on one of the internationally acclaimed courses.
Local guides can be hired to show you around but may refuse to take tourists to the ‘cultural sights’ without including a visit to the Medina, as they receive substantial commission on purchases. Watch where you point your camera as the snake charmers and jugglers in the Square will expect a contribution if you take any snaps. However, if you do strike up a conversation with a local it is not unusual to be invited back to their home for dinner, as Moroccan hospitality is legendary and their generosity can be nothing short of astonishing.
The city is framed by the High Atlas Mountains which are snow covered at times and where it is possible to ski from Christmas to Easter. Hiking trips are popular and it is best to organise a Berber guide for a few days to discover spectacular scenery. Sir Richard Branson owns a Spa Retreat Hotel here as the air is clean and the views are mesmerising. It is popular to combine a few days in the city with a few days in the mountains for a complete contrast.
Driving looks like a nightmare and tourists are advised to think twice before hiring a car here. Pushbikes, motorbikes and camels are in abundance and I will always remember seeing a motorcyclist with his Alsatian dog riding pillion, navigating the evening rush hour traffic! By far the best way to see the city is by horse-drawn carriage called a caleche and there are plenty about very reasonably priced. There is a good network of buses and taxis as long as you negotiate the rate first.
The prestigious golf clubs of the Palmeraie are 15 minutes drive away and are home to renowned golf courses and very luxurious hotels. Marrakesh used to be a retreat for hippies, rock stars and fashion designers in the 60s but these days there is much to encourage travellers of all ages and walks of life. An exciting, vibrant mysterious city and one I intend to re-visit to explore in more depth.
Tailormade breaks are available with flights from local airports. Call Sue Alexander on 01234 348882