Marrakech has become a fashionable luxury destination, all boutique riads and fancy Moroccan cuisine. But you can still enjoy it on a budget, just as the hippies who flocked here in the Sixties did
Remember Kate Winslet in the movie Hideous Kinky, with her floaty, jewel-bright skirts and hippy lodgings? That’s the real Marrakech, the dusty, dirty Marrakech that’s full of smells and delicious street stalls and souks. So forget the sanitised, luxury Marrakech that has been written about so much recently, and head off to enjoy this fabulous Moroccan city as it was meant to be experienced, Sixties backpacker-style.
Firstly, if you want the best deals, go in the summer. The months of July and August are Marrakech’s low season, so you will clinch the best offers on accommodation and the cheapest flights. It will be hot, but Marrakech is built for the heat - plus you could always do as the Marrakshi do, and siesta during the day, then come to life at night.
Secondly, it’s good to remember that Marrakech is not in the euro zone so your money will go further than anywhere in Europe. The currency is Moroccan dirhams, with roughly 12 dirhams to £1.
But the most important thing is that Marrakech is a genuinely bargain destination. There are affordable B&Bs and food, you can walk everywhere (although taxis are cheap - around just 10 dirhams for a ride across town in one of the rather clapped-out yellow Petit Taxis, increasing by around 50 per cent at night), and so much of what is best about it can be done for free or for just a small fee.
The main draw of Marrakech is the medina, the ancient heart of the city within the medieval walls, and its bustling central square, Djemaa el-Fna. There you will find all forms of life, from snake-charmers to water sellers, wide-eyed storytellers and dancing monkeys. There is no better free pastime than to wander around and drink in its extraordinary sights, particularly at dusk when it is just beginning to come to life.
The souks, of course, are another bargain attraction. Located in all the alleyways to the north of the main square, they sell everything from the requisite babouches and pouffes to the Moroccan lanterns that are a must-purchase. It is worth spending a little on a guide, however: they will take you deep into the heart of the souks, where you will nail the very best bargains and see all the highly skilled ironmongers, wood carvers and wool dyers slaving away. Complete Tours (00 212 288 23401) offer excellent walking tours of the souks, taking in the city’s main historical attractions too, including the outside of the Koutoubia mosque (only Muslims can enter) and the intricately decorated Saadien Tombs (which cost just 10dh to visit independently).
For another budget outing, head to the Jardin Majorelle just outside the medina (a 30-minute walk, or take a taxi). It costs just 30dh (roughly £2.50) to get in and is a riot of lush vegetation and precious Islamic art, collected by Yves St Laurent, who bought the garden in 1980 and had his ashes scattered there. Stop by the wholesale market en route to see huge mounds of dates, nuts and grains being traded.
For cheap places to stay, eschew the fancy refurbished riads in the medina and go a little further afield. Try the three-star Amalay Hotel, which is just £13 per person per night in June. It’s about 15 minutes away from the central square, in the modern part of the city, Gueliz, but is a good budget base.
Or, for a fantastic location overlooking Djemaa el-Fna, book into Hotel Ali. Rooms are clean and basic, the staff are perfectly friendly, and it even has a rooftop garden. It costs from around £20 per room per night, including breakfast and free traditional Hammam every day.
Then there is the Jnane Mogador in the medina, offering excellent budget accommodation with clean, spacious rooms, or the simple comfort of the two-star Hotel du Pacha in Gueliz, with rooms from as little as £30, including breakfast. For quiet, book a room ‘cote cour’.
For a genuine taste of Marrakech, however, you should stay in a riad. One of the best value options is the charming Riad Villa Harmonie, in the heart of the medina, from just £22.50 per person.
As for food, for the cheapest meals all you have to do is head, once again, to the main square. By day, you can pick up dried fruit and nuts from immaculately piled carts but by night the square becomes a giant open-air gourmet experience, bulging with makeshift food-stalls peddling every kind of Moroccan delicacy. There are impossibly juicy snails on skewers with sausages, steaming bowls of the traditional tagines, briwats (small, filled, flaky-pastry triangles) and b’steeya (pounded pigeon and almond pies, dusted with sugar). Sit down with the locals on a wobbly bench or just buy a take-away and wander about. I had a delicious bowl of harira, a vegetable soup with cubes of meat, some piping hot mint tea, a misshapen hunk of bread and a plateful of dates, all for just £7.
If you prefer a slightly more relaxed, less on-the-hoof eating experience, the Riad Omar serves up a properly authentic Moroccan feast, jammed in the middle of the medina in a Bedouin style tent on the roof terrace of the hotel below. There are fantastic views over Marrakech to the Atlas mountains in the distance. Three-course meals range from 150dhs (£12) for a buffet up to 250dhs (£20) from the menu.
Chez Chegrouni, on the northwest corner of Djemaa el-Fna, is great for a good, humble local lunch – try the kefta with egg – or a tasty tagine by night, while Catanzaro is an excellent value Italian that is permanently packed to the rafters and has tiramisu to die for. Dinner per head is about £20, excluding drinks. To keep dining prices down, however, just do as the locals do and drink sweet mint tea with your meal rather than pricey alcohol. Kate would be proud.