City break: Marrakech, Morocco

MOROCCOSitting in the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains is the mystical Ochre city of Marrakech with its famous labyrinth of souks, spices and treasure troves. Jane Morgan reports


You need to keep your wits about you as you wander around the narrow alleyways of the Medina. All your senses are heightened by the myriad of vibrant colours, smells and the continuous bombardment of humanity, but keep an eye out for motorbikes and the odd galloping donkey and cart. Leather goods, rugs, shoes, kaftans, jewellery, sweets and spices are all on display if you care to haggle. Afterwards you can rejuvenate yourself with a fresh orange juice in the world-famous square, Djemaa el Fna, while marvelling at the snake charmers, magicians and colourful water sellers all under the watchful eye of the Koutoubia Minaret.

Marrakech is a real city of contrasts and like many Moroccan cities consists of the old fortified city (the historic Medina) surrounded by modern neighbourhoods.  In the Medina the bustling alleyways quickly give way to the cool serenity of hidden jewels, such as the Ben Youssef Medersa, an impressively designed Koranic school built in 1570. The thick walls block out any noise from the busy market so you can enjoy a place of quiet contemplation as you admire the architecture.

Other architectural delights include the 19th-century ornate Bahia Palace surrounded by sweet smelling gardens and of course the largest mosque in Marrakech, the Koutoubia mosque with its famous minaret that fuses both Moroccan and Andalusian styles and at over 70m high dominates the skyline.

It is also a city of geographical differences, set in the foothills of the highest mountain range in North Africa with the Sahara desert to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Marrakech is surprisingly green and skirted by a Palmeraie of no less than 180,000 palm trees. This setting is incredibly serene and to really appreciate the ambiance a camel ride under the shady canopy of the trees is highly recommended.

The cities gardens are worth a visit, particularly the tranquil Menara Garden set around a central lake and encircled by olive groves. Also the Majorelle Garden is a shady haven of palms and cacti and once a favourite place for Yves Saint Laurant whose ashes are scattered there. The perfect way to reach the gardens is a sedate journey by horse and carriage from the main square.

THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
A trip to Marrakech would not be complete without an excursion into North Africa’s greatest mountain range. The temperature drops a few degrees as you ascend into the mountains and the air becomes wonderfully clean and pure. The pace of life slows right down as you are suddenly surrounded by incredible natural beauty. A favourite excursion is to visit a local village and meet with a Berber family for a traditional tea ceremony. It’s a charming experience to be invited into a native home full of children and farm animals. The terrace where tea is served whilst sat on a tradition Berber rug offers panoramic views of the villages and mountains.

TASTE BUDS
With so many delicious seasonal fruits like oranges, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives you’d expect the food to be good. So don’t go to Morocco expecting to lose weight, in fact many people go in order to learn the local culinary skills. Great food combined with Moroccan hospitality means you will be eating very well. Most meals start off with a selection of salads, dips and bread which are delicious and filling enough to eat just by themselves. But you must leave room for the tagine because they are all fantastic and you can feel totally vindicated by washing it all down with a refreshing Moroccan mint tea.

WHERE TO STAY
You need to have a good memory for some of the alleyways in the Medina as they can look very similar, but staying in one of the Medina’s Riads [a traditional Moroccan house or palace]  is a wonderful experience. They tend to be tucked away from the main hustle and bustle with fairly nondescript doorways but once you step over the threshold you feel like you’ve been wrapped in cotton wool. The thick walls keep the rooms cool and quiet and the welcome is so friendly you really do feel as if you’ve arrived home. Riad Joya is a hop, skip and jump from all there is to see  in the 15th-century souk and is a little enclave of tranquillity amongst the hullabaloo. Breakfast is best taken on the roof terrace where you are surrounded by Bougainvillea and the sweet scent of jasmine.

Of course, you may prefer to spend your entire stay within the picturesque Atlas Mountains or at least spend a couple of days there to unwind there after the frenetic fun of the Medina. How do you fancy sharing your retreat with probably the luckiest donkeys, mules and camels in the whole of Morocco? If so, then Sir Richard Branson’s Moroccan retreat Kasbah Tamadot could be just what you are looking for. It’s a wonderful boutique hotel with spectacular views, gourmet food, luxurious rooms, a selection of pools, incredibly friendly staff and strutting peacocks in the grounds to keep you entertained. It’s not all about relaxation either as there are plenty of activities that can be arranged for both adults and children to work off those tagines.

CLIMATE
Marrakech enjoys a semi-arid climate with very hot dry summers and mild wet winters. Expect temperatures up to 40ºC during mid summer and daytime temperatures of around around 20ºC in winter.

BEST EXCURSIONS
• Watch the sun rise over the Atlas in a hot air balloon.
• Cleanse your body with a traditional Hammam.
• Take to the hills with quad or mountain bikes.
• See how the world–famous Argan Oil is made.

HOW TO GET THERE
A four-hour flight from the UK. BA fly from London, Edinburgh and Manchester.

CONTACTS
• Tailor-make your visit to Marrakech with Abercrombie and Kent.
 www.abercrombiekent.co.uk Africa & Indian Ocean; 0845 485 1558

• Riad Joya www.riadjoya.com

• Kasbah Tamadot www.kasbahtamadot.virgin.com;
0800 716 919

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