The Moroccan city of Marrakesh is a frenzied, fascinating place, where the lives of the locals are played out like street theatre - go now for an incredible experience that will last a lifetime
Vibrant is the word for Marrakesh – a place of vibrant colours, vibrant characters and vibrant nature, it's as far removed from the English way of life as you can possibly get in just three hours.
Heart of the action
The heart and soul of North Africa is encapsulated in the main square, Djemaa el Fna. It is amazing by day, full of life, with complex deals being struck, points of view vehemently made, stories enthusiastically relayed and social gatherings held, all in unabashed view of locals and tourists alike.
Watch it all taking shape from the lofty terrace of one of the cafes that border the square or, better still, submerge yourself into the throng and partake of a freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the many vendors or perhaps acquire a beautifully crafted henna tattoo courtesy of one of the Bedouin women who traipse in daily from the suburbs.
If the scene is great during daylight, it is truly mesmerising at sundown, after the strains of the final muezzin call of the day. The din grows slowly but surely, a few decibels at a time, before reaching a steady crescendo. Bass drums beat rhythmically as acrobats somersault and dancers gyrate to the sounds of horns and assorted percussion; snakes are fixated by the charmer’s pipe; impromptu choirs strike up, backed by the enthusiastic clapping and yelping of onlookers; street vendors cry out details of their wares; and storytellers recount mythological tales of heroism and love.
Smoke rises from the outdoor food stalls, light seeps out of the surrounding cafes and restaurants, the nearby Koutoubia Mosque minaret stands 70 metres proud in its illuminated glory, and the Milky Way gleams in the inky sky. It's an intoxicating mix of sights, sounds, smells and tastes - spellbinding!
Into the souks
To the north of the square stands the entrance to the main souk – a stunning place to visit, day or night. Much of the souk area is covered, letting in shafts of light by day and illuminated by an array of haphazardly strewn roof lighting by night. The variety of goods on offer provides a kaleidoscope of colour – vivid silk, velvet and cotton fabrics, outrageously patterned carpets and rugs, a rainbow of felt slippers, soft pashminas and chiffon scarves, cobalt blue and fuchsia pink pots topped with silver, terracotta tagines, golden lanterns, crimson fezzes.
Add to that heaps of multi-coloured powdered spices, arranged like a small mountain range, buckets stuffed full of dried rosebuds, lavender, mint leaves and peppercorns, row upon row of sticky sweets, aromatic chocolate, dried apricots, raisins and prunes, pick-and-mix baskets of almonds, cashews, peanuts and hazelnuts, jars containing every variety of coffee and tea... From Viagra to vipers, it can all be found in the amazing souk. Bring an empty suitcase and turn your home into an Aladdin’s cave – and don’t forget to haggle.
The whole experience is intoxicating – you definitely know you are alive after taking in all the souks have to offer. They are best explored without a map; just follow your nose and get a surprise around every corner. The squeamish should watch out for the butchers' souk, though, as this is likely to put even the most carnivorous of us off our meat!
Mealtime is very important in Morocco – this is the time of day for relaxing with loved ones, and after several active hours experiencing Marrakesh, there is no more fitting way to bring the curtain down on the day.
A wonderful way to enhance the Djemaa experience is to take dinner at Le Marrekechi Restaurant (00 212 44 44 33 777), a three-storey establishment overlooking the square. If you are lucky enough to get a window seat, so much the better, but the atmospheric interior is enough in itself to en trance you. Climb the steep staircase to the first or second floor tables, where the light is purposely dim to blend in with outside, star-shaped lights twinkle in the ceiling, brightly coloured lamps radiate in the corners, lanterns glow to illuminate your plate, decadent silks drape the windows, and lively paintings depicting scenes from all over Morocco adorn the walls.
The food is standard tagine, couscous and salad fare; try the tasty, succulent lamb accompanied by potatoes, carrots, prunes and almonds. It is the whole dining event that people flock to, and the place is incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike, so it is essential to book ahead.
If you can’t get in, try Restaurant Al Baraka (00 212 24 44 23 41), set in a delightful courtyard just off the square. The food here is also good and the Arabian spirit is embellished with belly dancers and live music. In both restaurants, you'll pay about £25 per head for a decent meal with wine.
Where to stay
Enhance your trip by staying at a typical Marrekechi riad, a Moroccan townhouse complete with leafy courtyards, trickling fountains, bathing pools and wonderful Islamic art and architecture. The Riad Assala is in the old town medina, hidden down several blind alleys and camouflaged by a bland concrete wall and huge wooden door. Inside, it's of tardis proportions, with two storeys of luxurious rooms surrounding the innermost courtyard. The stone structure is like a mini old town, all arches and alleyways, but the difference is that here you're treated to peace and tranquillity, whilst on the other side of the door a degree of pandemonium is standard fare. An authentically decorated mini-suite costs £80 a night, including freshly baked breakfast.
Alternatively, for a real treat, book in to the colonial splendour of Hotel La Mamounia, one of Winston Churchill’s favourite places to stay and paint. It is everything you would expect of a grand colonial residence, with opulent décor, ornate chandeliers, pristine landscaped gardens and white-gloved serving staff. The cheapest double is around £150 if booked well in advance.
You can fly to Marrakesh from the UK cheaply with easyJet or Atlas Blue.